After two years of significant gains, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have stalled in their long journey towards Cooperstown plaques. The honor of voting for the newest members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is an annual ritual for over 400 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). It’s an honor that recently has also caused intense angst for a great many in the writing community. For the sixth year in a row, the writers have to deal with the conundrum of whether or not to vote for two of the greatest but also two of the most polarizing players in the history of the game. It’s a debate that pits writer against writer, fan against fan and Hall of Fame legend against Hall of Fame legend.
In a universe without performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) or a universe in which they were tolerated or accepted, both Barry and the Rocket would have been first-ballot selections to the Hall of Fame in 2013. But that’s not the universe we live in. Two of the greatest poster boys for the PED era are now on the BBWAA ballot for the sixth time and, based on the early voting reported by Ryan Thibodaux’s invaluable Hall of Fame tracker, for the sixth time they will not be elected to the Hall of Fame and, although they’re each tracking at 65% right now, the momentum they’ve had from the last few years actually has come to a halt.
Over the years, we’ve seen four general groups of voters emerge. Bonds and Clemens are getting the votes from just two of these four blocs.
This piece was originally posted on January 1st. It has been updated to include the most current voting results on Thibodaux’s tracker.
The Four Voting Blocs with respect to PEDs
#1 — “Zero tolerance” voters. For some writers, the choice about whether to vote for Bonds or Clemens is easy. There is no angst whatsoever. Theirs is a zero tolerance policy. Bonds, Clemens and others cheated the game and their fellow players and should not be rewarded with the sport’s ultimate honor, plaques honoring their careers in Cooperstown. The zero tolerance voters will not cast a ballot for a player that they even suspect might have used PEDs. For these writers, even the slightest suspicion of PED use will result in a “no” vote. For this voting bloc, zero tolerance means that you’re guilty until proven innocent. Besides, of course, not voting for Bonds or Clemens, these writers generally did not vote for the “suspected,” recently inducted Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and Ivan Rodriguez.
It’s not easy to argue with those who espouse this point of view. In their minds, the Hall of Fame represents the ultimate honor, one that should not be tainted with the presence of those who didn’t honor the game.
“Oh, the usual suspects are on the ballot — and by ‘the usual suspects’ I mean ‘players who could have moonlighted as pharmaceutical reps.’ That would be Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa. There’s little doubt they cheated. In the last several years, the debate has shifted to whether they should be forgiven their sins… See how easy it is to get sucked down into the sewer?”
— Rick Morrissey (Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 18, 2017)
“I have been clear in my position on cheaters. I don’t vote for them. Whether or not they have been caught using steroids or other PEDS, Bagwell and Rodriguez have long been associated with steroids.”
— Murray Chass (www.murraychass.com, formerly of the New York Times, Dec. 31, 2017)
#2 — “Whispers are OK, definitive links are not” voters. Here’s where it gets murky. This bloc of voters will give the benefit of the doubt to Piazza, Bagwell and Rodriguez but not to players for whom they have no doubt. For this group of voters, players hauled in front of Congress (Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro) are out. Players who were named in the George Mitchell Report on Steroids (Bonds, Clemens, Palmeiro and Gary Sheffield) are out. Players who failed drug tests (Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez) are out.
For most in the bloc, however, being named in Jose Canseco‘s book Juiced is not enough evidence to deny a Hall of Fame plaque. This is the Canseco exception. I-Rod, considered by most to be the greatest defensive catcher in the history of the game, was outed by his former Texas Rangers teammate but he became a first-ballot Hall of Famer anyway, getting nearly 100 more votes than either Bonds or Clemens.
“I sheepishly voted for Pudge Rodriguez…. because, though Pudge’s name appeared in Jose Canseco’s book, it did not appear in the more credible Mitchell Report.”
— Dave Albee (marinij.com, Dec. 28, 2016)
“As far as the steroids, I understand Jose Canseco was proven right about a lot of what he said and wrote, but Canseco’s word isn’t good enough to eliminate someone, at least not for me… And even if you believe Canseco, the man they call Pudge also didn’t have a career that was driven by the long ball.”
