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Biggio

For all the caterwauling that accompanied this year’s Oscar vote, its deadline dilemmas and electronic exasperations, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences can be thankful it’s not Major League Baseball right now.

Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote at Dodger Thoughts in 2004 on the subject of performance enhancing drugs. 

1) Throughout the history of baseball, players have ventured down many different avenues in pursuit of a competitive advantage.

2) Throughout the sport’s history, players have been convicted of a number of criminal offenses without receiving any punishment from baseball officials.

3) However, baseball should discourage players from using illegal steroids, drugs, enhancements or supplements that they know could be potentially harmful to the body long-term.

4) Additionally, no one should be pressured to use these supplements by the idea that they need them to stay competitive.

5) That being said, despite what individual people are convinced is true, there is debate in the scientific community about how harmful steroids are. (Indeed, steroids are prescribed to promote health in certain cases to people of all ages and ilks.) They might be harmful to athletes, but some respected people say that you cannot conclude that they are harmful to athletes. No matter how convinced one is about one’s position, this debate undeniably exists.

6) In the face of this confusion, it is not automatic that baseball should ban steroids.

7) However, there is sufficient risk that steroids are harmful that it is reasonable for baseball, a private enterprise, to take measures to regulate their use, including their possible ban from the game.

8) A ban on steroids, or any other regulation, should have the support of both management and the players. This is critical.

9) That support should manifest itself in a punishment structure that is carefully vetted, and that includes both reprimand and, if appropriate, rehabilitation.

10) In particular, the institution of drug-testing has serious human rights consequences (and some amount of fallibility). Therefore, methods for eliminating steroids from the game, such as drug-testing, should be instituted with the greatest care possible to protect those rights.

11) Punishment should not be applied retroactively – someone who broke a current or future rule, before that rule was enacted, should not be subject to reprimand.

12) Players should have the right to petition for the approval of enhancements, supplements, etc., on the chance that one or more can be shown to be safe and worthy of use.

13) Baseball’s official statistics chronicle the action that takes place on the field. They are an objective observation, from which we can form any interpretation we like. There is no effective means for, or purpose in, adjusting statistics compiled by players found to have used illegal substances.

At least Academy voters know that they’ll have a bunch of nominees to honor come Thursday and new winners to crown Feb. 24. But when baseball announces the newly elected members of its Hall of Fame at 11 a.m. Wednesday as part of a three-hour nationally televised special on MLB Network, many insiders expect a Sandy Koufax-like shutout.

Despite a ballot filled with the kind of stars that would leave most of Hollywood feeling inadequate, the Baseball Writers Association of America is not expected to give any one of them the required 75% of the vote needed for election to the Hall. For the first time since 1960, as Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times writes, Cooperstown could play host to a ceremony with no living inductees.

The evaluation of Hall candidates has been a clash of differening philosophies for a while now – just imagine the arguments of “Moneyball” being played out on the ballot in the debate of Bert Blyleven vs. Jack Morris – but disagreement and confusion over how to treat ballplayers who are linked to performance-enhancing drugs have taken things to a new level of stalemate.

You’d think the BBWAA was taking notes on the U.S. Congress. In fact, New York Times political guru Nate Silver got into the act today, going back to his Baseball Prospectus roots to analyze the conflicts in this year’s vote. 

Some argue that direct evidence to PED use is needed to keep a player off a ballot, while others say that any suspicion is sufficient to hold off approval, and a third group – which I would be part of if I had the vote – contends that you don’t try to rewrite or erase history with the Hall vote.

My reasoning, if you’ll indulge this digression: Despite knowing full well what was going on in the sport with drug use, MLB did not implement its first random drug-testing program until 2001, and decided the punishment should be a suspension of all of 15 games for the first positive test. 

By that point, before anything he might have done was considered against the sport’s rules, the No. 1 villain in this play, 36-year-old Barry Bonds, already had about 500 career home runs, nearly the same number of stolen bases and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of nearly 1.000. 

Even so – even though players had been popping pills for decades to try to get a competitive edge, even though Bonds faced pitchers who were using PEDs themselves – numerous voters find it sufficient to dismiss his entire body of work.

I won’t dispute there’s a case to be made against players like Bonds and Roger Clemens, but it only gets worse.  Players such as Mike Piazza, the greatest hitting catcher of all time and a no-doubt Hall of Famer, are being waylaid by nothing more than McCarthyesque suspicion of drug use, without any failed test or punishment on their ledgers whatsoever. 

Perhaps the poster child for all that’s gone horribly wrong with the Cooperstown vote, however, is Craig Biggio. The longtime Astros star has no taint of PED use and is also the type of player who bridges the “Moneyball” gap. The catcher-turned-second baseman has more than 3,000 hits – forever a barometer for traditionalists in choosing Hall of Famers – 1,844 runs, 291 home runs and 414 stolen bases. In addition, according to Baseball-Reference.com, Biggio is one of the top 150 players of all-time according to the modern stat Wins Above Replacement. In 1998, godfather of modern stats Bill James wrote that Biggio was one of the five greatest second basemen of all time. Yet Biggio is considered borderline at best for Hall approval, with such voting experts as Chris Jaffe and Bill Deane split on the matter. 

Why isn’t Biggio getting his 75%? While every candidate has always had a share of detractors, it doesn’t help that some voters, whether disgusted or perplexed by the steroid era, are turning in blank ballots. “This is all very confusing to me, and I think that MLB has weighted down the press with a very large responsibility,” wrote one such voter. “Maybe for 2014 I will have changed my mind and position. Today, I simply left my ballot blank. I first I considered voting for Craig Biggio, but now I am unsure about everybody.”

That’s a travesty.  

Unlike the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which if nothing else has attempted to solve the problems bedeviling the Oscar vote this year, leaders of MLB and the BBWAA have maintained silence on the Hall crisis, leaving it for individual voters to fend for themselves. Without a doubt, it’s an area where reasonable minds can disagree. But it’s also an area that breeds a tyranny of discord, with players considered guilty until proven innocent, paralyzing what should be an ongoing source of wonder and celebration.