Let’s start with what we know about the ballot for the Hall of Fame class of 2022: One way or another, it’s the last hurrah for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa.
The class of 2022 ballot represents the trio’s 10th and final year of eligibility, so they’ll either be elected into Cooperstown with 75 percent of the vote or their Hall fate will be left to the Modern Era Committee a few years down the road. For Bonds and Clemens, election is actually possible, though far from likely. Sosa, realistically, stands zero chance of being elected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America; he’s yet to reach even 25 percent in his first nine years on the ballot. (It’s the last year for Curt Schilling, too, but his candidacy is a completely separate issue from what we’re going to discuss today.)
In the past five years, three players have been elected in their 10th and final year: Tim Raines (class of 2017), Edgar Martinez (class of 2019) and Larry Walker (class of 2020). The last-year bump is a very real thing, but don’t assume that bump will get Bonds and Clemens — who have been around 60 percent the past few years — over the hump.
The candidacies of Bonds and Clemens are unique, in so many ways. Their career statistics are historic, but they both have played the role of baseball villains for a very long time, earning that reputation as brash, sullen young stars and building a legacy of negativity as PED rumors surrounded them toward the end of their careers and into retirement.
But the arrival of two same-but-different newcomers to the class of 2022 ballot could make a big impact on how voters view Bonds and Clemens in their final year. Those two: Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz.
Unlike Bonds and Clemens, baseball loves A-Rod and Big Papi. Rodriguez calls games for ESPN and works for Fox during the postseason as an on-air talent. He damn near just bought the Mets. Ortiz is everywhere, too, on promos and on the October Fox set. He’s been either beloved or respected by baseball fans across the sport for a long time, popularity that has only grown since his retirement. A-Rod has spent his five years of retirement rebuilding and reshaping his public image, to the point where he is today. It’s hard to watch baseball in October without seeing either of those guys smiling and laughing and talking baseball.
I am genuinely fascinated to see how Ortiz and A-Rod are treated by voters, and how their arrival impacts the last-year votes for Bonds and Clemens. And not just those two, but Sosa, Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield. Don’t overlook those guys. They, too, have Hall-worthy resumes but have been held back by PED connections.
Before we go any further, two things: One: I have voted for Bonds and Clemens all five years I’ve had a ballot. I’ve voted for Ramirez and Sheffield, too. I will vote for both A-Rod and Ortiz. Two: Here’s a quick look at the PED connections for all seven players …
Barry Bonds: Bonds never tested positive or was suspended for PED use. He admitted to using two steroid products in court — during testimony from the BALCO trial that was illegally leaked — but claimed to not know they were steroids at the time he was taking them.
Roger Clemens: Like Bonds, Clemens never failed a drug test, but like Bonds, his connections are strong. His teammate Andy Pettitte testified that Clemens used HGH and a trainer, Brian McNamee, testified that Clemens used a steroid starting in 1998. Clemens has aggressively denied everything.
Manny Ramirez: Ramirez served a 50-game suspension at 37 years old in 2009 after testing positive for a banned substance, and again tested positive in 2011, opting to retire at 39 instead of serving the 100-game suspension.
Gary Sheffield: Sheffield never failed a test, but he was named in the Mitchell Report and admitted to using a cream given to him by Bonds’ trainer that was a steroid, though he claimed he was told it was a cortisone-type cream.
Sammy Sosa: Sosa never officially tested positive for PEDs, but he was included in a 2009 New York Times report among 100 or so names of players who had tested positive in 2003.
Alex Rodriguez: In 2009, Rodriguez admitted to using PEDs with the Rangers from 2001 to 2003, and he was suspended by MLB for the entire 2014 season for his role in the Biogenesis scandal (he took steroids again from 2010 to 2012).
David Ortiz: Ortiz never failed an official PED test, but his name was leaked in that 2009 New York Times report identifying players who tested positive as part of a 2003 survey MLB used to determine the need for implementing a testing process. It should be noted that some of the substances tested for in 2003 were not illegal in MLB at the time.
Allowing for nuance and outside reasons — more on that in a moment — there are four basic schools of thought when voting for players with PED ties.
1. “I’m not voting for anyone connected to PEDs.”
This is the hardest of hard lines. Any player known — through a positive test/suspension — or suspected to have taken PEDs is an automatic “no” vote. At least this is consistent, right? Not consistent with players already in the Hall who have various levels of connections to PEDs and other performance-enhancers through the decades, of course, but at least consistent within the individual voter’s ballot.
2. “I’m voting for players based on resume only.”
The idea here is simple: If the player’s name is on the ballot, he’s in good standing with both MLB and the Hall of Fame and the only consideration should be how he performed on the field. Pete Rose, as you know, is not on the ballot because he’s not in good standing with MLB; he bet on baseball and was deemed ineligible. But Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, Ramirez, Sheffield, Rodriguez and Ortiz have not been deemed ineligible. They will all be on the ballot for the class of 2022, so their candidacy should be judged solely by their performance on the field over the course of their careers. By this line of thinking, it’s not the BBWAA’s job to play morality police when MLB and the Hall have already declined to do so.
