Baseball's dilemma: How will steroid use influence the Hall of Fame?

Matt Becker

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is home to the game’s elite. But some of this generation’s most elite players will find no refuge in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Roger Clemens are among a number of players linked to performance-enhancing drugs, and the disagreement among Hall of Fame voters over how to handle those players’ Hall votes will likely keep them from achieving baseball’s greatest honor.

“I don’t think anybody connected with PEDs will get into the Hall of Fame,” said Buster Olney, senior writer at “ESPN The Magazine,” a regular contributor to ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” and a Hall of Fame voter. “The writers have created their own stance, and 30 to 50 percent of them won’t vote for anyone connected in any way to PEDs.”

Olney and other members of the Baseball Writers Association of America are now saddled with the task of sorting out the failed tests, accusations, admissions and denials of the steroid era.

This group of more than 100 writers, all of whom have differing viewpoints, will have the final say about who does and doesn’t get into the Hall of Fame, and the fact that they can’t come to a consensus on how to handle players linked to PED use means that some of today’s biggest superstars will not get voted in.

And even if it means a lack of star power at future inductions, Hall of Fame officials say they are comfortable with the status quo, and aren’t about to change the voting process any time in the near future.

The players

Most numbers that are put up these days are greeted with a healthy amount of skepticism, and – fair or unfair – everyone who played during the last 20 years will be equated with the Steroid Era. But it’s those players who have direct links to PEDs (whether it’s via the Mitchell Report, The List of 2003 or a failed drug test) who will bear the brunt of the burden.

Barry Bonds, baseball’s all-time home run leader, and heir apparent Alex Rodriguez both have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs, as has Roger Clemens, maybe the most dominant pitcher in the last 20 years. So have Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, whose historic home run chase in 1998 brought baseball back to the forefront of America’s consciousness after a labor dispute and two strike-shortened seasons.

Manny Ramirez is one of the most feared hitters in the game. He has a shot at 3,000 hits, 700 home runs and 2,000 RBIs depending on how many more years he plays. But even before he showed up on The List, he tested positive for a banned substance in May, prompting a 50-game suspension by Major League Baseball.

So far, McGwire is the only player with potential Hall of Fame numbers to appear on the ballot. He finished his career with 583 home runs, a Rookie-of-the-Year award, 12 All-Star appearances and five straight seasons of 50-plus home runs, including 1998 when he hit 70, breaking Roger Maris’ previous single-season mark of 61.

While his numbers may be borderline, he has fallen well short each year he has been eligible.

Then there are the peripheral players. Andy Pettitte likely will finish his career with fewer than 250 wins, one Cy Young runner-up and two All-Star appearances. But he is one of the faces of a franchise that won five World Series titles.

Likewise, David Ortiz doesn’t have Hall of Fame-caliber numbers, but his personality and clutch hitting have made him a favorite of Red Sox fans, so much so that he received a curtain call after hitting a walk-off home run against the Oakland Athletics on July 30, just hours after it was revealed he was on the list of more than 100 players who had tested positive for PEDs in 2003.

They are lauded in their home parks and booed on the road, and the only thing more confusing than trying to keep up with the cheers and jeers is keeping up with how they will be treated when their names appear on the Hall of Fame ballot.

The writers

The writers fall into three general categories when it comes to Hall of Fame voting: those who refuse to vote for anyone linked to PEDs; those who disregard PED use and vote based purely on numbers; and those who try to figure out who was using, when and for how long and find some kind of happy medium.

Among those in that last group is Nick Cafardo, who covers the Red Sox for the Boston Globe. Cafardo said he looks at PED users on a case-by-case basis, and he acknowledges that his current process isn’t set in stone.

“Originally, I said I wouldn’t vote for anyone who took steroids,” he said. “But I’ve moved off that. Now, I look at the Mitchell report, and I see how long those players did steroids. I’ll throw out the stats from those years, and figure out if they were a Hall of Famer before and after they took steroids.

“And that could all change. I’ve changed my mind on people I hadn’t voted on before, and I’ve changed my mind on people I had voted on before.”

Olney has been outspoken with his views on Hall of Fame voting. He said no one will ever know who did what or what impact it had, and the only solution he sees is to vote strictly by the numbers and not take PED use into account.

“I’ve voted for McGwire all three years he was on the ballot,” he said. “It’s my belief that most players at the upper level were doing something, so I just vote for the best of the era.”

Then there are those at the opposite end of the spectrum. Paul Hoynes is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and has covered the Indians since 1983. Like Olney, Hoynes thinks that McGwire’s numbers are good enough for the Hall of Fame, but Hoynes said he refuses to vote for anyone with ties to PEDs.

Hoynes, who saw Ramirez come up with the Indians, also said part of the problem is that no one can know how long players were using PEDs. Beyond that, he has become exasperated by sure-fire Hall of Famers who decided to take banned substances.

“You look at someone like A-Rod, who said he only used for a certain amount of time in Texas,” Hoynes said. “But you can’t prove that. And then you have Manny who was a lock, but now I can’t vote for him.

“I don’t think you can pick and choose. For me, it’s a black-and-white issue.”

For a player to be voted into the Hall of Fame, he needs to be voted on by 75 percent of the writers.

McGwire first appeared on the ballot in 2007 and received 128 votes, good for 23.5 percent of the vote. He received another 128 votes in 2008 for 23.6 percent, and was named on 118 ballots in 2009 for 21.9 percent.

