A Day For the Greats, Not the PED Bums

What should have been a festive day in sporting America — a day to toast the wonders that were Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas — became yet another raw, bitter examination of the human condition. When the occasion called for tributes to deserving Hall of Fame inductees, there instead was overwrought shouting about those tainted and shunned by the Steroids Era.

And that is sad, because Maddux was the greatest pitching artist of our time, Glavine wasn’t far behind, and Thomas could scorch a one-hopper to the fence in a coma. This should be their stage, period, yet in commentaries and talk-show discussions, you heard furious debates — again — about whether Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and other presumed users of performance-enhancing drugs should be allowed through Cooperstown’s gates regardless of their chemical sins.

The answer, of course, is no. The juicers and their lies brought down a sport in ways that never can be repaired, and if they were that destructive, how can they be admitted to a sacred hall that preserves baseball’s most precious memories? All trust was lost when it became apparent that PEDs, not nature’s gifts, were the impetus behind the staggering achievements of Bonds, Clemens and Sosa. Some voting writers want to rationalize that Bonds, as the all-time home run leader, and Clemens, as the most dominant power pitcher of his era, should be granted clemency because they escaped convictions in federal court. Both were acquitted of lying about their alleged PED use — Bonds to a grand jury (he was convicted on one charge of obstruction) and Clemens during a Congressional hearing — but the issue here isn’t prison time.

It’s about the timeless museum in upstate New York where you take your kids and tell them, years later, how these players made the game special. And while some argue that sentiment against Bonds and Clemens centers around perception more than actual evidence of PED use, my educated instincts and naked eyes settle on a harsh reality. They couldn’t possibly have been clean when they were followed by so much innuendo, especially in a time when nearly every player was juicing to some degree while commissioner Bud Selig and the owners conveniently turned their heads, willing colluders in a scheme that injected global buzz and unprecedented riches into what had been a lagging, strike-ravaged industry.

Tell me: How could we possibly immortalize such a plague? I’d be more inclined to consider a confessed juicer such as Mark McGwire, who has come clean about his PED use and settled into a career as a major-league batting coach, than the likes of Bonds, Clemens and Sosa, all locked in denial. I’ll never forget when Bonds, looking like the Michelin Man at an All-Star Game press conference, glared at me and called me “a Barry Bonds hater.” I’ll never forget asking a grotesquely puffed Sosa, repeatedly, if he used PEDs, only to get the customary “I use Flintstone vitamins” and “I once did a creatine shake” lines. As a Chicago columnist in the Steroids Era, I realized early amid the McGwire-Sosa carnival that we were being hoodwinked. It took Selig almost a decade to break down and acknowledge that he, as the Steroids Commissioner, had presided over a filthy sport. That he’s trying to atone for his complicity as he nears retirement by beating up on Alex Rodriguez — the most disgusting of the juicers, as a two-time liar — is insulting to our intelligence.

Armed with a Hall of Fame vote that I refuse to use, I’ve never thought my brethren, as writers who covered baseball for at least 10 consecutive seasons, should be exclusive arbiters of the Hall of Fame selection process. We are here to report the news and comment on the news, not to make the news. In the aftermath of a gnarly, dishonest period, Cooperstown decisions have been left in the lap of the Baseball Writers Association of America, and the result has been intense bickering among the approximately 600 members who vote. Writes USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, maybe the finest baseball writer going: “It has turned into the most vicious, acrimonious, mud-slinging process in all of sports.” Major League Baseball created the PED problem. Major League Baseball should help the writers by appointing a credible panel to contribute in the election process. Or allowing Hall of Famers a role, as 2012 inductee Barry Larkin suggested, much the way Heisman Trophy winners vote for the award each year.

I was glad to see the vast majority of voters continue to shun the juicers, sending a message that it’s unlikely any of them ever will come close to induction. Clemens went backwards, from 37.6 percent to 35.4. So did Bonds, from 36.2 to 34.7. And Sosa, from 12.5 to 7.2, meaning Slammin’ Sammy may fall off the ballot as early as next year if he doesn’t win the necessary 5 percent. Also endangered is McGwire, down to 11 percent. As for Rafael Palmeiro, he’s dead and gone at 4.4.

I was just as pleased to see a voter mock the process. Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard turned over his ballot to a low-grade web site, saying he hates “the hypocrisy in this” and that he always likes “a little anarchy inside the cathedral we’ve made of sports.” It is an unprofessional and self-promotional move, I realize, but in this case, it further taunts the voting farce.

There are so many victims. How about Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, who may or may not have used PEDs but have fallen short of induction because of era-inherent suspicions? And if there was any chance of having mercy on Pete Rose after 25 years, how can you ignore a lifetime ban and elect a baseball gambling criminal when we’re not electing the juicers?

And yet, a separate “expansion-era committee” breezily elected retired skippers Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox to the Hall, though all managed clubs filled with notorious juicers.

So I suggest we relieve our systems of all steroids-related exhaust and honor the greats. Maddux won 355 games and four Cy Young Awards as a 23-season savant, not relying on stuff as much as a poker-playing mind. If anyone deserved to be an unanimous selection, it’s Maddux, but because MLB.com’s Ken Gurnick took his own Le Batard-like, make-the-news stand — he omitted “everybody from the steroid era … I just don’t know who did (use PEDs) and who didn’t” — he voted only for Jack Morris. Somehow, 15 others also didn’t inciude Maddux, whose 97.2 percentage was eighth-highest. Tom Seaver has the record for highest vote total, 98.94 percent, in 1992.

“It’s very humbling to go in with these guys,” Maddux said in a conference call. “It’s just icing on the cake. It’s going to be a special day (in July), and I’m going to be able to share it with special people.”

Glavine won 305 games and two Cy Young Awards, sharing acclaim in Atlanta with Maddux. During Thomas’ first seven seasons in Chicago, I swear I was watching Ted Williams, and while he ebbed and flowed in future years, he is applauded for never dabbling in steroids, becoming an outspoken critic of juicers and providing information to George Mitchell during his widespread steroids investigation. He also becomes the first designated hitter — he mercifully retired his first baseman’s glove before doing too much defensive damage — to reach the Hall, burying a stigma that a DH isn’t a full-time, two-way player. Craig Biggio missed by an excruciating two votes, one of which could have been Gurnick’s, but he’ll likely get in next year.

“This has been a stressful 48 hours. I am so excited that I’m in the Hall of Fame,” Thomas said. “This is something that I will have to sit back in the next three or four days and figure out, because you can only dream so big, and this is as big as it gets for me.”

Said Glavine: “I stil don’t know how it feels. It still feels pretty surreal. It hasn’t sunk in yet and probably won’t for some time.”

Last year, Cooperstown was a ghost town in July. No one was elected, making the Hall of Fame a casualty of the Steroid Era. This summer, Main Street will be booming again, with three players and three managers.

Remember when Maddux and Glavine, their modest bodies dwarfed by the juicers, allowed themselves to be mocked in Nike’s “Chicks Dig The Longball” ad campaign?

Turns out they were the real gargantuans of the game.