— Jon Heyman (FanRag Sports, Jan. 3, 2017)
“My hand hovered above the Bonds box, the Clemens box and the Sosa box…. I know the tide is turning, and, oh, did I come close… But I couldn’t do it… Jose Canseco, who, sadly, has been proven right on these matters more often than he has been proven wrong, has outed Pudge as a PED guy. I’m choosing to ignore it. I told you this was tricky business.”
— Bob Ryan (Boston Globe, Jan. 5, 2017)
As Ryan said, it’s tricky business. I read both of Canseco’s books, Juiced and Vindicated, the second of which he published after his much derided claims in Juiced turned out to be true. Canseco said he injected Rodriguez with steroids. I cannot think of any reason that he was making this up. It was not fake news. And yet, there are a lot of voters who drew a line between Senator Mitchell and the baseball pariah Canseco.
There’s generally an exception to the “whispers are OK” group and that exception is Sosa. Slammin’ Sammy never failed an official drug test and he wasn’t named in the Mitchell Report but has never gotten the benefit of the doubt. This is for two reasons.
First, there’s the eye test. If you look at before and after pictures of Sosa’s physique, it defies rationality to explain his Greek God body of the late 1990’s/early 2000’s to anything but PEDs. Whatever he did, Sosa overdid it. By hitting 60 or more home runs in 3 out of 4 seasons (1998, 1999, 2001), there’s simply nobody believes that he achieved that feat authentically.
Second, he was named in a New York Times report about MLB’s anonymous 2003 drug testing survey. That seems like a legitimate link except that, in October 2016, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred revealed that there were at least 10 false positives among the 2003 survey tests. The context for Manfred’s comments were to say that it would be “unfair” for retiring Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz to be “tarnished” by his positive test in this survey and that it’s unknown whether Big Papi actually used a performance enhancing drug.
The difference between Sosa and Ortiz, besides Papi’s October legend, is that Ortiz passed 12 years worth of drug tests; the vast majority of his career occurred after the implementation of the sport’s drug testing policy while Sosa only played for two seasons under the drug testing regime and his power game evaporated in those two seasons. Thus, Sosa remains on the outs and Ortiz will likely get the I-Rod treatment and become a first ballot Hall of Famer in 2022.
#3 — “Bonds-Clemens exception” voters. This is slowly becoming the biggest voting bloc among the BBWAA voters. Generally, this group did not vote for McGwire or Palmeiro and they don’t vote for Sosa, Sheffield or Ramirez. They vote for Barry and the Rocket for a couple of reasons. First, there’s the indisputable fact that these were two of the sport’s all-time great players. Clemens had already won 3 Cy Young Awards and an MVP trophy before he allegedly started using PEDs. Before his alleged dive into steroids, Bonds had already won 3 MVPs, 8 Gold Gloves and had become the first (and only) member of the 400-400 club (400 home runs and 400 stolen bases).
There are a great number of voters who transitioned from the “zero tolerance” group or the “whispers are OK” group to the “Bonds-Clemens exception” group after Commissioner Bud Selig was elected to the Hall of Fame by the “Today’s Game” Eras Committee in December 2016. Whether it’s fair or not (mostly not), there were a great many writers who felt that, if the commissioner who oversaw the steroid era was suitable for a plaque in Cooperstown, so too should be the very best players of that generation. At the same time as the Selig rationale was taking root, there was the 2016 induction of whisper candidate Piazza and the looming elections of whisper candidates Rodriguez and Bagwell in 2017.
To me, this is a highly rational position. If you believe that Rodriguez, Bagwell and/or Piazza used PEDs and yet you voted for them anyway, how do you justify withholding a vote for Bonds and Clemens?
“For the first time, included on my ballot are Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens… Why the change? Because I know with strong certainty there are players inducted into the Hall of Fame who used PEDs. The flood gate has been opened. What I am less certain about is who did exactly what, when and to a degree it actually enhanced performance.”
