Why Jim Thome Might Not Make the Hall of Fame

He’s too big and too good to escape suspicion in the Steroid Era. But is that fair?

If you’re a fan of the Phillies—or really, of any other baseball team—you probably love Jim Thome.

In this era of widespread cynicism about sports, there aren’t a lot of things that just about everyone feels good about, but Thome is one of them. In a 22-year career, the slugger hit 612 home runs, which is seventh all-time. His career on-base percentage is .402 and his career slugging percentage is .554.

The slugger has a special place in Phillies fans hearts, as in 2003, he was the first major free agent to sign with the team in the Citizens Bank Park era. He even briefly returned to the Phillies last year, in a league with no DH, even though he was 41 and could barely play in the field.

But it’s not just the numbers. Thanks to his gregarious personality, Thome is the rare athlete who played in several cities and was beloved everywhere he went. I saw the Twins and Phillies play each other in Philadelphia when Thome was with the Twins, and the same two teams in Minnesota two years later when Thome was a Phillie, and the opposing crowd cheered Thome both times, even when he hit home runs for the road team. Thome was similarly loved in his long stints in Cleveland and Chicago, as well as shorter runs in Los Angeles and Baltimore.

And through all of that, Thome is the rare star slugger who has never been tied in any way to steroids or any other performance-enhancing drugs. He has always said that he didn’t use PEDs, and I have no reason not to believe him. So with those stats, and that reputation, shouldn’t Thome be a shoo-in for first-ballot Baseball Hall of Fame induction, as soon as he’s eligible?

Maybe not.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), which votes for the Hall of Fame, last week elected… no one to the 2013 class. The veterans’ committee earlier voted in three men who are long dead, so the only living person going into the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer is Paul Hagen, the longtime Daily News reporter who is this year’s inductee to the writers’ wing as J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner. At least Hagen’s friends and family members probably won’t have much trouble securing hotel rooms in Cooperstown for induction weekend.

The ballot famously included publicly named users like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, as well as other stars from the period, like Norristown native Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, who put up numbers consistent with Hall of Fame enshrinement. But none reached the 75 percent threshold for induction. In fact, many BBWAA members made a show of handing in blank ballots, as if to punish baseball itself for the actions of the known drug cheats.

We can argue over whether known users  deserve election to the Hall. I tend to believe Bonds and Clemens were so dominant that they deserve inclusion and the others don’t, but that’s just my opinion.

But another deserving group, led by Piazza, Bagwell, and Biggio, were all denied entry into the Hall of Fame, even all though all three more than meet the established statistical thresholds for induction. None of the three has ever failed a drug test, been named in any government or official Major League Baseball investigation, or admitted steroid use. For all three, their crime was that they were large individuals, they hit a lot of home runs, and they played during an era in which many players used steroids.

And that’s what’s so unfair to someone like Jim Thome. He’s never been known or even thought to have used PEDs. But mere suspicion—for players who happened to play at the same time that others were using steroids—has been established as enough proof to keep someone out of the Hall.

Throughout this entire process, the baseball writers have practically outdone each other with an air of smug grandstanding. They’ve appointed themselves not merely electors to the Hall, but policemen, drug enforcement agents, moral guardians of baseball history, and karmic arbiters of the universe. And many of the same writers who, in their capacity as journalists, failed to notice the growth of steroid abuse have then turned around and denounced it as the worst thing that’s ever happened.

Jim Thome is a big man who hit a ton of home runs and played during the same era as all the known steroid guys. By the BBWAA’s deeply silly logic, Thome must be kept out of the Hall of Fame. After all, there’s no more hard evidence that Mike Piazza used performance-enhancing drugs than there is that Jim Thome did.

Thome hasn’t announced his retirement, but hasn’t signed with a team yet for 2013. If his career is over, he’ll be eligible for the Cooperstown ballot in 2018. Hopefully by then, we’ll have either seen a change in how the Hall of Fame is chosen, or an adjustment in attitude that doesn’t involve punishing players with no evidence of wrongdoing.

Because—and nothing against Paul Hagen, who is a fine journalist—it would be nice  for Phillies fans to be able to schedule a Cooperstown trip, to see the enshrinement of someone who’s not a beat writer.

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