Barring something truly unexpected like a teary confession from Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera becoming the subject of a startling exposé, Alex Rodriguez will, when he joins the ballot in 2022, become the final strong candidate for baseball’s Hall of Fame to have both made his name in the sport’s doping era and to be strongly associated with doping. Perhaps after however many years it takes for him to be voted in (or not), the whole thing about Hall of Fame voting and metrics and inductions will go back to being somewhat less insufferable. It will have taken an awfully long time.
If Rodriguez lingers on the ballot for the maximum 10 years, it will have been more than a quarter century since Mark McGwire’s first appearance on the ballot opened the era in which we now live, in which Hall of Fame debates are largely exercises in anguished handwringing. His candidacy, of course, went nowhere for 10 years; he never even got close to the requisite 75 percent of votes for induction. He spent the first few years of his campaign floating around 20-ish percent, then fell each year by a few degrees until he received only 12 percent of the votes for his final year on the ballot. His campaign went nowhere again when the Today’s Game Era committee rejected him in 2017—the same year they voted in Bud Selig.
This year, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were, predictably, snubbed. More than that, their candidacies hit a bit of a wall, as they saw only a slight increase in voting percentage over last year (they’re each getting a bit over half the necessary votes), auguring less than positive prospects for their eventual induction. On the same ballot were two other doping-adjacent players who have much weaker cases than Bonds and Clemens, but would, going not just by their statistics but by their well-deserved fame, have been first-ballot choices if not for drug-related handwringing.
Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez are, like their betters, not going to be elected to the Hall through the traditional 10-year path. Sosa, who in 2009 was reported to have failed a supposedly anonymous 2003 test meant to measure the prevalence of doping in the majors, is suffering from a miniature version of the McGwire bell curve, with his vote percentage dropping this year to 7.8 percent; he’ll probably drop off the ballot entirely in the next two years. Manny, who came in at 22 percent, is, well, Manny. He repeatedly failed drug tests and served suspensions for doing so, making him the first in the class of dominant players who fell into the PED scandal after it became actively discouraged by the league, rather than just being ignored if not tacitly condoned as was the case under Selig during Bonds’s and Clemens’s careers.
The vote totals here trace the contours of the varying levels of controversy attached to each player. Bonds and Clemens were inner-circle Hall of Famers before anyone suspected them of doping, and are quite possibly the best position player and pitcher to ever live; Ramirez was one of the best and most memorable hitters of his time or any other, but actually failed tests at a time when it mattered; and Sosa is a more marginal candidate on merits whose candidacy is believed to be purely a product of doping. Their ordering has a logic to it.
Overall, though, parsing through who failed (or is thought to have failed) what (if any) tests, and when, and what they did before that, and how to weigh all that together—the actual controversy over whether players believed to have done drugs (or certain drugs, at any rate) are worthy of Hall of Fame induction, in other words—has been a long, exhausting debacle that has amounted to nothing more than the old men who control Hall elections giving a big fuck you to fans of my generation.
The first memory I have of baseball news other than what I picked up from my grandfather and uncle is of some knucklehead boys in my third-grade class talking about Sosa and McGwire’s home-run record chase on a wooden table in the courtyard at our elementary school. We weren’t in Illinois or Missouri; we were in central California, and I remember it fondly as the first time I thought baseball could be fun, that it could be something for me and not just something that was on TV all day when I visited my grandpa and uncle in Cupertino.
I didn’t stick with that interest at the time, but every year guys like McGwire, Bonds, Clemens, and Sosa don’t go in to the Hall, I become more and more frazzled by the posts on Twitter and Facebook from friends my age who are mercifully not so plugged into the politics and drama and process of induction into the Hall. They in all amount to something like, WTF, how can you have a HALL OF FAME without Sosa and Bonds? There have been, of course, celebratory inductions—Ken Griffey Jr. probably meant as much if not more to kids my age than all of those guys combined (regional exceptions may apply)—but the picture is incomplete. The Hall, and the varying ways it’s passively and actively exerted its influence over who a bunch of writers subjectively find to have been good enough while performing following largely unenforced rules convincingly enough has ignored a bunch of kids whose love of the game was turned on by the big home runs and big home run numbers the league was eager to sell them.
The Hall of Fame and the museum to which it is attached do not do anyone any favors by simply throwing up their hands as regards a big, glaring facet of modern baseball history, or by having the president murmur about facts while a famous member of the board of directors hectors voters about players who used the wrong kind of drugs. If anything, all of this undermines the entire concept of the Hall, which at this point seems to be served poorly by a silly misnomer, as everyone understands it. The Hall of the Statistically Exceptional (And Now We Care If They Were Totally Clean) isn’t quite as catchy or concise as the Hall of Fame, but if the guys who ratcheted up the fun of the sport and helped breathe life into a game that was struggling under a wealthy asshole from Milwaukee can’t be deemed “famous,” who can?
I’m not advocating for changing the purpose of the physical hall of plaques and the guidelines through which players are inducted; nor am I advocating for changing the name of the place to something more accurate and descriptive; but I am advocating, I suppose, for the Hall and the writers to stop actively squeezing out and sabotaging the candidacies of the most exciting players of the 1990s and 2000s—even if for some, like Sosa, that glory was short-lived.
I know how the politics of election work; I know how the quantification of a guy’s long career arc works; I know the standards to which a player should be held to receive a great honor on that too-hot day in a field in Cooperstown. But, shit. All of this amounts to a whole lot of guys whose national candidacies for Favorite Player are being shunned and ignored. If this is what the politics and quantification and standards lead to, they have to change.
There are plenty of valid arguments against the statistical candidacy of Sosa (and probably McGwire), but his case, and Manny’s, should be judged on merit, as flawed and undefined as the concept of merit may be here. There’s a large block of voters who will not, under any circumstances, vote for any guys even suspected of using PEDs. Great! That’s their will. I’ll disagree with it, but at least it’s intellectually honest, unlike the close reading of every player’s career that aims to apply an exceedingly vague balancing test to just when they are thought to have used what and how it may have affected them, all according to a set of vague and unknown standards.
How the Hall behaves toward some of the most exciting players of my generation is not intellectually honest. It’s revisionist and obscurantist, I’m tired of pretending it doesn’t bother me for the sake of appearing measured. Most of these guys might have gone off the rails—Sosa especially—but the Hall’s crusade to exclude the steroid era as an important, powerful, and fun element of baseball history screws over me, and the many other kids who loved it.