Someone has to straighten out the Cooperstown mess

Baseball now has five bright and shiny new saints to canonize when the tribe assembles for its annual rites of sanctification in the pastoral paradise of Cooperstown the last weekend in July. Beer will surely flow. Tears will be abundantly shed. Hyperbole will be at high tide. None of which will lessen the controversy engulfing the entire concept and increasingly bordering on deluge.

It’s all a contradiction, of course. But then the process has always been wacky, quite by definition. What manner of impertinence does it take for mere mortals to designate others as “immortal” or to suggest those who don’t make the cut simply lacked enough base hits or were burdened by an earned run average a tad too high? What manner of virtue can any of that truly measure?

So it has been vital to the precious myth that we accept – no matter how dubious – the Hall of Fame’s governing premise: That those who make it must not be just the glory of their times but also exemplars of a higher ideal than the mere winning of ball games. It says so right in the charter: Character not only counts; it’s critical.

Then how did Ty Cobb qualify? Or Cap Anson? King Kelly? Mickey Mantle? Or, for that matter, Kenesaw Mountain Landis? If you want to get really nutty about this nonsense and set aside all the sentimental hogwash, you could easily mount a serious challenge to the moral authenticity of Babe Ruth.

All of which would, of course, be silly. But then the idea of the thing has always been a touch preposterous right from the bloody beginning.  All of which over the many years bothered the baseball public not a whit.

If it was hypocritical to abide the contradictions that inevitably reared with a wink and a nod, it was a luxury that could easily be afforded in an age when rampant carousing and rowdy mischief were easily tolerated by a culture amused by the spectacle of “boys being boys.”

Of course, there were also far more serious issues, like racism. But in a society that not only tolerated such crimes but also ignored them, how could baseball be held to a higher law?  Say this both for the game, and for us: It took a while, but we’ve at least moved beyond that level of ignorance.

It’s interesting, but all such issues have always tended to be bigger in Baseball than in other games. It seems to me this fact testifies to Baseball’s huge institutional importance in the culture, which persists even if the game can no longer regard itself as the undisputed “national pastime.” More is still expected of Baseball. More is demanded. While this expectation adds to its stature, it’s a mixed blessing because the burden of the distinction is huge.  

 So it is with the biggest and hottest moral issue of this era: the entire convoluted hornet’s nest of benumbing complexities that performance enhancing drugs with related chemical hijinks and quasi-medical trickery have brought to the competitive sporting scene. There is enormous confusion about what distinguishes perfectly admissible development, healing, and training treatments from brazen cheating.

Every game is faced with this challenge, but none has been forced to deal with it so openly, incurring as much lousy publicity with more awkward consequences. Do you hear any discussion about who chewed on too many steroids when Pro Football’s Hall of Fame election takes place? I think not, although I remain convinced that football’s PED problem is much graver than baseball’s, and always has been. On the other hand, how many much care about football’s pantheon, about who’s in or not in?

The PED dilemma has made a mess of Baseball’s Hall of Fame process. This year’s election, just conducted by the baseball writers, was an outright fiasco, with half the writers voting via one set of criteria and the other half by another, diametrically opposed set.

Ridiculous! The result? Two new “immortals” strongly suspected of significant PED abuse, and the third an admitted recreational-drug offender. On top of other recent elections that elevated other alleged suspects, thereby chipping away the barriers seemingly in place, this year’s election essentially ends any effort to police this issue. They might as well declare everyone eligible, even the McGwires, Sosas, A-Rods, and Mannys of this sordid scene.

Someone in power has to step forward and declare who is eligible. Someone in power has to define the new criteria. What else is a commissioner good for if he’s not equal to that?

Instead, the Lords of Cooperstown, in an inside-job arrogant enough to make the most stalwart cringe, are gleefully allowed to arrange for their boy, the former commissioner who presided so grandly over the entire PED Era while doing nothing to prevent it and precious little to stop it, to receive their ultimate honor: canonization.

Way to go, Bud!