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Monday, December 27, 2021

PEDs and the Hall of Fame. The final judgment.

Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame

Nothing seems to get baseball fans, especially those who focus on the history of the game, more invigorated in disagreement than the annual Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) vote for recently retired players eligible for the greatest honor in the sport, induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  And over the past 10+ years, there has been no more polarizing an issue than how to handle players who were known to have used Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs, a.k.a. steroids) during the 1990s and early 2000s until testing began in earnest in 2002.  The debate has probably reached its crescendo, as two of the most famous (or infamous depending on how you look at it) PED users enter their 10th and final year of eligibility on the BBWAA ballot.

Iconic facade of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

The two players of debate are, of course, Barry Bonds, the all-time and single season home run king, and Roger Clemens, who won a record seven Cy Young awards and sits third on the All-Time Strikeout list (trailing only Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson).  Both have been on the ballot for nine full years, the last three voting results sitting stagnantly at between 59% and 62% of the writers' votes well short of the 75% needed for induction and no meaningful indication of increasing.

In addition to the final stand for Bonds and Clemens, two interesting cases in their first year of eligibility are Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz.  The former was once suspended for an entire year for PED violations, the latter never suspended but admitted to a positive test prior to enforcement with suspension.  How will voters who omit Bonds and Clemens from their ballots treat A-Rod and Big Papi?

The NBHOF has provided no guidance in terms of how they expect voters to handle the PED complexity specifically, which shouldn't be a surprise.  But this stance draws the ire of BBWAA voters who want to do the right thing but aren't sure what the right thing is.  The complex nature of PEDs with relation to a vote for induction brings about polarizing opinions that will be explored below.  

This Blog is not intended to pick a side or draw a conclusion. There's no perfect answer and arguments can and are being made on both sides.  I seek to clarify people's thoughts and hope to get respect for opinions other than your own.

Before we delve into the logic behind voting for, or withholding a vote for, a player who either tested positive for PEDs or is beyond a reasonable doubt to have used PEDs, there are some clarifications about the Hall of Fame and its voting that should be introduced for context.

Clarification #1) Major League Baseball does not own/or operate the NBHOF.

Major League Baseball has no official authority over the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which is a non-profit (unlike MLB) governed by a Board of Directors (of which MLB has no oversight or input).  It is worth noting that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is on the Board but not in a Chair role.  So, the NBHOF operates independent of MLB and has its own authority to decide on how it governs itself regardless of what MLB desires or wants.  MLB certainly has influence and an overwhelmingly collaborative relationship, note that it is the NBHOF that does not allow individuals banned from baseball (including the deceased) to be inducted, not a decision that MLB imposed.

Clarification #2) The NBHOF (and its museum) ignores the PED issue altogether

A good chance to note the separation of the entities of the NBHOF and its museum.  The NBHOF is the community of players inducted by various means (not the least of which is vote of the BBWAA) which are celebrated by plaques in the Hall of Fame Gallery of the museum.  The museum proper is the co-located space spanning multiple floors celebrating the achievements of the sport, including countless items of memorabilia, various media (photos, jerseys, gloves, hats, videos, narratives, statues) that provide fans context to the history of the game dating back to the Mid 19th Century.  It would be highly unlikely that at any time a reference to PEDs would be included on a plaque of an inducted member.  However, the Museum contains a display case in its history showing the controversy, with numerous artifacts and items as a lesson to fans of what took place, who the characters were, and how it played out. 

NBHOF display telling the story of PEDs

Barry Bonds Home Run #756 on Display with historic Clemens strikeout memorabilia in the background

Clarification #3) By not inducting PED users, the full story of baseball is not presented in the museum

The NBHOF museum shows all the great players, moments, records, regardless of whether plaques are included in the gallery.  It would make no sense to only show things by those inducted.  In fact, Pete Rose has a very prominent place in the museum with jerseys, videos, etc. showing his all-time hit record.  The hit king is in the Hall of Fame.  Museum.  No, his plaque is not in the gallery because of other reasons.  But he is not ignored.


Pete Rose full display of hit record

Barry Bonds HR record celebrated 

Clarification #4) The BBWAA voting members are at fault for keeping PED players out

A majority of BBWAA voters are checking the box FOR Bonds and Clemens.  There isn't some big conspiracy that the writers don't want them in.  Most of them do. However, 75% is a difficult threshold under these circumstances.  As will be discussed below, there are rational reasons to exclude known PED users (however you determine what defines "known").  A reaction from fans is recently "I hate the writers".  No, you hate 40% of the writers, not most writers.

Clarification #5) The NBHOF provides no guidance whatsoever to BBWAA voters

I mentioned above that the NBHOF is silent on the PED issue, which is true.  However, there are rules provided which, like any legalese, can be interpreted by the end user (but in this case, not challenged in court).  This is what opens up differing opinions.  Specifically, rule #5 which cites an integrity clause is overwhelmingly cited as contentious.

5. Voting: 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.

Bluntly, "Integrity, Sportsmanship, and Character" come into question on the issue and are left to the eye of the beholder.

Now we explore four positions on the PED players in Hall of Fame spectrum, outlining the reasonable logic for each.

Representative vote compiled by Baseball Hall of Fame Vote Tracker - Ballots. Lots and lots of Ballots. (bbhoftracker.com) The representative vote does not mean they've explicity expressed this opinion, but their vote follow the logic thereof.

