Many people (including 49 of 50 states according to a Sportscenter poll) are calling Atlanta’s new outfield the best in baseball. That assertion is laughably premature, if not flat out wrong.
With two MVP candidates in Josh Hamilton and Mike Trout, the Angels should hold that distinction; according to WAR, Trout was more valuable in 2012 than both Uptons and Jason Heyward combined. The Dodgers’ outfield, with Matt Kemp and Andre Eithier, is more reliably potent, and if Carl Crawford comes back from Tommy John surgery to even a shell of his former self it’ll be even better. The Cardinals’ outfield, with sluggers Matt Holiday and Carlos Beltran in left and right, respectively, and defensive wiz John Jay, who can also swing it, in center, is scarier than the Braves’. Same could be said of that of the Nationals, who have Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper for a full season and recently acquired center fielder Denard Span. Hell, even the Blue Jays can have a stronger outfield if Jose Bautista recovers from an injured wrist and Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus put up average numbers.
The Braves are banking on a scary little noun that’s been haunting the Upton brothers for years: potential. The word is all fine and good when talking about prospects, who by definition have nothing but it. But Atlanta’s basing their entire outfield and presumably No. 2, 3, and 6 spots in the lineup on it in 2013. There’s no doubt in anyone’s minds that Jason Heyward and Justin and B.J. Upton all have fantastic tools. But they have never consistently put them in action for a period of time prolonged enough for them to make the Braves World Series favorites.
Yesterday the Diamondbacks finally did what they’ve been hinting they’d do for about 18 months – trade away outfielder Justin Upton, former No.1 overall pick and their best player who, still just at age 25, has been showing flashes of superhuman baseball playing ability since his call up as a teenager six years ago.
Response has been lukewarm at best around the baseball world for Arizona’s haul in the deal, in which they received infielder/outfielder Martin Prado, right-hander Randall Delgado and three minor leaguers. But the lack of star power in the DBack’s return hasn’t nearly been criticized as much as what has seemed to be the mission of GM Kevin Towers, which was to trade away, for no good reason, a star.
It has been less than two weeks since Marco Scutaro lofted that Phil Coke fastball into shallow center field in the 10th inning at Comerica Park in Detroit to score Ryan Theriot with the World Series winning run. Less than two weeks since the Giants, a ragtag team of anonymous names like Buster and Hunter and Pablo, completed their legendary assault on the World Series title, fighting off elimination six times in one playoff to bring a second championship to the Bay Area in three years. Less than two weeks, and now it’s getting cold.
The baseball season morphs in the winter months. Contrary to popular belief, it’s still active, robustly even, when it comes to the free agent market. From November through March teams scrap, fight and claw to sign players and improve their team. This year’s market isn’t particularly star-powered, but there are still a number of big names available. Here are the top ten, where they should go, and where they really will.
- Josh Hamilton, OF
Where he should go: San Francisco Giants
Where he will go: Cincinnati Reds
Projected contract: 5YR/$115M
Hamilton’s is one of the most interesting market cases in free agent history. There is no doubt the former MVP and batting champion can still play – his .285/.354/.577 slash line, 43 homers and 128 RBI in 2012 are a testament to that – and the questions of his past addictions to drugs and alcohol even seem to be subsiding. But there is something about the package of talent and controversy that Texas doesn’t seem to want to bring back, and that may be troubling for other potential suitors. Hamilton also has a history of injury problems, and on top of that, a reputation as someone who can’t play through even minor bang-ups.
If he were anyone else, Hamtilon’s tools would demand an Alex Rodriguez-like contract. But nobody is going to give a 32-year-old outfielder with the habit of crashing into walls and ending up on the front page more than a five year deal, and given Hamilton’s production warrants a contract in the $20M+ per year range, the amount of teams vying for his services is already limited. The Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and Angels all have either no room or no interest. The Giants, on the other hand, fresh off a World Series title and swimming in revenue, seem like a perfect fit. San Francisco’s highest paid position player last season was center fielder Angel Pagan. He made $4.8M. The Giants could let Pagan walk in free agency and replace him with Hamilton. Spacious AT&T Park offers less walls for Hamilton to run into, and throwing him into a lineup that already features Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Series MVP Pablo Sandoval would guarantee the Giants a legitimate shot for contending for the title not just in 2013, but in years to come.
