02 January 2011

What Voters Owe Jeff Bagwell

We owe him an absence of false certitude regarding steroids.

-- I dont know if he used or not, and wont pretend that I know.  I have doubts,  however, suspicions if you prefer, and believe they're reasonable and considered, apart from whether they're actually true. There's giant distinctions between considering usage and asserting guilt, and voters shouldnt assert guilt just because he looked big or accumulated certain numbers.

We owe him our individual, earnest sense of fairness.

-- Subjective fairness (ie good faith) is a more appropriate standard here than "due process", a legal term where justice delayed amounts to justice denied. Jeff Bagwell's not rotting in jail.

This is about lifetime membership in a sports club. It's not about inalienable rights as much as reasonable judgement and fair treatment, which implies circumstance and treatment of others.   

We dont owe him absence of rational doubt.

-- Some argue that we have no right to dismiss a candidate if we cant legally or logically prove PED use, but opting to pass on a first or second year hopeful in what often amounts to a 15 year consideration phase, isnt 'dismissing' anybody. The five years after retirement used to suffice for voters to decide on most (not all) candidates, but the additional chore of assessing admitted and suspected  PED beneficiaries has complicated that calculus for some.

Others complain that making greats wait is illogical, sanctimonious and a glacial waste of time, but consider the avalanche of PED bombshells made public in the past five years - and how it's influenced (and clarified) candidacies.  It's an unpleasant, but ultimately healthy long term process for the game and its singularly referenced history.

Second, many voters prefer to consider all information (including rumor and innuendo) before arriving at what are historic and irreversible inductions. Insisting that legal defense standards (ie inadmissability, presumption of innocence) be met before any voter dare entertain PED concerns, inappropriately hamstrings the electorate, which lacks legal power (ie subpeona, indictment, etc)  to resolve these concerns. Besides a few admissions and positive tests, all they have to work with, really, is a network of unsworn testimony, on and off the record, peeking through the cracks of a corporate legal system heavily slanted to hide what may be far more extensive anabolic use.  

In light of systematically enhanced performance made public, that has already rocked public confidence, to further extend legally tilted player advocacy into HOF (ie legacy) discussions, is tantamount to sticking one's head in the sand. This isnt the privately controlled MLB phase, where cheating is protected and facilitated by owners, players and union. This is the semi-public phase, where writers get to consider, evaluate, suspect and ultimately rule.  It is not a legal or criminal defense forum for lawyers with a baseball hard on.  

We owe him thoughtful consideration of his accomplishments, weighed in the context of era and history.

-- Absent drug context, Bagwell has the goods. Maybe not the glossiest traditional baubles, like 3000 hits or 500 homers, but his numerical profile is clearly Cooperstown worthy.  Only Bonds, Pujols, McGwire, Thomas and Manny sport a higher OPS+, among contemporaries.  His 79.9 career WAR ranks 38th all time.  Jeff Bagwell stood out.

And that's the uncomfortable problem.  It's a circular argument that infuriates  many, but we need to confront the chilling question of how likely, or even possible was it, for a clean player to dominate an era already dominated by anabolically inflated cartoon characters? His aging curve looks fairly normal, but Bags didnt just outperform clean peers, like McCovey and Gehrig did. When he unanimously won the 1994 NL MVP (and placed top 7 MVP four other times), he was rising above not one player pool, but essentially two. The public leaderboards were rife with admitted and suspected users. We know that now. Logically, it suggests he was either a) one of his era's best players, on steroids, or b) one of the ten or so greatest clean players ever, by virtue of surmounting this uniquely divided and unlevel playing field.

It's a frightening, broad question and at heart, not a moral one - at least not to me. I have quite a bit of empathy for PED users and wont punish or disqualify them on the grounds they're morally unfit for the Hall. For me, it's more a practical, quantitative concern about evaluating achievement, and adjusting or discounting PED-inflated numbers to more fairly rank against unenhanced predecessors. How credible is it to assume that a player fond of "bodybuilding", who SI casually mentioned used andro and creatine , cleanly produced superlative numbers in a gaudy, barely regulated, PED environment? Is it logical? Somewhat credible? Barely possible? I dont know, but I believe it's irresponsible to not care enough to think and worry about it.  

Bagwell had broad based skills which enhance his case.  He didnt just bop home runs.  A good fielder and baserunner - walked a ton. This softens my skepticism - not so much about whether he took drugs, but in terms of his objective baseball value that cant reasonably be linked to PEDs. And it likely influences how I ultimately treat him in the fifteen year voting cycle. I'm far less apt to summarily "dismiss" an all around player with a great eye, than I would a one-dimensional PED suspect like Sosa.  Part of me wants Bagwell to get in. I admire all around performers, but I admire the truth more, and am willing to wait in hopes of getting closer to it.

An important aspect of that truth is that this isnt just about Jeff Bagwell. Or what's "owed" him. It's about a century and a half old sport granting its highest honor, and the integrity of that sport.  Not its overstated moral integrity, but its historical integrity and continuity. We need to be able to assess players across eras with some degree of confidence. And fairness.  There's no question Bagwell was a statistical Hall of Famer.  The question is, did modern PEDs elevate him from something less than that?

