Why this year’s Hall of Fame vote has dredged up baseball’s ‘steroid era’ again
A handful of players on this year’s ballot were tied to the use of performance-enhancing drugs during their playing days, something that is at odds with Rule 5
Rule 5 (for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame): Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.
The selection of players for the Hall of Fame isn’t always as simple as stats — home runs, hits, RBI, victories. There are those three words in Rule 5 — “integrity, sportsmanship, character.” That’s where things get sticky.
To be elected to the Hall, a player must receive votes on 75% of the ballots cast by the Baseball Writers Association of America. A player can be considered again in the next year’s Hall of Fame election if he receives votes on at least 5% of the ballots. This last proviso describes the 17 players who are being considered for the 2022 Hall of Fame class, which will be announced Jan. 25.
Among those 17 candidates are a handful of players whose feats on the field would make them a certain first-ballot inductee to the Hall — specifically, sluggers Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Gary Sheffield, and pitchers Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. Those six sluggers rank first, fourth, ninth, 15th, 17th and and 26th, respectively, on the career home run list, totaling 3,672 home runs — an average of 612 per player. Clemens is the ninth winningest pitcher ever, with 354 wins.
No one could dispute their statistical credentials. It’s the rest of Rule 5 that complicates the issue. All of those players were tied to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. They cheated. It was as if the home run wall was moved closer to home plate when they batted; it’s as if the mound were raised for Clemens. They had a big advantage.
Bud Selig, the baseball commissioner from 1992 to 2015, slept through the “steroid era” and allowed the record book to be trashed. In no other sport except track and field is the record book considered more important. Track’s governing body deletes records set by drug cheats, but baseball has done nothing to fix the damage.
This is one example of how badly the record book has been rendered almost worthless. Nobody could break Roger Maris’ single-season home run record for four decades, and then in one five-year period, from 1997 to 2001, it was broken six times. That was at the height of the performance-enhancing drugs (PED) plague. Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Maris are probably still the best (natural) home run hitters ever.
The BWAA has held the cheats accountable, even if baseball hasn’t done so. The writers have denied Hall of Fame induction to Bonds, Clemens, Ortiz, Ramirez, Rodriguez and Sosa (as well as another prolific slugger who admitted PED use, Mark McGwire, who’s 11th in career homers).
Players are eligible for Hall of Fame election for 10 years unless they receive less than 5% of the ballots, in which case they have to wait 16 years after retirement for another vote. That’s where McGwire stands after being denied for 10 years, never getting votes on more than 23% of the ballots. Another PED user, Rafael Palmeiro, who ranks 13th in career home runs, lasted only four years on the ballot.
The same fate could await others on this year’s ballot. Bonds, Clemens and Sosa are on their 10th and final ballot. Maybe this will be the year they win the vote. There are signs that voters are weakening. Bonds received votes on 61.8% of the ballots a year ago, Clemens 61.6%, but Sosa only 17%. This is the first year Ortiz and Rodriguez have been eligible for the vote.
Along with serial PED user Rodriguez, Bonds probably was the most egregious offender. He began his Major League career at 185 pounds; by 2001, he weighed 228. By then he outweighed the great Aaron — the man he overtook as home run king — by 50 pounds. He went from a size 42 jersey to size 52. Even his hat size swelled, from size 7 1/8 to 7 3/4, while his feet went from 10 1/2 to 13.
During Bonds’ first 14 seasons in the majors, he exceeded 40 home runs only three times; then, from age 35 to 39, he hit 45 or more for five straight years — a total of 258, or an average of 51 per season.
Baseball won’t even consider Hall of Fame induction for its all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, because he bet on games. But he didn’t do as much damage to Major League Baseball as Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro and others. Yet there’s a chance they’ll receive baseball’s greatest honor — induction into the Hall of Fame. The BWAA will have to overlook Rule 5 to do so.
This year’s Hall of Fame candidates have pushed the PED era back into the news. In terms of impact on the game, it is the worst scandal to hit the Major Leagues since the Black Sox scandal of 1919, and its ramifications continue to be felt.