The Lombardo Trophy: Keepers unworthy of their keys

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The Baseball Writers’ Association of America began its vote for the 2013 Hall of Fame class Wednesday. This particular iteration of the ballot — which includes all-time greats like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Mark McGwire — has triggered the fiercest debate yet among the baseball media over whether known steroid users should be admitted to Cooperstown.

Given the intensity of this argument, the BBWAA’s second annual vote has flown under the radar. Each year, the association also bestows the J.G. Taylor Spink Award on one of its own, recognizing a reporter in the hall alongside the game’s best players. But somehow, despite the fact that writers played just as much of a role in the steroid era as the players, no one has raised the same level of outcry.

The award commends “meritorious contributions to baseball,” which any decent journalist would define as honorable and truthful reporting. The work done by pretty much any baseball reporter prior to Tom Verducci’s seminal 2002 Sports Illustrated feature, which published the confession of former MVP Ken Caminiti as it exposed for the first time the rampant performance enhancing drug use in clubhouses across the country, does not meet that standard and those reporters do not deserve automatic consideration for Cooperstown coronation.

In that magical summer of 1998, as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa — who both sit on this year’s ballot — bashed homers at an unprecedented rate, the media never raised the idea of steroids. But as the Mitchell Report shows, everyone associated with the game — players, officials, and reporters — was well aware of presence of PEDs.

Perhaps it is unfair to cast such wide aspersions. But doesn’t every player who has stepped onto a diamond suffer the same level of potentially unfounded suspicion? If those on the field must bear that burden, then the media — which often plays the role of accuser — should be subject to the same level of scrutiny.

When put in the context of Cooperstown, this takes on added importance. The writers act as the gatekeepers to baseball immortality. Yet somehow they are allowed to judge players for PED use, and preserve their personal integrity, despite their complicity in the steroid era.

It’s time to cut the sanctimony. It is unfair and immoral for baseball writers to pretend they hold the high ground and deny players like McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro their bronze busts while also allowing themselves unexamined access to that same glory. It is the height of hypocrisy to criticize someone for engaging in a culture you yourself enabled.

The continued refusal to recognize this threatens to compromise the baseball media’s credibility. For the general public to trust baseball writers, we need to know that they are honest with themselves about their role and responsibilities. Every accolade they bestow — especially those they award to themselves — rings hollow without some sort of acknowledgement.

This is not to say that baseball writers do not deserve recognition for their work. My stance on this issue has always been that it happened and we need to make the best of it. It’s not fair to deny someone for playing by the rules of their era, and there can be no denying that steroids were very much an accepted practice in the 1990s and 2000s; it’s like discounting pitchers’ records before the mound was lowered in 1969.

But this recognition needs to occur in an honest setting. Reporters need to be able to truthfully state that they uphold the highest standards of their craft before they can pass judgment on the baseball players and officials they cover. Until they do, players will continue to unfairly serve as scapegoats for the sins of the entire baseball community.

Contact Jordan Bach-Lombardo at [email protected]