Sosa’s 600th and the Shadow of Big Mac
There’s been mixed reaction to Sammy Sosa hitting his 600th homerun. I was watching the game Wednesday night when it happened, and the scene in the bullpen in right field where No. 600 landed was euphoric. The crowd was thrilled, and the announcers calling the game were certainly excited. Though in some quarters, the homerun has been met with a “shrug of the shoulders” as Mets’ announcer Gary Cohen put it, or ignored altogether (ESPN.com’s Rob Neyer has not mentioned it in his blog this week), ESPN networks have given the homerun significant attention. But, of course, a cloud hangs over Sammy’s milestone and the coverage of it. There have been no grand jury investigations into whether Sammy Sosa used PEDs, and though Jose Canseco’s book considers it a foregone conclusion that Sosa got bigger “overnight” due to steroids, no one has ever come forward to say that they injected him, or heard him talk about using, or anything of the sort.
Nevertheless, just as Sosa and Mark McGwire were once linked by the great homerun chase of 1998, they are now linked for a different reason: the likelihood that suspicions about their usage will keep them out of the Hall of Fame.
According to an ESPN.com poll yesterday, half of Hall of Fame voters will not put Sosa on the ballot in his first year of eligibility (election requires votes from 75% of participating writers). Jay Mariotti summed up this view yesterday when he said he would not vote for Sosa for the same reason that he refused to vote for Big Mac: “Sammy Sosa was part of that conspiracy of silence (on Capitol Hill in 2005); voters such as myself are punishing Mark McGwire for the way he performed in front of Congress.” It should be clarified that while McGwire refused to answer questions at theMarch 2005 hearing about prior use – “I’m not here to talk about the past” – Sosa did, through his attorney, categorically deny that he ever used any performance enhancing drug.
But, in the minds of many voters, including Mariotti, that scarcely seems to matter. Sosa acted in a way that led many to believe he had something to hide. Barry Bonds is judged by a unique set of criteria – a combination of personality, race, performance and the intense attention his alleged use has received. For Sosa, like McGwire, the great sin appears to be their participation in one particular fraud. For many baseball fans, the most exhilirating drama of the past generation was the ’98 race between Sosa and McGwire to 61 and beyond. And, as captivating as that was, the discrediting of that duel has engendered an equal and opposite reaction – deep embitterment at what now appears to many to have been a farce.
The Hall of Fame ballot instructs voters to consider a player’s performance, character, integrity and service to the game. That’s a broad mandate, and one that can easily justify a decision to leave a player off the ballot for non-performance related issues. But, some writers, like Buster Olney, who also has a Hall of Fame ballot, regard exclusion on the grounds of alleged steroid use as “retroactive morality.” It’s noteworthy, in fact, that ESPN’s three most prominent baseball writers – Olney, Peter Gammons and Jayson Stark – are all unwilling to leave Sosa (or McGwire or anybody else) off their ballots because of mere suspicion. Summing up his position on other Hall-worthy players from that era, Gammons has said that “all are in or all are out.” And Stark explained his position thusly:
As I’ve said before, I’m trying to take a consistent stance on all members of that generation. So my position on Sammy is essentially no different than my stance on Mark McGwire. As I wrote when I voted for McGwire, I don’t feel comfortable casting votes based on assumptions. Or popular opinion. Or messy appearances before Congress. Or who got named in Jose Canseco’s book. If I withheld votes for players who fit those criteria, I shouldn’t vote for anybody from that era.
There’s another issue here, too, one that Jason Giambi indirectly raised in his comments a few weeks back about general complicity in the “steroids era:” namely, who knew what and when? With respect to the media and what it knew and didn’t know, Olney told Mike and Mike yesterday morning (in between Greenberg’s cow milkings) that many baseball writers had strong suspicions that something was up in 1998 as they stood around batting cages before games. Olney would know this because he was a Yankees’ beat writer for the Times at that time. But, no one said anything and Olney regards it as wrong to have had strong suspicions then, but to have kept silent, only to become so righteously indignant now. Mike Golic was especially forceful on this point yesterday about those writers who say they will keep Sosa (and McGwire) off their ballots:
“these are the same writers who were writing such great articles about how [Sosa] and McGwire saved baseball and the writers weren’t speaking up then and now all of a sudden it’s out there and they’re going to bash on him. I think it’s incredibly hypocritical.”
Phil Rogers, long time baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, who covered Sammy Sosa for many years and plans to vote for him, agreed with Golic that “alot of us are hypocritical in how we look at things” and vowed not to cast his ballot “based on the size of someone’s biceps.”