If Hamilton wanted to return to a small market, though, there is no better place for him than Cincinnati. Remember, it was the Reds who traded Hamilton to Texas for Edison Volquez in 2007, before he completed his comeback and became a superstar for the Rangers. Cincinnati could finally give up on the horrendous Drew Stubbs in centerfield, sign Hamilton and reap some of the benefits they lost in that lopsided trade. It would seem like they have the cash too, after signing Joey Votto to a 10-year/$225M deal last offseason.
2. Zack Grienke, SP
Where he should go: Texas Rangers
Where he will go: Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected contract: 5 YR/$96M
People said Grienke’s personality wouldn’t play in a big market, but he was 6-2 in 13 starts for the Angels down the stretch last year in Los Angeles. Look for the power righty and 2009 American League Cy Young winner to land a massive payday this offseason. Despite his mildly underwhelming ERA numbers (career 3.77), he packs four plus pitches and has averaged almost a strikeout per inning in eight years in the majors. Slotting him just ahead of Yu Darvish in the Texas rotation would make the Rangers wildly dangerous, but they will have to outbid the Dodgers, whose new owners have showed a willingness to write the big check and have expressed interest already in Grienke.
3. Hiroki Kuroda, SP
Where he should go: New York Yankees
Where he will go: New York Yankees
Projected contract: 2 YR/26M
Kuroda was fantastic in pinstripes in 2012, winning 16 games and posting just a 3.32 ERA. The Yankees would be smart to reward him with a two year deal, solidifying their rotation, which crumbled with injuries last season.
4. Michael Bourn, CF
Where he should go: Milwaukee Brewers
Where he will go: Washington Nationals
Projected contract:5 YR/75M
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has been eying a long-term solution in centerfield for years, but he’s going to have to make a tough decision here. If he signs Bourn, it would bump slugger Michael Morse out of the outfield and to first base, leaving no room for free agent Adam LaRoche, who led Washinton with 33 home runs in 2012. Rizzo will have to decide whether he wants a speedy leadoff man or his lefty-swinging first baseman for years to come, because he can’t have both.
5. Adam LaRoche, 1B
Where he should go: Washington Nationals
Where he will go: Miami Marlins
Projected contract: 3YR/30M
Somebody will pay LaRoche, and that’s who he’ll play for, given he’s been underrated and underpaid his entire career. After his monster 2012, LaRoche has now hit over 30 homers and driven in 100 runs twice. The Marlins and Blue Jays need a bat at first base, as do the Pirates, Indians, As and others. But keep an eye on Miami. Out of all those teams, they’ve been the ones more willing to pull out the checkbook recently.
6. Nick Swisher, RF
Where he should go: Philadelphia Phillies
Where he will go: Philadelphia Phillies
Projected contract: 3 YR/$40M
Swisher’s personality belongs in a big market, and no big market team needs someone like Swisher like the Phillies. For all their struggles last season, Philadelphia still finished at .500. They still have Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon. With a few bats, the Phillies will be dangerous once again. They have the money, the need and fans that will adore Nick Swisher.
7. B.J. Upton, CF
Where he should go: Texas Rangers
Where he will go: Washington Nationals, Texas Rangers
Projected contract: 5 YR/$80M
Upton will be overpaid no matter what. Teams view his combination of power and speed as a potential asset, but it’s just smoke and mirrors. Sure, he will hit a few long balls and swipe a few bases, but those flashes of brilliance overshadow Upton’s long spouts of inadequacy, when he fails to make contact like it’s his job. Upton has struck out more than 160 times in each of the last three years, and hasn’t hit over .246 since 2008. Texas may make a play after they give up on signing Hamilton. Same goes for the Nationals if they can’t get Bourn.
8. Kyle Lohse, SP
Where he should go: St. Louis Cardinals
Where he will go: St. Louis Cardinals
Projected contract: 3YR/36M
The reliable sinkerballer has blossomed into a star late in his career, riding three plus pitches and impeccable control to 30 wins in the past two seasons. St. Louis would be smart to bring him back on a multi-year deal.
9. Mike Napoli, C
Where he should go: New York Yankees
Where he will go: Texas Rangers
Projected contract: 2 YR/22M
Napoli’s stock took a major hit in 2012, when he followed his breakout 2011 with a .227/.343/.469 slash line. He still hit 24 home runs, and will get paid if teams remember his playoff tear from two years ago and the fact that he can play both first base and behind the plate. The Yankees should let Russell Martin walk and hope Napoli returns to 2011 form. The Rangers are candidates to re-sign him as well.