1) The PED oppositionist

Stance: Anybody suspected or affiliated with PED use shall not be included for induction on my ballot, including turning in blank ballots.

This type overwhelmingly excludes anyone who was in the Mitchell Report, were known to affiliate with companies, trainers, programs that added strength quickly, saw a sudden increase in production, or just got bigger in a short timeframe.  In some cases, they vote in opposition to the direction of baseball and not against any specific players.

Best Argument: The integrity clause.  Cheating is cheating and it pollutes the accomplishments of the clean players

Biggest fallacy: Finding any candidate who you can be 100% convinced did not meet the exclusions above.  

Example representative vote: Mike Hunt

Final word: This is probably the most arrogant voter, feeling like they are the keepers of truth and very unlikely to change positions.  The good news is, it is probably a relatively small population and, in many cases, are finding themselves outside of the voting pool (see Elector criteria) as they are typically veteran writers no longer covering the game.

2) The PED "STJ"

Stance: Will not include any player for which there is documented evidence (most likely a positive test after MLB began testing) but does not hold the same criteria for those who may have retired prior to testing or otherwise cleaned up prior to testing.

The Myers-Briggs personality type "Sensing-Thinking-Judging" is strong here.  Sensing - Only what is documented.  Thinking - No emotion, clear cut criteria established.  Judging - It's a yes or no, not a maybe.  This type keeps out the Bonds, Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez types but will not vote against Mike Piazza, Ivan Rodriguz, Jeff Bagwell, and others "suspected" but never testing positive of PEDs.

Best Argument: Best way to maintain the integrity clause while ensuring fairness to those who might have been suspected of using, but never did, or did so when it was overlooked by MLB.

Biggest Fallacy: Almost certainly treats players unevenly as there are bound to be inducted players who found ways to skirt the rules or benefited from using without getting caught.

Example representative vote: David Haugh

Final word: This is probably the majority of the 40% not voting for Bonds and Clemens.  While they acknowledge the fallacy, they can't bring themselves to vote for the obviously, and proven inflated numbers that broke hallowed records of some of baseball's greats.  But they also do not feel comfortable prosecuting those without evidence like Rodriguez or Bagwell.

3) The PED contextualist

Stance: Will include players who would have gotten in without PEDs but not those whose PED performance were a major contributor to their success in the game.

Here is where you can look at a player like Clemens and Bonds and know they were Hall of Famers before the seemed to defy time and put up some of their best statistics after the age of 40.  Others, like Sammy Sosa and even a Gary Sheffield or Manny Ramirez, are close with PEDs, most certainly (in the eye of this category), on the wrong side without.

Best Argument: Ensures some of the game's all-time greats are inducted into the NBHOF without artificially including those who would not have gotten in.

Biggest Fallacy: Having to be the judge of how much of performance was due to PEDs and when PED use started.

Example representative vote: T.R. Sullivan

Final Word: This probably represents the majority of the 60% voting for Bonds and Clemens.  They see them as greats of the game and are willing to look past their PED judgment (in context at the time) to vote them in.

4) The PED overlooker

Stance: Trying to implement any judgment criteria on the PED era is impossible.

The League and Players (and [clears throat] media) knew what was going on, but for the entertainment of the Game (particularly after the 1994 strike), looked the other way.  It's not fair to penalize the players who simply were trying to be the best they could in a system that allowed it.  The commissioner at the time, one Alan "Bud" Selig who himself is in the NBHOF, allowed it, far be it from the voter to hold only some accountable.

Best Argument: Does not have to try and develop "who did and didn't" criteria, it was a part of the Game

Biggest Fallacy: Violating the integrity clause.  Those inducted are supposed to be champions of the sport, and PED users certainly did not hold that up as is expected by the clause.

Example representative vote: Dan Brown

Final Word: PEDs weren't the first or last ways players cheated the system (throwing games, use of Greenies, misleading umpires, use of video to steal signs) so the position is defensible.

Again, per the Clarification number 4, the majority (we can say around 60%) of BBWAA voters fall into the latter two categories given the votes against Bonds and Clemens are below 40%.

The denouement of the entire affair will be if Bonds and Clemens fall short (almost a certainty) and end up on Era Committee ballots which were created to provide an inlet to the Hall of Fame after the 10-year BBWAA vote for those that might have been overlooked in their time but later deemed worthy.  Examples include Negro League Players who were not on the ballot initially. 1800s players whose accomplishments came to light later.  Or those who might have had a grudge with the BBWAA costing them critical votes.  These committees have certainly done a great justice to many Negro League players who are all too slowly being rightfully represented as inductees.  The committees (made up of inducted players, executives, and game insiders) have also caught flack in what many consider applying a less challenging criterion to get in (also known as letting in those who make it the Hall of Very Good), specifically Harold Baines, Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, and Ted Simmons who never got even close to the 75% threshold.  Most believe that because of the divisive nature of PEDs, the cases of Bonds and Clemens will not be seen favorably within that crowd as well, which is likely to keep the burden of induction prevention solely on the BBWAA.

How with this story end?  Most likely similar to Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, whose on-field performance more than justified induction, but a lifetime ban from the game due to off-field ethics has precluded them from induction (the Hall does not allow induction from anyone banned from the game for life as Jackson and Rose are).

I will be publishing my virtual ballot in a few weeks, here was my last years. As a teaser, I'm probably reconsidering Abreu, Rolen, and of course there are new eligible candidates to consider.

All Photos taken by me unless otherwise credited.


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