Members of the Baseball Writers of America who are entrusted with a Hall of Fame vote will face their biggest challenge to date from the so-called "steroid era" when voting on the 2013 Hall class.
Among the first-time eligibles this year are three central figures from the era in question; the all-time home-run king Barry Bonds, 350-game winner Roger Clemens and slugger Sammy Sosa. A fourth player on the ballot for the first time this year was never named in the infamous Mitchell Report nor did he ever test positive for any performance-enhancing substances but was mentioned in whispers and innuendo. That will likely be enough to keep the greatest-hitting catcher in the history of the game, Mike Piazza, out of the Hall of Fame, at least for awhile.
The Baseball Hall of Fame has among its members a player once accused of killing a man (Ty Cobb), several players who openly used amphetamines during their playing careers (just about anyone who played in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s) and at least two players who openly mocked the rules of the game when it came to doctoring baseballs on the pitcher's mound (Gaylord Perry and Don Sutton).
Those players, who broke not only the rules of baseball but also federal, state and local laws were deemed worthy of enshrinement by those who hold the voting power. But just about anyone who played in the 1990s or early 21st century, specifically those who hit home runs, seem to have less of a chance of getting to Cooperstown than Shoeless Joe Jackson of 1919 Chicago Black Sox fame.
Why are the standards so radically different for this type of performance enhancement than they were for cheating pitchers or speeded-up outfielders? How did we get to this point? And who are these people who make the decisions?
Hall of Fame Not Exactly A Temple of Virtue
Ty Cobb was a member of the first class inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1936 and, at the time of his retirement in 1928, held 90 records. Three of the most prestigious marks he set still stand today. No one has topped Cobb's .367 career batting average, the 12 batting titles he won or has matched his at least .320 average for 23 consecutive seasons.
There is no question Cobb was a tremendous player on the field, but there are just as few questions as to whether Cobb was a deplorable human being both on and off it.
There are stories both apocryphal and true about Cobb. While he never denied the stories that circulated about him that accused him of sharpening his spikes to a razor's edge in order to cut infielders who dared block his path to a base, there was never any evidence he actually did so. Cobb never denied the tales, because they gave him an air of intimidation as he tore around the basepaths.
In spring training of 1907, Cobb got into an argument with a black groundskeeper in Augusta, Ga., over the condition of the field. When the groundskeeper's wife intervened, Cobb reportedly choked her.
In 1912, Cobb may have killed someone. He told his biographer Al Stump, "In 1912 - and you can write this down - I killed a man in Detroit."
There was,at the very least, a struggle involving Cobb and a trio of attackers on Aug. 13, 1912. While Cobb was stopped at the intersection of Bagg Street and Trumbull Avenue while on his way to catch a train with his teammates to go to New York, the men jumped onto the running boards of his car and demanded Cobb surrender the car and his money.
Cobb fought off the attackers, went on to the train station and played an exhibition game in Syracuse the following day despite a knife wound. The Associated Press reported both the attack and an account of Cobb playing the next day with blood soaking through his uniform.
Gaylord Perry was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991, eight years after his 22-year career with eight teams ended. Perry won 314 games and was the first player to win the Cy Young Award in both leagues. He was a five-time 20-game winner.
He was also the author of the book "Me and the Spitter: An Autobiographical Confession," written while he was still an active player with the Cleveland Indians in 1974.
Don Sutton pitched in the big leagues for 23 seasons, won 324 games and entered the Hall of Fame in 1998. How notorious was Sutton for doctoring baseballs as he pitched? He didn't earn the nickname "Black & Decker" for nothing. Sutton never overtly admitted his guilt, but according to one often-shared story, he was asked once if he used foreign substances on the baseball. "Not true at all," he replied. "Vaseline is manufactured right here in the United States."
Interestingly enough, as players from the Steroid Era have left the game and now reached the point of being eligible for Hall of Fame consideration, there is at least one source that says there are already performance-enhancing drug users in the Hall of Fame. Craig Calcaterra wrote nearly two years ago on NBC Sports' HardballTalk website that the Mitchell Report released by Major League Baseball in 2007 all but made that clear.
There was a passage on page 28 of the Mitchell Report that makes this point: "In 1973, a Congressional subcommittee announced that its staff had completed an 'in depth study into the use of illegal and dangerous drugs in sports' including professional baseball. The subcommittee concluded that 'the degree of improper drug use - primarily amphetamines and anabolic steroids - can only be described as alarming."
Steroids in baseball? In 1973? That would be a dozen years before Jose Canseco made his major-league debut.
How Did We Get To This Point?
If the Mitchell Report is to be believed, steroids had been going strong in baseball since at least the early 1970s. Baseball had also had a lot of labor acrimony over the latter half of the 20th century as the Major League Baseball Players Association had gone to war with the owners eight different times.
There was a 14-day strike that wiped out 86 regular-season games in April 1972. The owners locked the players out of spring training for 12 days in 1973. They repeated the feat in 1976, this time for 17 days.
The players struck for the final eight days of spring training in 1980, and in 1981 the players walked out on June 12. The strike lasted 50 days and cancelled 712 regular-season games.
