THE EMPTY SET: Reflecting on Cooperstown’s Lost Year

A sea of people stretched across the field and masked the green grass with Cardinal red.  There was Bob Feller mingling across the fence beside the stage.  There was Frank Robinson.  There was Stan Musial.  Somewhere, on our side of the fence, was Tug McGraw.

We were all there for Ozzie.  There were a few scattered Phillie fans there for Harry Kalas, that year’s Frick Award recipient, if you looked carefully for the different insignias on their caps.  Every here and there you'd see a maroon Mike Schmidt throwback.  Other than that, it was just thousands of red-clad fans fixated on the wizard of a shortstop standing at the podium before us.

"This is awesome."  It was the first my dad, uncle, brother, and I had seen of Induction Weekend.  "We've got to come back in five years."

Five years is, of course, the waiting period for retired players before they become eligible for the Hall of Fame.  Three of my generation's great players had just retired.  And one was another beloved Cardinal.

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The BBWAA announced the results of their Hall of Fame balloting last Wednesday.  No one got in.  Barry Bonds didn't get in.  Roger Clemens didn't get in.  Not Biggio, not Bagwell.  Not Jack Morris.  Not Piazza, Trammell, Raines, Schilling, Martinez, Walker (either one), or Lofton.  Not McGwire or Sosa or Palmeiro.  Not even Shawn Green.

Someone will get in.  In 1996, the last year no one met the 75% threshold, there were six players on the ballot (Niekro, Perez, Sutton, Santo, Rice, and Sutter) who would get in eventually.  That's how it always is; every ballot has several candidates who will get in someday.

Biggio will get in.  Every player who has ever gotten Biggio's level of support early in his candidacy has had no trouble getting elected sooner rather than later.  Bagwell is at that high early level of support where almost everyone gets in eventually.  Piazza even more so.

Jack Morris will probably get in as a Veterans Committee selection someday.  Schilling will probably get in someday.  Eventually, as the electorate gets a bit younger, Tim Raines will probably find the remaining votes he needs to get in, barring a complete disaster with the current and upcoming logjam that might never clear up before he falls off the ballot.

Maybe they won't all get in.  But some of them will, and maybe some of the others as well.  Trammell is the type of guy who could finally get his due when the Hall puts together a VC for his era.  Edgar Martinez could pick up some support as the voters begin to accept that the DH is now part of the game.  The voters, or the Hall, might someday come around on Bonds and Clemens.

Someone is going to get in.  Definitely Biggio.  Very likely Jack Morris.  They're just going to have to wait.  So too will Cooperstown, which swells up with tens of thousands of tourists (and their wallets) every July except this one.

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Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken were the most celebrated duo to enter the Hall together since Nolan Ryan and George Brett both topped 98% of the vote in 1999.  Along with McGwire, they were supposed to have been the most celebrated trio since Ryan and Brett and Robin Yount (Fisk also debuted with that loaded ‘99 class and got 66% of the vote).  It was the class we had so vigourously anticipated in Cooperstown five years earlier.

It never materialized, of course.  The pilgrimage back to Cooperstown, the reliving our memories of 1998, the three cities uniting for a weekend of celebration in upstate New York; none of it happened.  For the San Diego and Baltimore fans, it did.  For us Cardinal fans, the moment just kind of dissolved somewhere across those five years.

It was already starting to dissolve that summer we saw Ozzie’s induction.  Ken Caminiti came forward that spring with an admission that he had started using steroids in 1996, the year he won the NL MVP, and that he had used them over the remainder of his career.  A couple years later, fellow MVP Jason Giambi’s admission of steroid use to a grand jury was leaked to the media.  Barry Bonds was also linked to the investigation.  Some players estimated over half the league was using steroids or PEDs in some form.

It was not the first time an MVP had been linked to steroids.  In 1988, 24-year-old Jose Canseco emerged to lead the Oakland A’s to the World Series.  He became the first player in MLB history to steal 40 bases and hit 40 home runs in the same season.  He hit .300.  He walked more than average.  He hit a lot of doubles.  He went a whole season without letting a fly ball bounce off his head and into the stands for a home run.  He was a legitimate superstar.

That September, Washington Post reporter Thomas Boswell claimed in a television segment that Canseco's ascension was aided by steroids.  When the A's travelled to Boston for the ALCS, Red Sox fans greeted Canseco with steroid chants.  That winter, Canseco and a man working for him were stopped at an airport in Detroit when his employee tried to carry a loaded gun onto the plane.  Police found steroids in the employee's baggage.

