I'm not voting for Jeff Bagwell because he looks like Limp Bizkit's guitar player, somehow. - Bob Levey
Protest ballots dominated the 2013 Hall of Fame column cycle. Here are some questions I think people who aren't voting for steroid users should address.
So as to be upfront—so as not to look like a concern troll—I'll lead with this: I do not care about performance-enhancing drugs, and if I had a 2013 Hall of Fame ballot I'd vote as though nobody/everybody had taken them. My reasons are boring and not really baseball-related, so I'll leave them for the comments if anybody cares. But I'm not so confident in my own brilliance or moral uprightness as to believe that not voting for players who used or maybe-used steroids is inherently wrong.
With that in mind, here are some things that bother me about some of the protest ballots I've seen. If I were making one myself, I would try to deal with these questions before I disengaged from the ballot, or cast a single vote for Jack Morris or Craig Biggio.
If you're not voting for certain players, maintain a consistent standard of evidence
I'm basically fine with ballots that do this, not that they needed my approval. I wouldn't turn one in myself, but if you're going to withhold a vote from everybody who admits he used, or everybody whose check-image appeared in the Mitchell Report, or everybody who was accused by Jose Canseco, or even everybody who played in the 1990s, more power to you.
But collapsing all the suspect players on the 2013 ballot into a Steroid Types category does a disservice to the PED debate, the Hall of Fame, and your readers, let alone the suspect players. Mark McGwire admitted he used steroids. Barry Bonds allegedly admitted to unknowingly using steroids. Roger Clemens was accused of using steroids and has denied it ever since. Sammy Sosa reportedly appeared on a leaked list of test results in 2003, has never been accused directly of using steroids, and denies etc. etc. Jeff Bagwell looks like he used steroids, and played in the 1990s.
Those are all different situations, and depending on where your protest-ballot-slider is set they should all be treated differently. It's a subtle issue that's been treated with all the subtlety of a YouTube comment about Barry Bonds's head.
If you're unsure about the 1990s today, be unsure about the 1990s tomorrow
If you're not voting for Craig Biggio in 2013, and you're going to vote for Greg Maddux in 2014, start drafting your explanatory column now. One of the first players suspended for using steroids was Ryan Franklin; it's not enough that a player is a pitcher, and it's not enough that he doesn't throw really hard.
At least deal with amphetamines
I'm not going to insist that all performance-enhancing drugs are equally immoral—or that enacting a ballot ban on one means you should ban them all. And I'm not going to tell you amphetamines enhance performance as much as steroids, because I've never taken steroids.
But I am going to insist that amphetamines are a performance-enhancing drug, because I've taken them every day for the past several months, and they've made an enormous difference in my life—in my performance. Someday, with a little luck, I'll be able to steal a job with health insurance from some poor writer who is not taking amphetamines, even though they will help almost anyone focus, stay awake, not spend four hours hyperfocusing on Sumerian history, etc.
Blogging isn't a lot like baseball, and my own experience is only one anecdote. But if baseball players didn't feel amphetamines made a difference in their performance we wouldn't be having this conversation. And if I were making a moral argument against steroids that intent—looking to gain an edge by the illegal use of dangerous drugs—would be exactly as important as the effectiveness of the particular drug.
So deal with them. Explain why you're going to penalize steroid users but not amphetamine users. Here's one argument I've seen a lot and find completely unsatisfying: "Amphetamines don't enhance performance—they just make it possible for a player to perform to the best of his abilities."
1. Please explain this to my employers and the people in charge of my academic transcripts.
2. Don't we already judge—in scouting, in statistical analysis, in Hall of Fame balloting—exactly this? It's not enough to be talented; it's not even enough to flash that talent for a year or three years. The Hall of Fame is about staying in the lineup day after day, staying sharp over the long season, and not hyperfocusing on Sumerian history when you're supposed to be catching that line drive up the middle.
Amphetamines will help you do this. They will let you run more drills and stay sharper and react faster in the outfield as surely as they will let me clean more areas of my apartment and respond to more e-mails and react faster to Google Trends. The FDA guarantees it.
The Hall of Fame (and every baseball team) already effectively penalizes players for lack of focus, and fragility, and all kinds of things we don't explicitly think of as "talent" or "ability." If a pill—acquired illegally or legally, and even somewhat dangerous, depending on what your PED standard is—could make J.D. Drew healthy, and other people weren't taking it, wouldn't that be as performance-enhancing as a pill that gave him 10 or 15 home runs a year? What about one that made Manny Ramirez as focused in the outfield as Larry Walker? I think we've gotten too stuck on the most stereotypical shape of performance-enhancement to see just how broad the category is, and it's only going to get broader from here.
If you've heard somebody used steroids, do some journalism
As someone who failed out of the most prestigious j-school in America this one has irritated me for years, so I apologize for repeating myself: If you believe a player used steroids, and you're a journalist, do journalism. Jeff Pearlman is our most visible Jeff Bagwell accuser, but he's gotten nowhere and accomplished nothing because all his pieces seem to end the same way—with hazy appeals to unsourced knowledge, his own expertise, and bicep-circumference. Here's his most recent excursion into gossip columnry:
Look, we've all gone back and forth on this one. I've spoken with two scouts and several retired players who laugh at the idea that he was clean. That said, the other day Morgan Ensberg, his former teammate, Tweeted that he believes in Bagwell. Would I vote for him? No. But does he have the numbers? Absolutely.
This isn't a story—it's a pitch. You've talked to people who say Jeff Bagwell used? Interesting. You're about a quarter of the way to getting a real blockbuster published in your college newspaper.
Get one of these specters on the record, or at least tell us what he knows—whether he saw it, whether he heard about it, whether he just thinks Jeff Bagwell had huge arms, I mean just look at them. Ask how these scouts know, and who else might. Figure out when Bagwell used steroids, and why, and which ones. Find some facts somewhere, some evidence that can be processed by other human beings, and then write a story that could pass muster with TMZ's fact-checkers, instead of trotting the same set of unanchored notes out every year.
I was never good at that, and that's why I quit. (That and the Fs.) But the minute you say "Trust me, I'm a journalist," you're not being a journalist.