In 1985, the players struck for two days in August, but those games were made up. In 1990, the first 32 days of spring training were cancelled by a lockout.
Baseball's own Armageddon came in 1994 when the players walked out on Aug. 12. The postseason was cancelled and the owners brought in replacement players for spring training before the sides finally settled on March 31, 1995.
Baseball was still recovering from the damage done to its fan base by the strike four years later, in 1998.
That year, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa spent the summer chasing down Roger Maris' single-season home run record of 61. They played before packed stadiums all summer long and fans reignited their love affair with the game. Sports Illustrated hailed the home-run chase in December 1998, writing that McGwire and Sosa had "treated the nation to a home run chase that was as refreshing as a day at the beach."
The warm glow over the summer of 1998 didn't last. McGwire and Sosa were both linked to performance-enhancing drug use, with McGwire finally admitting in 2010 that he had used steroids. Bonds went on trial, accused of lying to a grand jury about using PEDs, and was eventually convicted of one count of obstruction of justice off an eight-count indictment that included perjury and other more serious charges.
Clemens has also spent his time in courtrooms. Clemens was the highest-profile player of the 86 named in the report assembled by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell and released in 2007. In all, there were seven Most Valuable Players and 31 All-Stars named in that report. Clemens later testified before a congressional committee in February 2008. He wound up in federal court on six counts of lying to Congress and was acquitted in June following a nine-week trial.
Clemens still faces a defamation lawsuit filed by former personal trainer Brian McNamee that will continue winding its way through the pre-trial stages through next August.
Since Major League Baseball instituted suspensions for players who have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2005, a total of 35 players have been suspended on 37 occasions. The first was Tampa Bay Devil Rays outfielder Alex Sanchez, who was suspended on April 3, 2005, for 10 days after testing positive.
By the time testing was instituted, the attention of the media was focused squarely on home-run hitters. Several pseudo-scientific stories were presented linking steroid use and home run totals.
To this day, with the exception of Clemens, most of the attention is still on the sluggers who find themselves linked to steroids.
So it is interesting, then, that the first player suspended for PEDs was not a slugger, but rather a speedy outfielder known for his base-stealing prowess. Sanchez played for parts of five major-league seasons and hit just six home runs in 1,527 career at-bats.
A closer look at the 35 players suspended since 2005 finds that 16, nearly half of the total, were pitchers. This also flies in the face of the overly simplistic "take steroids, hit home runs" theories so often presented.
There have been two players suspended twice for positive tests. Manny Ramirez tested positive the first time when he was playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2009 and again as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011. Ramirez hit 555 home runs over a 19-year career that also included stops with the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox.
The second two-time offender is reliever Guillermo Mota. He drew a 50-game suspension to start the 2007 season for a positive test in 2006 as a member of the New York Mets. In 2012, Mota - now with the San Francisco Giants - sat out 100 games after being suspended on May 7.
Mota was not the only member of the world champion Giants to have a positive test in 2012. On Aug. 15, All-Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera was slapped with a 50-game suspension.
Who Are The People Who Make The Decisions?
Hall of Fame voting is entrusted primarily to members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Voting by the BBWAA is limited to members who have been active baseball writers for at least 10 years, according to the Hall of Fame's official website. Further, they must have been active as baseball writers and members of the BBWAA at least 10 years prior to the election date.
Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal Constitution shared his ballot in November 2011 and it was amazing in its hypocrisy and piousness.
Jeff Bagwell , the former Houston Astros' slugger, didn't get Schultz's vote because he has been suspected of using PEDs. Not "admitted" to using PEDs. Not "found to have" used PEDs. No, instead Bagwell loses a vote because of mere suspicion.
But it's not just his dismissal of players who may or may not have been involved with PEDs that shows Schultz's logic, or lack thereof. Consider these comments on two players listed on the ballot for 2012.
" Don Mattingly . Yes. Over 2,000 hits, nine Gold Gloves, seven All-Star Games. One MVP. A great ambassador for baseball. A thousand times, yes."
" Alan Trammell . No. Another Hall of Very Good member. Over 2,000 hits, four Gold Gloves and a World Series MVP won't be enough."
Never mind that Trammell (a) had more hits than Mattingly or (b) won four Gold Gloves at shortstop, a much more demanding defensive position than Mattingly's first base.
The problem is that many voters are excluding players such as Bagwell based on evidence that doesn't exist. Bagwell, and others, are put in the position of having to try to prove a negative; that they didn't use anything illegal, immoral or fattening. If Bagwell admits he used something, he doesn't get into the Hall of Fame because many voters have decided they will not ever vote for a player linked to PEDs. But if Bagwell stays silent, innocent or not, he gets kept out of the Hall because no one can prove he was clean.
The Spanish Inquisition had nothing on the Hall of Fame voting-members of the BBWAA.
The writers who wrote glowing tales of the exploits of sluggers such as McGwire, Sosa and Bonds are now the same people leading the witch hunt against players from the Steroid Era.
