Later on this month, a selection of some of the MLB’s best will be forever enshrined in the Hall of Fame. This selection could include mashing power hitters, dominant pitchers, or do-it-All-Stars of the 1990’s and 2000’s. But the question remains: Will the final list of newest inductees include hallmark players of the steroid-era like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens?
In Defense of the Steroid-Era
The question has existed for years, and in recent times has only been heightened, especially with Joe Morgan’s letter to all BBWA writers, urging them not vote steroid users, so as to avoid “tainting” the Hall of Fame. The view is very much a traditional one, and within that is very unaware of the impact that steroid-era players had on baseball as a whole.
Yes, their methods of finding success were unconventional and against the rules, but a real argument can be made that steroid-era players should be allowed into the Hall of Fame.
Despite the Steroid Use, They Were Still Talented
Sometimes, it’s obvious when someone is taking steroids, from a statistical perspective. Arguably the most obvious and egregious leap occurred with Brady Anderson. Before the 1996 season, when Anderson hit 50 home runs, he only had 72 in his eight season career. And after his 50 home run season, he only hit 88 in the last six seasons of his career, never hitting more than 24. He was 32 the year he his 50 home runs, and while it could be argued that it had just taken him nine seasons to figure it all out, his post-1996 statistics make it hard to believe.
I make that point to say that despite taking steroids, Bonds and Clemens had impressive enough careers before suspicions started happening of steroid use. Reports peg 1998 as the year Bonds began to take steroids. Before that, Bonds was still arguably a Hall of Famer. From his rookie year in 1986 to 1997, he was a seven-time All-Star, hitting a total of 374 home runs with a .288 batting average. Without steroids, he seemed already on pace for the Hall of Fame. His steroid use elongated his career and allowed him to put up better numbers, all but guaranteeing his induction from a statistical standpoint.
The same can be said about Clemens. While his regression was much steeper (reports believe that Clemens started using steroids after 1996, explaining his late career resurgence after his time with the Red Sox), he was still a dominating force for much of his career before steroids. It could be argued that he would have eventually improved without steroids, as his 1995 and ‘96 seasons could have been indicative of an aging pitcher adjusting to pitching in the power-dominant steroid-era.
Both players were still clearly talented and their success before steroids suggest that while shorter and less accolade-filled, their careers would still be Hall of Fame worthy.
Steroids Aren’t the Only PED’s
One of Morgan’s biggest points was that in his and other Hall of Famers beliefs, having steroid users as Hall of Famers would taint the Hall of Fame. Steroids are sometimes seen as one of the only ways players were able to get a leg up on the competitions. While it is the most recent, it is certainly not the only advantage. The two most prominent advantages were the use of amphetamines in the time after World War II and cocaine in the 1980s. According to the New York Post, after World War II, veterans would bring back amphetamines, also known as “greenies”. Soon enough, they became a staple in MLB clubhouses. Amphetamines help with fatigue, alertness, and reaction time, and some players would claim that it allowed them to see the ball better. They were eventually banned in 2005.
At the height of the 1980s, players were also under the influence of cocaine. The two most prominent stories of use occur with the 1986 New York Mets and the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals. They both won the World Series in their respective seasons. In the case of the Cardinals, three of their top four players in WAR, Lonnie Smith, Joaquin Andujar, and Keith Hernandez, were known abusers of the drug. While cocaine abuse should never be celebrated or made popular (Seriously, this is not a pro-cocaine stance), many successful players had used the drug.
On top of this, stories like Dock Ellis claiming to have thrown a no-hitter while on LSD continue to fuel the narrative that steroids are not the only way that players have cheated and that the game of baseball has never been 100% clean.
The Steroid-Era Helped Bring Save Baseball
There was once a time in the mid-90’s where it seemed like baseball was heavily on the decline. In 1994, there wasn’t even a World Series due to an ugly negotiation between the MLBPA and the owners causing the MLB’s fourth work stoppage in 22 years. Sports like basketball and football were on the rise, and it seemed like baseball would have a hard journey at getting back to prominence. But, when baseball came back, it did so with a boom of long home runs, which in tandem with a better ballpark experience helped bring fans back to baseball. The summer of 1998 proved baseball’s return to the masses when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire‘s battle for the single-season home run record filled up seats in ballparks all across the country. Since then, baseball has remained a fixture, and once again, the home run boom of the recent years has shown in its growth of popularity.
Was steroid use perfect for the game? Of course not. For every Barry Bonds, there are many Jordany Valdespins who got caught using steroids and were forgettable, below-average players. However, it’s hard to ignore the effect that steroid-era players had on baseball, an effect that should in some way be respected in our Hall of Fame. According to Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame ballot tracker, there are currently 164 ballots posted. Of those 164, both Bonds and Clemens have 68.9% of the vote, needing 78.8% of the remaining ballots to vote for them in order to get the 75% vote needed to join the Hall. While it’s unknown if they’ll get it or not, it will be a giant step in the right direction for baseball and the steroid-era if they do.
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