Passing the Steroid Buck-Major League Baseball and Hall of Fame Voting

The recent Hall of Fame balloting yielded some interesting results. First, for the first time in several years there were no false positives. The two players elected, Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar, were well deserving of the honor and in no way bring down the overall quality of players in the Hall of Fame. This is different than each of the last two years when the election of borderline candidates like Jim Rice and Andre Dawson troubled many because many clearly superior players, for example Tim Raines, did not get elected while other superior players, like Will Clark, who were contemporaries of these two received little or no support when they were on the ballot.

There was, however, some controversy surrounding the Hall of Fame voting because of how the voters treated steroid era candidates. Known steroid users, such as Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire did quite poorly suggesting that Hall of Fame voters are not ready to forgive them for their steroid use. More interestingly, at least one candidate, Jeff Bagwell, appears to have lost some votes, not because he was found to have used steroids but because there is some suspicion, based apparently on his body type and power numbers, that he used steroids. This is troubling and a long way from innocent until proven guilty.

It is easy to fault members of the BBWAA who are Hall of Fame voters for judging Bagwell this way. After all, it seems unfair to judge somebody based on evidence that amounts to being hearsay, rumors and circumstantial at best. However, because baseball never conclusively resolved the steroid problem, it is not entirely right to blame the Hall of Fame voters. We only know who used steroids based on information that was leaked, the Mitchell report which is hardly based on the most rigorous methodology, and other investigations. There never was a comprehensive effort to identify who took steroids and who didn’t. There are many reasons for this including the wishes of the players union, but also the almost certain concern on the part of MLB that universal testing would prove steroid use to be very widespread.

Accordingly, instead of a comprehensively addressing the issue who did or did not take steroids, baseball swept the question under the rug. However, the unappealing duty of lifting up the rug and sorting through the sweepings falls to the Hall of Fame voters every year, because they are charged with reexamining retired players to determine if they are worthy of baseball’s highest individual honor. This task is made even more difficult because MLB has offered the Hall of Fame voters no specific guidance regarding how to treat steroid use, thus leaving this question open to interpretation.

Not surprisingly, several different interpretations have emerged. Some voters refuse to vote for any player who was even suspected of steroid use; others are comfortable voting for steroid users; and some try to judge a player based on their pre-steroid use accomplishments which would lead to voting yes for Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens and no for McGwire or Palmeiro. The corollary to the Bagwell problem of having no certainty that he was not a steroid user is the candidacy of Fred McGriff. McGriff, whose numbers are not as strong as Bagwell’s, is broadly seen, again based on body type and career development, to have not been a steroid user. His candidacy rests on this assumption, but again because there was no testing, nobody can know for sure that even Fred McGriff was free of steroids, leading some voters to be cynical regarding any player from the steroid era.

The bad news is that this problem is going to get worse before it gets better. Voters two years from now will have to decide what to do about Clemens, Bonds, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa and others who were either known steroid users or people around whom there was a lot of suspicion. Given the cowardice and negligence with which MLB approached this issue for so long, it seems a little unfair to blame the Hall of Fame voters for a lack of clarity or inconsistency and to make them entirely responsible for resolving the problem now.