Baseball’s Great Hall of Fame Debate
Everybody has an opinion on who should and should not be in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. I have an opinion. MLB analysts have an opinion. Sports writers have an opinion. Hall of Fame voters have an opinion.
When I first set out to write this story which, full disclosure, is an assignment for school, I planned to write about why opinion is “true.” However, after getting four unique perspectives from the aforementioned professionals with far more baseball knowledge than I have, it is obvious that there is no “right” answer in this ongoing debate.
As we head into 2022, this debate is more polarized than ever. Of course, the main source of the polarization comes from candidates’ use, and sometimes just alleged use, of steroids. The debate has also reached a pressure point because of who is on the ballot this year. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa are all on the ballot for the tenth and final time. The rules of the Hall of Fame state that, “candidates remain on the BBWAA (Baseball Writers’ Association of America) ballot for 10 years provided they are not elected and they are named on at least five percent of all ballots cast each year.” Joining the returning candidates on the ballot is a group of first-time candidates that includes David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez. All five of these men have seen the debate surrounding their candidacies focus nearly exclusively on their involvement with steroids.
Barry Bonds’ list of career accolades is as long as anybody’s to ever play in the MLB. Throughout his 22 year career, Bonds won seven MVPs (a record), was a 14-time All Star, won eight Gold Gloves, 12 Silver Sluggers, and two batting titles. And of course, he is also the MLB’s all-time leader in career (762) and single season (73) home runs. However, his entire career has been marred by his use of performance enhancing drugs during his career renaissance in the early 2000s, at the peak of the MLB’s infamous “Steroid-Era”. As arguably the greatest player to ever live, Bonds’ ten-year run on the ballot has been, unsurprisingly, extremely polarizing. Many view steroid usage as an automatic eliminator from Hall of Fame consideration. On the other hand, before what we believe to be his first usage of PEDs in the late 1990s, the slugger had racked up a Hall of Fame worthy career featuring his first three MVPs, a .290 average and 411 home runs. In 2013, his first year on the ballot, Bonds received 36.2 percent of the vote. He obviously reached the 5% threshold to stay on another year, but was far away from the 75% required to make the Hall. He hovered in the 30s for two more years, before jumping to 44.3% in 2016 and then 53.8 in 2017. In 2020, he broke 60% for the first time and then in 2021, in a year where nobody reached 75%, Bonds reached his high of 61.8%.
Roger Clemens, much like Bonds, has a laundry list of career accolades. “Rocket” pitched for 24 seasons, won seven Cy Young Awards (his first in 1986 and his last in 2004), two pitching triple crowns, two World Series titles, an MVP award and 11 All Star Games. However, also like Bonds, Clemens’ legacy has been stained by links to steroids, specifically in the infamous “Mitchell Report,” and due to various indictments following his testimony in front of Congress. Clemens and Bonds’ vote percentages have been within decimals of each other throughout their nine years on the ballot (interestingly, albeit by a 61.8 to 61.6 margin, Bonds “jumped” Clemens for the first time last year). The argument remains the same, some say steroid usage equals no Hall of Fame, others say he’d have been a Hall of Famer regardless.
Sammy Sosa represents a very interesting Hall of Fame case. His usage of PEDs seems to be more assumed than actually proven. Unlike Bonds and Clemens, Sosa would not have even been a fringe Hall of Fame candidate prior to his peak right in the midst of the steroid era. Looking at his overall numbers, his 609 home runs are ninth all-time (behind five Hall of Famers, Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and the active but Cooperstown-bound Albert Pujols), but aside from that he “only” made seven All Star Games and won one MVP. Taking all of this into account, it makes sense why Sosa has hovered between 6.6% and 17% in his nine years on the ballot.