10. Rafael Soriano, RP
Where he should go: Detroit Tigers
Where he will go: Detroit Tigers
Projected contract: 3 YR/$45M
Soriano rebounded in a big way last season from a dissapointing 2011, filing in for Mariano Rivera in the Yankee bullpen a very Rivera-like way. Soriano piled up 42 saves and struck out over a batter per inning, using a devestating slider as an viable out pitch. He has already opted out of a guaranteed 14-million dollar deal with New York, probably because Rivera is expected to return and Soriano prefers to close. Look for the Tigers, who have said they have no interest in bringing back closer Jose Valverde, to be in play here. They’ve showed the willingness to spend on relievers in the past, and have a need at the back end of the bullpen.
Other notable free agents: 2B Marco Scutaro, RF Torii Hunter, SP Anibal Sanchez, SP Edwin Jackson, SP Ryan Dempster
Tyler McSparran will be playing baseball at Missouri after all.
Just not in the way everybody thought.
He won’t be spiking up for Tim Jamieson’s Tigers, despite what many believed for fifteen minutes last November when an innocent, sarcastic tweet ballooned into a mini recruiting scandal, but he’ll be playing nonetheless.
“They thought that I faked a national letter of intent,” McSparran says now, disbelieving. “At the time I was pissed because they totally blew it out of proportion.”
The date was November 9, a Wednesday. On a typical Wednesday during this particular time in McSparran’s life, he would take classes at Miramar College – a quaint two-year school in his hometown of San Diego – and normally not moonlight as the center of the latest intercollegiate athletic controversy.
He had been attending Miramar for three months, his home during a semester-long hiatus between transfers from Xavier University and whatever school he would attend in the spring. McSparran had attended Xavier out of high school, and almost immediately regretted his decision. It was too small. Their sport management program wasn’t what he thought it’d be. Ohio was not California. He applied to several schools including Missouri, then went home to Miramar to make his decision.
This particular Wednesday was the day McSparran made it. He would transfer to Missouri to study sports journalism. Columbia had everything he wanted – a world-class program, big-time college sports, and a roaring social scene. He mailed in his initial deposit, and tweeted “officially a missouri tiger” to inform his friends and family he’d be moving across the country again.
Then his world blew up.
This particular Wednesday also happened to be National Signing Day for intercollegiate sports. Announcements were popping up all across the country of five-star recruits in baseball, basketball, volleyball, tennis and at least seven other sports committing to their schools.
Hunter Mense, a former player and volunteer assistant for Missouri baseball, saw McSparran’s tweet and asked him if he would be playing a sport at his new school.
“I wrote back, ‘yeah, baseball.’, half jokingly and half because I was planning on playing club,” said McSparran.
The next morning he awoke to multiple mentions on Twitter from Columbia-based media and blogs. Posts appeared on SimmonsField.com, a popular Missouri baseball website run by blogger T.R. Robertson. McSparran’s high school coach and family received emails. Reporters pried Sarah Miester, Tiger volleyball player who went to high school with McSparran. Who was this mystery man Missouri had landed?
In reality, McSparran hadn’t played a game since high school.
He tweeted back to Blumberg, apologizing even though he had made no mistake. After all, what had he done wrong? Been ignorant to the seriousness lazy reporters place in random tweets? He had officially become a Missouri tiger, and was planning on playing club baseball. He wasn’t inaccurate. They were.
The media didn’t see it that way. Instead they villianized McSparran, posting apologetic pieces implying their had been mislead. The Columbia Tribune ran a story blasting the 20-year-old, mocking his twitter feed in an article that inappropriately defames a regular kid who was just excited about changing schools.
“I wasn’t in any way trying to fake anything,” McSparran said. “I was just joking around. Faking my national letter of intent was never my intent whatsoever.”
Flash forward a few months, and the Missouri baseball team is hosting Oklahoma State in late March. McSparran is watching from behind home plate, donning a Cincinnati Reds cap to match his black-and-red San Diego State hooded sweatshirt. In between innings, an older man with glasses comes over and sits down next to him. It’s Robertson. He’s recognized the sweatshirt and connected the dots. Now he finally gets to meet his mystery man.
“He came up and said ‘Are you Tyler McSparran? I’m the guy who wrote the blog and blew everything out of proportion,” McSparran said. “He said he wanted to let me know that that post got more hits than any other post he’d had on the site. So that was pretty funny. We laughed it off.”
