Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, two of the most successful players in baseball history, are among the former stars who were essentially blacklisted from the Hall of Fame because of their reputations as doping cheats. But now, because of a sudden and surprising shift of voter sentiment, players who thrived during baseball’s so-called steroids era might be enshrined in Cooperstown after all.
The baseball writers who vote to decide which players are allowed into the Hall of Fame appear to be backing away from their punitive approach to players linked to doping because of what they perceive as hypocrisy.
Bud Selig, who served as commissioner of baseball as the record books were being obliterated by bulked-up players, was recently granted entry into the Hall of Fame by a separate voting body. Selig has been widely criticized for failing to combat the doping scourge soon enough. The former manager Tony La Russa, who was inducted in 2014, benefited from steroids users on some of his successful teams.
No Hall of Fame for American sports carries as much prestige as baseball’s, and no team sport in the country has been as vexed by doping. Baseball officials refused to confront the problem for years, then became more aggressive than other pro leagues in policing the use of illicit drugs. In what would be a dramatic change for the sport and its fans, the penalty phase — for former players, at least — may be over.
“It just kind of struck a nerve with me,” said Kevin Cooney, a voter from The Courier Times in Bucks County, Pa.
“To me, it would be hypocritical to put the commissioner of the steroid era and a manager who had connections with the steroid era in and leave out the greatest pitcher and the greatest hitter of that time,” Cooney said.
After Selig was voted into the Hall, Susan Slusser posted a pointed message on social media. In it, Slusser, a former president of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, said that Selig’s election had now compelled her to reconsider how she would vote on this year’s ballot for the Hall.
She argued that if Selig was being inducted, it was “senseless’’ to keep out players who were accused of using drugs.
As a longtime beat writer for The San Francisco Chronicle, Slusser is well respected by her fellow writers. Her statement got their attention, and while she may not have directly influenced any of them to alter his or her thinking on how to vote, she at least changed the conversation.
“There is nothing good about the whole era,” Slusser said in a telephone interview. “And I just decided that if you honor the central figures of the era — the execs and managers and players and media people are all going in — then it’s putting the entire wrongs of that era on two guys.”
Other voters share Slusser and Cooney’s thinking, according to Ryan Thibodaux’s BBHOF ballot tracker, which lists Hall of Fame ballots that have been made public.
Of the more than 150 voters who have taken the public route — representing a little over a third of the electorate — 21 voted for Bonds for the first time after previously declining to do so and 22 did the same for Clemens.
That growing support has left Bonds, baseball’s career leader in home runs, and Clemens, a pitcher who won more Cy Young Awards — seven — than anyone else, closing in on the 75 percent threshold needed for induction. Each has now has been named on 110 of the 156 ballots on Thibodaux’s site, or 70.5 percent.
Based on previous voting patterns, the percentages for Bonds and Clemens are expected to come down a bit — perhaps to about 65 percent — when the final vote totals are announced later this month. Still, a pathway to induction has come into focus for the two men midway through their 10 years of ballot eligibility.
In comparison, Clemens received 45.2 percent of the vote last year and Bonds 44.3. Even those vote totals, while modest, pushed them over the 40 percent mark for the first time and reflected a changing voter constituency that is now younger and seemingly less inclined to take a hard line against suspected steroid cheats.
And now that trend is amplified by other developments, including a reassessment of the whole issue brought on by the Selig vote in particular.
To date, no former player with a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug or who was otherwise directly linked to such substances has won election into the Hall. And if Bonds and Clemens do ultimately gain entry, it could finally shatter the steroid wall and allow other players under a cloud of suspicion to gain entry to Cooperstown.
Bernie Wilson, a voter in San Diego who covers baseball for The Associated Press, said that even before Slusser spoke out, he had planned to vote for Bonds and Clemens this time after five or six years of leaving them off. He said he wanted to allow time for the issue to simmer. He reasoned that if Bonds and Clemens had to wait a couple of years to get in based just on his vote, then they would survive the delay.
“As a practicing Catholic, and I know I’m going to get ridiculed for this, but there is the concept of purgatory,” he said. He added that he always felt Bonds and Clemens would eventually get in and that the Selig induction had “forced the issue.”
Steve Buckley of The Boston Herald called the entire process flawed. His decision not to vote for Bonds and Clemens in the past was flawed, he said, and his decision to vote for them now is hardly airtight, either.
Still, Buckley said he pictured himself sitting in the audience at Cooperstown for future induction ceremonies and looking out at Selig and La Russa and others who he said benefited from the steroid era and wondering why the two best players of the time were barred.
“I’m not saying Bud turned a blind eye to it or that he knew it was happening,” Buckley said of the drug use under Selig’s watch. “I’m simply saying that Clemens and Bonds and others took the performance-enhancing drugs and did the steroids and all those evil things, and at the end of the day, the game did prosper, and they are on the outside looking in, and I have an issue with that.”
Some writers contend the Hall of Fame has not provided sufficient guidance on how to handle the drug issue. Others note that half of the six criteria that voters are required to consider — “the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played” — should exclude cheaters and say the issue is clear-cut enough.
Gordon Wittenmyer of The Chicago Sun-Times said that he did not vote for Bonds or Clemens this time, either, and that comparing Selig to the two former stars was a classic case of apples and oranges.
He recalled that before his first vote a few years ago, when another tainted slugger, Mark McGwire, was still on the ballot, he described the entire voting process to his son, who was 12 at the time. Wittenmyer described each player’s biography and what he had seen from them up close as a writer. Then he explained the steroid issue.
“His response was, ‘Well, Dad, isn’t that cheating?’ And I said, yeah, it was,” Wittenmyer said. “If that’s the easy conclusion a 12-year-old draws, it really is that simple.”
How many other writers will continue to see it the way Wittenmyer does will determine whether Bonds and Clemens finally get in. Players who get close to the 75 percent mark as their ballot eligibility is running out sometimes get a push from other voters to get them past the threshold. Ultimately, Bonds and Clemens may need that push, too. In a rapidly changing climate, they may get it.
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