3. “I’m not voting for anyone who has been suspended for PEDs.”
This line of thinking says, “I am only voting based on what has been proven.” This essentially sets the line for PED use at 2005, when MLB’s testing program was instituted. It’s very likely, almost certain, that there are already players immortalized in Cooperstown who used PEDs during their careers, but never failed an actual test. So if they’re in the Hall despite speculation, how can you not vote for others who are only speculated to have used? Voters who ascribe to this theory will check the box next to Bonds, Clemens, Sosa and Sheffield, because they never failed an actual PED test, but not Ramirez because he did (twice). It stands to reason they will vote for Ortiz, but not A-Rod.
4. “I’ll only vote for players who were Hall-worthy before they started using PEDs.”
I’m glad they feel confident that they know exactly when players started. I’ve yet to see that memo. This is how some people justify voting for Bonds and Clemens but not Sosa. I guess these voters will check A-Rod’s box (he was amazing in Seattle before starting the PEDs in Texas) but maybe not Ortiz, depending on what they think about his alleged consumption.
As most anyone who has voted for the Hall of Fame will tell you, filling out a ballot is just not as simple as picking one of those three schools of thought. There are layers. There is nuance. There are outside factors. It’s a challenge. Some who have voted for the Hall in the past have stopped voting (ESPN’s Buster Olney is one) and others have questioned whether they’ll continue (The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, this year).
It’s also worth noting that, for decades, players were allowed at least 15 years on the ballot, and those final five years proved important for Hall of Famers such as Bert Blyleven (elected in his 14th year on the ballot), Jim Rice (15th year) and Bruce Sutter (13th year). Starting with the 2015 ballot, though, players were only eligible to remain on the ballot for 10 years. It’s not a coincidence that this measure was enacted while PED-connected candidates were being discussed.
Here’s where it starts to get complicated, with A-Rod and Ortiz joining Bonds, Clemens, Sosa and Sheffield on the ballot. Let’s focus on A-Rod, because his PED crimes rival any the game has ever known. For some, he will be an easy no. He took PEDs, he admitted taking PEDs and he was suspended by baseball for a full year. Case closed.
And I get that. But here’s the thing: Alex Rodriguez was punished for his baseball crimes, and he served his suspension — the entire 2014 season. Then, allowed back into baseball’s good graces, he came back for his Age 39 season and hit 33 home runs for the Yankees, producing a 3.0 bWAR in his 151 games, mostly as a DH. He played 65 more games in 2016, swatting the final nine homers of his career. He’s been intimately involved in — and pretty much fully embraced by — the sport since retiring.
A-Rod’s suspension wasn’t a lifetime expulsion from baseball. It wasn’t “a year and then whatever the BBWAA writers want to tack on during his retirement.” It was a very specific punishment, and it was even appealed and amended — originally 211 games, down to one baseball season.
So it makes sense that, at least theoretically, some voters would look at A-Rod and his transgressions and conclude that he’s served his punishment and vote for him. These voters could use the same logic to refrain from voting for Manny Ramirez; he served his first suspension, but chose to retire at 39 instead of serving the second one.
And if we’re talking about punishments served, it’s only natural to bring that logic to Bonds and Clemens. Neither failed an official PED test, so neither was officially suspended. But they absolutely have been punished. For nine years now, they’ve been punished by voters who feel it’s their duty to protect the integrity of Cooperstown’s plaque gallery. Maybe it is. I don’t know. But if it’s OK to vote for A-Rod after he served his official one-season punishment, shouldn’t Bonds, Clemens and Sosa be OK after nine years of unofficial punishments? Sheffield after seven? Ramirez after five? What’s the line there?
And I know at this point, half of you are screaming “WHAT ABOUT PETER EDWARD ROSE? HASN’T HE BEEN PUNISHED ENOUGH?!?!?” To that, I’ll say this: It’s not the same thing. In the eyes of baseball, Rose’s transgression — betting on baseball games in which he was involved — is much, much worse than taking PEDs. That is the cardinal rule in the sport, and has been since the 1920s. Do not bet on baseball if you’re involved in the sport. Period. And the punishment was long established: Get caught betting on baseball and you are banned from the game for life. There is no gray area.
But when it comes to cheating to try to gain an edge? Baseball has long turned the blindest eye possible, punishing players only when forced to punish them. There wasn’t even official PED testing until 2005. Punishments have changed multiple times, and they only included banishment after multiple positive tests. Trying to compare the sins of Rose to the sins of Bonds/Clemens, etc, is foolish.
As I said, I am genuinely fascinated to see how the voting plays out next winter. Ballots will be mailed out in November, as always, and they have to be postmarked by Dec. 31, 2021. Let the debates begin.