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Why The Induction Of Bagwell And Rodriguez Should Not Open The Door For Bonds And Clemens

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As players with loose connections to PEDs earn election to Baseball’s Hall of Fame, the reasons to keep confirmed users out have not changed.

Today, baseball fans will once again turn their attention to a village of 1,770 at the mouth of the Susquehanna River as new plaques are set to hang in Cooperstown, NY. Alongside former commissioner Bud Selig and executive John Schuerholz, the National Baseball Hall of Fame will induct former players Ivan Rodriguez, Tim Raines, and Jeff Bagwell, forever cementing their legacies in baseball lore. And while Raines’ election in his 10th and final year on the ballot is notable, the fact that suspected PED users Rodriguez and Bagwell will be delivering speeches this afternoon may prove to be of lasting significance.

Pudge, a 13-time Gold Glover and World Series champion, became just the second catcher ever to be elected on his first ballot, despite being one of many players implicated in Jose Canseco’s exposé, “Juiced.” Meanwhile, former MVP and batting stance maestro Jeff Bagwell shook PED speculation in his seventh year, garnering 86.2% of votes.

Like tired parents struggling to discipline their fourth child, the Baseball Writers Association of America becomes more lenient every year. Though his PED ties were based primarily on the highly-suspect “pimply back” test, Mike Piazza’s election last year was seen by many as an opening of the door that has been perpetually shut for so many of the Steroid Era’s scandalous stars. 

Over the last few years we have seen a remarkable uptick in support for banished suspected users, most notably in Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who once seemed destined to languish in baseball purgatory forever. Bonds and Clemens have each seen their vote totals increase by more than 15% in the last two years.

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Some of this can be attributed to a changing of the guard. Clemens and Bonds were named on 13 of the 14 ballots made public by first-time voters as several younger, more “open-minded” baseball writers have replaced the baseball “purists” who — get this — were reluctant to knowingly elect cheaters. What a couple of cantankerous old coots!  

However, most of the growing advocacy for Bonds and Clemens comes from writers like Fox Sports senior writer Ken Rosenthal, who, after years of leaving these two PED poster-boys off his ballots, found the “mental gymnastics” necessary in snubbing the former stars impossible to maintain. And yet, when you investigate the issue, the brainwork required to avoid electing known-cheaters does not seem so laborious. When asked plainly, “should the BBWAA seek to elect cheaters who indulged in illegal advantages to Baseball’s Hall of Fame?” the answer seems remarkably obvious. So why are more than half of these respected baseball experts finding this question so difficult?

There are three central arguments that advocates of PED users employ to justify that sentiment. The first two are as old as the issue itself, and have become fairly easy to refute. However, with the election of Bagwell and Rodriguez, the third rationale is a new brand of steroid-apology, but the reasons to keep Bonds, Clemens, and any other players for whom the evidence of use is undeniable, have not changed. While each of these justifications can seem compelling, they are nothing more than convenient excuses built on unsound logic.

1. “Steroids Don’t Actually Do Anything” 

This one is easy to disprove and, thankfully, the camp of people who truly believe this is quite low. After all, the evidence suggesting the effectiveness of steroids is overwhelming. Seven of the top 17 all-time home run leaders are widely-understood to have used performance-enhancing drugs after positive drug tests, federal investigations, eye-witness accusations, etc. The advantages PEDs offer have been illuminated every time a player like Melky Cabrera suddenly becomes an MVP candidate, or when a career minor leaguer like Chris Colabello randomly slashes .321/.367/.520.

Dan Naulty Rookie Card - Upper DeckStill, there are those who manage to chalk these anomalies up to sheer coincidence. For those, I turn to fellow Fred McGriff advocate Tom Verducci, who has written at-length about why steroid users don’t appear on his Hall of Fame ballot. Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the effectiveness of steroids came in an interview Verducci conducted with former major leaguer and user Dan Naulty, who has struggled to rectify his decision to juice. In the piece, Naulty confesses: 

“I was a full-blown cheater and I knew it… Look, my fastball went from 87 to 96! There’s got to be some sort of violation in that. It was not by natural cause. To say it wasn’t cheating to me was… it’s just a fallacy. There’s just no way you could say that’s not cheating. It was a total disadvantage to play clean.” 

Then in 2010, Mark McGwire surprised the baseball world by admitting to using steroids throughout the nineties, including during his record-breaking 1998 season. In a heart-wrenching interview with Bob Costas, McGwire struggled through tears as he said: 

“It’s a mistake that I have to deal with for the rest of my life. I have to deal with never, ever getting into the Hall of Fame. I totally understand and totally respect their opinion and will never, ever push it.” 