— Pat Caputo (Oakland Press Sports, Dec. 2, 2016)
“Yes, I’m voting for Bonds and Clemens for the first time… It’s a Bud Selig thing. If he’s in, Bonds and Clemens must go in. Selig did a ton of good during his years as commissioner and is Hall of Fame-worthy, but he also presided over the game during the height of the steroid era.”
— Steve Buckley (Boston Herald, Dec. 23, 2016)
#4 — “Performance Only” Voters. This is a smaller bloc but it’s a handful of writers who vote based on performance only. They vote as if steroid era did not exist. The philosophy is that nobody knows for sure who was or wasn’t using. Even when it’s obvious, such as in the case of Sosa for instance, what’s not so obvious is how many pitchers he was facing who were also juicing. Writers who vote this way all vote for Bonds and Clemens and many also vote for Sosa, Ramirez and/or Sheffield.
“The cold-hearted fact is that hundreds and perhaps thousands of players used performance-enhancing drugs during the steroid era, including at least a handful of players already in the Hall. We’ll never know exactly who was clean or who was dirty, but statistics and record performances will tell us we do know who the best players were during the steroid era.”
— Bob Nightengale (USA Today, Jan. 3, 2017)
Now, the members of the “performance only” group don’t go in lock-step with each other. Nightengale, for instance, votes for Sosa and Sheffield but not Ramirez because Ramirez was caught cheating (twice) after the game’s drug-testing policy was put into place. Others vote for Ramirez but not Sosa just on the feeling that the totality of Manny’s career was more authentic than Sammy’s. Ramirez was a phenomenal hitter throughout this career. Sosa had an unprecedented power surge (243 home runs in 4 seasons) that just feels fake. It’s for this reason that Manny has done better on the Hall of Fame ballot than Sammy for the last two years even though Sammy never failed an official test and Manny was a two-time loser.
The Hall of Fame Voting Trends for Bonds and Clemens
Below is a year-by-year progression of the Bonds and Clemens vote in their first five years on the ballot. You’ll notice that the two players have nearly identical voting percentages each year, which is not surprising since they’re both obvious Hall of Famers based on the numbers and also players who obviously used PEDs. I’ve added Sosa’s vote totals to the chart for comparative purposes.
|Year||Barry Bonds||Roger Clemens||Sammy Sosa|
For the first three years of the voting, it was pretty clear that the writers had drawn their respective lines in the sand and weren’t going to budge from their positions. After three years, it seemed pretty hopeless that either Barry or the Rocket would be able to ever get from the mid-30’s to the needed 75% of the vote to get into the Hall.
This looked like the abortion debate in politics. If one side is convinced it’s murder and the other side believes that a woman has the right to control her own body, it’s hard to move people from one position to the other. In the minds of voters, either Bonds and Clemens were cheaters and disgraced the game or you accept their PED use and recognize them for being the Hall of Famers that they already were before they started using.
So what changed in 2016, when the two controversial figures bumped up to 44%-45%? What changed was that the electorate shrunk.
|Year||# of ballots||Bonds||Votes||Clemens||Votes|
For the first time, our two principal characters saw a relatively small, but meaningful, boost in their voting support. There were a few key differences between 2015 to help explain the difference.
- The 2016 ballot had just 440 voters (BBWAA members who had been inactive for 10 years were purged), creating (overall) a younger and perhaps more forgiving voting electorate. This means that Clemens and Bonds each received a higher voting percentage despite a smaller overall vote total.
- Both Bonds and Clemens saw a net gain of 14 new voters among the 310 who publicly revealed their ballots. All but one of the new supporters also voted for Mike Piazza, who joined Griffey in the HOF Class of ’16.