As I alluded to above, the discussion of Bonds’ chances of making the Hall of Fame merit a separate discussion. There is no disputing that Bonds was a Hall of Fame player before anyone has accused him of taking anything. And, Bonds’ on-field performance is vastly superior to McGwire’s or Sosa, so much so that there is a consensus about his greatness. In Bonds’ case, votes against him will, necessarily, boil down strictly to so-called character issues.
But, in the case of Sosa and McGwire, some question the credentials themselves. Mariotti’s Around the Horn partner, Woody Paige, dismissed Mariotti’s off-the-field criteria, but said he would not vote for Sosa because of Sosa’s .273 lifetime batting average. Surely, some other voters will feel the same way.
And, concerning McGwire’s Hall of Fame credentials, numerous would-be voters have cited his .263 lifetime average and the fact that “all” he could do was hit homeruns as reasons not to vote for him. This is wrong, of course. McGwire’s .263 lifetime batting average belies one of his great skills – the ability to get on base, the single most important offensive skill in baseball. McGwire’s lifetime on-base percentage was an outstanding .394 (higher than Derek Jeter’s, for instance, despite the fact that Jeter’s lifetime batting average is fifty-plus points higher). McGwire had several seasons with OBPs north of .400, including stratospheric seasons of .467 and .470. I mention this here because part of what’s driving conversations about Sosa’s (and Big Mac’s) candidacies is the never-ending search among many (though not all) baseball writers to find a lazy short hand in order to avoid thorny issues. This is true both of their approach to the complicated question of how to evaluate PEDs (writers have, for example, criticized McGwire for using Androstenedione, but Andro was not banned by baseball in 1998, and was regarded as a food product, not a drug, by the FDA at that time); and of their approach to baseball statistics. Because of such lazy short hands, visual indictments of players for steroid use have been going on for several years now (as Dwil’s been writing about, Bonds’ hat size being a favorite topic of conversation). And, despite a generation now of serious analysis about which baseball statistics matter and which don’t (with some of baseball’s most successful franchises, like the A’s and Red Sox utilizing these insights in player evaluations), we still get baseball writers talking as if our state of knowledge about the game is exactly what it was thirty years ago or sixty years ago. Which is convenient, of course, because it means never having to learn anything new or hold a position on an issue that you can’t spit out in a twenty second sound bite on ESPN.
But, there’s a larger issue: the arbitrariness of so many of these conversations. One often hears arguments grounded in claims about legality: steroids are illegal (without a prescription) and banned by baseball. But, Andro, for example, was neither in 1998. Furthermore, if the legal argument is controlling, then why isn’t the legal standard of innocent until proven guilty operative? And, this leaves aside such complex issues as what we do and don’t know about steroids’ effects on adult males, the variability of those effects, the potential health consequences of such drugs, and how currently banned substances are to be distinguished from substances (and procedures) that are permitted, but are potentially unsafe and give athletes who pursue them a competitive edge. These are questions that almost no mainstream sports journalist has been willing to try to answer.
Likewise, many baseball writers insist that, in response to all the new research, numbers aren’t nearly as important as the stat geeks make them out to be. But, as I’ve argued before, when it comes to MVP voting or performance-related debates about Hall of Fame voting, baseball arguments never really pit those who invoke stats versus those who don’t. Instead, they merely juxtapose arguments over which stats matter most. Ruling out Sosa’s or McGwire’s candidacy on the basis of batting average is as much a statistical justification for exclusion as invoking slugging percentage would be for inclusion: the former just happens to be a bad argument. In fact, on the basis of their performances, McGwire was a superior player to Sosa, largely because of his enormous 50 point career advantage over Sosa in on base percentage. But, according to win shares, both players have passed the threshold of Hall-worthiness. So, the reasons for excluding them come down to character judgments based on suspicion (there is greater suspicion in Mac’s case than Sosa’s), or selective and ill-informed invocation of those statistics least favorable to their candidacy.
One can argue that Hall of Fame voters can do what they want – if they suspect a guy of cheating, and think that shows bad character, that’s their prerogative. But, I would argue that, if the sport is a public trust, justifying the high standards to which players are to be held if they are to merit entry into Cooperstown, then the responsibility of casting Hall of Fame ballots is just that, a responsibility to the sport, and not a private right. And, if it’s a public responsibility and a privilege, it seems to me that writers need to be more accountable than they are for their votes. Casting votes based on personal animus, unproven suspicions or statistics that are a century out of date fail to meet that standard.