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The Baseball Hall of Fame’s Struggle With the Steroid Era Ends in an Awkward Stalemate

By excluding Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens on Tuesday, the HOF blocked out arguably the most accomplished pitcher and hitter in baseball history—and ended one of its most heated, entrenched debates

AP/Ringer illustration

David Ortiz’s Hall of Fame case is both innately compelling and a bit of a throwback. His objective accomplishments are impressive—five top-five MVP finishes, 10 All-Star Game appearances, three World Series titles with a positively ludicrous postseason batting record, and 541 career home runs. But unlike most modern power hitters, Ortiz’s appeal doesn’t come from numbers or accolades, but rather from his story—a series of vignettes like those you’d hear about Jimmie Foxx or Satchel Paige.

Most of us remember his mannerisms and affectations: the high-fives, the bear hugs, the imposing left-handed swing, the ease with which he laughed from the dugout to the basepaths to the Fox broadcast stage. Certainly the 2013 Fenway Park speech that made him de facto mayor for life of Boston.

In many respects, he is Boston’s Derek Jeter. While Jeter was a Yankees lifer who made understated competence into a global brand, Ortiz was a cast-off who found new life in Boston’s colors, the most avuncular star ballplayer of the 21st century.

Ortiz is usually the center of attention wherever he goes, and six months from now, he’ll stand under a marquee in upstate New York and receive the greatest adulation of his life. But Tuesday, when the results of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) balloting were announced, his election was of secondary importance.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, arguably the most accomplished hitter and pitcher in MLB history, respectively, have fallen short of election on their final attempts. Bonds, with 260 votes, and Clemens, with 257, fell agonizingly short of the 296 necessary to meet the Hall of Fame’s 75 percent threshold. Together, the two made the perfect test cases for PED discourse in baseball. Both were already in the midst of Hall of Fame–caliber careers when, around the turn of the century, they suddenly became better than ever. Bonds took the single-season and career home run records, and hit .362/.609/.812 in 2004. Clemens won four Cy Young awards after turning 35, and posted a 1.87 ERA for the Astros at age 42.

It was performances like these—from players who, despite their achievements, were never truly beloved in the first place and therefore made easy villains—that turned steroids in baseball from an open secret to something that felt artificial. By December 2007, they were the headline names in the Mitchell Report; neither appeared in an MLB game thereafter.

By the time they hit the Hall of Fame ballot in 2013, PED hysteria was at a peak, and even though the likes of Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro had felt the wrath of voters already, the appearances of the two most notorious perpetrators on the ballot refocused public ire. Every winter since, voters, writers, analysts, and fans have picked over their cases as a rite of seasonal passage—to the point that Bonds, Clemens, and Alex Rodriguez are now the only three eligible players out of 31 with at least 100 career wins above replacement to not be in the Hall.

Having Bonds and Clemens off the ballot won’t exactly end the baseball world’s moral panic around performance-enhancing drugs. But it resolves that conflict’s most ferocious chapter. Even as the infamous duo shuffled closer than ever to enshrinement, the war of words changed from pervasive to perfunctory. PED discourse—with Bonds at its center—dominated baseball circles from the time Ortiz was with the Minnesota Twins in the early 2000s. But after 20 years, that argument has not only cooled off, it’s gone stale and mealy in the fridge.

Sure, Bonds and Clemens still have their advocates. Even though they fell short of the election threshold, a supermajority of the BBWAA electors considered them worthy of enshrinement. Not only in spite of the PED allegations, but also the fact that Bonds and Clemens both have far more serious character questions than just cheating at baseball.

But even though the electorate is gradually taking a softer stance with regard to the steroid era, as the composition of the BBWAA shifts and the sense of betrayal fades with time, individual voters seem mostly to have staked out their positions on the issue. In addition to absolutists on both sides—the type of people who voted against Jeff Bagwell back in the day because he had big forearms, or those who’ll check any name that’s eligible if their numbers are good—other voters draw the line at players who were actually suspended for PED use.