McGwire, who finished his career with 583 home runs, saw his vote total drop every year after his confession. His willingness to admit wrongdoing cemented his banishment, as his name was removed from the ballot after 2015. 

For those still inclined to question the efficacy of steroids, ask yourself why, if they didn’t work, would anyone bother? Even if the resulting increase in production was marginal, would so many players risk suspension and national ridicule? Of course not. The benefits are so great; they far outweigh the risk. Just ask Jhonny Peralta, who, after juicing his way to a career year in 2013, has been paid $37 M to accumulate a 1.0 total WAR over the last three seasons. 

2. “They Were Already Hall Of Famers Before Steroids” 

This is the argument every “baseball purist” has heard a thousand times, especially when it comes to Bonds. And, admittedly, there’s something to it. 

Assuming Bonds was inspired to begin using after watching Sosa and McGwire in the 1998 season, as Canseco alleges, he had already put together a resume that would have deserved consideration. However, the quality of Bonds’ career before steroids has been blown out of proportion, and the proposition that he was “already a Hall of Famer” by ’98 should not be accepted as a certainty.  

Arguably the biggest victim of the steroid era, Fred McGriff has failed to accumulate even one-third of the votes necessary for election in any of his eight years on the ballot. Yet, if Bonds had already cemented his place in Cooperstown before he began using, certainly the Crime Dog is more than deserving of a plaque. 

Bonds Through 1998.290.411.55619174111216

Bonds maintained a higher slash line, but is his case really such a no-brainer when a player with 573 more hits, 82 more home runs, and 334 more RBIs cannot garner even 25% of votes? 

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Bonds’ case is even weaker when compared to Vladimir Guerrero, who is expected to earn election in the next few years, but to this point has been deemed unworthy by the BBWAA

Bonds Through 1998.290.411.55619174111216

Obviously, “counting stats” (Hits, HRs, RBIs, etc.) are only a piece of the puzzle. Many assert that Bonds’ .966 OPS and 99.6 WAR from 1986-1998 are so tremendous that his case is undeniable. And while those stats are impressive, his OPS is little more than a rounding error away from Joey Votto’s career mark (.964), and his WAR barely topples Bert Blyleven’s (96.5). Few would pretend that Votto has solidified Hall of Fame status, and Blyleven only scraped election in his 14th year, a feat that is now impossible. 

So was Bonds “already a Hall of Famer” before using steroids? Perhaps. But was his case such an undeniable slam dunk that we should feel sickened at the thought of excluding him from enshrinement? Absolutely not. After all, we’re talking about a resume with fewer hits than Nick Markakis (1,991) and fewer home runs than Carlos Beltrán (433). 

Furthermore, even if a voter is inclined believe that pre-PED Bonds did enough to earn election, that is not the Barry Bonds that is on the current ballot. Writers aren’t voting for the Barry Bonds who slashed .290/.411/.556 with 411 HRs — they are voting for .298/.444/.607 and 762. If there were some way to revoke Bonds’ post-PED stat-line, to erase every at-bat he accrued after 1998 from the record books, I would be strongly inclined to advocate for his election. But unfortunately, there isn’t. We either elect “Bonds the Home Run King” or we don’t elect him. 

Every single plate appearance after Bonds began using is in question. Even Bonds/Clemens convert, Ken Rosenthal admits: 

“The core problem in judging players from the so-called Steroid Era is that we don’t know who did what and to what extent, the effect that the substances had on players, whether some benefited more than others from the drugs.” 

But the problem is that Rosenthal uses that logic to give Bonds and Clemens the benefit of the doubt, when instead it should shroud their entire careers in uncertainty. If there were some way to quantify how much Bonds benefited from his drug usage, at what point would the advantage be too much? Thirty extra home runs? Fifty? Three-hundred and fifty-one? The problem is that Rosenthal’s logic inherently implies that there is some level of artificial-advantage that would be too great for us to accept. 

Might Bonds still have broken Aaron’s record without steroids? I suppose it is possible. But he also might have experienced a massive decline or a career-ending injury. We don’t know, and we never will. All signs indicate that Bonds indulged a major advantage when he began using, as he began consistently hitting 45+ homers a year, something he had only done once in the 12 seasons prior. We shouldn’t reward Bonds and his co-conspirators because we can’t prove how much they benefited from ‘roids. Instead, we are logically forced to say “since we cannot know how much these players gained from their usage, we must call all of these stats illegitimate.”  

