Sportswriters across the country have determined that some of the best baseball players in recent history should not be honored for their feats on the diamond because of their ties to performance-enhancing drugs. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America announced Tuesday that it will induct second baseman Craig Biggio and pitchers John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It skipped over stars such as Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, all of whom have been scrutinized for steroids use.
There is no standard within the BBWAA on how to account for alleged steroid use. Since the potential inductees’ fates are decided not just on statistics, but on writers’ opinions as well, it’s a battle every year for who will get in. The so-called steroid era has made that battle much more difficult. In 2014, the first year of eligibility for such stars as Clemens, Bonds and Sammy Sosa, the BBWAA snubbed them and all other recently retired players. Last summer, the Hall of Fame reduced the number of years a player can remain on the ballot from 15 to 10, meaning the window of eligibility for McGwire and others may soon shut.
McGwire has suffered the most for his connections to steroids, steadily declining from grabbing around 23 percent of the vote in 2007 to 10 percent in 2015. Clemens and Bonds have hovered at around 35 percent since they were first put on the ballot, but got just a few more votes to finish in at 37.5 percent and 36.8 percent this year, respectively.
Meanwhile, the jury was in on Martinez, Johnson and Smoltz, all dominating pitchers throughout their careers, who were inducted in their first year on the Hall of Fame ballot. Johnson, the 6-foot 10-inch lefty known as the Big Unit, won five Cy Young Awards and won 97.3 percent of the vote, the eighth highest percentage ever. Smoltz is the only pitcher in history to have 200 wins and 150 saves and is a member of the 3,000 strikeout club. Martinez was the undisputed best pitcher in baseball during the height of his career, which also happened to be the very steroid era that Bonds and McGwire represent for many.
But the low ballot results for McGwire, Bonds and could change in coming years as these players' images soften and younger writers, who tend to be more forgiving about PED use, become the majority in the BBWAA. “There’s a lot of old guys voting, but the percentage of young voters is going to increase,” said Chris Dial, a director at the Society for American Baseball Research and a researcher at Baseball Think Factory. “Those voters are far more forgiving about steroid use, mostly because they are more educated about the fact that it didn’t have a huge impact.”
Writers warmed over time to other players with trouble in different eras, such as players caught using marijuana in the 1970s and with players like Steven Carlton, who hated speaking to reporters and was snubbed for years, Dial said.
Almost all empirical research on PED use in the big leagues suggest that they had negligible effects on players’ performance. At most, they helped them stay in the league longer and deteriorate more slowly, which is largely irrelevant in regard to these players, who posted HOF-like numbers before their "juicing" eras, according to David Moulton of ESPN 99.3.
Analyst Nate Silver and Sports Illustrated's Jay Jaffe also have largely debunked the notion that PEDs greatly improved these players' performance, but baseball writers have clearly taken moral stances with their votes. This list of ballot choices by 11 Philadelphia-based writers had five writers choosing Bonds and Clemens. Rob Maaddi of the Associated Press, who voted for both, is the only one to vote for Sosa. He and Jack McCaffery of the Delaware County Daily Times, who also had Bonds and Clemens, were the only writers to vote for McGwire. The other six left all four players off, hinting there was an ideological difference between the writers.
Ken Davidoff of the New York Post voted for both Bonds and Clemens and said of his methodology that “I don’t worry about the authenticity of players’ résumés, as I believe such a concept never has existed, doesn’t exist now and never will exist in Major League Baseball. If baseball didn’t find a player guilty of a transgression, I won’t retroactively impose guilt.”
Jeff Schultz of at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said he was “consistent with his voting philosophy” and refuses to vote for players who allegedly used PEDs unless they admitted it or were proved innocent. “I don’t believe Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa would have had HOF credentials if they played clean,” he said. “I do believe Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens would have been Hall of Fame players without PEDs but I’m not moved to vote for either until they shed some light on their use.”
Barry Svrluga at the Washington Post said the voting process is flawed. He asked: “Should baseball writers be judge and jury, imposing their personal morality on some of the game’s great players who provided some of the game’s most memorable moments?”
Bob Nightengale at USA TODAY was also critical of the voting on Tuesday, calling it a “travesty” and a “farce.” “I can’t wait until two years from now and watch writers snub Bonds and Clemens, but turn around and vote for catcher Pudge Rodriguez in his first appearance on the ballot,” he said. “Yep, just pretend the 30 pounds he lost over the winter of 2004 was a magical weight-loss program, and not a coincidence it occurred at the exact time steroid testing with penalties was implemented.”
The Hall of Fame's decision to reduce the number of years a player is eligible to be voted into Cooperstown gives some steroid era players less time to sweeten in the eyes of the writers, which prompted speculation it was a way to avoid five more years of controversy over who gets in or left out.
“That’s really what people believe is behind shortening the vote,” Dial said. “If you had 15 years, maybe some of these players would have a better shot. Now we’re only going to have it for 10 or five years … We’re going to have a lot of stress about this until at least 2021."