Robertson could not be reached for comment, but he did comment on his blog, mentioning their chance encounter in an end-of-year themed post.
He calls McSparran “the Mizzou student from San Diego who I catapulted into his 15 minutes of fame as a new MU Baseball recruit last November,” and goes on to say “we laughed, we talked about how crazy it all was, we went back to watching the game.”
Which brings us to now. McSparran transferred to Missouri last spring, when club baseball was in full swing and tryouts closed. In September, he began his attempt to stay true to his promise, attending multiple meetings and workouts. He made it past the first round of cuts, the fall season.
For the fall, coaches take the best 80 or so kids and divide them into five or six teams. They play a full fall schedule against each other, and when that’s over another tryout is held. Coaches take into account performance in the tryout and fall season to narrow that number down from 80 to 25 to eventually 13.
McSparran didn’t miss a game, played centerfield and gradually made his way up in the lineup. On game days, he hit for average, showed some speed and played solid defense. On off days, he hired a hitting coach – former MU player and Cleveland Indians farmhand Greg Folgia – to help him sharpen his skills.
Eventually last Saturday morning came, the final tryout. McSparran stayed in Friday night, got a good night sleep and woke up early. He fixed himself breakfast, had a cup of coffee, and put on his baseball pants.
The workout ended around 1 p.m. By 3, he had received the call. He made it. Tyler McSparran would play baseball at Missouri.
“I was good on my word,” he said. “I said I was going to be playing baseball at Mizzou, and I’m playing baseball at Mizzou.”
I hope you were watching Saturday.
If you had forgotten why baseball, more than any other spot, defines the word “unexpected” and hits the heart as hard as it does, I hope you were watching Saturday.
If you weren’t sure if there was anything left to see and your interest was waning, I hope you were watching Saturday.
If you had forgotten what makes this game, our game, the greatest there is, I hope you were watching Saturday.
Ours is a game without a shot clock or penalty box. It is the only one without a time limit and that can still be played almost exclusively outdoors (dammit, Tampa). We have songs and saviors, curses and chin music, peanuts and cracker jacks.
Ours in the only sport with traditionalists, people who want things the way they were a hundred years ago, when the parks were bigger, the players were smaller, and you could throw tomatoes on the field. We’re a sport that wants our players to be clean, their numbers to go down, and their records to never be broken. We love sluggers and big flies, but don’t hit too many and don’t be too good.
Baseball is so entrenched in tradition that chewing tobacco persists even today, in an age of warning labels and social stigma, linking the players to those of yesteryear amid constant backlash. Even louder than the criticism of the chewers are the complaints of the chewers themselves, who fight harder to prevent a tobacco ban than they do for the expansion of instant replay, which plays an enormous role in all the other major sports. Allowing umpires to review what have for years been human judgement calls would catapult baseball out of the darkness of the past and into the contemporary age of sporting, where technology feeds commercialism.
But we can’t allow this to happen. There are too many scenarios, too many stories, too much that is human about the game that prevents this. Unlike in football and basketball, baseball players are relatable. Much like their fans, they are usually unable to graze ten-foot rims with their foreheads or push a boxcar. They have all their teeth, too.
A day at the ballpark is so unlike a day at the arena or the rink that the two can’t even be compared. Save for the few essentials, there is no set model for how a baseball stadium should look. Ranging from ancient to post-modern, each park has nooks, crannies and hidden gems alien to the venues of other sports. You don’t go to a Heat game and feel the need to buy a hotdog.
And so we go. And we watch. And in a way, we play.
I hope you were watching Saturday.
Saturday we saw perfection sprout from the most unlikely of right arms, proving that baseball is a game of inches and second chances. While the late bloomer bloomed in Seattle, the most steady flower in the garden withered in the sun of San Diego, to the anger of fantasy owners everywhere. We saw pitchers succeed throwing both fire and meatballs. In Boston we cheered as the Yankees fell down 9-0, then cheered louder as they fought back with Tex messages and beat the Red Sox by a football score. We played two in Detroit.
We watched as a Dodger outfielder continued hitting at such a torrid pace that he now has as many or more home runs than six other teams. While his equally dominate and more heavily lauded teammate has continued to excel on the mound but not in the tabloids, Kemp’s star shines so much brighter and brighter with each dinger that it won’t be long before you can step on it. In Pittsburgh we watched a Pirate remove his eyepatch and dominate the C’s. On the far coast, we watched King Albert continue to shit his royal bed.