The induction of Piazza was to some the first crack in Cooperstown’s PED wall. Unlike Bonds and Clemens (who had congressional investigations tied to their abuse of steroids), Piazza had no link whatsoever. He wasn’t called to testify to Congress, he wasn’t named in Canseco’s tell-all books, he wasn’t named in the Mitchell Report on steroids. No link at all. The case against Piazza was that he had acne on his back. The case against was that he hit too many home runs for a catcher, that he was too strong, that a 62nd round draft pick shouldn’t have turned into the most powerful hitter for a catcher in the history of the sport.
The suspicions about Piazza were no longer a good enough reason for writers to exclude him from Cooperstown and, for some, it was also a legitimate reason to start voting for Bonds and Clemens.
“I had never voted for Bonds or Roger Clemens or others with paper trails to performance-enhancing drugs, but I did vote for Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, who didn’t have paper trails but were indirectly linked to PEDs through speculation, rumor or innuendo… Did they use PEDs? I have no idea, but it’s possible they did… How could I in good faith not vote for Bonds when I might be voting for other PED guys?”
— John Shea (San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 5, 2016)
For Bonds and Clemens, the 2015 to 2016 increase of their voting support by about 7.5% each was promising but not the kind of earth-shattering change that would lead to a 75% super-majority needed to get into the Hall. About 130 more hearts and minds would still need to be changed. Well, it wasn’t 130 hearts and minds that changed but, in 2017, Bonds got 43 more votes and Clemens got 40 more.
|Year||# of ballots||Bonds||Votes||Clemens||Votes|
The reasons for this shift were that more writers moved from the “whispers are OK but links are not” to the “Bonds-Clemens exception” bloc of voters. This shift occurred because of the reasons outlined above. First, Selig’s election to the Hall made some writers feel like hypocrites to not vote for Bonds and Clemens. Second, the induction of Piazza and the inevitable inductions of Bagwell and Rodriguez led others to feel that the dam had broken. For many voters, if you already have players in the Hall who you believe used steroids, you might as well let the best of the best join them.
So, now that Baggy and I-Rod have joined Piazza in the Hall, does that mean that the Cooperstown PED wall is crumbling down? Well, let’s look at the early returns in the 2018 vote per Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame tracker.
|Year||Barry Bonds||Roger Clemens||Sammy Sosa|
|*Vote per the HOF Tracker (approx 51.2% votes counted)|
|*Projected vote updated 1/23/18 at 9:30a PT|
Wow, 64%!! They’re on the way up from 54% in 2017!!
Hold your horses. The fact of the matter is, the two tarnished legends have actually not made any progress over their vote progression from a year ago. Out of the first 217 ballots that were publicly revealed, both Bonds and Clemens gained three votes each and lost one each. What this means is that, among the 217 writers who cast ballots in 2017 and have made them public for 2018, the two stars have made virtually no gains whatsoever.
A year ago, the results on the Tracker were the same as they are today. Barry and the Rocket were both around 70% after 150 ballots revealed but ultimately finished just below 55% each. In 2017, the two stars did especially poorly among voters who never made their ballots public, each garnering under 40% of those votes.
Of course, we don’t know what will happen with the remaining 200+ ballots whose selections have yet to be revealed this year. But the fact that virtually no net gains have been made among the returning voters so far means that the momentum of the last two years may have stalled. It’s a really bad sign for the long-term prognosis of a Bonds and/or Clemens plaque.
After their gains from the 30’s to the 40’s to the 50’s between 2015 and 2017, there was a general consensus in the pundit class that this was now an inevitable march towards each player eventually getting 75% of the vote and their plaques. But unlike 2016 (when the voting rolls were purged) and 2017 (when the Selig election changed minds), nothing new has happened in the last few months that has influenced voters to leave their ideological corners.
Actually, the only news that could have theoretically have had an impact on the voters was the mass email from Hall of Famer Joe Morgan to the entire BBWAA electorate practically begging them not to admit known PED users into his exclusive club. The letter was signed as “Joe Morgan, Hall of Fame Class of 1990, Vice Chairman.”
“We hope the day never comes when known steroid users are voted into the Hall of Fame. They cheated. Steroid users don’t belong here.