Because this is also about  all the fine players who preceded him - who didnt use, or have ready access to, steroids and who didnt register a blip in Hall of Fame voting.   It's a damned long list of talented, hard working men with a couple thousand hits and nice periphs who will never get into Cooperstown. I dont doubt talent and hard work made Bagwell a good or very good major leaguer.

I question, however, the popular circulation suggesting those factors alone molded him into a clear cut Hall of Famer. Maybe it's true.  I just dont feel it's the most credible account out there right now.  To my ear, his denials sound rationalized and self-contradicting, and ring false enough to reinforce nagging doubts about a significant body transformation and unusual power jumps in 1991 and 1994 - when he clubbed more home runs in 110 games than any Astro in a full season, dating back to 1962. And while creatine and andro were legal at the time he allegedly used, my understanding is that andro was generally used as an anabolic enabler, like vinegar in your salad. You wouldnt normally ingest vinegar by itself.

Maybe I'm wrong and we owe Bags the immortality that first ballot induction affords. If he really was clean and we make him wait, I certainly acknowledge a degree of personal "injustice". But that potential wrong, probably temporary, seems miniscule compared to the wholesale potential injustice of instantly enshrining a PED-fueled slugger, while decades of unenhanced, presumably comparable players never sniff Cooperstown. The living and remembered dead have interests too.

Lastly, understand that Bagwell's limbo is not primarily a product of sanctimonious moralists.  It's the direct spawn of MLB's top down disregard for the competitive "truth" (not perfection) sustaining its own game, and its negligent enforcement of its own ostensible "rules". Voters who respect continuity and history, and the procession of players who made it (including Bagwell), are regrettably but necessarily tasked with adjudicating the aftermath.

It's inevitable and messy and will endure longer than most fans understand or probably want.  Please direct complaints to the Commissioner's Office and Players Association, who cared so much about Jeff Bagwell's "interests" that they simultaneously helped create, complicate and jeopardize his legacy. And hundreds of others.  I care about Bagwell's interests too, but not the same way the BBPAA did.  To me, the sport and the competitive (not moral) integrity of its highest honor is worth upholding more than any player's statistics, and it's going to take some time to figure out exactly where Jeff Bagwell fits.   

He was unusually patient in the box, but now voters find themselves in much uglier confines, fashioned by baseball powers. There's no pretty way out. As before, patience should yield favorable, if less than perfect, results.


Jeff said...

Excellent piece, Matt.

Though part of me wishes I had a vote, after reading and assessing all of this, I'm not so eager.

I think Bob Costas' opinion, voiced earlier today on MLBN, is the most like my own. We have a lot of thinking to do as fans of this game. A lot. And we cannot ignore the overall inflation of numbers seen in the years after the strike. We just can't. We also can't ignore the fact that said inflation was do to monkey business.

There's that whole integrity thing that the voters are supposed to consider... and frankly, any guy whose numbers are among the inflated, are going to be considered monkeyfied... by me anyway.

But no one really gives a shit what I think ;-)

Diamondhacks said...

Wow, Jeff. Thx for wading thru this indulgent morass! I'd like to hear Costas, but alas dont get MLBN. Ken Rosenthal's take, which I linked near the bottom, synchs up pretty well with me.

I've read Bagwell posts and community comments @ Posnanski, Pearlman and fangraphs, and have been taken aback by the quantity of very intelligent people making the most unreasonable, legalistic arguments, almost all defending Bags.

The engineers and lawyers labeling me and Pearlman 'sanctimonious moralists', simultaneously liken the withholding of first or second year votes to McCarthyism. It's bizarre. Even Posnanski who has a solid rep as an even handed, grounded scribe, said he'd rather the Hall admit 100 PED cheaters than wrongly deny one clean, worthy player based on false suspicions.

I laughed out loud. Players are denied the HOF on 'false suspicions' all the time. Too many voters falsely suspected Jim Rice was a better player than Dwight Evans - or a hundred other players on the outside looking in. Neither of us are Cubs fans, but Ron Santo, who was more HOF worthy than Pie Traynor and a host of others, waited, had his legs chopped off and finally died an unhappy diabetic. Based on suspicions that are, in some cases, demonstrably false.

It's possible I'm denying Bagwell's due justice. A little bit. But these folks need to get some perspective.

Jeff said...

I'm with ya.

Like my granddad used to say, "How the fuck is Mazeroski in there?" to which my other granddad would say rather defiantly, "Best defensive second baseman I EVER saw."

We're always going to have arguments, but they should always be about the game -- aspects of the game, not about substances foreign to the game, and that's what that steroid era (as a whole) did. They let it get that way. Now they have to deal with it.

I find the "smaller guy" discussion very interesting, because, yeah, I never think of them as perhaps having used steroids... but maybe I should. I dunno. Craig Biggio is a lock for the Hall. Because he was awesome AND I never looked at him and said, 'yeah, he's on the juice' because he's a little guy.

Maybe the fact that I don't question him is rooted in my desire for a return to innocence.

Of course, that too, is just an illusion.

Diamondhacks said...

Biggio reminded me of The Great Gazoo character from The Flintstones. Pesky, little guy with an absurdly large helmet.

I will not vote for him on that basis.

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