Moving to the first-year candidates, Alex Rodriguez is here to take over the mantle of Bonds and Clemens as they exit the ballot. In his career, the always polarizing A-Rod hit 696 home runs (forth most all-time), won three MVPs, played in 14 All Star Games, helped lead the Yankees to the 2009 World Series, among many other accomplishments. However, Rodriguez admitted to using steroids in the early 2000s and then was suspended for the entire 2014 season due to another PED usage scandal. While he spent most of his career as a villain, Rodriguez has really repaired his public image through his television and media work. His public image improvement combined with Bonds and Clemens’ gradual rise from the 30% range to potential enshrinement this year, gives Rodriguez much more hope than one would have expected five years ago when he retired.
David Ortiz joins the ballot as a 10-time All Star, a seven-time Silver Slugger and is unquestionably one of the clutchest players in the history of the sport as he helped lead the Red Sox to three World Series titles. Regarding his links to controversy, he was mentioned by the New York Times, among many other players, as having tested positive for PED usage in 2003. However, his alleged positive test has seemingly been brushed off by everybody from the biggest diehard Red Sox fan all the way to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. Ortiz, unlike Rodriguez, spent his career as one of the league's most “lovable” figures and that has carried on into his post-playing career in the media. Unlike the other four players mentioned, Ortiz’s link to PEDs has seemingly not tarnished his legacy in any way. Honestly, the fact that Ortiz was primarily a Designated Hitter (only Edgar Martinez, on his last attempt in 2019, has gotten into the Hall of Fame as primarily a DH), is probably the biggest obstacle he faces.
Now that all of the background is out of the way, let's get to the great debate. Even though everybody is obviously dying to hear my opinion, let me first start by breaking down the thoughts of the four experts that I received comments from. As somebody trying to break into the world of sports media, it was truly amazing that I was able to get responses from professionals in positions that I strive to be in one day.
The first person that I spoke to was Ryan Spaeder. Spaeder is one of the best and most innovative MLB analysts in the business. He was a perfect person to talk to for this article because he runs an awesome project where former MLB players cast their Hall of Fame ballot as if they were a BBWAA member (the MLB does not consider votes from players, something I definitely disagree with, but that’s for another article). So far in 2021, current and former MLB players have voted in Spaeder’s project at 78.1% rate for Bonds and Clemens (enough to get in using the standard BBWAA rules), while Ortiz is at 71.9%, Sosa at 53.1%, and Rodriguez at 43.7%. While I already know where the writers stand, and now I know where the players stand, I was curious to see what Spaeder thought. This culminated in a very candid ten-minute phone conversation where he answered all of my questions.
Right away, Spaeder made his thoughts very clear. “It’s a terrible, terrible thing that we’ve been reduced to pointing a finger at this player, that player, this player, that player, and I just don’t see success in baseball by doing that.” Regarding Rodriguez’s 43.7% showing among the players he’s polled, Spaeder pointed to the fact that A-Rod “cheated the system” after rules were put in place, unlike Bonds and Clemens who did it before. He drew a comparison to Pete Rose, saying that players have told him that “of course” Rose is a Hall of Famer, but he broke the legitimate rule that is don’t gamble on baseball. It was very interesting to get that perspective when it comes to breaking legitimate rules versus operating in the gray area. After all of our talk back and forth, I was most curious about his answers to two questions: What would he do as a voter? And what does he think the voters do? His answer to the first question can be summed up in one great quote, “It’s not the hall of angels.” Spaeder believes that “the good, the bad, and the ugly belong in the Hall of Fame,” and would vote for all five of Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, Rodriguez and Ortiz. Regarding what he thinks happens, Spaeder believes that Bonds and Clemens will finally get in after “paying their dues” (a phrase that I suggested, and one that pained him to agree with because it was “bullshit” that those two are even in this situation). He is confident that Ortiz gets in, while also noting the “pass” that he has received, is torn on Rodriguez, and doesn’t expect a miracle for Sosa. Overall, my biggest takeaway from my conversation with Spaeder is his opinion that the players already faced their punishment and that their hall of fame worthy careers should be treated as such.
