Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Hall of Fame and steroids: Questions no one wants to answer

Al Behrman/AP - In this 2004 file photo, Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin knocks down a base hit by Pittsburgh Pirates' Jack Wilson; Larkin has been elected to baseball's Hall of Fame. He received 495 votes (86 percent) in balloting announced Monday.

The election of Barry Larkin to the Hall of Fame on Monday reminds us of the clean sense of simple celebration that has surrounded such moments through most of baseball history. It illustrates an ideal of purity — the fair test of talent, the level playing field, the triumph of ability and will — that we hope to find in sports, at least sometimes. It’s exactly the way we want it.

The bypassing of Jeff Bagwell, who belongs in the Hall but perhaps did not get in Monday because some baseball writers who vote suspect him of using steroids, reminds us of all the ugliness that is coming soon.

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After being elected into baseball's Hall of Fame Monday, former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin was introduced to the media in New York Tuesday.

After being elected into baseball's Hall of Fame Monday, former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin was introduced to the media in New York Tuesday.

The Bagwell snub is just foreshadowing. Starting next year, when Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa are eligible, these Hall elections will be like so many other aspects of life: a do-the-best-we-can decision made under circumstances where there’s often no correct answer. In other words, it’ll be exactly the way we don’t want it.

Enjoy Larkin. Henceforth, we’re probably going to be forced to use a single standard to eliminate candidates or else grant them the benefit of the doubt — even if we have plenty of ’em. We’re not going to like it. It’s not going to be completely fair. But this is where we’re headed: Did he ever get caught cheating? If he did, he’s “out.” If not, he’s “safe.”

Unless you plan to demolish the Hall of Fame, or give truth serum to candidates, it’s the least offensive option is an ugly bunch of choices. It’s far better to let a scoundrel in than to keep a good man out and taint him for life.

(Per department policy, Washington Post writers do not participate in Hall of Fame voting.)

We love our stars to shine, as examples beyond the field. So, let’s praise Larkin, the Reds’ respected captain who represented much of what is best in a shortstop, hitter, base stealer, teammate and person.

These days, we know anybody could have a skeleton in his locker. But Larkin might rank close to dead last in probability. He was a 12-time all-star who won an MVP and led the ’90 Reds to a World Series upset of the Oakland A’s, a team whose biggest sluggers are confessed cheats. The first 30-homer 30-steal shortstop, Larkin hit .300 nine times, won three Gold Gloves and got awards for public service named after Roberto Clemente and Lou Gehrig.

But enough about Barry Larkin; why be happy when we can argue?

Over the next dozen years, baseball will confront seven of the best performers in history — all automatic enshrinees under normal circumstances — who have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, admitted PED use or been inundated by incriminating evidence amassed by MLB or appropriate legal authorities.

They are seven-time Cy Young winner Clemens, seven-time MVP Bonds and five others with at least 555 home runs: Sosa, Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez, Rafael Palmeiro and Alex Rodriguez. Together they will have earned $1.253 billion in salary. With business deals and endorsements, the sum could approach $2 billion. Hence, their motivation. A desire to win, please teammates and fans? Maybe. I’ll stick with the cash.

There are extenuating circumstances, but anyone who recognizes those seven names already realizes that. After the strike of ’94, the sport’s logo might as well have been a winking eye. Nobody’s asking these guys for reparations. But, come on, do they get “enshrined”?

We are faced with three choices:

●Ignore cheating and let everybody in because “so many players did it.” That’s not happening because the day Clemens and Bonds get in, half the living Hall of Famers will arrive with chisels to take down their plaques. And some of the dead guys may show up, too.

●Demonize anyone, such as Bagwell, who has ever been suspected of using PEDs (but without a shred of evidence). Then, you will be certain to keep worthy players out of the Hall who did nothing wrong. Even worse, by excluding them, you may brand them as frauds for the rest of their lives. The extreme case of insidious rumor is Bagwell. His sin: A lot of muscles.

That’s it. That’s all. Stat guru Bill James has an elaborate “Hall of Fame Monitor” to predict who will make Cooperstown based on history. A score of 100 makes you a likely candidate. Over 130 is a shoo-in. Larkin, who never led the league in any offensive category, got a 120. Bagwell scored 150. Yet Larkin got 86.4 percent of the vote to Bagwell’s 56.0. I rest my case for rumor bias.

●Final choice: Keep out the great players who got caught cheating, those whose behavior is public knowledge, but give everybody else the benefit of the doubt, even though that inevitably means electing some PED users.

Seriously, in our everyday experience, we wouldn’t even consider this a choice at all. If you get caught, you get punished and have to live with the consequences. If you don’t get caught, sometimes you just get away clean.

This applies at all levels, from “merely” speeding to driving while under the influence to vehicular manslaughter. The punishment is supposed to “fit the crime,” even though we have long debates about what is suitable. We all live in this world of graduated misbehavior and calibrated consequences.

That should apply to the Hall of Fame, too. Baseball has many sins, some irrelevant. But the absence of Joe Jackson and Pete Rose from Cooperstown reminds every player that gambling on the game presents a mortal threat to any sport.

Shoeless Joe and Charlie Hustle are about to have lots of company. But that list of excluded greats should be limited to those who have failed drug tests, admitted PED use or been discredited by a mountain of credible data.

Except in those instances, let’s err on the side of decency. Life’s tough enough without guilt by association and conviction by innuendo.

When it comes to Cooperstown, keep out the ones who were caught.

Otherwise, grant the benefit of the doubt that we all deserve, and let those such as Bagwell have their rightful place and plaque.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/sports/blogs-columns.

 
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