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PED McCarthyism & Mike Piazza

Twenty years ago this week [1], the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum reached its peak as an institution of relevance when it ushered into its ranks Tom Seaver with the highest vote percentage ever. Since then, its various machinations have churned in a fashion that have overlooked the contributions of Gil Hodges [2], ignored the accomplishments of Keith Hernandez, thoroughly dismissed the credentials of John Olerud [3] and issued a ballot that couldn’t spare one lousy line to briefly consider the honorable twelve-year career of Edgardo Alfonzo (while the Phil Nevinses, Tony Womacks and Eric Youngs all had their day [4]). True, I’m offering up a parochial anecdotal worldview, but if I’m going to remain excited over Seaver’s still unmatched 98.84% coronation from January 7, 1992, I’m also going to retain the right to generate dismay by the slights I detect through my generally present blue and orange lenses.

Thus, I’m going to skip over the perfunctory nod of approval for the 2012 induction of Never Met Barry Larkin [5] and brace myself for the disappointment attached to Über Met Mike Piazza being unfairly passed over in 2013.

What? It already happened? That was quick!

It hasn’t happened yet, but unless groupthink-disseminated innuendo has gone out of style, it will. I could sense it coming en masse a bare 24 hours before Larkin received Jack O’Connell’s telephone call. All I had to do was pick up the Sunday papers.

• Tyler Kepner in the Times projected Piazza [6] will be in the group of newly eligible HOF candidates to be “left out because of performance-enhancing drugs […] based on suspicion.” On Monday, in reporting Larkin’s election, Kepner reiterated [7] in anticipation of next January, “No tangible evidence has ever linked Mike Piazza to steroids, but writers have long been suspicious.”

• Bill Madden in the News, while appraising the eventual Hall chances of about-to-retire Jorge Posada, referred to Piazza [8] and Ivan Rodriguez as the gold standard among catchers of Posada’s era, but adding “it remains to be seen how the cloud of steroids — if not actual proof — around both their careers will affect their standing when they come up on the ballot.”

There ya go. They have in their hand a list of players suspected of using PEDs. Missing from the list is proof. Missing from any story while Mike Piazza played baseball — or since he retired — is the “actual proof” of which Madden made mention. A little hearsay here [9], a speculative allegation (perhaps imparted anonymously) there [10], maybe a rash of back acne [11] reliably eyewitnessed, at least according to the eyewitnesses. Since the subject of Mike Piazza and how he managed to hit so darn well last came up in earnest, in 2009, there hasn’t been anything slightly revelatory, not even a fresh take on the ol’ “oh, everybody knew it” that was in vogue three springs ago.

Everybody knew it but nobody reported it, which I’m pretty sure is antithetical to the job of reporter.

When Mike Piazza was in his ten-year prime, it was de rigueur to refer to him as the best-hitting catcher ever. His inevitable first-ballot election to Cooperstown was probably referred to as a “no-brainer,” which would have been a shame since using all of one faculties would only enhance one’s appreciation of Piazza. If you had a brain or a set of eyes or a functioning figurative heart, you couldn’t have missed Piazza’s reign as the catcher of his decade, 1993-2002. If you wanted to argue he wasn’t a defensive wizard, didn’t win a World Series ring, was slow even for his position, you were entitled. But that was basically all you had.

He was the best-hitting catcher ever. Still is at last check. And at last check, he never tested positive as a PED user. His name never came up on any official list. He never volunteered he belonged on one. Except for recurring insistences that he had problem skin and “everybody knew it,” there’s been nothing.

But now there’s the so-called cloud. It must be there because national baseball columnists like Kepner and Madden are elevating it into the atmosphere. The cloud is aloft because two writers for large media enterprises say Mike Piazza may very well be controversial. Next thing you know, Piazza is in the company of those for whom the allegations over PEDs seem to contain some of that “actual proof”.

Funny how that works.

The use of PEDs may end all conversation for some voting writers when it comes to evaluating a Hall of Fame candidacy. It certainly seems to have done so in the cases of several heretofore “no-brainers,” numbers-packing superstars you never would have dreamed wouldn’t be admitted all but automatically to the Hall. Yet there are also those who have thought about PEDs and rejected them as a barrier to entry. Ken Davidoff in Newsday, the same day Madden and Kepner backhandedly slapped down Piazza’s chances, declared in the context of Jeff Bagwell [12]:

“Until 2004, there were no collectively bargained rules covering steroids and such. My job as a voter is to recognize the laws that existed, not enforce retroactive, selective jurisprudence.”

Davidoff, incidentally, voted for Bagwell, tabbing the Houston first baseman as “one of the dominant hitters of his time. Did he use performance-enhancing drugs? First of all, there’s no tangible evidence. Second of all, I don’t care.”

There’s been nothing tangible brought against Bagwell in the same way there’s been nothing tangible brought against Piazza. Just speculation derived from Bagwell being kind of big and hitting a lot of homers at the same time as those who have had something tangible brought against them. Last year, on Bagwell’s first ballot, he pulled in a mere 41.7% of the vote. This year, prior the results being announced, he continued to be controversial by association. As SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee sardonically captured the argument [13] against the author of 449 Astro home runs, “Jeff Bagwell played from 1991 to 2005, and he was muscular.”

Bagwell will not be joining Larkin at Hall ceremonies this summer, but maybe his exile on Muscle Beach won’t last forever. His vote-percentage bounced from 41.7% to 56% this year. That’s one of those shares that tends to eventually get authentically enhanced to 75% by the writers in their pack mentality. (MLB Network noted Monday that the only HOF candidate not eventually selected once he surpassed 50% on the BBWAA ballot is, somehow, Gil Hodges.)

Bagwell getting in after a few years doesn’t seem unfair if you factor out the utterly unfair McCarthyite standards applied to his candidacy. Don’t think Bagwell played well enough to be a first-ballot (or any-ballot) Hall of Famer? Don’t vote for him. Got a dead-certain cloud of proof to hold over his head? Reveal it and let the rain of judgment, sanctimonious and otherwise, fall where it may. Anything else is guessing at best, defamation at worst.

I was an admirer of Jeff Bagwell, maybe even a fan as far as sort of liking a Met opponent goes. While I watched him, I considered him pretty surefire for the Hall…but not nearly as much as I did Mike Piazza. No way Piazza wasn’t going in as soon as possible. The only controversy on his horizon regarded the engraved cap on his engraved head: hopefully Met, possibly Dodger. But then came a rebranding of his era from offensive to tainted. Then came actual proof or something a lot like it where some of his peers were concerned, including those who happened to play their last game in 2007, same year as Piazza. Thus, they will all debut on the same ballot that goes out in late 2012. By then, the portrayals of those peers and their non-performance liabilities will be sharply drawn…and if the chances of Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens or Sammy Sosa wither in the spotlight’s glare, then shouldn’t muscular Mike Piazza be subject to the same examination? Even though nobody has anything on him?

Kepner and Madden, whatever their intentions, have already gotten the ball rolling. Mike Piazza is suspect anew, no matter what he did or didn’t use.

So, no, I don’t expect to indulge in a Welcome to Cooperstown, Mike! piece in this space one year from now, and I can only hope the opportunity to lobby for an NY on his hypothetical plaque will come sooner than later. Should I be correct in my pessimistic outlook, I’ll hew to my line that the Hall of Fame doesn’t matter all that much, the same way I do as I continue to revere Hodges and Hernandez and Olerud (and Alfonzo) in the face of their continued and likely permanent absence from what others refer to as immortality.

Besides, Mike earned that categorization with me a long time ago.