Saturday, December 15, 2012


If you’ve heard clucking sounds as you’ve gone about your rounds of late, don’t be alarmed. It’s probably just some of baseball’s chickens coming home to roost during sportswriter voting in the Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2013 election.
            Ordinarily the vote would be occasion for celebration, especially this year with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa on the ballot for the first time.  Bonds was far and away the best batsman of his time and Clemens was, maybe, the best pitcher. Sosa was the best hitter in the long and rich (but, alas, trophy-short) history of the Chicago Cubs.  Based on their stats each would be a shoo-in for the Hall, the unanimous or near-unanimous choice of adoring scribes. There hasn’t been such a stellar candidate class in years.
           What we’ve got instead, though, is a debate about the suitability of the three for a place among their sport’s immortals.  Substantial evidence has linked each to the use of performance-enhancing drugs during their seasons of greatest productivity, drugs that were and are illegal without prescriptions and banned by baseball’s rules. Their accomplishments have been called into question, as have their characters. It’s not pretty from any angle.
           Baseball’s overseers have no one but themselves to blame for this. From the early 1990s until 2005—a period I call the HITS (for “Heads In The Sand”) Era-- they closed their eyes to the steroids use that warped their game on the field and in the record books. Their blindness was willful; after Associated Press reporter Steve Wilstein spotted a hormone-laced dietary supplement on an open shelf in Mark McGwire’s St. Louis Cardinals’ locker during his 70-home-run drive in 1998, no one could claim he didn’t know what was going on, but seven more years passed before real tests were instituted. ”Chicks love the long ball,” was the mantra of the day, but team owners and the players-union’s leaders loved it more.

 Indeed, their devotion amounted to an addiction, and now it’s up to the 600 or so present or former baseball writers who form the Hall of Fame elector group to sort out the fallout from the habit. I’m one of them.

 So far, the verdict has been clear: cheaters have no place on the plaque wall in the Cooperstown shrine. Exhibits A and B for this have been the fate of known dopers McGwire (by his own belated admission) and Rafael Palmeiro, who failed a drug test in 2005 just months after testifying to Congress than he never used. Both have ample H of F credentials but in their combined eight years on the ballot neither has come close to reaching the 75% vote needed for induction. McGwire topped out at 23.7% in 2010, Palmeiro at 12.6% last year.

One argument for admitting the dope-connected to the Hall is that everyone was doing it when they played. From the evidence I’ve seen that’s not true; when I was a locker-room regular during HITS I asked more than a few executives, managers and veteran players for their confidential estimates of player drug use, and most put it at about one third.  The other argument—raised strongest in the cases of Bonds, Clemens and Sosa—is that they were so good they deserve entry anyway, but by me that’s unprovable and therefore unconvincing.

In baseball there’s cheating and cheating, and theirs was the wrong sort. It’s one thing for a fielder who traps a fly ball to raise it in triumph as though he’d made a catch, it’s quite another to cold-bloodedly weigh risks and rewards and choose to shoot up. Bonds, Clemens and Sosa all were richly rewarded for their decisions (each was paid between $15 million and $19 million a year in the latter stages of their very lucrative careers), and no one is asking for a refund or trying to erase their records. But no one has a right to a perfect life, and now a bill is coming due.

So I won’t be voting for the three this time around and, apparently, neither will most of my colleagues; in an AP poll of Hall electors two weeks ago (I wasn’t asked), just 48% said they’d include Bonds on their ballots, 43% said they’d list Clemens and 18% yessed Sosa. If that’s as accurate as the presidential-election polls, none of the three will be making an induction speech in July.

 They’re not the only ones on the ballot, though, and this year’s field has extraordinarily depth. I’ll be voting for three first-time listees: Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza and Curt Schilling. Biggio was a gritty little guy who topped the magic 3,000-hits mark in his 20-season Houston Astros’ career while winning Golden Gloves at second base. Piazza was among the best-hitting catchers ever whose 396 home runs (of his 427) is a record for someone at the testing position. Schilling’s 3,116 career strikeouts are 15th on the all-time list and he had a 60% regular-season winning percentage (216-146). What’s more, he was brilliant in the post-season, where he posted an 11-2 record and 2.23 ERA in 19 starts.

We can put up to 10 names on our ballots and I’ll be adding four I’ve voted for previously: Edgar Martinez, the best DH so far; Lee Smith, a relief-pitching nonpareil; Alan Trammell, a brilliant shortstop over a 20-year career; and Jack Morris, the former Tigers’ and Twins’ pitching ace.

I’ll be rooting especially for Morris, in his 14th year on the ballot, who should have been enshrined already. His win total (254) is higher than Schilling’s, and is his proportion of wins (57%) is almost as good. He also was a great big-game pitcher whose 10-inning shutout for the Twins over the Braves in the seventh game of the 1991 World Series was one of the best performances I ever saw.

