Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, two of the greatest baseball players of all time, did not gain entrance to the Hall of Fame Wednesday because they (almost certainly) used performance-enhancing drugs. In their first year on the ballot, Clemens got 37.6 percent of votes and Bonds 36.2 percent — well short of the 75 percent needed for entrance into the Hall. Indeed, no one made it into the Hall of Fame this year.
In barring those two retired stars — plus several known users — the Hall's voters sent a clear signal that PEDs are a black mark against even the most accomplished, storied players to ever take the field.
Voters are certainly within their rights to bar juicers, arguing that their numbers are tainted and inflated, or that they disgraced the sport. Yet while decrying the imbalanced playing field steroids created, these same voters are creating an imbalanced playing field in the voting process by still comparing the feats of cheaters to those of their clean (as far as we know) contemporaries.
Though the gaudy numbers put up by known or suspected users are rarely considered accurate signs of a player's true skill level, they're still accepted as the rubric by which other players of the era are judged. Though no one believes Bonds would have hit quite as many homers as he did without some artificial help, his seasons-long dominance set a benchmark against which all other hitters of the day are compared.
Take the case of Craig Biggio, who led all vote-getters with 68.2 percent. Biggio's career statistics are on par with those of many Hall members. He notched 3,000 hits and stole 400 bases over his 20-year career, making him one of only three players ever to accomplish both feats. The other two, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, are enshrined in Cooperstown. Biggio also ranks fifth all-time in doubles, 15th in runs scored, and he reached base more times in his career than all but 17 other players.
Unfortunately for Biggio, he played in an era dominated by bloated home run tallies and superstar names. In 1998, Biggio led the league in doubles and hit 20 home runs while posting an amazing .325/.403/.503 slash line (batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage.) That same year, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's home run race entranced the nation, culminating with McGwire shattering the decades-old record for most long balls in a season.
Compared to the muscle-inflated excesses of the late 90s, Biggio's quiet consistency can seem almost pedestrian. Fair or not, his career statistics will always be viewed alongside the inflated totals of the steroid era, setting up a Catch-22 voting process. Had he cheated, he'd be ineligible; by not cheating, he didn't stand out.
As one voter wrote last month, "[W]hen I think of the most dominating players in the 1990s and 2000s, Biggio...just doesn't rank at the top." Another voter, making his Hall predictions Tuesday, said Biggio's name, "doesn't leap out" when presented alongside the other candidates on this year's ballot.
Biggio's longtime teammate, Jeff Bagwell, has already seen his Hall chances similarly harmed. Though he was a preeminent slugger, Bagwell couldn't compare to the otherworldly mashing of McGwire, Bonds, and Sosa. This year — his third time on the ballot — Bagwell didn't even manage to crack 60 percent.
But consider his numbers. By WAR — an advanced stat that measures a player's offensive and defensive play to determine how many "wins" he was worth — Bagwell ranks 36th all-time. Every eligible player above him on that list — and plenty more below — have already been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Among first basemen, Bagwell ranks eighth all-time.
Bagwell's case for enshrinement is less clear-cut than Biggio's, but it is robust nonetheless. Yet he too never got much time in the spotlight, appearing in only four All-Star games (McGwire got the nod over him for several years) and topping 40 home runs just three times in his career.
Add to this the fact that voters have spurned players based on, at times, completely unfounded suspicions of steroid use, and the voting process breaks down as an untenable, ad hoc exercise. Voters have openly said steroid suspicions kept them from voting for Bagwell in the past. In the weeks leading up to today's announcement, more wondered if Mike Piazza, another slugger dogged by unsubstantiated rumors, would be doomed to a similar fate. He was: Piazza, one of the greatest offensive catchers ever, got 57.8 percent of the votes in his first year on the ballot.
If Hall voters want to disregard steroid users, they need to disregard their impact on the game entirely. Otherwise, deserving players will continue to face an uphill slog to induction, their honest achievements overlooked in the shadow of dishonest triumphs.