No one cared.  Or maybe not no one, but things didn’t blow up then like they did in the wake of Caminiti and Giambi and everything else that was going on.  Things were different in the 1980s.

More accurately, they were not yet different enough.  Players were already on steroids, but the game didn’t really look any different (at least not once fans had gotten used to the ugly uniforms and astroturf that had taken over the game in the ‘70s).  The ‘90s and 2000s looked like a whole other game.

Every once in a while, someone would challenge Maris’ long-standing single-season home run record, only to inevitably fall short.  Suddenly, guys started challenging it every year.  And not just one guy.  Griffey was challenging.  McGwire was challenging.  Sosa was challenging.  Bonds was challenging.  Luis Gonzalez was challenging.  And before long, they weren’t just challenging it year in and year out.  They were breaking it, over and over again.

Everybody was hitting home runs.  Greg Vaughn and Brady Anderson hit 50 home runs.  Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were doing commercials about hitting home runs.  40-year old Tom Candiotti missed hitting his first home run by about a foot in a game in Colorado.  Home runs were the story of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Steroids were almost certainly not the only reason for that.  They may not have even been the biggest reason.  The story of the home run was the backdrop for the scandals that broke in the early 2000s, though.  Even as fans were immensely enjoying the home run chases and explosive offenses of the era, they were struggling to comprehend how the game had come to look so different.  When they learned of Caminiti and Giambi, it hit on something that the news of Canseco never did.  It sounded like it explained all the things they couldn’t understand.

I was at Busch Stadium on September 8, 1998, the night McGwire hit his 62nd home run.  I was there when the place erupted, when the flashbulbs around the stadium shone bright enough to drown out the stadium lighting, when the game stalled as entire sections embraced each other as if they were family and Cubs infielders embraced a Cardinal as one of their own.  For that night, it didn’t matter that McGwire was the best hitter in the game, that he outpaced Sosa by about .100 points each in OBP and SLG.  It only mattered that he beat him to 62.  And if Sosa had gotten there first, that would have been all that mattered too.

When steroids crawled out of the sheltered clubhouses of MLB and into the papers, they fused with the story of the home run.  It didn’t matter that my dad grew up thinking the strike zone ended somewhere between the letters and the shoulders while I grew up thinking it ended at the belt.  It didn’t matter that MLB has such imprecise specifications for the ball that the 8-9 feet difference in fly ball distance it takes to bump up home run rates from 1980s levels to 1990s levels falls well within the range of difference you can get just by tweaking the ball within allowed regulations.  It didn’t matter that MLB favoured a high-power style to attract fans back to the game in the wake of the strike of 1994-95 and may have made changes to push the game in that direction.  It only mattered that people were confused and angry and that steroids looked like the answer.

And so became the story of the steroid era.  So became the story of the Hall of Fame, which tells the stories of baseball and its eras.  So become the story of the voters, the writers who tell and shape the stories of baseball.  And here we are today, with the story of the Hall of Fame being about who didn’t get in, because no one got in.

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In a Hall of Fame roundtable discussion aired on MLB Network Tuesday night, HOF voter Tom Verducci explained his vote for Fred McGriff saying McGriff played much of his 19-year career before steroids.  McGriff's clean numbers were then diminished by the steroid users who came soon after.

McGriff was a rookie in 1987, the year before Boston fans taunted Canseco for his reported steroid use.  Tom House has admitted to using steroids, and claimed they were fairly widespread in MLB, in the 1970s.  Players in the 1950s and '60s are known to have abused amphetamines to aid their performance on the field, and we know other athletes from that time period were using anabolic steroids as performance enhancers.

Those are important considerations in understanding the role steroids have played in baseball.  They're things anyone trying to make sense of the steroid issue should be aware of.  They're not difficult things to find.  To many of the writers, none of that context exists, though.  Steroids were simply a problem of the offensive explosion in the 1990s and 2000s.

Verducci should know better.  He was the one who wrote the story on Caminiti’s admission for Sports Illustrated.  How can he ignore the Canseco story in making claims like that about when steroids became a problem?  How can he ignore the Tom House story?

