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Baseball can’t paint over past

Published: Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 12:02 a.m. CDT

As a man whose profession is based on precision, Crystal Lake artist John Hanley always appreciated the pitching style of Greg Maddux.

Then, in the spring of 2009, the Cubs commissioned Hanley to paint a likeness of the pitcher who painted so many corners during his 23-year career.

“Flawless mechanics,” said Hanley, a lifelong Cubs fan. “A master in the strike zone. And he didn’t panic. In and out, up and down, changing speeds.”

The Cubs invited Hanley to Wrigley Field, where the team presented his painting of Maddux and Ferguson Jenkins to both pitchers during a pregame ceremony. The team retired the pitchers’ No. 31 alongside Nos. 10 (Ron Santo), 14 (Ernie Banks), 23 (Ryne Sandberg), 26 (Billy Williams) and 42 (Jackie Robinson).

This week, Maddux joined all of those players in the Hall of Fame.

If only the rest of the new Hall of Fame class were so simple to decide.

Listed at 6-feet tall and 195 pounds, Maddux relied on his command to vex the juiced-up stars of the Steroid Era. Many of those same stars join Maddux on the ballot for the Class of 2014.

This is where the painting gets messy.

Which players were clean? Which players were dirty?

What about the players in between, the big-muscled boppers who looked like cheaters but never were proved to be guilty?

No answer will please everyone. So prepare to be displeased.

Because I’d open the doors to all of baseball’s greats, both sinners and saints.

Think of the Hall of Fame as a big museum. Let’s put everything on display.

Show the stars who seemingly played by the rules. Create plaques for Maddux and his four Cy Young awards, Tom Glavine and his 305 career wins, and Frank Thomas (we all know Big Hurt had huge muscles, but they seemed like legitimate muscles) and his .301 career batting average to go along with 521 home runs.

Show the stars who put up big numbers and prompted plenty of speculation, even if nobody has been able to pin them down for using performance-enhancing drugs.

Create plaques for Jeff Bagwell and his terrific career statistics (.297 batting average, 449 home runs and 1,401 walks), and Mike Piazza and his prolific production as a catcher (.308 batting average, 427 home runs and 12 All-Star selections).

Was Craig Biggio clean? How about Jeff Kent? Mike Mussina probably was, yeah? And what about the case of Larry Walker, who never was linked to steroids, but spent much of his career hitting doubles and home runs in Colorado’s thin air?

Is the painting muddled enough yet?

Last but not least, show the stars who were exposed as cheaters in the infamous Mitchell Report of 2007. Create plaques for Barry Bonds and his 762 home runs, and Roger Clemens and his 4,672 strikeouts.

After all, Bonds and Clemens were great players anyway. When exactly did they start cheating, and when exactly were they clean? And how many of their opponents were cheating, too, while all of us looked the other way?

If the Hall of Fame decides not to show Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, make it because their across-the-board production didn’t measure up to their elite peers, not because of some retroactive punishment for the summer of 1998.

I wondered what the painter thought of this big mess.

Let Maddux in, Hanley said. Keep the juicers out.

“I don’t like the drug aspect of it,” Hanley said. “There have always been cheaters, but this kind of cheating – chemicals – that’s so much different.

“People will say, ‘Oh, Gaylord Perry used the spitball, and that was cheating.’ But that was more gamesmanship than scientific mutation of your body.”

It was a fair point.

But baseball is a metaphor for life, and life can be complicated.

Like it or not, few things are as breezy as Maddux on the mound.

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