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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

BBWAA Drinks Michele Bachmann's Bathwater (or, Cooperstown, Arizona)

As Ken Burns' Tenth Inning documentary so subtly points out, if we weren't so inclined to call the last two decades of baseball history "The Steroid Era," they would most certainly be defined by the influx of immigrant ballplayers - from Europe, from Asia, and especially from Latin America.  If you demarcate the Steroid Era from the introduction of the "Bash Brothers" (1987) to the retirement of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds (2007), you see a heretofore unparalleled degree of Hispanic talent.  The Nineties and Naughties were for Latino players and fans what the '50s and '60s had been for African-Americans.

When the "Puerto Rican Jackie Robinson," Roberto Clemente, died bringing supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims in the winter of 1973, the BBWAA rightly held a special election, the first and still the only of its kind.  They enshrined Clemente without the usual five-year waiting period.  However, since that time the BBWAA's recognition of Hispanic players has been relatively sparing.  When Roberto Alomar takes the stage in Cooperstown this summer, he will be only the fifth Latino voted in by the BBWAA.  That's right, in nearly forty years the BBWAA has found only five Hispanics worthy of induction: Juan Marichal ('83), Luis Aparicio ('84), Rod Carew ('91), Tony Perez ('00), and Alomar ('11).  A handful of other deserving Hispanic stars, most notably Orlando Cepeda, had to find their way into the Hall through the back door (a.k.a. The Veterans Committee), which only further highlights the BBWAA's distressingly prejudicial track record.

But that's about to change, right?  Alomar is but the first of the floodtide of Puerto Rican, Domincan, Venezuelan, and Cuban megastars who came to dominate the game during the Clinton-Bush decades and will eventually wash up on the Elysium shores of Cooperstown.  Their entrance into the Hall cannot be denied, right?

Not so fast.

You see, one of the dirty little secrets about the tacit ban of PED-abusers being enforced by the BBWAA voters is that it cuts broadly swatches in the Latin-American baseball legacy.  I'm not saying that's it's overt aim, but it is what's happening.  And, when it comes to prejudicial treatment, rationales generally don't carry much water.  Yes, Bonds and Clemens grab more headlines and have been the subject of more legal prosecution (or persecution, depending on how you look at it), but their notoriety, coupled with that of Mark McGwire, may mislead us into seeing this as a black and white issue (pardon the horrible pun).

It always feels a little dirty breaking things down along racial lines, but I think it's necessary to see what I'm taking about.  In the wake of Jeff Bagwell's poor showing, it seems clear the BBWAA intends to stigmatize not only convicted and/or admitted abusers, but also those who have been indicted by widespread rumor.  Here's a rough list of Hall of Fame candidates (let me emphasize, some of these guys would be borderline cases, even without the PED issue) who have been branded with the Scarlet S:


Barry Bonds*
Gary Sheffield*


Roger Clemens*
Mark McGwire*
Jeff Bagwell
Jason Giambi
Andy Pettitte
Kevin Brown


Alex Rodriguez*
Sammy Sosa*
Manny Ramirez*
Rafael Palmeiro*
Ivan Rodriguez*
David Ortiz
Juan Gonzalez
Jose Canseco
Miguel Tejada
Luis Gonzalez

*Denotes lock for enshrinement if it weren't for PED allegations.

No doubt there will be additions to this list in the intervening years.  Every voter who sees himself as a "moral policeman" has probably already passed judgement on a few players who the general public may not even suspect.  What I want to draw your attention to is the "stars."

Were it not for the stigma of PEDs, we would, over the next decade, be seeing the Hispanic "wing" of the Hall of Fame adding as many members as it did in the entirety of the previous century.  In fact, with guys like Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, Omar Vizquel, and Mariano Rivera also gaining eligibility sometime in the relatively near future (none, so far as I know, has yet been linked to PEDs), we could've seen the total Latino contingent as much as tripling in size during the early part of the 21st century.

No place was more associated with the revolution of Latino baseball than the Dominican Republic.  Most now regard the island as the greatest concentration of baseball talent in the world.  As yet, however, there is only one Dominican Hall of Famer, Juan Marichal.  No Dominican position players have been inducted.  Sammy Sosa, who self-consciously took the mantle of "Dominican Clemente," was supposed to change that.  In terms of power-hitting, his five season stretch from '98 to '02 is unparalleled in history.  He leads all Dominican-born players in homers.  But, unless something changes, he won't be in the Hall of Fame.

Nor will Manny Ramirez, possibly the greatest hitter of the Dominican Immigration Era (I'd argue Albert Pujols, but Manny did get a seven-year headstart, making him more of a groundbreaker).  By the end of this season, Manny will lead all Dominican players in hits, runs, doubles, walks, and RBI.  Yet we may have to wait until five years after Pujols retires (2025? 2030?) to see the induction of a Dominican hitter.    

Pudge Rodriguez will likely be the first catcher to 3000 hits.  He was the best of a generation of Latino backstops who revolutionized the position, including Benito Santiago (Puerto Rico), Tony Pena (Dominican Republic), Sandy Alomar Jr. (P.R.), and the Molina brothers (P.R.).  Prior to late '80s, it was totally normal to give Gold Gloves to fat white catchers who didn't throw anybody out.  Then stuff like this started happening routinely.  It's not exaggeration to say Puerto Rican catchers changed the game; however, the BBWAA probably won't find room for a Puerto Rican catcher in Cooperstown.

Rafael Palmeiro was born in Havana, Cuba in 1964.  It wasn't the most important thing that happened in Cuba that year.  But he became, far and away, the most successful Cuban hitter in Major League Baseball history, only the fourth player (of any nationality) to get 3000 hits and 500 homers.  But there's no room for this defector in Cooperstown.

Over the next decade Alex Rodriguez will take aim at several major records.  When he retires, he will be included in the "greatest ever" discussion, alongside Ruth, Bonds, and Mays.  He'll be the first player of Hispanic descent to enter into that conversation.  But, unless something changes, he won't be in the Hall of Fame.

For a long time now, baseball has been a global game.  Hell, MLB has been actively touting itself as such for at least a decade.  Yet, for some odd reason, from 2001 to 2010, during a decade defined by globalization, the BBWAA voted in eight white guys and eight black guys, all born in the United States. That ratio has got to change, but a contingent of patronizing writers within the BBWAA have found a way to assure that it won't, at least not as drastically as it should.

In 21st-Century America, we are sensitive to accusations of racism, which is, perhaps, a good place to start.  But it doesn't mean we aren't racist.  When we want to drum up racist or nativist sentiments, we rail against illegal immigrants, welfare mothers, the uneducated and unemployed, drug abusers, and terrorists.  It isn't our fault that most of the people who make up these criticized constituencies happen to be minorities.  If they happen to observe that their minority status may be the precursor to lack of opportunity, education, etc. which is the stated grounds for their persecution, we call it "perceived racism."  There is no such thing.

The BBWAA has to ask themselves, when history looks back at their moral crusade, what will the Scarlet S really stand for.

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