It’s hard to be any kind of a baseball fan and not care deeply about the Hall of Fame. More than any other sport, there is an eternal link between modern players and those of previous generations. There is no way to determine whether Peyton Manning is better than Johnny Unitas except for what you saw on the field, but there are reams of statistics where you can empirically compare Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds and make an objective judgment of who was better.
Steroids have made all of those judgments suspect. There will never be another “top 100” list that comes without questions or asterisks. Do we take the statistics of Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Alex Rodriguez at face value and rank them accordingly, or do we ignore them altogether?
I have heard all the counterarguments: that steroids didn’t really help, that Willie Mays took speed, that Babe Ruth never had to face African-American pitchers or closers in the ninth inning. For some reason, steroids seem like an unforgiveable betrayal that we just can’t get past. Part of it to me is the fact that we just don’t know. Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell never failed a drug test, never got implicated by any testimony, never even were the subject of rumors during their careers. Yet, despite amassing stats that put them in the top ten all-time at their positions, neither has gotten close to induction in the Hall of Fame. Why? Because both of them began their careers as unheralded singles hitters and ended up with elite power numbers, which matches the profile of a steroid user. More importantly, because so many great players that we thought got there through hard work turned out to be cheaters, and if we find out Bagwell or Piazza cheated once they get in, there is no mechanism for removing them from the Hall of Fame. They will be in there forever, their tainted stats given the same aura of immortality as .406 and the 56-game hitting streak.
Which is worse, the possibility of watching someone get voted in and then confessing to juicing during their induction speech, or pretending an entire generation of history never happened and casting doubt on the integrity of every player from that era? Personally, unless someone failed a test or there is credible evidence that they juiced, I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Suddenly becoming a slugger in your late twenties is not evidence. Neither is gaining 40 pounds over a five-year period.
I came to this conclusion several years ago while reading a story loaded with purported evidence against Barry Bonds that treated his use of steroids as an absolute fact based on nothing more than those facts. It occurred to me while I was reading that if that was the criteria, most of it would apply to my all-time favorite Indian, Jim Thome. While there is now legal testimony to support the idea that Bonds juiced (although not enough to convict him), at that time people were basing it on things like the size of his head. One has to ask: was the evidence stronger against Bonds than Thome, or did the fact that Thome was a great guy and Bonds a giant jackass skew people’s opinions? I was forced to either apply the circumstantial evidence unevenly or choose to disregard it entirely in the absence of proof. I chose the latter.
Sports are full of such contradictions. I root passionately for Ohio State football even though I know in the back of my mind that college football as a whole is hopelessly corrupt. I watch pro football even though I know that 300 pound men who run a 4.6 40 (some of whom might possibly also be on steroids, although that doesn’t seem to be nearly as offensive as with baseball players) can hit each other with enough force that a career-ending injury or even worse can happen at any moment. I spend good money to watch men whom I would hold off at gunpoint if they attempted to date one of my daughters. We live with the contradictions because there’s enough beauty in sports to override all the tawdry stuff. In the end, we will need to take the same viewpoint regarding the Hall of Fame.
There are players whose achievements are so momentous that they belong in the Hall unless there is concrete proof that they cheated. In some cases, like Bonds, I might even overlook the near-certainty that he cheated because he probably would have been a Hall of Famer if his career had ended before be bulked up. In this category would also go Roger Clemens, Piazza, and Bagwell. Ivan Rodriguez might be in that category as well. Less certain are Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez, both because they actually failed drug tests and because the portion of their careers that are under suspicion is too substantial to overlook; in other words, if their careers had ended in 2003, their achievements would not merit induction, but their overall record and amazing natural gifts are too staggering to completely overlook.
Mark McGwire was probably the most one-dimensional player of the past thirty years, so he would be iffy if he were clean. The fact that he is a known juicer closes the door for me. Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa were solid ballplayers whose numbers went crazy and then were found to have failed a steroid test. Their conduct at the Congressional hearings regarding steroids did not help their public image once the truth about their use was revealed. Regardless of Palmeiro’s numbers, he never finished higher than fifth in MVP voting, played in two All-Star Games, and shows up as a league leader in very few traditional or stathead categories, so it is hard to say he was perceived as one of the greats of his era. Sosa shows up better in those areas and had a more well-rounded game during his peak, so his case may be stronger. I would say Sosa is a borderline Hall of Famer and Palmeiro gets left out, although the fact that Palmeiro always struck me as a bit of a jerk may have something to do witht that analysis.
My hunch is that we will spend a few more years in the stalemate we found ourselves in this year and very few players, if any, will be elected. The baseball writers will respond to this by manipulating the voting rules to make it easier to be elected, probably going overboard and electing a series of marginal candidates. Perhaps they will adopt the rules of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—which raises the question of who would be the baseball equivalent of ABBA.