And that was just Saturday.
This week on the diamond produced inside-the-park home runs (yes, plural) and triple plays (yes, plural again). It showed how the term “rebuilding” can lead to actual success and not just prolong fan agony. It gave Boston fans 100 years worth of reasons why they should be furious right now. Oh yeah, and a guy pushing 50 won a baseball game.
Is this a great game or what? Like it or not, we still have six more months of it. So keep watching.
It’s 7 p.m. in the banquet room of a Hampton Inn on the University of Missouri campus in February, and a few hundred people are scarfing down BBQ wings and waiting for Royals All-Star reliever Aaron Crow to speak.
One of the best pitchers the Mizzou baseball program ever had, Crow was drafted twice in the first round before eventually signing with the Royals in 2009 and shooting through their farm system. Three years later he’s a major-league All-Star, returning to campus to be the keynote speaker at the program’s annual preseason dinner.
Many people in the crowd, including me, are expecting the shutdown setup man – who sports a career 2.94 ERA – to come to the podium beaming with some mix of proud nostalgia and accomplishment. We’re expecting a speech on what athletes usually make speeches about – platitudes like hard work and determination – and we’re excited to hear it. These aren’t revolutionary ideas, we know, but athletes are paid to play, not think. We’ve heard all that stuff before, so we’re really here not for what Crow has to say, but to see him say it.
But we still expect him to say something.
7:15 rolls around and Eric Blumberg, a television reporter serving as the night’s emcee, announces the guest of honor. On the mound, Crow’s breaking ball is arguably his best pitch; he likes to drop the hammer . On this night he lets his battery mate do the honors.
“I know it says Aaron is supposed to be speaking tonight,” Blumberg says. “But he feels more comfortable with me just asking some questions. Right, Aaron?”
“Yeah,” Crow responds, his eyes panning the crowd. It’s hard to tell if he’s nervous or just whatever. “That’s cool.”
The interview is comically immature, with Blumberg asking more questions about Crow’s little league career and the Missouri-Kansas basketball game later that night than his experiences in professional baseball (Crow’s responses: “I was kind of always better than everybody else. Couldn’t hit though,” and “I asked the coaches if they can hook me up with free tickets.”)
I’m disappointed at first, but after spending some time with Crow later that night a few miles south of the Hampton in rural Columbia, I realize he was exactly right about the interview. It was cool.
And he would know. Talking to Crow is like playing pinball with an unlimited amount of quarters. You rattle around on one topic, scoring points and laughs, not really knowing where you’re going, until for some reason the ball falls and misses the paddles completely. No worries though, you get another try. And another. He is The Dude minus the hair and beer belly, a vessel of nonchalantness.
In between stories of life on the road, buddying up with first baseman Eric Hosmer and tweeting at starter Bruce Chen, Crow finally gets nostalgic. He stops for a second and takes a looks around. One of Missouri’s freshman catchers, who caught a Crow bullpen earlier in the day, walks up to him gleaming with pride. “It was an honor to catch you today,” he says. “Thanks man,” Crow responds. He’s still distracted, looking out into the Missouri night. “I used to live right there, man,” he says finally. “Right there. Urgh, what I’d do to be back here.”
His legend on campus – stories of a 13-0 junior season striking out 10.65 batters per nine – is much more intimidating than his presence; Kansas City lists him at 6’3, but at least two inches of that are the result of a hair flip worthy of a Baseball Tonight seat. His grin is goofy. Without the full-blown facial hair, you would never know he’s 25.
Crow is a boy doing a man’s job, responsible for trying to help rebuild a long-dormant franchise and strike out Albert Pujols a couple times along the way. He hypes up Kansas City’s young core, saying Hosmer is going to be the best player in baseball in two years. Everyone is excited for the season to start because of the group they have, he says.
Well now the season has started. After taking two of three from Anaheim to open 2012, the Royals have looked awful, dropping two of three from the lowly A’s and getting swept by division-rival Cleveland. Crow was thought to be in contention for a fourth or fifth starters spot in Spring Training, but when closer Joakim Soria went down with an elbow injury, manager Ned Yost moved him back to the bullpen. The Royals depth chart lists Crow as second of three closers, but end-of-game duties have been designated to Johnathan Broxton, the 300-pound former Dodger with a history of arm trouble and who hasn’t been good since 2009. His meltdown against paperweight Oakland showed just how effective he can still be.