I don't mean to single out Verducci here.  Say what you will about his analytic skills; he does at least strike me as more willing to put in some effort to inform himself than a lot of other writers.  When Chris Russo (who is not a voter) kept screaming "Did he win an MVP?" all night, Verducci was trying to look into the numbers and make sense of them.  In the past, when he saw promising young pitchers getting hurt and teams handling pitchers more and more carefully, he at least put in some effort to coming up with a hypothesis and collecting data to test it.

Verducci is not a bad representative for the writers.  He’s also not the guy you want designing and conducting studies on pitcher health, though.  He can tell the story about guys getting hurt without understanding control groups and selective sampling and confirmation bias, but those things are crucial to trying to sort out the how and the why in the data behind what is happening.  It’s just not something his skills are best suited for.

I’m not sure he’s the guy you’d want sorting out the steroid issue, either.  And when I say him, I mean the BBWAA in general.

While you had the occasional story on steroids in sports going back to at least the 1960s, this group of writers by and large ignored the issue for years.  Which, fair enough.  They cover baseball.  They don’t need to be investigative reporters.  There are legitimate reasons for a reporter to not cover the issue.  Maybe they felt it was a private workplace issue.  Maybe they felt they couldn’t print anything based on rumours or without having concrete evidence or specific allegations, and they didn’t want to dig around to get that.  Maybe they just didn’t see it as their job.  Fair enough.

But that’s not how many are treating the issue now.  Pat Caputo wrote that he was not voting for Biggio because he suspected Biggio used steroids.  His offered evidence?  Biggio’s connections to other “Astros of that era”.  Namely Clemens and Pettitte, who joined the Astros for Biggio’s age 38 season, and Caminiti, who started taking steroids in San Diego after not taking them for the seven years he played with Biggio during his first stint with the Astros.  Also, “his power numbers did suddenly and magically rise at one point of his career.”

Murray Chass once decried the lack of professional standards on blogs by noting "our wives could go on and do it if they wanted to."  Recently, he decried the professional standards of the newspaper industry, complaining that he had to wait until he started his own blog to write about Piazza’s acne proving he took steroids:

“When I worked for The New York Times, I tried more than once to write about Piazza and steroids, but the baseball editor said I couldn’t because his name hadn’t been linked to steroids.”

These are writers who covered baseball for years under the cloud of steroids without putting in the work to uncover the story (Caputa admits he considers it a failure on the part of himself and his colleagues).  Like I said, fair enough.  Except that now that it is a story, they are still not putting in the work to cover it properly.  Mostly it is just speculating about who did what and covering their own opinions on the matter.  It’s talking about who had acne on his back and who looked muscular and whose numbers got good in the wrong way at the wrong time.

There’s a lot more to the story than that.  There’s the medical literature, the various drugs and their uses, their effectiveness, their side effects.  How they compare to amphetamines.  There’s the matter of usage in the 70s and 80s, and maybe even earlier.  What other factors contributed to the offensive environment of the 90s.  The changes in player conditioning independent of steroids.  The place of steroids within the long history of cheating in the game.

The writers aren’t out there tracking down those stories and doing that research.  They’re often not even up to speed on the basic details.  I’m not saying it’s necessarily their fault.  They’re baseball writers.  They never imagined that they’d have to deal with this when they started working their way into the profession.  They’re just people who love baseball and have a gift at conveying the game through words.  By and large, they are good at what they do.  They just aren’t the people I trust to sort out the role of steroids in the game.

Many of them feel the same way.  Some have given up trying to sort it out and just cast their votes on the players’ performance records.  Some have given up their votes altogether.

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Joe Posnanski was Alan Trammell’s lone supporter on the roundtable discussion.  Trammell was the kind of guy who did everything well.  He had a .400 OBP once.  He slugged better than average over a 20-year career.  He played excellent defense at shortstop.  He had a really good peak.  He just didn’t stand out at any one thing.  He wasn’t the best fielder, or the best hitting shortstop.  He had fewer than 10,000 career PAs.  He was just really, really good at everything.

In some sense, that is his biggest problem.  Someone like Jim Rice, who excelled at slugging but not much else, is more eye-catching for the voters.  In another sense, though, Trammell suffers from the big-Hall/small-Hall debates.  Trammell was a great player, but was he one of the ten best players of his era?  Maybe not.  He was certainly no Rickey Henderson or Cal Ripken.  For some fans (and voters), that is what the Hall of Fame really means.  You have to favour a big-Hall approach before you start to see Trammell as a Hall of Famer.