My next conversation was with veteran writer Jeff Pearlman, one of my inspirations as a sports writer and the author of biographies on both Barry Bonds, Love Me, Hate Me (2006), and Roger Clemens, The Rocket That Fell to Earth (2009). He was nice enough to respond to my message on Twitter and provide me with answers to my two main questions, and then some.
Pearlman took the complete opposite stance of Spaeder, exactly what I was hoping for when writing this piece about the polarization of this debate (imagine how pointless this article would have been if everybody agreed). He would not vote for anybody from the group of five controversial candidates. “They cheated. They didn’t have to cheat. The baseball record book meant something once. They ruined it. They don’t get in.” Regarding what he thinks happens, he believes that from that group, only Ortiz has a shot. He ended his response with an all-time quote of, “I don’t think A-Rod ever gets in. Ortiz might, because people like him. As fucked up as that is.” While Pearlman and Spaeder disagreed on nearly everything, at least they both pointed out Ortiz’s odd pass.
Armed with two perfectly opposing viewpoints, I could have stopped right there and broke the tie myself. However, I was able to get in contact with both Sadiel Lebron and the New York Post’s Ken Davidoff, two BBWAA members and actual Hall of Fame voters!
Lebron had posted his submitted ballot a few days earlier, so I was able to get both his rationale and his expectations. He told me that when voting he doesn’t consider the use of PEDs. Additionally, he echoed the common argument that Barry Bonds was a Hall of Famer prior to his usage and that guys like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire (who fell off the ballot in 2016 after ten years) brought “brightness” to baseball in the late 1990s. He also noted Sosa and Ortiz’ “suspected” use rather than actual proof. Lebron was the latest to bring up A-Rod as a “special case” because of his 2013 scandal. It was very interesting to go inside the mind of a voter, because Lebron explained his unique reasoning for not voting for Barry Bonds this year, after voting for him in prior years. “I did not vote for Bonds this year because I am assuming that he will not get in, but will have enough votes to go to the Veterans Committee for future considerations… So I put Sosa on to give him a chance to go to the Veterans Committee as well, because he has not received the deserved votes every year”. I thought that was a very thoughtful and unexpected response, but now we know who to blame if Bonds is one vote short. Lebron also told me that he does not think any of the five players will be inducted.
Unlike the contrast between Spaeder and Pearlman, Davidoff echoed a lot of Lebron’s sentiments. When asked how much he considers PED usage when voting, his response was simple; “Not at all.” Therefore, it is not surprising that he has voted for Bonds and Clemens every single year and thinks “it’s embarrassing” that they haven’t been inducted. While Davidoff personally does not factor in PED usage, he doesn’t seem to have much hope that his fellow voters will do the same. He expects Bonds, Clemens and Sosa to all fall off of the ballot this year, and Rodriguez and Ortiz to both miss out on their first attempt. However, he does think Ortiz eventually gets in (but not A-Rod, once again pointing to his violation of set rules).
Overall, my crowdsourcing of an MLB analyst, a veteran author and two Hall of Fame voters has brought me mixed results. What I know for sure is that David Ortiz got a pass and that Sammy Sosa remains the longest of longshots. However, Bonds, Clemens and Rodriguez remain as polarizing as ever.
