Steroids and Cooperstown
What do you do, when you are both the repository for baseball's vast history and the ultimate arbiter of the relative greatness of individual legacies, and when much of the game's recent history and so many of those recent legacies are tainted by the stain of steroids?
When you're the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, you lean on the key word in your title -- "and" -- and you wait until time sorts through the history and the legacies.
It is Cooperstown's dual nature as both a museum and a hall of fame that allows it to deal with the Steroids Era in an immediate, objective and academic manner on the one hand, while simultaneously wrestling over time with the larger questions of context and impact. So said Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall of Fame, during a speech at the National Press Club on Monday -- less than a week since Manny Ramirez became the latest Hall-of-Fame-caliber player to be fingered in baseball's steroids scandal.
"You can't go through history without explaining this era," Idelson said, during a question-and-answer session. "But it takes the perspective of time. When baseball integrated, the Hall didn't magically have an exhibit on baseball integration. It took some time. Now, when you walk through Cooperstown, you see very clearly and poignantly how baseball in a lot of ways was ahead of the curve. Fifteen years before Martin Luther King's march, baseball integrated. It takes the perspective of time to understand, to have all the facts, and to tell a story that everyone can relate to and understand."
In practical terms, that means the museum portion of the 50,000-square-foot facility in Cooperstown, N.Y. now features a sign acknowledging the likely role that performance-enhancing drugs had on this era--"As there's a better understanding of performance-enhancing drugs and their impact on history," it reads in part, "the museum will be telling that story honestly and impartially"--while the Hall of Fame portion reserves judgment until voters come to grips with the impact of drugs on individual legacies.
The guidelines given every year to voters--10-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA)--include instructions to consider "character" and "sportsmanship" when evaluating prospective inductees. Thus far, only one test case from the so-called Steroids Era--slugger Mark McGwire--has appeared on the ballot, and his poor showing (his name was checked by fewer than 25 percent of the voters, far below the 75 percent threshold required for election) portends a difficult road to induction for any otherwise qualified player who has been implicated in the steroids scandal.
"By and large, those players' careers are still going on," Idelson said. "They're still being defined. When their careers end, there's a five-year waiting period [for Hall eligibility], and they can be on [the ballot] for as long as 15 years. The beauty of our system is the perspective of time. It's an era where the [voters] are having a tough time grasping, as are all of us, in terms of the Hall of Fame candidacies of certain players. But with the perspective of time, and with the rules being pretty clear, I think the tools are there for the writers to vote with their conscience and do what they believe is right."
Idelson and other Hall of Fame executives appear wholly comfortable with the way its election system is set up to deal with the steroids question--and with the Hall's own solemn role as merely the vehicle by which the answers are displayed for eternity.
But there is something about the process that is beginning to make Idelson a bit uncomfortable: the demise of newspapers.
Since the Hall of Fame began inducting the game's greats in 1936, it has been left to the BBWAA -- traditionally, an association for newspaper reporters -- to decide who gets in and who doesn't. But with newspapers folding and downsizing across the country, the BBWAA is also facing a crisis of sorts. For example, whereas once the Los Angeles Dodgers beat was populated by as many as eight traveling beat writers, now it is down to two -- the Los Angeles Times and MLB.com.
In recent years, the BBWAA has begun including Internet writers from sites such as ESPN.com, Yahoo, Foxsports, CBS Sports and Baseball Prospectus, in an effort to remain relevant. But Idelson acknowledged the Hall is keeping an eye on the BBWAA's health
"In our opinion what's important is that there's a peer review by independent voters," Idelson said. "So if that industry continues to dwindle, and sportswriting changes, we'll obviously have to examine it. ... The process has worked so well it's sad to even contemplate it. But it's about being relevant. And we have to do what's appropriate."
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