The Hall of Fame has players who never played against minorities because baseball's policy at the time kept them out of the game. The Hall of Fame has players who never had to face specialty relief pitchers or play in night games. Those players were judged against their contemporaries, however, and were judged to be the best of their respective eras.
This winter will mark McGwire's seventh year on the Hall of Fame ballot. He's never even come close to the required 75 percent for enshrinement. His high-water mark in the voting was 2010, when he received 23.7 percent of the vote. Last year, his support fell to 19.5 percent.
Rafael Palmeiro famously tested positive for performance-enhancers in 2005, just months after pointing his finger at a congressional committee and declaring he had never used steroids. Palmeiro is one of only four players in history to have 3,000 hits and 500 home runs in his career. The other three are in the Hall of Fame: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray. In two years on the Hall of Fame ballot, Palmeiro has received 11 percent and 12.6 percent of the vote.
Steroids carry with them a much different stigma with voters than other illegal drugs, such as amphetamines. Major League Baseball banned amphetamines in 2006 and began testing for them the same year.
Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, who played for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1970s and '80s, said in his book "Clearing the Bases" that amphetamines "have been around the game forever.
"In my day," Schmidt wrote. "they were widely available in major-league clubhouses."
In 1985, Dale Berra and Dave Parker testified at a drug trial that Hall of Famer Willie Stargell and teammate Bill Madlock dispensed greenies in the Pittsburgh Pirates clubhouse. John Milner told the same jury that when he was a teammate of Hall of Famer Mays with the New York Mets that Mays had amphetamines readily available in his locker.
"They were obtainable with a prescription," Schmidt wrote in his book. "But be under no illusion that the name on the bottle always coincided with the name of the player taking them before game time."
Schmidt believed that the elimination of amphetamines would be much bigger than any other drug crackdown. He wrote that banning amphetamines could produce "possibly far greater implications for the game and the crackdown against steroids. Amphetamine use in baseball is both far more common and has been going on a lot longer than steroid abuse."
Estimates of the number of players using steroids and other performance-enhancers in baseball have varied greatly. Former MVP Ken Caminiti estimated that about half of the players in baseball were using. Before his death in 2004, Caminiti retracted that claim and said the number was lower. Survey testing done by MLB in 2003 indicated a rate of some 5 percent to 7 percent. Jose Canseco said in his book "Juiced," which came out in 2005, that some 85 percent of major leaguers were using steroids.
The truth is that there will never be a true accounting for how many players relied upon, and still do use, performance-enhancing drugs.
What we're left with instead is sportswriters and broadcasters turning themselves into crusaders for retroactive justice without stopping to consider the true width and breadth of the issue.
At the very least it begs the question: If half or more of the players in the game were, in fact, using some sort of performance-enhancers, doesn't that mean the playing field was relatively level and that the greatest players of the steroid era were the ones who would have stood out anyway?
What It All Means for the Potential Hall of Fame Class of 2013
Under ordinary circumstances, we would be preparing for a Hall of Fame induction ceremony next summer that could dwarf even that of 1999, when legends Nolan Ryan , George Brett and Robin Yount were enshrined.
Under ordinary circumstances, Bonds, Clemens and Sosa would be shoo-ins as first-ballot Hall of Famers. Strong cases could also be made that Piazza and Biggio would join them on the dais.
There are, however, far from ordinary circumstances.
Using the cases of McGwire, Palmeiro and Bagwell before them, it is easy to extrapolate that none of the trio of Bonds, Clemens or Sosa will get close to the necessary 75 percent of the vote. Piazza is unlikely to do so, either.
Biggio's case might be the most intriguing. According to baseball-reference.com, Biggio's career stats bear the most similarity to those of Yount, who was elected on his first year of eligibility.
But there is also a chance that the writers will make this year's election all about steroids. There will undoubtedly be some writers who won't vote for anyone this year as some sort of retroactive protest, then will write sanctimonious columns about the purity of baseball and the saintly nature of the Hall of Fame. It won't help Biggio's case that he played with Bagwell for most of his career and Clemens for a part of it, given the baseball writers' tendency to see steroid links underneath every dirty sock in the clubhouse.
After all, these are the same voters who have never voted a player into the Hall of Fame unanimously. Even Aaron, who retired after the 1976 season as baseball's all-time home run leader, was left off nine ballots. The closest any player ever came to unanimous enshrinement was Tom Seaver in 1992 and he was left off five of the 430 ballots cast that year. Nolan Ryan's name didn't appear on six ballots in 1999. The initial Hall of Fame class in 1936 had no unanimous agreement among the writers; Cobb was left off four of the 226 ballots, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner were omitted from 11.
If the argument against Bonds, against Clemens, Sosa, Piazza and others from the Steroid Era is simply that they cheated, doesn't that place the writers in the position of playing morality police? After all, players who used amphetamines illegally or openly doctored baseballs were guilty of cheating, too.
You can find a lot of those players in one location. The plaques recounting their career highlights reside at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Phil Watson was a writer and editor for several daily newspapers for more than 20 years and is a longtime New York Yankee fan.