Now, after hearing the thoughts of these four great professionals, here is my take. I do not think that steroid usage should be taken into account when it comes to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s so cliche, but you cannot tell the “story of baseball” without mentioning guys like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez and even David Ortiz and Sammy Sosa. At the end of the day, the Hall of Fame is a museum that serves as a historical artifact for America’s pastime (plus, would there be anything more American than celebrating people who cheated to get a leg up?). I’m with Ryan Spaeder, take the good, the bad and the ugly. If you want to put some kind of asterisk on their plaques, fine, I wouldn’t be mad at that. However, for Bonds and Clemens specifically, their public image and ten years of waiting have already given them an inherent asterisk. Fair or not, I believe that the greatest hitter and pitcher of their generation have “paid their dues'' for long enough and are long overdue for a trip to Cooperstown. Additionally, and I’m not saying anything new here as countless books have been written and movies have been made about steroids in baseball, but the “steroid era” saved the sport. It’s ridiculous to keep punishing guys that helped revive baseball all because they did something that was somewhere between violating an unwritten rule and nothing wrong at all. Especially when Bud Selig, the commissioner who oversaw it all, is already in the Hall of Fame. My last major point is that cream still rises to the top. It seems fair to assume that hundreds of players were taking all sorts of PEDs during the late 90s and early 2000s, Clemens and Bonds, who were already Hall of Famer caliber players, just happened to be better. It reminds me of Babe Ruth, who coincidentally went viral today as there is new footage of him weakley striking out on three pitches. People love to say Ruth couldn’t play today, and of course that is true, but you have to compare him to the players that he was up against. His dominance in his era is why I tend to go to him as my “GOAT” in baseball. While it’s not a perfect comparison, I feel the same way about steroid users. Bonds and Clemens were dominating in a time where PEDs were the most prominent, I think that has to count at least a little bit.
With all of that being said, here is where I stand on my two key questions.
Barry Bonds would 1000% get my vote for the Hall of Fame. He would have in 2013, and he would this year. For all the reasons I just listed, he fits the criteria and deserves a spot in Cooperstown. Also, I’m going to make the bold prediction that he just sneaks in over the 75% threshold and gets inducted.
Regarding Roger Clemens, I may as well just copy and paste the above. I would have always voted for him, I’d vote for him today, and I think that he just sneaks in.
I feel bad for Sammy Sosa, and I think I’d personally vote for him. His PED case is pretty comparable to Ortiz’s, and he may have an even better Hall of Fame case. However, him not getting in this year, which I think is a lock, will just highlight the Ortiz pass even more.
Speaking of Ortiz, even as a Red Sox-hater who has been pointing out his free pass for years, I would be a hypocrite to not vote yes. He’d be on the Mount Rushmore of clutch athletes in my lifetime and should get credit for what he meant to the Red Sox franchise. I’m going to predict that it takes three tries for him to get in, but more because of him being a DH and his overall resume more so than the 2003 test.
Alex Rodriguez’s playoff struggles tortured me as a young baseball fan and then his 2009 postseason heroics made me an irrational defender no matter what, but I can’t deny that his case is the most complicated. The fact that he admitted to taking steroids initially, which I guess should be celebrated more than the guys indicted for committing perjury, and then obviously the 2014 suspension makes me think he has a sub-50% chance of getting in, even despite his image rehab. Personally, I would still vote for him, but honestly it did give me some pause. Like Ortiz, I’m confident it won’t be first ballot, but if Bonds and Clemens do get in, I think Rodriguez lands in the Hall of Fame somewhere around his fourth or fifth year.
And let Pete Rose in too!
Despite my strong stance, I obviously understand that my opinion is not the most popular one. Considering I was born in 1999, I never got to experience a pre-steroid baseball world, so I’ll never be able to truly grasp the arguments that they ruined the “sanctity” of the game, and I think this is very common for baseball fans in my generation. However, I am completely fascinated by the debate and really enjoyed and appreciated getting to hear from four people in the industry that I admire and respect. At the end of the day, it’s just sports, so it’s fun and healthy to be able to have these debates (and it’s much nicer to write/talk about the polarization of the Baseball Hall of Fame than all of the other polarization in the world today (there will not be a sequel to this article about Curt Schilling’s candidacy)).
The most important thing about this year is that once the Class of 2022 is announced, the debate is practically over. If Bonds and Clemens get in, the door is open for Ortiz and Rodriguez (unless the new debate becomes cheating in the 2010s) to walk right in behind them. If the seven-time MVP and the seven-time Cy Young winner fall off the ballot, then nobody associated with PEDs should ever be allowed in. Everybody else associated with PEDs is either already off the ballot or a fringe Hall of Fame candidate as is, so let’s enjoy these last few months of arguing!