Hall of Fame committee could be tough on players with steroid links
By Tyler Kepner
For a player who starred at Wrigley Field, Ryne Sandberg finished his Hall of Fame speech, in 2005, the way you would expect: “Thank you and go Cubs!” But right before that, on a stage filled with the most hallowed names in baseball, Sandberg made a pointed choice of words to cap his address.
“Respect for the game of baseball — when we all played it, it was mandatory,” Sandberg said. “It’s something I hope we will one day see again.”
The next day, one of Sandberg’s former teammates, Rafael Palmeiro, was suspended for testing positive for stanozolol, a powerful anabolic steroid. Later that summer, hounded by booing, Palmeiro wore ear plugs in the last game he ever played. He had more hits than Wade Boggs and more home runs than Reggie Jackson, but he has not earned a plaque in Cooperstown, New York.
This past Monday, the Hall of Fame announced the 16 voters for the Contemporary Baseball Era committee, which will meet in San Diego on Sunday at the winter meetings. Eight candidates are up for consideration by the committee, including Palmeiro and the two more prominent statistical giants whose legacies are clouded by ties to performance-enhancing drugs: Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
Sandberg is one of seven Hall of Famers on the committee, with Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Jack Morris, Frank Thomas, Lee Smith and Alan Trammell. There are also six executives (Paul Beeston, Theo Epstein, Arte Moreno, Kim Ng, Dave St. Peter and Ken Williams) and three members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (Steve Hirdt, La Velle Neal and Susan Slusser).
Besides Bonds, Clemens and Palmeiro, the candidate list — chosen from those who made their greatest impact from 1980 onward — includes Albert Belle, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Dale Murphy and Curt Schilling. Voters are limited to no more than three selections apiece, and candidates must receive 12 votes (75%) to be elected.
The Hall of Fame does not reveal the voters’ individual ballots, and committee members are forbidden from sharing details of the meeting. But if some of the voters stand by their previous statements, it could be another disappointing outcome for Bonds, Clemens and Palmeiro.
Sandberg, in stumping for Andre Dawson during his speech, said that Dawson — who was finally inducted in 2010 — “did it the right way, the natural way.” Over the years, Sandberg has not wavered from his reverence for that approach.
“No steroid guys in the Hall of Fame,” he told FanSided in 2018. “It’s about stats, integrity and playing by the rules. There’s no cheating in Major League Baseball or the Hall of Fame.”
The muscular Thomas — who now pitches a testosterone supplement in TV ads — has spoken for years about the scourge of steroids. In 1995, seven years before the union consented to testing, Thomas supported the idea to the Los Angeles Times. When George J. Mitchell investigated the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, he reached out to five players who had been outspoken about the topic, and only Thomas agreed to meet.
“It was weird,” Thomas told The New York Times in 2007. “The whole reason I did it was because I couldn’t believe other guys weren’t talking to him. I had nothing to hide.”
In 2014, when Thomas cruised to an easy first-ballot election by the writers, he reflected on his conversations with older Hall of Famers, who told him they never wanted PED users in Cooperstown. Thomas made clear that he sided with them.
“To be honest, I have to take the right stance, too,” Thomas said. “No, they shouldn’t be allowed in.”
Reaching the Hall of Fame is baseball’s highest honor, of course, but there is still an unspoken hierarchy. And while Thomas posted some of the gaudiest numbers ever, sluggers like Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa eclipsed him during his prime. Proud players do not forget.
“Overnight, everybody caught up,” Thomas told USA Today in 2014. “My 40 home runs and my 120 RBI wasn’t what it once was. Guys started ramping up 50 and 60 home runs. They were doing things that were crazy.
“So people started talking like my numbers were just average, and I took a lot of flak for that. They looked at me like, ‘What are you doing? You’re not working out.’”
In 2010, after McGwire’s admission of steroid use, Morris told The St. Paul Pioneer-Press that McGwire’s “numbers aren’t legit.”
“Anyone cheating should not be allowed in the game, because there is a huge definition of the Hall of Fame that all writers are supposed to consider when they elect a person,” Morris told the Holland (Michigan) Sentinel the next year, adding that part of the definition was: “Did they uphold the integrity of the game? And by cheating, that is not upholding the integrity of the game.”
Maddux took a nuanced viewpoint in January, on a podcast co-hosted by former All-Star pitcher David Cone.
“As far as the steroids go, I think there’s guys that are good enough to be in the Hall of Fame if they didn’t take them, so I think they’re OK if they get in,” Maddux said. “I think there’s guys that were only good because they took them, and then I think guys will have a problem with that. Now, who’s to say who’s right, who’s wrong, or who’s taking ’em or whatever? Who knows what was going on back then?”
That has been the writers’ approach to players suspected of using banned drugs but not strongly linked; even David Ortiz — who had a positive test in 2003, during survey testing that was supposed to remain anonymous — made it on the first try last year. In that same election — their 10th and final appearance on the ballot — Bonds and Clemens earned nearly two-thirds of the writers’ votes (66% for Bonds and 65.2% for Clemens) but essentially ran out of time.
Now, their fate rests largely with their peers and executives, a voting bloc that skews older: Morris, Trammell, Smith and Sandberg started their careers more than 40 years ago, and only Jones began his after 1990.
Here’s Jones on the topic, from a conversation with Sports Illustrated in 2017: “I couldn’t imagine looking in my parents’ eyes if they knew I had taken a shortcut or cheated. And ultimately, at the end of the day, that’s what swayed me. And I knew that some of my contemporaries were doing it, but in the end it gave me a lot of satisfaction walking away knowing I did it the right way the whole time.”
If Sandberg, Thomas and Morris maintain their hard line against steroid suspects, that means Bonds, Clemens and Palmeiro must collect at least 12 of the remaining 13 votes, including one of either Maddux or Jones. That is possible, in theory, but they would then need wider support from executives than from their peers.
Who will make the most persuasive arguments when the committee meets? Who will reconsider past positions? We may never know for sure, but the factors that hurt some candidates in past elections will no longer matter.
A crowded ballot — and a limit of 10 selections — kept McGriff from standing out to most writers, and Schilling’s hostility to many in the BBWAA left him just shy of election (he peaked at 71.1% in 2021). But both players maintained a high standard for a long time, and baseball lifers tend to value durability.
Durability was not a problem for Bonds, Clemens and Palmeiro. Their method of achieving it is the issue — and even with a new set of judges, it threatens their place in history.