Count me among the baseball Hall of Fame voters who submitted a ballot with 10 checked names, but blanks next to the boxes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
My insistence that an all-time great hitter and all-time great pitcher are unworthy of enshrinement because they cheated poses a frequently asked question: Who gives holier-than-thou sportswriters the right to judge a Hall of Fame candidate on anything but his performance?
The answer is simple: Dale Murphy.
No, Murphy didn’t personally request that I keep Bonds and Clemens off my ballot. Although I used to cover the former Braves great in Atlanta — and got along well with him, as everybody did — we haven’t talked for years. But any discussion about who belongs in the Hall of Fame, and who doesn’t, can’t ignore Dale Murphy.
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A late bloomer whose career ebbed a few years too early, Murphy was the National League’s best position player during the 1980s. He won consecutive MVP awards, finished two other seasons in the top 10, was named to seven All-Star Games and earned five Gold Gloves as a center fielder.
And then, at the age of 32, Murphy began the regression that transformed him from a superstar into just another journeyman who had trouble making contact with a baseball. He scuffled through injuries, lost a precious split-second of bat speed, and finished the 1988 season hitting .226.
In 1989, just about the same thing. He hit .228. The MVP trophies and All-Star appearances were a memory, never to be revisited.
Murphy’s prime could have been prolonged by steroids, which minimize nagging injuries while enhancing bat speed. But wonder drugs were not pervasive in 1989, and even if they were, there was a higher probability of Murphy waking up on Mars than experimenting with steroids.
Granted, that’s an assumption without verifiable evidence. I’m just thinking a guy who had avoided coffee and soft drinks because they contained caffeine was not going to inject himself with bull semen.
Murphy, who retired in 1993, never considered himself a victim of the steroids craze. But he was. By 1999, his first year of Hall-of-Fame eligibility, Murphy’s career homer total — 398 — looked modest. The world still was buzzing about Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and their epic 1998 race to break Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61.
McGwire ended up with 70, Sosa with 66. Such numbers dwarfed Murphy’s 36 homers in 1984 and 37 in 1985. He led the league both years.
Hall voters regarded Murphy’s accomplishments with a collective shrug. Players must receive the support of 5 percent of the vote to remain on the ballot, and Murphy received enough support to keep his Hall hopes alive for 15 years. But he peaked with a mere 23 percent in 2000 — 75 percent is required for induction — and was never in the mix before his eligibility expired in 2013.
What exasperates me about Murphy’s inability to impress Hall voters is how cavalierly they dismissed specific guidelines established by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
Ballots are sent out with a page explaining BBWAA rules for election.
Rule Five: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and the contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
It seems Murphy was harshly judged by his middle-of-the-road batting average — he hit .265, with a career-high of .302 — but received few points for integrity, sportsmanship, character and the contributions he made to his team.
Which brings me to Bonds and Clemens, and the notion they deserve enshrinement because their Hall-of-Fame talents were apparent long before steroids complicated everything.
Stop trying to act as judge and jury, I am told. Everybody was in on the ruse, beginning with former commissioner Bud Selig, a recent veterans’ committee selection to the Hall of Fame. Besides, there are plenty of bronze plaques in the museum depicting the faces of scoundrels and and cads. Why are there misgivings about admitting cheaters from an era when cheating was rampant?
My misgivings are based on the guidelines I am asked to follow. Again, Rule Five: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and the contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
Those players who decided to beef up their statistics with drugs knew that the drugs were illegal. They also knew that the drugs worked, and gave them an opportunity to score lucky-for-life contracts.
How does succumbing to the temptation of enjoying an artificial advantage, in the long-term ambition of making a fortune, fulfill any definition of “integrity, or sportsmanship, or character”?
Murphy exuded those qualities every time he wore a big-league baseball uniform, and he wore a baseball uniform for 18 years. Voters evaluated his performance, but disregarded Rule Five. It was all about some numbers that fell short.
Bonds and Clemens produced some of the craziest numbers in baseball history, but there’s no way I’m backing their case for inclusion in a Hall of Fame whose voters saw Dale Murphy as a fringe candidate.
Holier than thou? I’m far from holy — pretty much on the other side of the world from holy — just proud. I came to know a fantastic baseball player who was.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath