Friday, January 11, 2013

The Day When Nothing Meant Everything

Each year about 570 (it was 569 this year) journalists who cover Major League Baseball receive a ballot in the mail which empowers the recipient to vote for players who he/she feels is worthy of inclusion into the Baseball Hall of Fame (BHOF) in Cooperstown, NY. To say that the criteria for this highest of honours is vague is putting it mildly. They are all members of an elite group of baseball journalists known as the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA) and yes, there are Canadian journalists in the BWAA.

Clearly it's the most subjective of decisions. Numbers are important to some voters. Others view longevity in the game as paramount. Some see great performances in the face of overwhelming odds as a key factor. Great comebacks from a few years of not-so-great seasons impresses some. Still others simply look at a player's career against the backdrop of those already enshrined and simple say, "Does he/she belong in this group?". Although many feel that the criteria should be more focused, I rather like the diversity as it makes the mosaic of the BHOF more all-encompassing.

Whatever a voter sees as a benchmark, this year's vote was a Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of baseball. It was the first time, players who openly admitted or were caught using performance enhancing drugs (PED) were eligible. Their names were on the ballot. The sporting world waited to see how those closest to the game would see the players of that era. Yesterday (01.09.13) the results of the voting were made known.

As my title suggests, no player who enhanced his performance by taking substances designed solely for that purpose was voted for inclusion in the BHOF! For the first time, in a long time, no living player will be voted into the BHOF. The voters have spoken clearly and with a combined voice. Taking PED is cheating and this is at least part of the price one pays for taking them! Full stop! There is already criticism from some quarters on the Internet chastising the BWAA for taking this stance.

This comes as quite a blow to the business owners in the sleepy town of Cooperstown, NY, high in Adirondack mountains of the "empire state". Oh, there will be an induction ceremony as a few inductees will be posthumously inducted into the shrine of baseball (Jacob Ruppert [executive], Hank O'Day [umpire] & Deacon White [player]) but very few who might attend the ceremony will have known much about these individuals which for the inductees and there families, is unfortunate. These inductees were voted into the BHOF, not by the BWAA but by a specially appointed panel known as "The Veterans Committee". The BHOF Induction Day Committee will fill the void of not having real live players inducted by honouring a group of inductees from the past as well as other special events. This hasn't happened since 1960!

Although I've not attended an "Induction Day Ceremony" I have visited the BHOF and I suggest that any baseball fan who can make his/her way to Cooperstown, NY, do so. Of all the halls of fame for various sports, the BHOF is really something special. One of my favourite baseball movies, "A League of Their Own", concludes with a very moving scene shot in Cooperstown at the BHOF. Yes, there are women enshrined in the BHOF, an entire league!

Those who care or are at least interested in the voting procedure for the BHOF were eagerly anticipating this year's vote as its results would be historic and set something of a precedent. Without going into a lot of detail, the rules of induction into the BHOF decree that a player must be retired from active participation for a period of five years and his name remains on the ballot for a set period of time as well. When that period of time expires, the only way to be inducted into the BHOF is through the aforementioned Veterans Committee. So, just because the players who were on the ballot (by the way, no "write in" names are allowed) this year, that does not mean they won't be "voted in" sometime down the road. That provision occasionally sees, due to the passage of time, that standards change and what seems to have prevented a player from initial inclusion is somewhat muted later on resulting in the player's induction.

Easily the most well-known player not to have been inducted into the BHOF, is Pete Rose. His "numbers" are extraordinary. He's the all time "hits" leader and he played the game with an enthusiasm rarely seen over the span of a career. In fact his nickname in the game was "Charlie Hustle". But, he bet on baseball, at the time, a "rule" (never documented) in the game that was universally accepted. He is alleged to have bet on his team he was playing for and later managing and as he has stated on numerous occasions, he never wagered against his team. He always bet that his team would win but he didn't bet on every game and that was part of the problem. Many would ask Pete why he didn't bet on every game. The implication of not betting on a game in which his team participated many argued was the same as betting against them. And then there's the whole murky situation of the criminal underworld and its close ties to wagering and the accrued profits from that practice. Pete made life more difficult for himself by changing his story re. the betting or alleged betting. He seemed to tell you whatever he felt you wanted to hear. As luck would have it, as I'm putting the finishing touches on this post, I have the TV on in my hotel room in Red Deer, and guess who is being interviewed, Pete Rose and he's still up to his old tricks of dodging and weaving with his answers. Pete, stop already!

