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The Hall of Fame and the Steroid Era: How do we consider the new players on the ballot?

Updated on December 19, 2012

Voting for the baseball Hall of Fame is often fraught with controversy. The ballot usually lists players who clearly shouldn’t be in the Hall without paying admission, a few no-doubters and then a handful of players on the cusp of whether they belong or not.

The 2013 ballot is filled with more potential controversy than any in history. This is because of the specter of steroids.

Concern that cheaters will get in

People far and wide are afraid that one of the cheaters might make it into the Hall. Some members of the Hall of Fame have debated whether they would return to the annual events if a cheater is elected.

A few voters seem inclined to not include anyone who had his peak performances during the Steroid Era (this so-called era has never been defined, although generally it ended by 2005 when baseball officially banned steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. It is generally thought to have started around 1995 to 1998, although some players clearly had started using before then.).

One of the phrases you see in almost every story about the Hall of Fame ballot for 2013 is “players linked to steroid use.” And therein lies part of the issue.

Who has been "linked"

On the ballot this time are Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, each making his third appearance on the ballot. McGwire has admitted to PED use and Palmeiro was caught using it. They are the only ones on the ballot, as far as I can tell, who either admitted using or were caught using. The rest have merely been “linked.”

You can start with Barry Bonds, who has plenty of anecdotal evidence that he used something – steroids or HGH or both – but he has never admitted to it or been convicted of using it. Roger Clemens, likewise, has steadfastly maintained he never used it and was acquitted in court of lying about it.

Mike Piazza allegedly admitted in private to using, but as far as I know nothing is on the public record. Sammy Sosa was widely suspected of using but never admitted to it or was caught. The entire Red Sox team of 2003 and 2004 was widely suspected (and privately accused) of using PEDs, which would ensnare Curt Schilling, but nothing was ever proved.

In addition, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, who as far as I know never even had a whiff of PED use about them during their playing days, are suddenly suspect simply because they played during that time.

Is being accused enough to taint a career?

So here’s the question: Is simply “linking” someone to steroid use without an admission or proof enough to keep them from the Hall of Fame?

If I accuse you, say, of stealing office supplies, and publish articles about you stealing office supplies, and accuse you of lying about stealing office supplies when you deny it, should the company fire you without either your admission or any actual proof that you stole them? Should the fact that I “linked” your name to the stealing of office supplies be enough to cast you out?

A lot of vagueness about Steroid Era

Complicating things is the vagueness of guidelines from Major League Baseball. Although Commissioner Fay Vincent issued a statement in 1991 banning steroids, it was not an edict that was enforced. Even when rampant steroid use was suspected by the late 1990s, baseball officials tended to frown on it rather than ban it. When it became a more serious issue a few years later they frowned a little more seriously. It wasn’t until Barry Bonds started bearing down on the all-time home run record that baseball decided it needed to act and the current drug policy was adopted before the 2006 season.

As I mentioned earlier, there has also been a vagueness of when the Steroid Era began. Most put it no earlier than 1995, although Jose Canseco claims he used them his entire career, which would reach back to 1986.

Past drug use by players

There has been anecdotal evidence of players before the 1900s trying injections of juice from animal testicles. Even Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays allegedly experimented with something, which may have been a steroid (these accusations seem especially vague and may have been nothing more than mixtures of vitamins.)

Add to that the long-standing availability of amphetamines (“greenies”) in most clubhouses. Players such as Mays, Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt and Willie Stargell have all admitted to using them at times, and from anecdotal evidence, most players since World War II may have used them on occasion to improve their alertness and ability.

Some questions to consider

Another issue is just how much all this drug use helped players. In general, the consensus is that steroid use alone won’t turn an average player into a Hall of Famer. It may make a Hall of Famer put up legendary numbers, though. So if a player is already that good, should steroid use keep him from the HOF if he would have still been Hall worthy without them?

Another question to be considered: What if we were to learn that a player already in the Hall used steroids at some point? Suppose we learned that late in his career Cal Ripken Jr. or Wade Boggs or Jim Rice had experimented with them to try to play another few years? Would we kick him out? Place an asterisk next to his name?

We already know that Mays and Schmidt used greenies, as probably many others in the HOF did. Should they be penalized in some manner for using them?

And what if the case is somebody like Andy Pettitte, who from all accounts tried steroids once, didn’t like them and never used them again? Does he qualify as a steroid user? Is one time enough to ban someone for life from the Hall (and I’m not saying Pettitte should be considered a HOFer, but surely there are players like him who were tempted but quit after one try).

Pete Rose case doesn't compare

Side note: Some people attempt to use this as an opening for Pete Rose to enter the Hall of Fame. They say what he did was no worse, and if steroid users are allowed in, then Rose should be too. But the two situations are very different. For one, gambling had been banned in baseball for decades. Every player knew it was taboo, punishable by expulsion from baseball. During Rose’s playing days Mantle and Mays, both retired already, were banned from all baseball activities simply because of their involvement in promoting a casino. The story of Joe Jackson and the other Black Sox was well known. Rose knew without a doubt that what he did was wrong and would have serious consequences.

Options to consider

I think because of the vagueness of the rules and conditions surrounding steroids, as well of the vagueness of just what constitutes the Steroid Era, we’d be better off simply voting for the Hall of Fame as we always have.

Perhaps we could say players who admitted to using or who were caught shouldn’t be eligible (which would eliminate McGwire, Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and a few others.) Or only make ineligible those caught after the 2006 drug policy (which at this point would exclude Ramirez).

Can't exclude people just for being "linked"

But I do think it will be hard to exclude some of the players on this year’s ballot simply because writers have “linked” them to the Steroid Era. Bagwell and Biggio have never, as far as I can tell, even been accused of steroid use and should be considered only on their own merits.

Clemens, it seems to me, is in the clear – he claimed he never used steroids and when he was tried in court for lying about it, he was acquitted.

The Bonds situation is a bit trickier because there is so much more evidence against him than any of the others. At the same time, he was mostly cleared in court and was never suspended for using steroids. He never admitted it, either. Yet he is also a player who probably would have had a Hall of Fame career even if you discount everything from 1999 on.

Weigh the players on their own merits

I don’t condone cheaters in any way. But the truth is that – depending on what you define as cheating – we already probably have quite a few cheaters in the Hall. And merely suspecting or accusing someone of a crime doesn’t make it true.

So, unless we find much better evidence to the contrary, I think the players on the 2013 ballot should be weighed on their own merits. But I have a feeling most writers who vote for the Hall won’t see it that way.

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    • dblyn profile image

      dblyn 4 years ago from Staten Island, NY

      Well written and nice job on being objective. I agree that keeping these players out makes little sense when the Hall is already full of cheaters, bigots, racists. The players we believe should be in, the no-doubters, should go in and the Hall should frame the Steroid Era as it's own section in Baseball history.