By Ken Davidoff
January 8, 2014 | 7:45pm
Mike Piazza cut through some thicket Wednesday, and that’s no small matter, not when you look at how many other holdover candidates lost ground as first-timers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas earned their Hall of Fame inductions.
Nevertheless, the Mets legend’s path to immortality remains tricky after two years of eligibility, and I found myself more pessimistic for him after listening to Thomas discuss the forever nuclear issue of illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
“They’ve got a strong stance against anyone doing steroids,” Thomas said of his fellow Hall of Famers, during a telephone news conference. “They do not want them in. For those guys, this Hall of Fame means a lot to them. … To be honest, I’ve got to take the right stance, too. There shouldn’t be cheaters allowed to get into the Hall of Fame.”
Piazza joined Long Island and Seton Hall product Craig Biggio as the only two returning candidates (of 17) to gain ground in the quest for 75 percent of the vote, as Piazza climbed from 57.8 percent to 62.2 percent and Biggio jumped from 68.2 percent to an agonizingly close 74.8 percent.
“On behalf of the organization and our fans, Mike is a true Hall of Famer,” Mets COO Jeff Wilpon said in a statement. “We proudly display his plaque in the Mets Hall of Fame, and we’re hopeful that he’ll soon have one hanging in Cooperstown.”
You’d think he would, eventually; next year will be challenging again with the welcoming of great first-time candidates Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz. The Baseball Writers Association of America is in discussions to expand the ballot beyond the current maximum of 10, which could help.
Yet ballot space probably isn’t Piazza’s primary obstacle at this point. That would indeed be the suspicions concerning whether he used illegal PEDs, which surely has influenced his inability to get in so far. This year’s results, as well as Thomas’ words, could further embolden those who are prone to exhibit a “better safe than sorry” approach on the illegal PEDs topic.
There’s no legitimate public evidence Piazza actually used steroids; he denied doing so, although in his autobiography last year he admitted using amphetamines. Those with more explicit illegal PED résumés, meanwhile, suffered hits.
All-time studs Barry Bonds (36.2 to 34.7) and Roger Clemens (37.6 to 35.4), both of whom fared better in actual court than in the court of public opinion, dipped slightly. The confessed sinner Mark McGwire went from 16.9 to 11.0, and his highly suspected 1998 pal Sammy Sosa dropped from 12.5 to 7.2. Rafael Palmeiro, the first big-time player to fail a test for these drugs, is now off the BBWAA ballot, after his fall from 8.8 to 4.4 put him beneath the 5 percent threshold required to stick.
Astros slugger Jeff Bagwell, who like Piazza carries a whiff of speculation without any real allegations, also went south, from 59.6 to 54.3.
So how did Piazza’s support actually increase? There probably were some voters who thought he wasn’t a “first-ballot Hall of Famer” last year and then checked him off him this year. I screwed up my statistical analysis of Piazza a year ago and left him off, then remedied that and voted for him in 2014, although I’m confident my tale is uniquely idiotic.
The question now becomes: How difficult will it be to tally that final 12.8 percent? Especially when this year’s winners validate the tough-on-drugs crowd with their seemingly pristine legacies and Thomas’ words in particular.
Thomas always has been virulently anti-illegal PEDs — he was the one active player who participated in the farcical Mitchell Report — so he just kept that going Wednesday. His take is understandable. If he truly reached his great numbers through only legal means, then you can appreciate how frustrated he got by those who chose different paths.
“I think I was one of the guys who made those guys go in that direction,” Thomas boasted, and maybe he is right.
With the blessing of Thomas and other Hall of Famers, will a significant enough contingent of voters go the “guilty until proven innocent” route and figure they’d better keep out Piazza, just in case new information emerges? I fear it’s a real possibility.
Perhaps Wednesday’s forward movement for Piazza means more than we realize right now, and he’ll work his way up just as Barry Larkin did and Biggio surely will next year. Right now, though, the only trend that seems certain is anti-illegal PEDs. And Piazza, unfairly or not — I vote for “unfairly” — finds himself very much in that conversation