The baseball writers whose votes decide who gets in and who is left out have yet to find any real consensus among themselves with regards to the impact of the Steroid Era on baseball’s record book, a record book far more hallowed than that in any other sport.
Thus far, there have been only a few players who have been punished for their real or perceived involvement with performance enhancing drugs. There’s Mark McGwire of course; despite 583 home runs, his confessed steroid usage has led to his percentage of the HOF vote hovering right around 20% over his six years on the ballot. Despite well over 500 homers and 3,000 hits, slugger Rafael Palmeiro (he of the finger-wagging Senate testimony) has failed to crack 15% in two years due to his own failed drug tests. Even Astros great Jeff Bagwell – someone who never failed a drug test – has failed to gain induction. His vote percentages have been higher (56% this year), but suspicions of impropriety have kept him from being the deserving inductee his numbers say that he is.
So what happens next year?
The 2013 Hall of Fame ballot will be the first true litmus test of how the voting writers as a group will treat steroid users both confirmed and suspected. This is the first wave of eligible players who put up the majority of their eye-popping numbers in the cradle of the decade-long steroid-fueled offensive explosion.
Barry Bonds? The seven-time MVP holds both the single-season and career home run records. He also had a prominent connection to performance enhancing drug slingers BALCO and let his personal trainer go to jail to protect him. Roger Clemens? He has seven Cy Young Awards and is in the all-time top 10 in both wins and strikeouts. He was also the subject of a lengthy federal investigation into whether he lied under oath regarding his alleged steroid usage. Sammy Sosa? He has over 600 career home runs and helped reinvigorate the game with his 1998 home run record chase against McGwire. He also mysteriously lost the ability to speak English during a government inquiry.
In addition, elite players such as Mike Piazza and Curt Schilling will also be joining the ballot. Neither man has ever been substantially connected to performance enhancers, but as the Jeff Bagwell case shows, all it takes is rumors to torpedo a player’s HOF chances.
Truthfully, the only top-tier player becoming eligible in 2013 who has no whiff of steroid scandal about him is Craig Biggio, the Astros second baseman (and Bagwell teammate). While Biggio did reach 3,000 hits, he is seen by many as more of a compiler than a superstar.
Will the writers be able to justify electing a player perceived to be inferior on moral grounds? Or will they be forced to accept the Steroid Era as a regrettable but unavoidable time in the history of the game? Unfortunately, it’s an all or nothing proposition in a lot of ways; there’s no real way to pick and choose.
Cooperstown is the historical repository for a game that values its history above all else. While it’s a shame that this conversation even needs to be had, the truth is that the game will move forward, just as it always has. Today’s superstars will continue to become tomorrow’s Hall of Famers, and soon enough, this era will be just one more outlier in a sport whose history is full of them.