USA Society

Why suspected steroid users are now getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame

a shift in thought

Professional baseball writers are softening their views on players suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. It's a shift some say is representative of American attitudes about the MLB's 'Steroids Era.' 

At left, former San Francisco Giants baseball player Barry Bonds leaves federal court in San Francisco, June 23, 2011. At right, former Major League baseball pitcher Roger Clemens leaves federal court in Washington, July 14, 2011. Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell, and Ivan Rodriguez were all voted into the Hall of Fame, despite rumors of drug use during their careers.
AP
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In 2013, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWA) didn't admit any players into the National Baseball Hall of Fame for just the second time in 42 years – delivering a clear message to some stars of the "Steroids Era" of the 1990s and 2000s.  

“If they let these guys in ever – at any point – it’s a black eye for the Hall and for baseball,” Goose Gossage, a relief pitcher, and a 2008 Hall of Fame inductee, told the Associated Press at the time.

Four years later, baseball writers now appear to have lowered their standards. Three Major League Baseball (MLB) players stained with steroids rumors – that were never officially proven – have been voted into the Cooperstown, N.Y., museum. Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell, whose achievements were smeared with suspicions they used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), were two of three players elected to the Hall of Fame on Wednesday, joining Mike Piazza the year before.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, both indicted on charges arising from investigations into their alleged steroid use, received a majority of votes for the first time in the five years since their names appeared on the ballot. (Mr. Bonds was convicted of obstruction of justice, but the verdict was later overturned. Mr. Clemens was acquitted of perjury and obstruction.)

Why the shift?

The voting for suspected steroids users is, in part, a product of the shifting demographics of the association for professional baseball writers. Members are eligible to vote on the Hall of Fame after 10 years in the organization. Many of its newest voters are writers who never covered MLB's "Steroids Era." This shift was amplified 18 months ago when the Hall of Fame restructured its voting requirements to phase out older members who haven’t covered the sport regularly within the past 10 years, according to The Washington Post. The move purged about 200 mostly veteran writers from the vote, turning the pool of voters markedly younger.

But dive deeper and even veteran writers with Hall of Fame voting privileges have acknowledged they now agree with their younger peers that steroid accusations shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all that prevents a player from having a plaque put up in Cooperstown. Experts on the sociology and ethics of sports say the voting results reveal a broader shift among Americans about how they view drug use and doping among athletes.

“One of the things we’ve seen over time is the integrity of the game or cheating is not static. It tends to evolve and shift,” says Mark Vermillion, a professor of sports sociology, psychology, and ethics at Wichita State University in Kansas. Baseball, he adds in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor, is “such a unique game” with a “distinct physical component to it” that observers also question the advantage a doper might have gained.

“If someone is taking something on the banned substance list, does it make them strong? Does it help them hit the ball better? What about hand-eye coordination?” he says. “As more of these things come out, the water is becoming murkier than it used to be.”

No player in the Hall of Fame has admitted to using steroids. But Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Bagwell were suspected of it during their careers. Rodriguez, a 14-time All Star catcher, was accused of using PEDs by his teammate on the Texas Rangers, Jose Canseco. Mr. Canseco alleged in a 2005 tell-all book, “Juiced” that he injected the catcher with steroids. When Rodriguez was asked in 2009 if he was on the list of players who allegedly tested positive for steroids during baseball’s 2003 survey it instituted that year, he told the Associated Press, “Only God knows.”

Despite these accusations, baseball writers deemed the All Star and 13-time Gold Glover worthy of the three-fourths votes necessary to reach the Hall of Fame, the first time Rodriguez appeared on the ballot.

Bagwell, meanwhile, acknowledged taking androstenedione, a dietary supplement and steroid precursor, during his career before the drug was banned by the MLB, something Mr. Piazza also admitted to.

The election of Piazza to Cooperstown last year – and former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who some say turned a blind eye to rampant steroid use, this year by a vote from a separate commission – actually led many sports writers to reconsider their stances on Steroid Era players, especially Bonds and Clemens.

"I judge players by their eras and who they played against," Peter Gammons of the MLB Network, and who joined BBAW in 1972, told the Associated Press on Wednesday. "I finally just decided, you know what, they're so great that they should be in the Hall of Fame because it's a museum of baseball history."

But this was the first year Mr. Gammons voted for arguably the MLB’s greatest hitter, Bonds, and its greatest pitcher, Clemens. He clearly wasn’t alone, as both Bonds and Clemens have seen momentum turn in their favor since their names first appeared on the ballot five years ago.

In 2013, Bonds received 36.2 percent of the vote. Last year, he received 44.3 percent. And this year, he received 53.8 percent. Clemens saw his numbers rise from 45.2 percent last year to 54.1 percent this year.

This shift mirrors attitudes among the league and the public about players’ use of PEDs. Both Bonds and Mark McGwire, who also admitted to using androstenedione, coached last season. Alex Rodriguez, who was suspended for all of the 2014 season for his involvement in the Biogenesis doping scandal the year before, has been welcomed back by New York with open arms.

Jay Coakley, author of “Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies,” and a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says these attitudes are as much a reflection of younger fans’ views of PEDs and sports as it is about the erosion of how they view the purity and goodness of America’s greatest pastime and its stars. 

“I think the mythical status of an athlete has eroded over the years, partly because we have much more information about athletes lives than we had in the past,” he tells the Monitor by phone, mentioning Babe Ruth once injected himself with an extract from a sheep’s testicles in an attempt to improve his power at the plate, and the Yankees covering up the news by telling the press the Babe was sick with a bellyache.

Others say that despite softening public attitudes, the responsibility still falls on athletes and the institutions they play for to be examples for the fans.

“Imagine you have a young kid who loves baseball and is thinking about making a profession of it,” Maurice Schweitzer, a professor of operations, information, and decisions at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, tells the Monitor. “To me, the tragedy is lots of players out there are now faced with this wrenching dilemma: if I really want to play, do I have to break the rules and take steroids?”

Ann Skeet, director of leadership ethics at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, agrees these players’ induction into the Hall of Fame sends the wrong message to young fans, but says one solution is players publicly acknowledging their decisions to use PEDs was wrong.

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