Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Deck the Hall

  Two weeks ago the Baseball Writers Hall of America released the results of the 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame selections and for only the second time in 40 years not a single player received the 75 percent of the votes required for entry to the Hall. It wasn’t as if this year’s ballot included a bunch of nobodies, it was full of baseball legends. There was Barry Bonds, seven time MVP as well as the single season and all-time home run leader; Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Rafael Palmeiro who are eighth, tenth, and twelfth respectively on the all-time home run list; Roger Clemens, number 9 on the all-time wins list and third on the all-time strikeout list; Craig Biggio, whose 3,060 hits place him 21st all time; and Mike Piazza, regarded by many as the best hitting catcher ever.

  It’s no mystery why no one was selected to the baseball Hall of Fame. This was the first year on the ballot of the most successful suspected cheaters in baseball history (Bonds, Sosa, and Clemens). Bonds was never proven guilty of steroid use, but he acknowledged using the cream and the clear version of steroids with plausible deniability by saying that his trainer thought it was flaxseed oil. Sosa tested positive for performance enhancing drugs in a leaked MLB test in 2003. Palmeiro tested positive for steroids less than 6 months after wagging his finger at Congress telling them “I have never used steroids. Period.” in sworn testimony. McGwire admitted using steroids after years of denial in order to avoid the questions dogging him after he decided to become the Cardinal’s hitting coach.

  That leaves Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, and Piazza. Clemens was accused of using steroids by Brian McNamee, his personal trainer and the same man who shot Clemens' wife up with HGH (which Clemens’ wife admitted to taking but said it wasn’t in the presence of her husband). Former teammate Andy Petitte said under oath that Clemens told him he took HGH. The government took Clemens to trial for lying to Congress about never taking performance enhancing drugs, but the case fell apart when Petitte backed off his testimony and McNamee revealed the needles he saved from injecting Clemens were stored in an old beer can and Clemens was acquitted.

  There are allegations of Piazza’s steroid use. But where the statistics of Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Sosa, and Palmeiro have them being much better in their mid to late 30’s than at any other point in their careers, Piazza was a beast of a player in his 20’s (hitting .320 + with 30+ homeruns), and as he moved into his 30’s managed to maintain his power numbers at the expense of his batting average, got hurt at the age of 34 and was a journeyman until his retirement at 38. Biggio had a longer career arc, but he never hit over .300 after the age of 32, although he did have a suspicious increase in his power numbers at age 38 and 39.

  Most of the sportswriters that I follow say that while Piazza and Biggio are worthy Hall of Famers, the reason they couldn’t be voted into the Hall is because of the cloud the steroid issue has put on baseball statistics. Statistics that would have been Hall worthy in the 70’s or 80’s look plain after the steroids era. Some even say that because the players union stonewalled drug testing efforts at every turn, even the ‘clean’ players benefitted from users in the form of greater salaries and therefore no player from the steroid era belongs in the Hall.

  I don’t like the idea of Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, McGwire and the rest of the steroid cheaters getting in the Hall of Fame but it won’t be the end of baseball if they do and someday they probably will gain entrance. Gaylord Perry won 314 games and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991 in his fourth year of eligibility. Gaylord Perry was long suspected of throwing spitballs (a baseball loaded up with lubricant like Vaseline or K-Y Jelly that makes it curve in unpredictable ways). Perry was ejected from a game for cheating and after his career ended made a successful living on the banquet circuit bragging about his prowess at cheating and not getting caught. My point is that since some cheating has always been accepted in baseball keeping the current steroid cheaters out of the Hall of Fame is just a matter of being on the wrong side of a line that will likely shift as the years go by.

  Lance Armstrong recently admitted he cheated to win his seven Tour De France cycling championship, but that only had any impact because of his LiveStrong charity and his celebrity status as an American dominating a foreign sport. I don’t know many people who can name any of the other Tour riders. The steroid cheaters were a much bigger deal because baseball is a much bigger deal than cycling even if Lance Armstrong is arguably a bigger celebrity than any of the individual cheaters.

  I can even see a future where the steroid users will be celebrated as pioneers instead of their current pariah status. A compelling argument can be made that taking substances to enhance performance is perfectly acceptable in all other fields except sports. It’s OK to give children and adults drugs because they have attention deficit disorder. If a co-worker of mine that takes Adderall for their attention deficit disorder gets a promotion and I don’t, is that fair? Why should my children have to compete for college scholarships against other kids that have to take Prozac to function normally? Aren’t they taking performance enhancing drugs? I’m not saying people shouldn’t be allowed medicine in order to perform their best; I’m just saying that not allowing a professional athlete to use drugs to perform at their best could be seen as hypocritical Stone Age thinking at some point in the future. I don’t think I’ll ever come around to that point of view, but I’m something of a dinosaur anyway.

  I think the real damage done by the baseball cheaters and Armstrong is that any exceptional performance now comes with a suspicion of cheating. Derek Jeter is climbing the all-time hits leader charts. At the age of 38 Jeter had his best season in four years and the whispers of steroid use popped up. As big a Yankee fan as I am, I can’t say that in 10 years Jeter won’t be on the Oprah Winfrey Show talking about his steroid use. In 2009, Jose Bautista was a journeyman 28 year old outfielder who had never hit more than 16 home runs in a season. When Bautista hit 54 home runs in 2010 and 43 in 2011, it was immediately assumed that he had found a way to take performance enhancing drugs undetected.

  This immediate conclusion of cheating even cropped up in the chess world recently. Earlier in the month in Croatia, Borislav Ivanov had an exceptional performance in the Zadar Open. Ivanov finished third with a performance rating of 2697 that was over 400 points higher than his 2227 rating. In the first seven rounds of the nine round tournament he played 6 grandmasters, winning three; losing one; and drawing two. Ivanov was accused of cheating and searched for electronic equipment. Nothing was found, but the tournament organizers suspected Ivanov was receiving signals via skin implants and stopped the live broadcasting of the games before Round 8. When Ivanov lost his next game, this was generally accepted as proof of his cheating, but there was no explanation as to how he won his last round game against yet another grandmaster.

  Chessbase provided a link to a video by FIDE Master Valeri Lilov where he runs through all Ivanov’s games against the strongest computer engine (Houdini 3). Lilov shows how almost every one of Ivanov’s moves as the number one choice of the computer engine and makes a convincing argument that Ivanov was cheating except that when Ivanov’s moves don’t agree with the computer Lilov brushes it aside as a mistake in communication or a computer accident. It seemed to me that Lilov had made up his mind and was using his analysis to validate his conclusion.

  I don’t know if Ivanov was getting secret signals and I know that cheating in chess crops up from time to time, but it would be nice if an exceptional performance could be celebrated first and suspected second. The top ranked chess player in the world, Magnus Carlsen from Norway recently shattered Garry Kasparov’s record high rating (2851) in the recent for the highest rating at the London Chess Classic earlier this month. Carlsen has obliterated the competition at the Tata Steel Chess tournament in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands with a score of 5 wins and 4 draws. Carlsens’s rating is now 2869 which is almost 60 points higher than his closest competitor. If this string of sterling performances continue, how long will it be before Carlsen is accused of cheating?

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