In 1989, the man considered by many to be the greatest hitting catcher of all-time was elected into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot with 96.4 percent of the vote. On Wednesday afternoon, a man considered an even better catcher missed first-ballot election by 98 votes, appearing on only 57.8 percent of ballots. So why didn’t Mike Piazza get the same treatment from baseball writers in 2013 as Johnny Bench got in 1989? Because a few bad apples from Piazza’s time have given a bad name to the whole bunch.
Unfortunately, as Wednesday’s announcement of an empty Cooperstown induction class showed, Mike Piazza has become collateral damage of baseball’s “Naughty Nineties:” the Steroid Era. The writers have decided that since Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, and others put up monster power numbers because of their alleged reliance on performance enhancers, Piazza “must” have been a user as well. Never mind that he never tested positive for any PEDs. Never mind that he was never mentioned in the infamous Mitchell Report. Never mind that the only thing you can say was unusual was some back acne. All the writers needed to condemn Piazza (and Jeff Bagwell for that matter) was suspicion about the era he played in.
Piazza and Bagwell are victims of a system that reaches far beyond baseball. In the last couple decades, new technologies and the 24-hour news cycle have dramatically changed American society. How news is presented and how fast it travels have made “media convictions” commonplace. In a way, it began on June 17, 1994, when almost 100 million people watched O.J. Simpson run from the law. People watched and made up their minds before Simpson was given due process of the law. By no means am I defending him, but Simpson was right in his apparent suicide note when he said, “No matter what the outcome, people will look and point” (coincidentally, we can also blame O.J. for another national embarrassment: Robert Kardashian read that note and sat by him at trial, and we all know what his children are doing to society today).
Media convictions have created a “guilty until proven innocent” society where the burden of proof lies with the accused, not the accuser. Nowhere is this more prevalent than on Nancy Grace’s television program. At least half a dozen times Grace has taken it upon herself to become the sole authority in legal matters, passing her judgment before there was evidence on either side. For more than three years she railed against “tot mom” Casey Anthony, who was acquitted of murdering her daughter in 2011. Despite the acquittal, thanks to Nancy Grace’s constant wrath, Anthony was forced into hiding for her own protection. It got so bad that even random people named Casey Anthony were feeling the heat.
This year the BBWAA took it upon themselves to become the Nancy Grace of sports, convicting anyone even remotely connected to the Steroid Era, guilty or otherwise. Mike Piazza’s only crime was playing baseball in the 1990s and early 2000s; had he played in Johnny Bench’s era, or in the late Gary Carter’s, or Yogi Berra’s, he would have been welcomed with open arms and 96.4 percent or more of the vote.
Fortunately for Piazza, his appearance on 57.8 percent of ballots (just below Bagwell’s 59.6) was a far better showing than those of Clemens (37.6) and Bonds (36.2). This should mean that in the next couple years when (if?) the writers come to their senses, he will rightfully take his place next to Bench, Carter, and Berra as one of the greatest catchers to ever play the game. But the mere fact that he won’t be making a speech in upstate New York this summer means that whenever he does make it to Cooperstown, it won’t be nearly soon enough.
Baseball writers argue that the Hall of Fame becomes the Hall of Shame with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa. It is far more shameful without Mike Piazza.
P.S. For those of you interested in the event that started this era of sensationalism, Brett Morgen directed a wonderful documentary a couple years ago for the ESPN 30 for 30 series called June 17, 1994, juxtaposes the O.J. Simpson chase with other historic sports moments of the day.