By cheating, they put up huge numbers, and they made great players who didn’t cheat look smaller by comparison, taking away from their achievements and consideration for the Hall of Fame. That’s not right.
And that’s why I, and other Hall of Famers, feel so strongly about this. It’s gotten to the point where Hall of Famers are saying that if steroid users get in, they’ll no longer come to Cooperstown for Induction Ceremonies or other events. Some feel they can’t share a stage with players who did steroids.”
— Joe Morgan (in email sent to members of the BBWAA, Nov. 21, 2017)
The key word in the first sentence is “known.” Without saying it, Morgan is acknowledging that PED users are likely already walking in the midst of the Hall of Fame elite. This was a clear shot across the bow, aimed specifically at Barry Lamar Bonds and William Roger Clemens. I don’t know if it was meant to intimidate the writers (by indicating that he and others might boycott the ceremony if Bonds and Clemens are inducted) or merely to let everyone know how he (and others) feel but, at least so far, Morgan’s letter has seemingly had almost no impact.
Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Tracker tells us when a writer has “flipped” from “yes” to “no” or vice-versa. Out of 217 ballots revealed, virtually every writer voted exactly as they did in 2017 with respect to Bonds and Clemens.
I read several dozen columns and I could only find one writer who changed his vote because of Morgan’s letter. Still, the large majority of ballots submitted to the Hall of Fame Tracker are sent without explanation. It’s entirely possible that there were writers who were contemplating joining the Bonds-Clemens bandwagon and decided not to because of Morgan’s words.
Incidentally, although the vast majority of the Hall of Fame brethren has remained silent on the topic, San Francisco Giants legend Willie McCovey did not. On December 30th, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that it’s a “sin” that Bonds is not in the Hall of Fame. Regarding Morgan’s letter, McCovey said, “you’re naive if you don’t think it was aimed at Barry.” McCovey went on to say that Morgan is one of his best friends but not to “include me on the ones who are not going to show up if they go in.”
On January 4th, in the Chronicle Shea reported that Tom Glavine had heard from “a lot of guys” who support Morgan’s effort to keep PED users out of the Hall. From Shea’s article in the Chronicle:
“They feel very strongly about it. I don’t know that I can sit here and tell you that I’m one of those guys. I’m kind of indifferent to it, and I think in large part it’s because it was a such a big part of my era of baseball that when I played you knew guys were doing stuff.”
— Tom Glavine (San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 4, 2018)
Shea’s piece also quoted Gaylord Perry (like McCovey, an ex-Giant), who said “I just with them all the best. If they get in there, I’ll be right beside him.” Perry did, however, said that he did “kind of agree” with Morgan.
As the years go by and Bonds and Clemens get closer to 75% and closer to the end of their 10-year windows on the BBWAA ballot, you can expect more Hall of Famers to make their feelings known.
Will Bonds and Clemens Cross the Finish Line and Make the Hall?
After the 2017 election, when each player advanced into the mid 50 percent range of the BBWAA vote, I felt fairly certain that they were on inexorable paths to Cooperstown. I felt strongly that the Class of 2018, featuring Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell, would turn the tide. What seems, however, to have happened instead is a calcification of each writer’s position. The gains that Bonds and Clemens made in 2017 were based on the Selig induction and the inevitable induction of Rodriguez and Bagwell. In that respect, those flip-flops have already been baked into the cake with respect to the 2018 voting. It’s also possible that Morgan’s letter froze the writers. The ones already voting for Bonds and Clemens were not going to allow Morgan to dictate their votes but the ones still voting “no” were given another reason to hold the line.
In 2017, Bonds finished 84 votes shy of 75% of the vote; Clemens finished 83 votes short. Each player has five years (including this one) to make up that gap. The annual influx of new voters, most of whom are younger and generally more liberal with the way they view the PED era, will help. They both got the support from 13 out of the 15 new voters in 2017. Of the first 10 new voters for 2018 to reveal their ballots, Clemens has gone 10 for 10 while Bonds has gone 9 out of 10.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that Bonds and Clemens received the support of every new voter between now and 2022, their final year of eligibility. That’s between 10 and 15 new voters per year. It’s still not enough without flipping a dozen or more existing holdouts.