“It’s made it a difficult process,” Hoynes said. “We’re now judge, jury and executioner on these guys, and in a lot of cases, we simply don’t know.

“We’re sort of on an island right now. Instead of voting on a guy who hit .300 for 10 straight years, we’re asking, ‘Did this guy cheat, and did it change his career?’”

Olney appreciates the opportunity and the responsibility of voting for the Hall of Fame, but he sometimes questions if the writers are best-equipped to handle the voting in this case.

“It’s almost like we’re being asked to determine what’s moral and right,” he said. “I don’t want to sit here and say, ‘Woe is me,’ but I do wonder if we’re the right ones to be doing this.

“We’re never going to find out all of the information about steroid use, and I don’t know that we’re equipped to make that kind of judgment. But, I came up with my standard, and that’s what I’ll use for now.”

And that is going to be the problem for any potential Hall of Famer linked to PED use.

To reach the 75-percent threshold is difficult enough when there is an accepted standard. It took Jim Rice all 15 years of his eligibility to reach it, and Bert Blyleven, who has 287 career wins, 3,701 strikeouts and a 3.31 ERA comes up about 10 percent short annually.

But PED use has created as many standards as there are writers, making 75 percent virtually impossible to achieve. To get there requires some modicum of consensus by the writers, and right now the only consensus is that there isn’t any.

“You could see a lot of these guys end up in a holding pattern,” Cafardo said. “You just can’t tell how voters are going to vote, and some of these guys probably won’t get in.”

The Hall

For their part, officials at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum are comfortable with how the issue has been addressed to this point, and they have no plans of altering or trying to influence the voting process.

“The rules for election are there, and we’re comfortable with them,” Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson said. “The rules are subjective enough to give the writers latitude and allow for their value judgments, and we honor their decisions.

“If you look at the definition of a Hall of Famer, it’s an honor for those who deserve it. At the end of the day, if the writers elect a PED user, we will honor that.”

Among the rules for election are a “player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” And while the character issue might be the one that keeps most (if not all) players linked to PED use out of the Hall of Fame, Idelson said it is “up to the writers” to determine how much of a role it plays when voting.

As for any financial impact the Hall of Fame might suffer from the absence of some of the game’s biggest names on future induction weekends, Idelson is more concerned with keeping sustained crowds than trying for that one, big blockbuster weekend.

“The goal is to be culturally relevant,” he said. “If, as an institution, we can stay relevant, I’m confident with the direction we’re headed in.

“About half of our numbers each year are returning fans, so we want to make sure they keep coming back.”

While Idelson is comfortable with letting the writers vote their conscience, some current Hall of Famers would rather PED users never get the chance to be enshrined.

“It’s cheating,” 2005 inductee Wade Boggs said at this year’s induction weekend. “… If you have to do something to enhance that performance, which is illegal, by the way, then you’re cheating.”

Some Hall of Famers are OK with PED users getting into the Hall, as long as there’s some sort of acknowledgement of how they got there. Hank Aaron, baseball’s all-time home run king before Bonds surpassed him in 2007, said he wouldn’t to keep anyone out of the Hall, but he would want some notation on their plaques that signified PED use.

For many Hall of Famers, it is a black-and-white issue.

“If you cheated, I don’t think you belong in the Hall of Fame,” 2008 inductee Goose Gossage said during July’s festivities in Cooperstown. “It’s that simple.”

Of course, Idelson is quick to point out that even if players like Ramirez, Bonds and Clemens never are inducted, that doesn’t mean they will be absent from the Hall of Fame. The museum has numerous artifacts and memorabilia from players who will otherwise never see their name in Cooperstown.

McGwire has a ball and bat from McGwire’s 1998 home run chase, as does Barry Bonds from his 2007 campaign.

“Ninety-nine percent of the players who put on a uniform are not in the Hall of Fame,” Idelson said. “But a lot of them are in the museum somehow.”

And Idelson is adamant that the Hall is not ignoring the issue of PEDs in baseball.

“We’re not shying away from this,” he said. “In time, we will address PED use in the museum, but we can’t do it tomorrow.

“When the Wright Brothers flew their plane, there wasn’t a museum exhibit on it the next day. We want whatever we’re going to do to be educational and understandable. But we need a complete story.”

The future

Baseball has seen its share of troubled times. It has endured through betting scandals, racial segregation and labor disputes, and it has done so on the strength of its marquee players.

From Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson to Cal Ripken Jr. and Ken Griffey Jr., baseball’s big names have carried it through the years. But some its most famous names from the past two decades recently have been implicated in the use of performance enhancing drugs, and the stark reality of it is that some of the game’s most recognizable players will never be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

There is slight disagreement about when the Steroid Era was, but most agree that it is now over. With that period in the past, and baseball pressing forward, many eyes look to the future, and what all of this will mean when players linked to PED use appear on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Raphael Palmeiro will be eligible in 2011. With 569 home runs and fewer than 2,000 RBIs, he might not be the strongest test case, but the 2013 ballot will feature Clemens, Bonds and Sosa. How the writers treat those players will say a lot about the chances of players like Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and anyone else whose name might eventually appear on a list.

For a lot of writers, the character issue will loom large.

“Great players are great players no matter what,” Hoynes said. “When they have to artificially raise their game, it really makes you wonder about their character.”

Observer-Dispatch (Utica, N.Y.)