Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Bleachers' Brew #320 A hall of fame question

This appears in the Monday July 23, 2012 edition of the Business Mirror.

A hall of fame question
by rick olivares

Have you been to Cooperstown? That sleepy upstate New York town where baseball’s Hall of Fame is located?

I have. Once you buck the five-hour drive from Manhattan, the sense of anticipation is akin to going to a ball game for the first time. Perhaps of all of America’s professional sports leagues, it baseball where there’s an air of sentiment, romance, and even tradition. The movies I loved while growing up – ‘A League of their Own’ and ‘Field of Dreams’ – come to mind. ‘A League of their Own’ was partially filmed in Cooperstown.

The Hall of Fame inspires both awe and wonder. And to some extent controversy.

Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin and the late Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo will be enshrined today in Cooperstown, as the Baseball Hall of Fame is called for short. It is a fitting honor considering that since 1869, more than 17,000 men have played professional baseball and of that number only 297 have gained entrance into the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.

The day will belong to Larkin and Santo. Unfortunately, much of the talk surrounding this year is how next year’s batch will include for the first time players who made a name for themselves during the so-called “Steroid Era”.

That ballot will contain the name of sluggers Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa as well as pitcher Roger Clemens.

Deciding on whether or not they belong in Cooperstown isn’t that simple. While the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) doesn’t guarantee that a juiced up batter will hit one out of the park because it still requires hand-eye coordination and bat speed. However, it does allow a player to hit the ball faster and harder or in the case of a pitcher, throw the ball harder.

But I can’t believe the hypocrisy at work here.

Despite the whispers about the widespread use of PEDs, Major League Baseball did nothing during the years when players were chasing Roger Maris’ home run record. Furthermore, baseball writers glorified the players and the games and fans lapped it up.

In 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa waged a season-long duel in breaking Maris’ single-season home run record of 61 (perhaps the most hallowed of all of the sport’s) that captured the imagination of sports fans everywhere (and this was the year where the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal broke). McGwire hit for 70 while Sosa finished with 66. Then three years later, Barry Bonds broke the record once more. And six years later, he retired after also smashing Hank Aaron’s career record of 755 round trippers with 762. And then the vilification came.

Sports journalist Bryant Gumbel however makes a case for their inclusion: “If the voters are really so obsessed with honoring guys with the numbers, they’d be wise to start rethinking the exclusion of those megastars linked to steroids, and do it quickly. Because the next Cooperstown ballot will, for the first time, include among others, both the seven-time MVP Barry Bonds and the seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens. And while both men have a suspect past, it’s going to be hard to argue they don’t deserve a bust in Cooperstown. After all, a hall of fame that somehow excludes the game’s homerun king (Bonds) and its most honored pitcher (Clemens) and its all-time hits leader (Pete Rose who is banned forever for betting on baseball), would really be making a mockery of itself.”

Yet baseball’s Hall of Fame is hardly puritan.

The hall is located at allegedly the site where American Civil War hero Abner Doubleday “invented” baseball. Doubleday, to his credit, never made any such claims. It was Abraham Mills, the fourth president of the National League, who declared such after a supposed study. That study has since been debunked. Yet for years, Doubleday’s picture was in the Hall of Fame but with hardly any reason.

Author Zev Chafets who wrote the 2007 book, ‘Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame” said that the hall included “a convicted drug dealer, a reformed cokehead who narrowly beat a lifetime suspension from baseball, a celebrated sex addict, an Elders of Zion conspiracy nut, a pitcher who wrote a book about how he cheated his way into the hall, a well-known and highly arrested drunk driver and a couple of nasty beanball artists.”

And before the ‘character clause’ was added, the hall also had several members of the Ku Klux Klan in immortals like Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Tris Speaker.

Some baseball writers argue that just because previous generations of baseball writers (who vote for who goes to Cooperstown) voted for some sleazy characters that doesn’t mean it will slide under today’s watch. True enough but that doesn’t also explain why Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs had an asterisk to it (those who placed the asterisk justify that Maris played more games than the previous record holder who is the ‘sainted’ Babe Ruth). The game during Maris’ time was different from when Ty Cobb first came in. And it is all the more different today with the influx of many Latin players.

Can we make the assumption that in hindsight and with a more worldly view, Maris’ achievements and career are incredible athletic feats? Bonds, Sosa, and Clemens may not even make it on the first ballot but maybe in the years to come they will.

It is only fair that Cooperstown commission a study on whether those tainted by PEDs be included or not for the voters’ future guidance because it is difficult to compare the various eras that make up the sport’s history. Because anyone who gets in after this, tainted or not, should have an asterisk next to their names as well because as Gumbel put it, it becomes a joke when some of the best aren’t in there.

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