Also, the old-school Morris had his best years before widespread steroids use and, thus, can safely be considered to have played “clean.” That’s more than can be said for any latter-day star, even the ones I voted for. Maybe the worst thing about HITS is that it put a cloud over everyone who played during the era.  That ought to cost some people at least a few nights’ sleep.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


                For most of my working life-- the 38 years I spent with the Wall Street Journal—I was a union member, first with the independent union that represented only Journal people and later with the national Communications Workers of America. The WSJ (Dow Jones & Co., actually) was a good place to work but it was a large company, with thousands of employees, and many times I was glad I had something bigger than me to represent my interests.

The recent decline in union membership in this land is sad, I think. Without such a buffer, many employers have been emboldened to demand 24/7 devotion from the people they hire while giving back little in the way of loyalty or security. In today’s lucky-to-have-a-job economy, the sign above the door over the typical workplace reads “like it or lump it.”  That’s not a good thing for the 99%.

One realm in which unions not only have survived but flourished, though, is big-time professional sports.  It took the athletes a long time to realize it, but their irreplaceable gifts and skills give them the sort of bargaining power others only can envy, and since they finally hired leaders astute enough to wield it-- most notably Marvin Miller, the ex-baseball-union head who died last week at age 95—they’ve prospered beyond their own or anyone else’s wildest dreams.

In 1967, the year before the Major League baseball union negotiated its first collective-bargaining agreement with the owners, the game’s annual minimum salary stood at $6,000. Today it’s $480,000. The comparable numbers in the National Football League are $7,000 and $390,000. Those gains are records not only for this planet but, I’m sure, also for any others in the universe that might be inhabited.  Any young man who lasts two or three seasons in either sport’s bigs—scrub or star -- will earn more than his father probably will in a lifetime.  Boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

But as successful as the sports unions have been at the bank, they’ve let down their members badly in other ways. Indeed, their single-minded focus on the paycheck has been the cause of the sort of short-sightedness that endangers the players’ enjoyment of their riches.

The baseball union’s main failing was its handling of the use of the performance-enhancing drugs (anabolic steroids, mostly) that shaped their sport for a 15-year period (1990-2005).  Baseball’s rules preluded use of the substances for that entire span, but the ban was toothless because of the game’s failure to implement any sort of effective testing procedures until ‘05. Team owners closed their eyes to the situation because they feared that exposing it might hurt their teams at the gate. The union went along with the charade, declaring drug use a “privacy” issue.

Of the two stances, the owners’ made the most sense; they are, after all, in it only for the money. The union, however, had the additional duty to protect its members’ overall well being, and its complicity forced each player to make the Faustian choice between the possible performance rewards of drug use and the small but real health risks the substances posed, either directly or by exacerbating other conditions. That a wrong decision could be tragic is witnessed by the death of Ken Caminiti, in 2004 at age 41, eight years after his steroids-fueled National League MVP season. The full bill has yet to arrive.    

The NFL Players Association is flunking a similar test in its handling of the player-safety issues that have dominated the sport’s headlines the past couple seasons. When the league uncovered the New Orleans Saints’ appalling bounty scandal last spring, and slapped suspensions on several Saints’ coaches and defensive players (including season-long sentences for head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was alleged to have put up money for the aim-to-maim hits), the union sprang into action-- not on behalf of the victims of the scheme but the player perps, getting Vilma’s sentence reduced and supplying lawyers for three other Saints who are contesting their penalties in Federal court.  The players contend that league hearing practices violate their rights, and while I’m a big a due-process fan it would have been nice to hear their union express some concern for the players those guys targeted.

Worse yet as been the union’s championing of the perpetrators of the sort of helmet-to-helmet hits that are the prime cause of the concussions epidemic that poses an existential threat to the sport. The latest of these is the Baltimore Ravens’ safety Ed Reed, a serial headhunter who’s been cited for such offenses three times in as many seasons. Reed was handed a one-game suspension for his smackdown of Pittsburgh Steelers’ receiver Emmanuel Sanders in a November 18 game, but with union help Reed got the penalty reduced to a fine that will keep him on the field while saving him almost $400,000.

 The hit in question took place in the open for all to see--you can check it out online. Nothing about it recommends mitigation. If it’s not worth a suspension, nothing is. Maybe that’s the point.

          Fact is, the concussions problem in football is dire and despite pious rhetoric is getting worse at all levels. Former players are lined up by the hundreds to sue the NFL, charging it did little to prevent head injuries in past years and downplayed their significance once they occurred.  Sensible moms and dads are telling their sons to take up soccer instead. One would think the players’ union would be up in arms, screaming for rules that might allow more of its members to work crosswords puzzles when they’re 40 (like one banning head shots, on penalty of expulsion). Instead it protects the miscreants, making a bad situation worse.

 If I were an NFL player I’d demand a dues refund.

And hire a good lawyer.