I don't have a vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but I do get to vote for the IBWAA Hall of Fame. I didn't vote for any player for whom there is strong evidence that they used steroids, and for whom steroids had a profound impact on their career. That meant, I did not vote for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Sammy Sosa.
(In case you were wondering, I did vote for Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, and Alan Trammell. Barry Larkin is technically not in the IBWAA Hall of Fame, so I voted for him too. And we could vote for veterans committee nominees, so I voted for Marvin Miller, Buzzie Bavasi, Gil Hodges, and Danny Murtaugh. I was limited to 10 selections total. I'm happy to explain each of these votes in a separate column, but that's not the focus of this article.)
I strongly disagree with those who are criticizing the writers for their refusal to vote for alleged steroid users, which led to no one being elected to the Hall of Fame this year. This large number of critics includes my LAObserved colleague Bob Timmerman.
For me, and I think many other writers, this refusal isn't about any heightened sense of morality or holier than thou attitude. Rather, it's a recognition that these fairly obvious steroid users need to be viewed differently from players currently in the Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball needs to create a set of rules on how to judge them.
I know plenty of writers who believe that players like Bonds and Clemens should eventually be honored, but they are waiting for some kind of guidance from MLB on what to do with these guys. Instead MLB has offered no such help, and given each writer license to essentially make up their own rules on how to deal with players from the steroid era. This is in stark contrast to MLB's stance on other indiscretions, such as gambling.
Why should these players really be viewed differently? Consider the case of Barry Bonds. It's essentially been proven in court that Bonds used steroids from 1999-2007 - although Bonds claimed he used them "unknowingly." Bonds paid enormous sums of money to a brilliant chemist named Victor Conte who created extremely sophisticated designer steroids for him. These drugs transformed Bonds from a player who was on course to finish with around 500 home runs into the greatest player in the history of the game for a period of several years. Bonds' 2001-2004 seasons are four of the greatest statistical seasons ever - despite coming in his late-30s - and they set him up to break the game's most cherished record by hitting 762 career home runs.
It is impossible to look at Bonds' career objectively and not consider the enormous impact that steroids had on it. Letting him into the Hall of Fame and not acknowledging his steroid use in some formal way seems fairly irresponsible. I also disagree with those who say that Bonds should be let in because "he was a Hall of Famer before he started using steroids." How would that work exactly? Would his plaque say "Hit 500 home runs naturally, then hit 262 more with the aid of the cream, the clear, and HGH. But let's not talk about those home runs."? How do you honor a part of man's career and without considering the signature accomplishments of his career, such as his four straight MVPs, the single-season home run record, and his surpassing Hank Aaron's mark? You can't.
The same issues arise with other players on this year's ballot. In 1997, Roger Clemens was considered washed up and the Boston Red Sox decided to let him go. If the MLB's Mitchell Report is correct, then Clemens started taking performance-enhancing substances that led him to win an additional four Cy Young Awards and earn 162 of his 354 career wins. He may have been a Hall of Famer before 1997, but how can you ignore the last 11 remarkably productive seasons of his career?
At some point in his career, Sammy Sosa transformed from an inconsistent power hitter to a "60-home run guy," which is a label that's rarely been used in baseball history. The New York Times reported Sosa tested positive for steroids in 2003, and he pretended he didn't know English when testifying before Congress about allegations against him. Without steroids, he's probably not a Hall of Famer.
Mark McGwire admitted to using steroids for much of the 1990s, including during his legendary 1998 season. Rafael Palmeiro actually did test positive for steroids. While there's no evidence to suggest that Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell ever used steroids, I think many voters are leery of electing a player and then finding out later that he did use. How do you view his career then?
The problem is that the Hall of Fame probably has steroid users already. Steroids were so prevalent in the game, beginning in the early-1990s, that it would hardly come as a shock if we learned that multiple Hall of Famers used these substances.
Here is where I put on my unfair suspicion hat for a minute... Would it surprise you if it was discovered that Cal Ripken, Jr. used steroids in an effort to stay on the field every day and then maintain fairly decent numbers through the age of 40? Would it surprise you if it was found that Tony Gwynn turned to steroids in 1997 when he slugged .547 and hit 119 RBIs at the age of 37? Did Roberto Alomar use steroids during his fantastic 2001 season in Cleveland? Did steroids contribute to Kirby Puckett's sudden health issues that prematurely ended his career and then tragically ended his life in 2006? Should we take these guys out of the Hall if we learn that they used performance-enhancing substances?
I'm not accusing any of these players, but I'm simply pointing out that there is a reasonable cloud of suspicion that essentially hangs over anyone who played from 1993 until testing was instituted in 2004. It's also very difficult to assess the career of someone who may have only used steroids once (e.g. Andy Pettitte if you believe him) as opposed to someone whose career achievements were defined by steroids (e.g. Bonds, McGwire, etc.).
All of these points lead me to propose my own solution to Major League Baseball for guidelines on how to deal with players from the "Steroid Era." I actually do believe that the accomplishments of Bonds, Clemens, McGwire and others simply cannot be ignored. They left an indelible mark on the history of the game. I also think the impact that steroids had on their careers needs to be acknowledged. However, it's unfair to acknowledge it for some people, and not others who plausibly could be culpable.
As a result, I believe MLB should create a special wing of the Hall of Fame for every elected player who competed between 1993 and 2004. On each plaque it should say "Played in an era marked by rampant steroid use" or some line that is similar. This sentence would not only apply to Bonds and Clemens, but it would also apply to seemingly innocent people who played during these years like Ripken and Gwynn. Even if the latter two didn't use steroids, they were ultimately part of a union that vigorously opposed testing for years. Sure, steroids were allowed at the time, but you'll be hard pressed to find any player not named Jose Canseco who didn't think using them was wrong on some level.
For those who say that the owners profited off these accomplishments for years, and deliberately turned a blind eye to steroids... I actually think they are now starting to feel the painful effects of their actions.
One aspect of baseball that makes it such a special sport is its statistics. Other sports have stats, but none have numbers that are as celebrated and meaningful as the numbers we recognize in baseball. The Steroid Era has obliterated many of the game's most cherished numbers and left many of the game's records in a confusing state. The numbers 755 and 61 used to mean something important. They were part of the fabric of the game. The numbers 762 and 73 are tainted and no one pays attention to them.
I believe that the Steroid Era has eroded the history of the game, and has cast a cloud of suspicion on essentially all accomplishments over a substantial period of time. And when you mess with such an important aspect that game that's really embedded into its soul, then you make the sport much less popular.
By some measures MLB is as successful as ever. But it's worth noting that World Series ratings have consistently declined over the years. Baseball was already firmly behind football in the national conversation, and I believe that it's faded behind basketball as well.
Perhaps it's ridiculously idealistic and pie-in-the-sky for me to think that the game would be more popular today if steroids never entered baseball. But I look at a sport today that has no mainstream marketable stars anymore and wonder what kind of a future it might have. It can't turn to its most recent stars because they are all tainted, and even some of today's greats are viewed with suspicion.
The best way for baseball to move forward is to openly acknowledge its troubled past, and then build for the future in a constructive way. With its new testing program that includes HGH blood tests, I think MLB is on the right path. Now they just need to provide guidelines to writers on how to evaluate its former path.