What could happen between now and 2022 to turn the tide? Well, for starters, if more “old-time” Hall of Famers like McCovey give their blessing, that might have an impact. In the same vein, all inductees in the next few years will likely be asked to weigh in on the question. What will Chipper Jones say? What will Mariano Rivera say when he’s inducted in 2019? What about Derek Jeter’s opinion when it’s his turn in 2020? The opinions of these two all-time great Yankees will have a meaningful impact because of the universal respect they enjoy and because they were teammates of the third member of the megastar troika fueled by PEDs, Alex Rodriguez.
As the clock starts ticking and Bonds and Clemens enter their 9th year of eligibility, there will be nothing short of a national referendum throughout the sport on the topic. Remember this, however. Let’s say our two legends climb up to 69% or 70% of the vote in 2021. Normally, a player who gets that close to 75% zooms past the finish line the next year because writers don’t want to be “the one” to keep the player out of the Hall of Fame. In the case of Bonds and Clemens, however, the motivation will be flipped. There will be writers who will absolutely hope that their lone vote is the one that made the difference to keep the cheaters out of the Hall.
My Two Cents
While sympathetic to the position that the Hall of Fame should not reward players who cheated the game and their fellow players by chemically enhancing their bodies, I’m in favor of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens getting into the Hall of Fame. I can’t get past the logic that the Hall already has plaques of PED users gracing its hallowed walls. I’m not just talking about Piazza, Bagwell and Rodriguez.
First of all, it’s not really fair to lump Piazza and Bagwell into the Rodriguez bucket; I-Rod was outed by a teammate who shared a first person account of personally injecting him with steroids. Second of all, I’m certain that there are players who dabbled in PEDs that we know nothing about. I know for an absolute fact that there are multiple amphetamine users who have been honored by the Hall. I am also resolute in my belief that a great number of the older Hall of Famers would have used steroids if that had been the culture of the game when they were playing.
The truth is that the entire world of baseball was in some way complicit in the steroid era. The players’ union was too slow to agree to drug testing. With the scars of the canceled 1994 World Series still fresh, Selig perhaps didn’t push the issue as hard as he should have. Those of us in the media didn’t push the issue hard enough; we were all getting high on the Great Home Run Chase of 1998 between McGwire and Sosa. I’m not saying it’s right but it’s understandable that Bonds would watch the ’98 Big Mac-Slammin’ Sammy show and feel like he wasn’t on a level playing field.
If I had a ballot, I would vote for Barry and the Rocket. They were all-time great players long before the reports of their initial PED use. With all of the other players who were juicing in the anything goes 1990’s and early 2000’s, nobody approached the performance level of these two stars.
For now, that’s it. Manny Ramirez was an incredible hitter but he failed two tests so it’s “no” for him. Sosa has the “fame” part of the Hall of Fame but I can’t shake the feeling that the thing that makes him a Hall of Famer was a sham. Still, 609 is a lot of home runs and it’s hard to say that he couldn’t have gotten well over 500 just by working out hard. Sheffield actually admitted using PEDs, saying he didn’t realize what he was using at the time.
In spite of their considerable on-field merits, I’m not in favor of a Sosa or Sheffield vote but that’s mostly because the current Hall of Fame ballot is so stacked with talent. With writers being limited to just 10 names per ballot, two PED users is enough. If you’re leaving Edgar Martinez off your ballot to make room for Manny, Sammy and/or Gary, I’ve got a problem with that. I’m talking about, as an example, the ballot of New York Daily News columnist Filip Bondy, who voted for Edgar a year ago but dropped him this year to make room for Sosa.
Bonds and Clemens will not make the Hall of Fame this year. What remains to be seen is if they move the chains forward in the ultimate quest of the 75% super-majority that they’ll need in the future.
Thanks for reading.