For instance, Ortiz reportedly failed a 2003 drug screening, the results of which were supposed to be anonymous and confidential but were later published in 2009. He still got 77.9 percent of the vote. Clemens and Bonds—who, for all the reports about the cream, the clear, and “creepy” bathroom injections, were never officially sanctioned by MLB—came close. But Manny Ramirez, who came up in the same 2003 list as Ortiz, languishes in the high 20s after being twice suspended by MLB. So does Rodriguez, who has a better statistical Hall of Fame case than any position player alive, Bonds excepted, but was suspended for the 2014 season as a result of the Biogenesis investigation. He received just 135 votes in his first year on the ballot, less than half what he’d need to make it to Cooperstown. Then there were other voters who tried to game out the impact PEDs had on various players’ careers on a case-by-case basis. (“Bonds and Clemens yes, Sammy Sosa no” was a popular voting position.) And others who, frustrated by a lack of guidance or uncomfortable with the authority foisted upon them, have decided to abstain from Hall of Fame voting.

The lack of hard-and-fast guidance for the Hall of Fame could produce no other outcome than the chaotic and capricious aggregate of 394 voters’ individual standards and consciences. Which on one hand is the explicit purpose of democracy—the aggregation of diverse interests into unitary action everyone can live with—but still leaves us with inconsistent outcomes. Bagwell and Mike Piazza waited years to be inducted because they played at the wrong time, while Ortiz gets in on the first ballot despite a positive test because … well, people seem to like him more.

If nothing else, that fits with the application of anti-doping norms throughout sports history: Ben Johnson is irredeemable, Carl Lewis irreproachable. Lance Armstrong is a pariah, Marco Pantani a tragic, romantic hero. And so it goes for baseball, which cheered (at least at the time) McGwire’s assault on the home run record in 1998, only to turn on Bonds three years later.

Even so, individual voters’ positions have more or less calcified. The deadlock over A-Rod and Manny will likely continue for the better part of the next decade, and we’ll be talking about Robinson Canó well into the 2030s. But we won’t be arguing about them as much as we did over this group. That’s not because this generation is easier to root for—hating A-Rod is its own cottage industry at this point—but because the arguments themselves are tired and unproductive.

For all the angry tweets, spittle-flinging talk radio rants, and indignant column inches devoted to the virtues and/or misdeeds of reported steroid users, the needle (so to speak) isn’t moving anymore. Even in a society so hungry for debate that we can’t decide whether a hot dog is a sandwich, there’s not much more to be said about PEDs in baseball that hasn’t been said already. As the two biggest lightning rods drop off the ballot, now is as good a time as any to let the argument drop.

Moreover, the characteristic clogged ballots of the early 2010s are now a thing of the past. The Hall of Fame’s 10-player ballot limit had never really been an issue when the sport naturally seemed to produce no more than three or four worthy candidates in each class. But when anti-PED hysteria not only backed up the likes of Bonds and Clemens, but Piazza, Bagwell, McGwire, and others, permissive voters struggled to choose 10 players out of as many as 17 or 18 worthy candidates per year. Meanwhile, others were submitting blank ballots or dismissing every player from the blighted steroid era regardless of implication. (Or rather, every player except Jack Morris, apparently the one righteous man in Sodom and Gomorrah.)

But either through election or extinction, most of the peak steroid era candidates have been cleared, leaving the electorate once again to engage in the time-honored tradition of debating borderline candidates on merit: How much did Coors Field really help Larry Walker and Todd Helton? Was Billy Wagner better than Trevor Hoffman? Did we collectively underrate Scott Rolen during his playing years?

Unlike the PED debate, these questions can inspire new approaches in rhetoric and empirics—and more importantly, actually change how people think about a candidate, as Tim Raines, Larry Walker, Bert Blyleven, and even Morris can attest. And once again, that will become the dominant mode of Hall of Fame discourse, as the steroid question moves, if not into resolution, then at least to détente.