●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.