Kansas City would be smart to make Crow the closer or throw him in the starting rotation. He’s a top young arm with three plus pitches, including a fastball that gets up to 98. Ned Yost called Crow a “bullpen guy” in March, telling mlb.com, “He’s more valuable, more important to us on an everyday basis in the ‘pen.” It’s baffling to think why he would regulate such electric stuff to toil in the middle innings when Royal starters boasted a 4.82 ERA last year and are led by the softest-tossing lefty this side of Jaime Moyer. In the closer’s role Soria was so unreliable in 2011 that he lost his job temporarily. Broxton could barely lift his arm all summer.
The Royals are wasting Crow on match-ups and blowouts when they could be getting real value from their former first round pick. But hey, whatever they decide to do with him, I’m sure he won’t mind.
The Hall of Fame is amphibious in nature.
It exists in two distinct, seasonal forms. Most months of the year, there is the tadpole discussion period, where everybody and their mothers debate on who should get in, who shouldn’t, and then after the official voting in December, who got snubbed, why they got snubbed, and who will have to wait for next year or the year after the that or the year after that. Then the summer rolls around, and for a month or two the debating is put on hold in honor of those elected, and they are celebrated with a ceremony in Cooperstown to punctuate their status as the latest immortal frogs.
The Great Steroid Debate has clouded this process with controversy and doubt. People don’t like their frogs on drugs.
The voters individually decide on how they wish to choose who will complete the metamorphosis from baseball player to legend. There is the standard approach, which measures the all-time greats based on a series of statistical milestone plateaus (think 500 HR, 3,000 hits, 300 W), the positional method, which puts into perspective numbers put up by players based on other players who played their position, even if those numbers aren’t even in the same galaxy as the aforementioned plateaus (think Brooks Robinson, Roy Campenella, Yogi Berra – being a multiple-time WS Champion tends to give these numbers an extra boost), and the progressive model, which seems to shun overall statistics completely and instead lauds players who had exceptional primes, dominated “their” eras and therefore “feel” like Hall of Famers. The inductions of Jim Rice, Andre Dawson and most imminently, Barry Larkin, are prime examples of the recent personification of this thinking. Basically, there are three ways to make the Hall of Fame – either you were as good as everybody else ever, you were as good as the best players historically at your position, or you were really, really good for the time you played.
The reason this last, progressive thinking has become so prominent in Hall of Fame voting is the issue of performance enhancing drugs, the boom in statistical greatness they produced, and the murkiness that still encompasses the issue and leaves us without the identity of many violators. Is 500 home runs still the benchmark for what makes a great power hitter? With the increase in run production and in dime-a-dozen, hard-throwing pitchers, both have which attributed to the evolution of the bullpen and the demise of the Win, does a starter still need 300 Ws to be considered “great”? Who’s numbers are legit? And for the players who’s are, whose do we compare them to – their peers’ or their predecessors’?
The writers have spoken pretty loudly in recent years on where they stand on the issue. Mark McGwire, who admitted to steroid use, and his 563 dingers hasn’t come close to election in six years on the ballot. Rafeal Palmerio, who had reached seemingly every necessary plateau during his playing days, hasn’t fared better than 12.6% in his first two years of eligibility after testing positive for a banned substance in 2005. It is assumed that in 2013, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza and others will be denied admittance to the Hall because of their probable ties to steroids, while Jack Morris, his 3.90 career ERA and squeaky-clean record get in. The writers, collectively, have pretty much made it clear that if they think you cheated, they’re not voting for you.
But is that fair?
Two major monkey wrenches were thrown into that thinking recently. First, Roger Clemens was acquitted of perjury after the US government spent $120M trying to prove that he lied to Congress when he vehemently denied his alleged steroid use in 2008. Then Freddy Galvis and Marlon Byrd were suspended by Major League Baseball for testing positive for banned substances. Who, you may ask? That would be Freddy Galvis, the 5’10, 170 pound Philly second basemen with 11 career home runs in five and a half professional seasons, and Marlon Byrd, the 34-year-old journeyman who was cut by both the Cubs and Red Sox already this year.
