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Retired players whose magnificent careers are stained by performance-enhancing drugs didn't come close to getting in. And players with lesser numbers but sturdier reputations for playing the game the right way didn't make it either.
As MLB.com's Had Bodley, a voter, puts it: "“I think a strong message was sent about those players who have been connected somewhat to steroids,and I think the players that we thought were going to get elected probably got caught in the undertow of all that. I mean I think there was a very very strong message sent about this. . . . A strong message was sent that the baseball writers are very very cognizant of the game and the passion for the game and the credibility of the game."
So will no one be inducted at the annual Cooperstown ceremony this July? A few baseball figures from other eras—such as former Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert—will be honored posthumously; but the only honoree alive to make a speech is Paul Hagen, Bodley's colleague at MLB.com. Hagen joins the so-called writers' wing of the Hall as this year's winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award.
The Spink Award allows baseball writers to honor one of their own as a long, worthy career nears its close. Hagen covered baseball for decades for the Philadelphia Daily News and other papers, and he's a former president of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, whose members just sent that "strong message" about steroids use.
Hagen, however, didn't sign the message. He voted for Bonds and Clemens. "If I knew definitively who used steroids and who didn't, I would not vote for candidates who did," he reasoned. "But I don't. Nobody else does, either. And I'm not going to turn my ballot into a guessing game. Further, the integrity clause is only one of the criteria listed, one that not all current Hall of Famers have been held to."
Steroids are an issue Hagen's wrestled with. A few years ago he told an interviewer this: "I don't think we can ever say for sure again that players aren’t using something. So . . . the choice almost becomes ignoring the possibility—maybe even probability—that the top players have at least experimented with some sort of PED and continue to vote for the best players of the era. Or not vote for anybody at all. And I honestly haven’t come up with an answer to that that makes me comfortable yet."
There's nothing illegitimate about the answer Hagen eventually arrived at; but the passionate regard of baseball writers for the game's honor could be taken more seriously if they'd chosen a Spink Award winner who reached that answer and then rejected it. As I've suggested before, the BWAA isn't walking the walk.
This year's Cooperstown ceremony would be an afternoon to remember if Hagen bluntly addressed the steroids scourge. Imagine, say, Rick Telander of the Sun-Times getting the same premium mike time to say what he said in his Wednesday column:
"I will not vote for Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa or Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds or Rafael Palmeiro. Not now. Not ever. They have Hall stats. But they were cheaters. Individuals. And I won't have their stains on my hands. My children and their children will know where I stood. If, in time, I'm perceived as a fool, so be it."
And having said his piece about a generation of baseball stars, Telander would have turned his fire on his peers who posture about steroids without genuinely coming to grips with them. For as he went on to recall in the same column:
"I all but begged the Baseball Writers' Association of America at a meeting a few years ago to come up with a standard for handling drug cheats and suspected drug cheats." His motion didn't pass.