Class of 2017 can open Hall to excluded stars

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — When Jeff Bagwell, Ivan Rodriguez and Tim Raines take to the podium for their Baseball Hall of Fame induction speeches on Sunday, in many respects there will be nothing remarkable about their time on the stage. Oh, it’s a remarkable thing to be receiving baseball’s highest honor. And because they are unique individuals with different lives and careers, the stories they tell can only be their own. But it will be a familiar scene, and that’s a good thing, because the annual renewal of this ceremony reminds us how this thing we all love is as embedded into our past as it is in the present.

Yet there are many, myself among them, who would point out that the Hall is not quite all it should be at this moment in time. This has nothing to do with those already enshrined but everything to do with those who are missing, a list that includes some of the most accomplished players ever to play. You probably know who I’m referring to, but I’ll list two of them for clarity: Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. There are others who deserve to be in Cooperstown and have been kept out for similar reasons, but until Bonds and Clemens get in, none of the others have any real hope.

That’s why this year’s Hall class is more than just another group of great players with wonderful, unique backstories and legions of fans swamping Cooperstown. More than any before it, this group represents the gradual shifting of attitudes and the relinquishing of old grudges. Little by little, the Hall electorate is letting go of the moral indignation and embracing the certainties of accomplishment. If the Hall has been injured, this year’s class suggests that it’s getting better.

Raines’ long road to election is a separate issue, and I wrote about that wondrous development already. It’s different for Bagwell and Rodriguez, who have long been lumped in with the perceived sins of an era.

It took seven years for Bagwell to get in. He got just 41.7 percent on his first ballot, hovered in the 50s for five years, then jumped to 86.2 percent in January, easily enough to clear the 75 percent bar for enshrinement. Early on, there were voters who shunned him because of PED suspicions, which is all they were. Bagwell has always denied using PEDs — outside of acknowledging his use of androstenedione in 1998, when it was allowed by MLB — never tested positive for PEDs, was never suspended for them nor was named in an investigation. But he developed power late, became muscle-bound and was friends with Ken Caminiti, who was open about his steroid use. Bagwell was kept out by the idea that it was better to omit those who might be guilty than vote in someone whose guilt was discovered after it was too late.

That seems pretty crazy, but the good thing about the collective version of crazy is that it has a way of running its course before petering out. There was nothing borderline about Bagwell’s case. He ranks sixth all time in JAWS at first base. While there is plenty of debate to be had about the dividing lines between in and out by advanced metrics, sixth all time is nowhere near any sort of line. Year by year, innuendo gave way to fact, and Bagwell is taking his rightful place in Cooperstown.

In his just-released book, “They Call me Pudge,” Rodriguez says that he never partook in PED use. Like Bagwell, there is no hard evidence that he did. Jose Canseco, whom some might consider an unreliable narrator, said Rodriguez used. And Rodriguez lost weight before joining the Tigers in 2005. That’s it. And Rodriguez was elected in his first try, further evidence of the weakening of the PED-suspicion barrier. Still, his vote total wasn’t as high as it might have been. Rodriguez cleared the minimum by four votes, even though he ranks third all time in JAWS among catchers. Johnny Bench, whom Pudge joins as the only catchers to be elected on the first ballot, received 96.4 percent when he became eligible. But it took No. 2 Gary Carter six tries to get in, so maybe Pudge’s percentage was hurt because we’re still just not that great at evaluating catchers.

Now that we’ve cleared the suspected-but-not-proven barrier, after this weekend’s celebration it will be time to look at the Hall with a fresh eye — and ask big questions. Where is Bonds, whose games we tracked for four straight years to make sure we never missed an at-bat? Where is Clemens, who was dominating for decades? Where is Sammy Sosa, who thrilled the fans in the right-field bleachers at Wrigley every time he ran onto the field? Where is Mark McGwire, who helped restore some buzz to the game after the 1994 labor conflict?

At its essence, the practice of sports analysis is to place the objective into an appropriate context and extrapolate lessons to apply to the future. When it comes to the Hall, you try to compare players to those they played against, see how they did and how long they did it, and stack it up against some criteria for induction. It’s an uncertain practice made harder when you start evaluating what’s speculative. It’s best to stick to evaluating the performance on the field of those who are eligible for enshrinement.

Increasingly, it looks like the changing Hall electorate is starting to see things this way. Bonds’ vote percentage has gone from 36.2 percent to 53.8 over his five years of eligibility. Clemens has seen an almost identical leap during his five years, going from 37.6 percent to 54.1. In both cases, there is no reevaluation of performance to be made. Both are on the short list of greatest players of all time. Sticking with JAWS, Bonds is the all-time leader at left field, while Clemens ranks third among starting pitchers.

The bottom line is that all of these players remain eligible for election. The records and statistics established by Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Sosa and others all remain on the books. The things they achieved are concrete, established facts. Everything else is speculation, including the effect PEDs might or might not have had.

We’re laying a heavy burden on future versions of the veterans committee, which will have to address the underrepresentation of players from the 1990s and early 2000s in Cooperstown. That’s not just because of PED-associated players, but because others, such as Kenny Lofton and Jorge Posada, quickly dropped off the ballot because of the logjam created by the voters’ schism over PEDs. Those players did not receive a fair shake, and we’ll eventually have to remedy that.

As time passes, more essays will pile up on the cases of the omitted, and the PED factor will fade further into footnote status. PEDs themselves might well become an accepted part of the game as future versions provide only benefits and little to no risk. It’s likely that years down the line, we’ll welcome those we have shunned. And we’ll have to consider those marginalized — we suspect — because they chose not to use. The voting membership itself will continue to evolve. But baseball’s Hall of Fame — a museum, as well as a hall of fame — will again serve its core function, which is to honor and commemorate the best performers in baseball history. All of baseball history.

It’s hard to say how long this will take, but between last year’s election of Mike Piazza and this year’s honorees, the process is underway. There will be no better evidence that we’re returning our focus to where it belongs — on the field — than the speeches given Sunday by Jeff Bagwell and Ivan Rodriguez. In the years to come, let’s hope the healing will continue.

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