Steroid era clouds Hall of Fame ballot

For more than 75 years, the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown has become the ultimate individual honor in North American sports, even topping the other Halls of Fame in Springfield, Toronto and Canton.

That’s about to change. Unless some kind of action is taken, entry into Cooperstown is going to go from recognition for an incredible career to simply being found innocent by a jury that has seen few witnesses, reviewed little evidence and relied mostly on rumors, whispers and medical exams done via statistics.

The problem, of course, is steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). The Hall of Fame is dancing dangerously close to the edge of the cliff thanks to two names making their first appearances on the ballot — Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

In a normal world, Bonds and Clemens would be nearly unanimous choices for first-ballot induction. This year, though, polls of BBWAA voters show that they are likely to miss out, and by a wide margin. Since neither player was ever suspended for PED use, and accomplished enough to be listed in the top 20 players in major-league history, the only way to keep them out is by using the “integrity” and “sportsmanship” clauses on the ballot.

If voters believe that Bonds and Clemens used PEDs and got a large advantage from doing so, and there is certainly a great deal of evidence pointing to their usage, they are perfectly entitled to do so. But that takes Cooperstown into uncharted territory. Yes, Pete Rose isn’t inducted, but that’s because he’s permanently banned from the sport. Bonds and Clemens will become the poster children for the first group of players ever kept out of the Hall of Fame for issues that they were never punished for during their careers.

But they aren’t alone. Rafael Palmiero’s 500 homers and 3,000 hits haven’t come close to overcoming his late-career drug suspension, while Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have never recovered from the rumors of drug use that have overshadowed their epic 1998 home-run duel. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio are tarred by unusual statistics and association, and Mike Piazza was just too good for a player that no one took seriously in the draft.

That’s where things fall apart. If Bonds and Clemens can’t go in, and McGwire and Sosa can’t go in, and neither can Bagwell and Biggio and Piazza, who does get in? Does the Hall of Fame shut its doors to everyone who played in the mid-1990s? What happens next year when Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas are eligible? It’s hard to look at Maddux and imagine that he was using steroids, but what if he focused on building stamina instead of strength? Is a 23-season career suspicious now? Mussina won 20 games for the first time at the age of 39. Is that a reason to question someone?

I don’t know, and given the dearth of MDs in the BBWAA voting pool, I seriously doubt that any of my veteran colleagues know, either. Some studies have shown that taking PEDs would actually produce very little actual advantage, while others show that it would turn long fly balls into homers and might add a couple miles an hour to a fastball. So there’s no smoking gun in the stat lines — it could be a jump in homers, more strikeouts, but it could also be a long career or a quick recovery from an injury.

One of the few players who might get elected this year is former Tigers ace Jack Morris. As far as I know, there is absolutely no evidence of Morris using anything questionable in his career, but he provides a perfect example of how an innocent player can get burned by circumstantial evidence.

In Morris’ last two years with Detroit, at age 34 and 35, he went 21-32 with a 4.65 ERA. That looks like the end of a pitcher’s career, right? But at 36 and 37, he went 39-18 with a 3.73 ERA, finished in the top 5 of the Cy Young voting in both seasons and led his teams to a pair of World Series. Are there BBWAA voters looking at those numbers and thinking about what Morris might have done to extend his career?

At this point, the thinking among many of my colleagues is to wait 15 years — the longest a player can stay on the ballot — and see if new evidence comes out in the meantime. But in 15 years, will people be wondering exactly how Justin Verlander threw 100 mph when he was 130 pitches deep into a game? Or trying to decide if Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder’s awesome power had a little extra help? Cooperstown just can’t stop inducting players until 2027, and there aren’t any blood samples frozen that people will be able to test down the road. Waiting does keep people from having to make hard decisions right now, but it’s just going to make the problem worse as time goes on.

And let’s say in five years someone writes a tell-all book that implicates a few Hall of Fame-caliber players from the mid-1990s. Does that mean they are out? Does that mean that anyone who isn’t mentioned is in? We still won’t have any idea what percentage of players used PEDs, nor the effect of the drugs they used. If Bonds was using, were 10 percent of the pitchers he was facing? Thirty percent? Ninety percent? How many batters were using PEDs when they faced Clemens? If he took something, was it to get ahead or to catch up?

Once you’ve been a member of the BBWAA for 10 years, you get a Hall of Fame vote. Mine will come in 2023, so I’ll be facing these same questions, and I’m willing to admit right now that I can’t answer them. I’ve heard rumors and whispers that I can’t print, but can I vote via information that I can’t use to publicly justify my ballot? I’ve studied baseball statistics since I could read, but I don’t think I’m Sherlock Holmes — I can’t tell who took what by the numbers on a baseball card or on a website.

At the end of the day, I think the BBWAA has to judge on what happened on the field. If baseball turned a blind eye to what players were doing, I don’t think the writers have the authority or expertise to hand out retroactive punishments. If a player performed at a Hall of Fame level, whether he was using steroids, HGH or the amphetamines readily available in the 1960s, and baseball never punished him, he should go into the Hall.

That’s the only way the system can sanely work.