Jose Canseco estimated in Juiced that 85% of MLB was on steroids during his playing days, and then went on to incriminate a slew of big-time names, from McGwire to Palmeiro to Alex Rodriguez. Say what you want about the guy, but he hasn’t been proven wrong yet, and the fact that mediocre players are still getting caught today makes you wonder just how many unlikely candidates were juicing back in the days before testing. In the days of Bonds and Sosa and Piazza, whose judgment days are coming soon, and Clemens, who nobody can prove guilty.
But even if they are guilty, what are they guilty of? Cheating? That word implies that they had unfair edge over the majority. Look at the list of players who have tested positive and been banned by MLB, how many of them are in the statistical 1%? Two, Palmeiro and Manny Ramirez. The rest are the game’s laymen, the Average Joes, the Neifi Perezs, J.C. Romeros and Jamal Strongs of the world. Make no mistake, McGwire, Palmeiro, Bonds and Co. weren’t bullies, getting bigger and hitting bombs while everyone else sat there twiddling their thumbs and staying out of their way, hoping they wouldn’t notice them from across the cafeteria and take their lunch money. If everyone’s stealing from the Monopoly bank, you’re not cheating by swiping an extra twenty for a hotel.
The validity of Canseco’s 85% proclamation is unclear and probably always will be, but looking back at the Brady Anderson, Bret Boone and Luis Gonzalezes of the world, and then at the players who got busted after testing was implemented, it’s hard to imagine he was far off. If a writer is using the progressive thinking when casting his HOF ballot, the theory that compares players to other players of their time, the same theory and only logical justification for inductions of the likes of Dawson, Rice and Larkin (not to mention Sandy Kofax), then how can you not vote for some of these guys? Instead of comparing the allegedly (because who knows?) clean minority to the emotionally rotten druggies, proven users need be compared to the swarms of their long forgotten but still AS GUILTY co-workers. You can’t say McGwire’s peers weren’t doing steroids, and you can’t say he didn’t dominate his peers. You can’t say that in a world of steroid users, Barry Bonds wasn’t the BEST steroid user. And you can’t just disregard an entire era and leave its icons for dead, even if you disagree with their actions. Bonds and Clemens and McGwire were all peers of Larkin. Your own personal opinion of the steroid issue aside, you can’t say they weren’t better players than Barry Larkin. It can’t be an accurate Hall of Fame if he’s in it and they’re not.
Some may say, “you can’t compare Bonds and Larkin because Larkin played clean.” How do you know that? People can cite Jeff Bagwell and Jim Thome’s lack of ties to steroids in the support rallies for their enshrinement in Cooperstown. I’m not saying Larkin did steroids, or Bagwell or Thome, but I’m not saying they’re definitely clean either, because nobody knows. But that’s the thing, nobody knows. Baseball has ONE rat, ONE, and while Jose Canseco played for a lot of teams, he didn’t cross paths with every player who was ever in the league with him. He never played with Larkin or Bagwell or Thome, and the Mitchell Report, our only non-Cansecoian, trustworthy (even that’s up for debate) steroid almanac, wasn’t released until after Larkin and Bagwell had retired and still sports dozens of unreleased names (not to mention the fact that some implications in the report were obtained by testimonies of just single witnesses, like in the case of Clemens and his estranged trainer Brian McNamee). Why do we assume Larkin was clean? Because he never played with Jose Canseco? Because he’s on Baseball Tonight? Looking strictly at the numbers, there’s probably a better chance that he wasn’t.
Overall, we know so little about who did what that it’s possible to even call Dawson’s career into question. Look at the numbers for the outfielder, who was enshrined in Cooperstown in 2010 after thirteen years of being not good enough on the ballot. The Hawk averaged a slash like of .285/23/90 from 1982-1986, his age 27-31 years, before exploding in 1987 for a .287/49/137 line and the NL MVP. Let’s repeat. In 1987, the year McGwire and Canseco became the Bash Bros, future Hall of Famer Andre Dawson improved on his PRIME YEAR AVERAGES by 26 home runs and 47 RBI. TWENTY SIX HOME RUNS AND FORTY SEVEN RBI.
1987 is Dawson’s signature season. It is what finally cemented his place in Cooperstown among the greats after toiling in maybe mediocrity for his entire retired life. He would never repeat those numbers again in his career, and nobody ever points out just how much of a statistical aberration his MVP season actually was. Dawson’s peers that year were doing steroids. According to Canseco, one of his peers, they had been around for a while. Did Dawson do steroids? That is unclear. What is clear is that while we do know some of the stars that were, we should really learn more about just how unbalanced the playing field actually was before we blackball them forever.