The problem with voting for Bonds based on the belief that he was “already a Hall of Famer” before steroids is that it involves voting for a player who doesn’t exist. There is no “Pre-Steroids” Bonds on the ballot. There is simply “Barry Bonds.” A writer who justifies casting a vote for Bonds because of his early career is indistinguishable from one who believes he did nothing wrong at all. 

So 411 Bonds might have been a Hall of Famer, but 762 Bonds cannot be. Every at-bat after 1998 is undermined by the uncertainty of how much was the player and how much was the steroids. And that’s not our fault. It’s Barry’s.  

3. “Now That Piazza, Rodriguez, And Bagwell Are In, We Can No Longer Justify Keeping The Others Out” 

This is the ground on which many BBWAA members are planting their flags, though it is merely a variation of the argument that suggested PED users warranted election because “there are already plenty of bad guys in the Hall.” The fallacy there is obvious, because as much as I would love to see blatant racists eradicated from the Hall of Fame, there is a major discrepancy between questions of moral character and questions of fair play and the legitimacy of one’s ability on the field. For the record, the election of former commissioner Bud Selig, who, at best, did little to prevent rampant PED usage during the Steroid Era, is tragic, but the comparison between one who turned a blind eye to cheating and one who cheated is weak. 

However, with the election of Mike Piazza, a player who has carried suspicion with limited evidence, in 2016, voters have new fodder to throw at the “moral gatekeepers.” In a roundtable discussion on the MLB Network in January, Rosenthal addressed that as players with loose ties to PEDs earn election, he is not “truly confident that they were different than Bonds and Clemens.” 

When asked point-blank “Did Barry Bonds cheat, yes or no?” Rosenthal casually responds: 


When asked why he would vote for him, Rosenthal elaborates: 

“Because certain players who have cheated are in and it’s unfair to me.” 

That’s right. With the election of Piazza, Bagwell, and Rodriguez, Rosenthal suggests that it is “unfair” to leave Bonds and Clemens out. But to propose that Bonds, Clemens, or any other user could claim some sort of victimhood is preposterous. 

First of all, there is a large discrepancy in evidence between Piazza, Bagwell, Rodriguez, and the candidates who have been exiled to this point. While Pudge was mentioned in Canseco’s book, the rest is highly speculative. Even Rosenthal himself doesn’t pretend that Bonds is innocent. 

But even if all three of these now-Hall of Famers admitted to using throughout their careers, how would that then turn the rejection of Bonds, Clemens, and the other users into a case of injustice? This same logic would see a criminal get away with arson and respond “Well, shoot. I guess we have to make arson legal now because it wouldn’t be fair to the other arsonists.”  

There is a major difference between voting for someone who is suspected of cheating, and knowingly voting for a cheater. What if Ken Caminiti was right? What if the usage during the Steroid Era was so outstanding that we have been foolishly electing cheater after cheater for years? Maddux? Griffey? Biggio? Thomas? They could have all been using and simply managed to pull the wool over our eyes. Even the most cynical baseball minds would not cast the blame so broadly, but would it matter? Is it possible that there are PED users who have already had their faces eternally enshrined in Cooperstown? Certainly. But should that cause us to willingly lower the standards of excellence and fair play required? Absolutely not. After all, I’d rather have a few arsonists roam free than toss a match myself and watch the whole thing burn. 

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As Bagwell and Rodriguez give their speeches today, one can only wonder how long it will be before Bonds and Clemens join them. After that, who knows? The BBWAA seems to be far more forgiving to users than McGwire was to himself, not because they believe they are innocent, but because they simply don’t think it matters. For me, the day Barry Bonds gives a speech with Hank Aaron and Willie Mays sitting behind him, after tarnishing their records; with Tom Glavine and John Smoltz behind him, after blasting so many chemically-aided home runs off of them; and with a million young ballplayers in front of him, now knowing that hard work and plenty of cheating can get you everything you ever hoped for, will be one of the most disgraceful days in the history of baseball.

Edited by Jazmyn Brown, Bobby Murray.

How many times was Jeff Bagwell named an All-Star?
Created 7/29/17
  1. 2
  2. 4
  3. 7
  4. 11
Which Major League Baseball Hall of Famer spent the most years on the ballot before earning election?
Created 7/29/17
  1. Jim Rice
  2. Bert Blyleven
  3. Tim Raines
  4. Phil Rizzuto

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