The Hall of Fame Debate From a Minor League Perspective

Dec 9, 2013; Orlando, FL, USA; Newly-inducted Baseball Hall of Fame managers Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox (l-r) pose for a photo during the MLB Winter Meetings at Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin. Mandatory Credit: David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Covering the minor leagues, we generally stay out of things like debates over Hall of Fame ballots but I thought I’d get some thoughts out there that may or may not make sense when I put them all together but here it goes anyways.

First of all, it probably won’t surprise anyone to hear that most minor leaguers aren’t concerning themselves with what their legacy and HOF chances are going to be. I had a chance to interview Tim Raines in Bluefield, West Virginia in July along with a local reporter, Brian Woodson. Raines was down there working with some Rookie level Blue Jays prospects (Raines is a base running and outfield coach for Toronto) and Brian asked if it was tough to wait to find out if he got into the Hall of Fame every year. Raines’s response was, I think, typical of most players up until they get to the end of their career. Tim Raines never thought that his career would be “a Hall of Fame career” and when it came to “getting in or even being thought of as a hall of fame player, it’s something I never really dreamed about or even when I played I never really thought about it.”

Having interviewed and spoken to many minor league players at all levels (from Triple-A down to Rookie-ball), the pressure is always to make the majors, no matter how good or “prospecty” a player might be. Marcus Stroman has the same hunger to get to the majors as Adam Loewen has to get back (both played for the Blue Jays Double-A affiliate in New Hampshire in 2013).

It’s so hard to get to the big leagues and even harder to stay there once you’ve made it that players can’t concern themselves with Hall of Fame thoughts until a player is at least 10 years into his big league career. I think that players in the minor leagues quickly learn how cut-throat the business side of the game is and they can’t afford to let their guard down. Players that do tend to get caught up too much in their own hype and flame out quickly (yes, that’s a pretty big generalization but I think it holds up).

This brings us to the other side of the equation: PEDs. Yes, there are minor leaguers who have used PEDs. Today, we see more suspensions handed down for players using amphetamines (stimulants) than we do for steroids but the same issues remain alive. The competition is so fierce that there will always be players who are willing to take illegal measures in order to get an edge. Whether it’s steroids or HGH or Adderall, if a player thinks that he can get closer to that big league dream (and money) with a little chemical help, there are certainly those players who have no moral issues in doing so.

The differences between a major and minor league salary and job security are so vast that, in many cases, the rewards outweigh the risks. With the debate on whether or not players connected with PEDs should be voted into the Hall of Fame, no one ever asks whether those players should forfeit their opportunities to earn a living (e.g., Ryan Braun, Jhonny Peralta, Nelson Cruz, Melky Cabrera). No one asks whether minor league players who serve suspension for PEDs should be allowed to return and continue their quest to make the big leagues.

In my opinion, there is a double standard for excellence being perpetuated by some writers with Hall of Fame votes. The fact that a player has never been banned from baseball for performance enhancing drugs is a huge indictment of this double standard. While there is a much higher standard that is assumed for membership in the Baseball Hall of Fame, it’s important to note that the gatekeepers of the Hall of Fame are different than the gatekeepers for Major League Baseball.

It would appear that some of the writers who vote for the HOF want to keep their vision of ultimate performance in the game cleaner than Major League Baseball has done. Whether this perspective is an incrimination of the way in which MLB dealt with the steroid era or simply a desire to use what power they have to rewrite the history of the game, this attitude creates a divide between the institution that runs the game and the institution that has been entrusted with the game’s history.

As an academic with some interest in historiography (the study of the methodology or development of history), I find this to be a fascinating time that is allowing a group of writers (that only needs to make up about 26% of Hall of Fame voters) to control the way baseball’s history is being written.

Minor leaguers, therefore, are receiving contradictory information. On the one hand, they see the competition around them, the poor wages that they make in the minors and the golden carrot of a big league salary (and perks) and want to make use of any available method in order to get to the top of their sport. They see relatively soft punishments (50-game suspensions) and the rewarding of past offenders in the big leagues with multi-million-dollar contracts at the same time that MLB (and MiLB which has different policies towards drug use, a topic for another day, perhaps) is telling them not to use these drugs. Finally, they watch as some of the game’s greatest players will go at least another year without gaining entry to the Hall of Fame because of their connection to performance enhancers.

It’s confusing and while 99% of minor leaguers aren’t thinking about the Hall of Fame, they’re definitely taking note of the messages that baseball and the writers are sending them.