Performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) have tarnished the last twenty years of Major League Baseball, and that is sad. After witnessing perhaps the greatest era of individual performance in the game’s history during the last twenty years or so, we are forced to live with the reality that a lot of those accomplishments are tainted. The problem now faced by those who love and respect the game is their lack of full knowledge of which of those accomplishments, of the records attained, are tainted and which are clean. And how do we rank the players involved? Where will history judge them many years down the line? Will history remember the steroid scandal and its participants in the same light as the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, or compare it more favorably to the rampant use of amphetamines by players of the 1970’s and 1980’s?
We all know who the primary suspects are. Most fans can recite names of players implicated—or strongly suspected—of using PEDs. Anyone with a computer and internet connected can pull up the Mitchell Report and read its findings. The issue then becomes how does baseball, its fans and the media treat those players. Do we choose to ignore their accomplishments, ban their entry into the Hall of Fame and scrape the record books of them, or do we look the other way and instead choose to ignore how they achieved their accomplishments?
More than likely players whose on-field accomplishments normally would have given them easy entrance to Cooperstown will be left on the outside looking in because of their link to PEDs. In any other era players with 583 home runs or 3020 hits and tenth in career total bases would be no-brainer first-ballot Hall of Famers. However, Mark McGwire’s name appeared on barely a quarter of the ballots his first year and has been losing ground since, and Rafael Palmeiro’s initial time on the ballot resulted in a showing that was nothing short of embarrassing for a player with his statistical resume. At this point he will be lucky to reach the ballot a third time.
McGwire and Palmeiro are not likely to ever gain entrance into the Hall of Fame without purchasing a ticket. Neither are Sammy Sosa, Gary Sheffield, Andy Pettite and countless others who at least made a case for induction with their on-field play. While Sosa ranks seventh all-time in home runs and is the only player in history with three seasons of 60 or more home runs, his case for the Hall of Fame is tainted. Prior to the magical 1998 season, Sosa was a very good major league player. He had four seasons of at least 30 home runs and was a force in the Cubs lineup. But that wasn’t enough to get him to Cooperstown. Even if he doubled his career accomplishments pre-1998 and added a couple of MVP trophies it still wouldn’t have been enough—just ask Dale Murphy. Were the PEDs Sosa is suspected of using able to take him out of Dale Murphy’s stratosphere and push him squarely into Willie Mays’? The baseball world will never know for sure, but the Hall of Fame is not ever going to raise a plaque honoring Sammy Sosa either.
But what about Barry Bonds? Or Roger Clemens? Do either—or both—deserve entry into baseball immortality? The Baseball Writers Association of America has clearly shown it will draw a line for players they feel only achieved Hall of Fame worthy careers through natural methods. McGwire was a one-dimensional player whose career could have ended without his admitted use of steroids; Palmeiro was a very good player who was never truly great; even with the use of PEDs, Pettite is at best a borderline case to make the Hall of Fame. But what about players who had Hall of Fame careers before entering the world of PEDs?
Barry Bonds was a five-tool player from the start of his career. Before turning 30 years old he was already a home run champion, an All-Star, a three-time MVP and multiple gold glove winner. He was the game’s best and highest paid player, and that continued throughout the 1990’s. He consistently batted near .300, slugged 35 or more home runs and drove in better than 100 runs yearly. He was a five-time member of the 30/30 (home runs and stolen bases) club and once reached the 40/40 plateau.
Bonds’ suspected PED usage began around 1999, when McGwire and Sosa were getting all the accolades for passing Roger Maris’ single season home run record. Bonds’ numbers post-1999 are nothing short of ridiculous, and rivaled only in baseball history by Babe Ruth. Including those numbers in his overall career statistics and Bonds is second greatest offensive player to ever wear the uniform. However are his 14 years prior—1986-1999—enough to justify induction into the Hall of Fame?
Yes, they are.
Bonds may not have reached the 500 home run club, stolen 500 bases and wasn’t knocking on the doors of 3000 hits or 2000 RBIs but he was a Hall of Fame player. He was a .288 career hitter, the only member of the 400/400 club, had an on-base-plus slugging percentage (OPS) higher than Mel Ott, Ralph Kiner, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Ken Griffey Jr., and was the all-time leader in intentional walks.
Bonds was a feared hitter, a great defender and the game’s best all-around player. Even without the help of PEDs he surely would have reached 500 home runs and been a no doubt Hall of Fame player. But he did not need to get there, just as Sandy Koufax did not need 300 victories for his entrance. Bonds was a Hall of Fame player had his career ended in 1999 and he avoided all the PED talk and speculation that his career was tainted.
Roger Clemens' case for the Hall of Fame is more questionable, however. After leaving Boston for Toronto following the 1996 season he experienced a career rebirth. In the next 11 seasons with Toronto, New York and Houston Clemens nearly doubled his win total, added four more Cy Young’s to his mantel and reached the top 10 in wins, strikeouts and WAR.
Was the offseason of 1996, after being spurned by the Red Sox and criticized by their general manager, Dan Duquette, the point in Clemens' career when he began his involvement with PEDs? If so, were his 13 years in Boston enough to justify his entrance into the Hall of Fame?
It is close, but not likely.
He won 192 games, struck out better than 2500 hundred batters and was a three-time Cy Young winner with an MVP to boot. He was a feared and dominant pitcher, suffering only two losing seasons and constantly was among the league leaders in wins, ERA and opponents batting. But it still wasn’t enough. He was not as dominant as Sandy Koufax or Pedro Martinez, and did not reach the career totals of Bert Blyleven or Robin Roberts. Without his second wind the career of Roger Clemens is only slightly better than that of David Cone or Orel Hershiser, neither of whom is a Hall of Fame player.
Both Roger Clemens' and Barry Bonds’ careers would have gone on without their involvement with PED’s. They would have played more years and games and added to their resumes. But Clemens clearly needed that brilliance of the second half of his career to get to the Hall of Fame, and if those years were tainted by PED usage, then Clemens does not deserve his plaque. Remember at one point Dwight Gooden was considered the better pitcher of the two early in their careers.
Very few players involved with performance enhancing drugs will be enshrined in the Cooperstown Museum, and most do not deserve it. If they were good enough players to get into the Hall of Fame than they would not have needed extra, illegal help to get there; the statistics that would get them there are tainted and they do not belong. However, as with every rule in existence there is always an exception, and the only one I can find in baseball is Barry Bonds. He was a jerk, a suspected cheater and a lot of other things that shouldn’t be mentioned, but he was also a Hall of Fame player before performance enhancing drugs, and thereby should still be honored in Cooperstown.