When the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) vote was counted last week and nobody was elected to the Hall of Fame this year, it signaled a tipping point in the ongoing debate about performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in baseball. With Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens appearing on the ballot for the first time, and receiving just 36.2% and 37.6% of the vote, respectively (it takes 75% for enshrinement), the writers have made a statement. It can’t be argued, based on numbers alone, that Bonds isn’t in the top 5 position players of all time and Clemens isn’t a top 5 pitcher. Absent suspicion of PED abuse, each would have been a first ballot lock. Remember, neither has admitted (wink, wink) to knowingly using PEDs, despite mountains of evidence. They’ve been convicted, and rightfully so in my eyes, in only the court of public opinion. More interesting to me is the case of Mike Piazza, who received 57.8% of the vote in his first time on the ballot. Other than rumors and innuendo, Piazza has never been formally linked to PED use. His numbers at the catcher position certainly make him Hall of Fame worthy, but suspicions in the PED era cast a wide net.
There has been so much debate about how to handle the PED era in documenting the history of baseball. More than any other sport, baseball is anchored by its history and its numbers. Both have been severely tainted by the widespread use of PEDs from the mid- to late-1990s through the early 2000s. The culpability is widespread: Bud Selig and the owners turned a blind eye; the players’ association worked far harder to protect the dirty players than they did the clean ones; and fans and baseball media alike ignored obvious evidence of PED use, such as Brady Anderson going from 15 homeruns to 50 homeruns overnight, and Bonds’s head doubling in size. It is for this last reason that I think the BBWAA is taking the stance it is now. They missed the boat on this completely. They were in these locker rooms, covering these teams coast to coast, and they somehow either missed the rampant PED abuse or chose to ignore it. From a journalistic standpoint, it is inexcusable. They are collectively tainted by the stain as well. This is the writer’s chance to exert some measure of revenge.
The debate has raged since the vote as to whether no one getting into the Hall of Fame this year is a good thing or a bad thing for baseball. My opinion is that it is a good thing. I don’t agree that you should “just put everyone in and tell the story on the plaque”. The Hall of Fame is, at its core, a museum of baseball history, and artifacts from Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Sosa, et al., are prevalently displayed - Including the ball that Bonds hit for his 756th homerun, breaking Hank Aaron’s record, that is now emblazoned with a large asterisk (placed there by the ball’s eventual owner, fashion designer Mark Ecko). This history of the PED era can be told in other parts of the museum, but to honor those individuals either implicated in or strongly suspected of using PEDs with a bronze bust and induction ceremony would be wrong. Are there cheaters already enshrined? Undoubtedly so. And if a player such as Piazza never did anything wrong and is being wrongly persecuted, that is too bad. But the clean players had their chance to stand up during this period to clean up the game and did nothing.
So I applaud the BBWAA for sending this message. I hope Bonds and Clemens are never enshrined. Because if they are awarded the honor, knowing what we know, what kind of message would that be sending?