Bob Ryan

Finding a colorful solution

Rafael Palmeiro’s 2005 testimony before Congress hasn’t aided his Hall chances. Rafael Palmeiro’s 2005 testimony before Congress hasn’t aided his Hall chances. (File/Associated Press)
By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / July 24, 2011

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I’m on the verge of giving up.

This drug business with regard to baseball players and how it may affect someone’s chances of getting into the Hall of Fame is the single most aggravating issue of my sportswriting career. It is an unwelcome intrusion on what is already a difficult process. It was hard enough when all we voters had to deal with was a combination of what we saw, what we read, who said what about whom, and a long, hard look at the numbers, knowing that there are numbers and there are numbers, or, as Mark Twain famously quoted the great 19th century English politician Benjamin Disraeli as saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’’

And now we have at our disposal more numbers than ever. We are no longer limited to such mundane stats as batting average, runs batted in, homers, slugging percentage, and earned run average. Now we have such statistical exotica as WHIP, BABIP, EqSO/9, EqBB/9, and, of course, VORP and WAR. I’m amused by the very thought of my old pal Clif Keane dealing with VORP or WAR, although I must say we had a wonderful Old School columnist named Harold Kaese who may very well have embraced all the modern numerology, and so what if he lived into his 60s without ever learning to drive a car? Isn’t that why God invented the T?

But we digress.

Writers take voting for the Hall of Fame very seriously. Most of us consider it to be an honor and a privilege, some people, in my view, actually taking it too seriously. I’m thinking of those who refuse to vote anyone into the Hall on the first ballot. They apparently believe they are protecting the integrity of the game in some intensely personal fashion, which is nice in spirit but utterly ridiculous in application.

Thanks to their stubbornness and, I feel, illogic, no one has ever been a unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame. Not Babe Ruth. Not Ty Cobb. Not Ted Williams. Not Stan Musial. Not Willie Mays. Not Hank Aaron. Not Lefty Grove. Not Warren Spahn. Not Brooks Robinson.

No one.

A few have come close. The highest first-ballot percentage ever, people are often surprised to learn, was the 98.8 percent tally accumulated by Tom Seaver in 1992. He received 425 out of 430 ballots submitted, but the total was actually a wee bit better because that was the year three members of the voting body submitted blank ballots in protest of Pete Rose’s exclusion from the ballot. So, Seaver actually had 425 of 427, or a percentage of 99.5. Still, wouldn’t you like to know what was going on in the minds of those two holdout guys?

As far as I’m concerned, there should be anywhere between 50 and 75 unanimous selections. Rod Carew not a first-ballot Hall of Famer? You’re joking, right?

There are, however, plenty of borderline cases, guys who have been responsible for a lot of sincere, honest debate. These guys provide more than enough discussion and evaluation.

Now, of course, we have a new reason for debate, and this time the topic is more emotional. We are confronted with admitted or suspected users of performance-enhancing drugs, some of which were not even illegal in the sport at the time when these people are accused, or suspected, of using them. You know the big names: McGwire, Palmeiro, Sosa, and, soon, Bonds, Clemens, and a guy named Manny.

The voters have made their feelings clear on Mark McGwire, basher of 583 career home runs and the first man to hit 70 in a season. In five years on the ballot his high percentage is 23.7, and last year he dropped to a low of 19.8 percent, and this was after he partially ’fessed up to PED usage.

Similarly, finger-wagging Rafael Palmeiro, a 3,000-hit, 500-homer guy, received a paltry 11 percent of the vote last year.

Have I voted for either? That would be a No.

OK, now I have a proposal that would enable me, and everyone else, to vote on performance and not on morality. I concocted this as a whimsical approach to the subject, but now I firmly believe it is a viable solution to the problem. I say we vote everyone in on the numbers and performance, period, but in doing so we reconfigure the Hall of Fame to have . . . color-coded plaques.

Hear me out. I am proposing that those voted into the Hall of Fame be divided into three categories, as follows:

1. Red plaques The precede would go something like this:

There was a period of time, from roughly 1990 through the early 21st century, when performance-enhancing drugs invaded baseball. The following players are either admitted users, accused users, or, in the face of overwhelming circumstantial evidence, so strongly suspected of being users that their denial is implausible. But they were undeniably great players, with or without, or before and after, their use of PEDs.

2. Pink plaques Precede: There was a period of time, from roughly 1990 through the early 21st century, when performance-enhancing drugs invaded baseball. The following players may have dabbled briefly with PEDs, but the evidence falls short of inclusion on the red plaques.

3. Blue plaques Precede: The following were great players who did not come under any suspicion during a period of time from roughly 1990 to the early 21st century when performance-enhancing drugs invaded baseball.

My friend Greg Lee suggests that the Hall then hire Martha Stewart to come in and redecorate the Hall, which currently enshrines members in chronological order of election. We can keep the chronology, but now we need color-coded plaques.

Juiced-up pitchers threw to juiced-up batters. We know that. Certain players had an odd Before and After aspect to their careers. We know that. It is too much of a hair-hurting exercise to make an attempt at deciding which homers and which strikeouts were legit. I’m sure McGwire knows how many of his homers would have been warning-track flies had he not been juiced, but he ain’t sayin’. We’ll never know.

So we might as well put ’em all in.

The problem, is, I can’t enact this all by myself. And, believe me, if you’ve got a better idea, let me hear it.

Until then . . . color-coded plaques.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on He can be reached at

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