The thing is, what we think of as a big-Hall approach isn’t about expanding the Hall; it’s about treating the Hall of Fame the same way it has been treated for decades.  So when Joe Posnanski said he thinks Trammell belongs in the Hall, he didn’t try to say he was in the same class as Ripken.  He just said he wanted the era he grew up watching represented the same as the eras of the previous writers.  He wants to be able to vote in his guys like they voted in Billy Williams and Luis Aparicio and Ralph Kiner.  He wants for his era the same recognition the Veterans Committee has given to filling out past eras with guys like Orlando Cepeda and Nellie Fox and Bill Mazeroski.  That’s all.

Part of the story of the Hall of Fame is the story of the Alan Trammells.  These are the players fans and voters devote their arguments to in order to try to sway their peers into their corner.  They have enough supporters to push the discussion, and enough skeptics to have reason for discussion.  Because of they way the voting is set up with players staying on the ballot for up to 15 years, the same discussions over the same guys can happen every year.

Is this a good thing for the Hall?  I don’t know.  It can put the spotlight as much on the controversies and arguments over who should not be in as on celebrating the guys who do make it.  It can wear thin having the same arguments year after year.  At the same time, I like looking at Trammell’s career, and seeing him getting his due from a handful of supporters.  Some people love pushing Jack Morris’ case, and, while they don’t like that he can’t muster the final remaining votes needed for election, the debate lets them highlight his career repeatedly to the casual fan.

Maybe that’s ok as a secondary dimension to the story of the Hall.  It can’t work as the primary story, though.  That has to be about celebrating the players who get in.  This year, there’s nothing to celebrate (although, for some reason, I used to think Deacon White was already in the Hall of Fame, so I guess there is that).

That’s a problem.  The story is now the fractured electorate arguing over their own favoured candidates.  It’s about the divide over how to handle the steroid issue.  It’s about the divide over how to analyze players and their performances (Ken Rosenthal even likened the influx of sabermetrics to the Tea Party movement and to a crusade on the MLB Network after the vote was announced).  It’s about all the things the players did or didn’t do that left them on the outside rather than the things they did to get them in.

The individual voters thought there was a ton of Hall of Fame talent on the ballot this year.  They cast more votes for candidates (6.60 per ballot) than in any election since that stacked 1999 ballot, including the 2007 ballot that featured Ripken and Gwynn.  Many voters thought there were even more deserving players than they could vote for because of the 10-name limit.  It’s not like no one got in because the talent isn’t there.  The talent is there, moreso than there usually is.

It’s just that every player is now Alan Trammell.  Everyone has enough skeptics to keep them out.  Everyone has supporters pushing their case.  There are so many Trammells that they are pushing the typical Trammells off the ballot.

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The Cleveland Indians of the 1990s were the best team I ever saw not win a World Series.  Their pitching was ok, but that lineup...my goodness, that lineup.  They had Brian Giles and Jeromy Burntiz on the bench, for goodness sake.

I saw Cleveland play in Detroit in 1996.  Jim Thome kept hitting moonshots onto the roof of the grandstand of old Tigers Stadium during batting practice.  And then Albert Belle came up, and Manny Rarmirez, and Jeff Kent, and man, what a show.  We watched Omar Vizquel take some grounders for a while before deciding that Ozzie had spoiled us.

Before every game, we would stand outside the players' entrance and try to get guys to sign as they walked by.  Detroit's old stadium was set up so that the visiting team would walk right past you, so it was the perfect place to catch Cleveland and its roster of stars.  My dad has a scorecard framed in his baseball room with Thome's and Manny's and Brian Giles' signatures, among others, from that day.

I don't know what happened to most of the autographs I collected when I was a kid.  I'm sure some of them are sitting in a box somewhere that I'll dig up someday, but, with a few exceptions, it's not something I've kept track of.  One of the exceptions is the scorecard I got signed by Kenny Lofton that day.  It's cut out and glued to wooden plaque my dad made, along with a '95 Fleer Ultra #38 Kenny Lofton.

Lofton was every bit the player of those other stars on those loaded Cleveland teams.  He didn’t hit as well as Thome or Ramirez or Belle, but what he lacked (and I only use “lack” as a very relative term here) with the bat, he made up for with his legs and his glove.  He was one of the best defensive defensive outfielders in the game.  He was maybe the best baserunner in the game.  He was a good hitter.

The BBWAA would never have voted Kenny Lofton to the Hall of Fame.  He’s not the kind of player who sticks out.  He didn’t hit home runs.  He may have made more plays with his superior range in center than Griffey, but he didn’t make as many flashy plays.  His skills were against type for the stars of his era.  His case has all the roadblocks of Alan Trammell’s plus being lost in an era that exalted sluggers.

He could have been talked about, though.  He could have hung around on the ballot and had guys pushing his case.  He could have picked up some votes down the road as voters looked back at that glove and those legs and tried to weigh their impact.  When the ballot is loaded with guys like Bonds and Clemens and Piazza and Bagwell and Biggio and Raines and Walker who have been Trammell-zoned by the voters, though, Lofton doesn’t stand a chance.  He got Whitaker-zoned instead.

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We could have celebrated Biggio’s election this year.  In the past, when no one got the 75% needed for election, the writers would hold a run-off vote and elect the highest vote-getter in that election, no matter how many votes he got.  That’s how Red Ruffing got in, and Luke Appling and Charlie Gehringer.  No one complained, because everyone knew they were going in anyway.

The BBWAA did away with the run-off voting in 1968.  This is the third time since that they have failed to elect anyone.  Both other times, the top vote getter on the ballot (Yogi Berra and Phil Niekro) was elected the following year.  If the Hall put in Biggio on a run-off election this year (or if Morris could win enough support to carry the run-off), the only thing that would change would be he doesn’t have to wait as long and the Hall gets to have a ceremony for a living player.  This year’s Frick and Spink recipients, Tom Cheek and Paul Hagen, would get to give their speeches to a full crowd instead of a field.

Instead, we just wait another year for the ballot to get even more loaded.  Everyone is left having to pick up more votes with Maddux, Glavine, Thomas, Mussina, and Kent joining the ballot.  Everyone has to contend with Pedro and Randy Johnson Smoltz and Sheffield coming right behind them.  Even Biggio might have trouble getting to 75% in the coming years as more and more ballots fill up with 10 guys who may be better than he is.

Who knows how long the logjam will last.  Players like Bagwell and Piazza and Bonds and Clemens are too good not to force other worthy candidates off of some voters’ ballots, and as long as enough voters won’t vote for them, there is going to continue to be an issue with crowding.

Even small-Hall guys are going to have an issue.  Tom Verducci, who voted for a personal high of six players this year (below the voter average of 6.6), said he might vote for all five major candidates coming on the ballot next year.  With all six from his 2013 ballot returning, that would put him over the limit.

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Cooperstown is a beautiful town.  Even if you’ve never seen a baseball game, the forests and mountains surrounding the town are worth the trip.  The walk down Main Street from Doubleday Field to the Hall itself is packed with shops and local restaurants.  The Hall Museum is fantastic.  It’s a great place to be.

It’s a completely different town on Induction Weekend.  The sidewalks fill with people.  The shops and restaurants overflow.  It’s like New York City, but everyone is in a good mood and friendly.  Once, I saw a dixieland brass quintet playing in front of the museum.  There were four guys in early-20th Century garb and one guy in a Cardinal jersey, because the chances that somebody just happens to be walking down the street carrying a tuba while your brass quartet is performing old timey music* go up exponentially the more thousands of people you cram into the same place.

*This is actually what happened.  I’m not kidding.

I’m not saying it’s necessarily better during Induction Weekend.  A quiet Cooperstown is still a beautiful place.  It still has a great museum.  It’s certainly much more peaceful.  It could never sustain the Induction Weekend swells and excitement year-round.

It’s a wonderful transformation for that one weekend, though.  It’s a shame to miss this year; a shame to the town, to the Hall, to the fans, to Biggio and Lofton, to Cheek and Hagen.  It’s a shame to the voters who still have this whole mess to sort out.  Hopefully next year will be better, when Maddux and hopefully someone else go in.  At least there will be an Induction Weekend.

Still, the obviousness of Maddux’ candidacy will only mask the issue.  There will still be the overcrowded ballot spilling out good candidates into the Trammell- and Whitaker-zones like fans into the streets of Cooperstown.  There will still be the fractured electorate.  Everything that led to this quiet summer where Cooperstown opens itself for only the ghosts of Deacon White and Jacob Ruppert and Hank O’Day will still be there, at least until the Hall or the BBWAA does something about it.

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