Sports, to be popular with fans needs one thing more than any other. It needs to be seen as a contest with both teams having the same opportunity to win the game. Without that, we're watching pure entertainment (can you say "professional wrestling"?). Soccer is in a very grey area right now due to some game fixing allegations that seem to have "legs". There have been other sports were gamblers have infiltrated players and officials to "shave points" or actually "throw" games and when that's discovered the cancer is quickly cut away as sports league know that to ignore that element is suicide for the sport.

The players who took PED, I would contend. were not excluded from the BHOF per se, they were excluded because they lied about taking the PED and sometimes the lies were in front of government committees. North Americans have a great capacity to forgive. Just don't lie! Pete Rose would be in the BHOF had he not lied about his gambling addiction. I feel most if not all of these players whose numbers etc. would normally have afforded them first ballot inclusion would also be basking in that glow had they not lied about it. It's not the transgression, it's the lie that will keep them out!

The great Yankee pitcher, Andy Pettitte will have his name on a BHOF ballot five years after his retirement. That will be the next interesting vote by the BWAA. Why? Mr. Pettitte took PED but he did so to more quickly recover from an injury and admitted doing so. Call me naive but I believe that he would have stopped taking the PED when he eventually recovered. Where does he fit into the PED mess?

The sport that's most associated with PED is cycling. Enter Lance Armstrong, winner of seven "Tour de France" titles, oh, not so fast, those titles have been stripped as it appears there is proof that he did take PED. As I write this he seems to be willing to finally reveal that even though he said he didn't and he never tested positive, he indeed enhanced his performance by taking PED. He feels that his admission will allow him to be reinstated so he can continue his athletic career. With all the good that Lance Armstrong has done with his cancer research programme, "Livestrong", do we cut him some slack on this? Is one justified in taking PED because "everyone else in the sport is doing so"?

There are legions of fans who are of the opinion that the world has changed (better living through chemistry). Those in this group would allege that the only reason athletes of yesteryear didn't take PED was because they didn't exist. They now do exist and they're not going away so let the players take whatever they want. We want to see great performances and if the PED prove to shorten athletes lives, heh, they're well compensated for their performances! The potentially devastating affects of a life time of taking PED is simply the cost of doing business for that athlete. Is that view justifiable?

If you think for a minute that the fans referred to in the above paragraph don't exist, the "home run race" between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa that quite literally captured the imagination of baseball fans in that it was heralded as "saving baseball" following a work stoppage (NHL fans can relate to this) proved otherwise in my view. It was commonly perceived that both players were "juiced". But the majority of the fans didn't care. They just wanted to see baseballs "leave the yard" as frequently as possible. Are fans complicit?

There are many out there who feel that since PED are not "illicit" drugs, technically the athletes were within their rights as citizens to consume them. If there was nothing wrong taking PED why then did the players do so in a "cloak & dagger" environment? They knew very well that what they were doing was "unethical" within the realm of their sport. Hmm, ethics! Where do ethics fit into sports? Is ethics up to the individual or team? Exactly what is ethics anyway? Sports have rules. Isn't abiding by the rules enough?

Well, I will weigh in on this one as curling is one of the few sports that actually has a "code of ethics". It's the first page, or near the front of our rule book.

Look, every rule has both a "letter" and a "spirit". One can abide by the "letter of the rule" and kick the stuffing out of the "spirit of the rule". And to make matters even more complicated regarding rules and ethics, the culture can change and in dramatic fashion from one sport to another.

In an article in "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" I cite the case of a major league baseball player in a World Series Game who in front of 50 000+ fans in the stadium and millions watching on TV took advantage of an obvious error in judgement on the part of the home plate umpire who believed the pitched ball had hit the player's hands on the bat and was awarded first base (later to be driven home with the game winning run) when in reality the ball hit the bat (as the replay clearly showed). He might have been the only one who knew for sure the ball had not hit him but the culture of the sport allows him to take advantage of an unwarranted situation. My contention in the article was that had the player not been in professional baseball but a professional golfer and accidentally touched the ball with no one else noticing, he would have declared it because it's golf, not baseball. What's the culture of the sport you play?

The evidence seems to indicate that PED have long term implications to the health of the individual. What about the thousands upon thousands of very young athletes with hopes of reaching the "brass ring" through a professional career, fall short only to be left with a life time of debilitating health challenges and possibly a shortened life span? If you're a parent of a teenage athlete with aspirations for a professional career, how do you feel about your son/daughter gaining a competitive edge through PED?

Those of us who care about sports and its place in society can't stick our heads in the sand on this. I've asked a lot of questions in this post. I did that purposefully. Where do you stand on these issues? I look forward to your comments!

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