How to Handle Steroids in Hall of Fame

In their recent Hall of Fame balloting, the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) made another strong statement about steroids. No player known or widely believed (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro) or even simply suspected (Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell) of steroid use was inducted. In anticipation of this result, Dan Le Batard gave his ballot to Deadspin to protest the “sanctimonious” anti-steroids crusade. In turn, he received a scathing response from his peers, along with loss of his balloting privileges and suspension from the BBWAA.

Neither Le Batard nor the BBWAA got this right.  

An anti-steroids stance need not involve controversial moral judgments, much less sanctimony. Users risk major health problems and even death. If steroids were allowed, all players would be confronted with the choice of taking life-threatening substances or losing competitive ground (perhaps not even having a major league career). This situation would be intolerable.

The serious health risks distinguish anabolic steroid use (and growth hormone, which, in excess, causes acromegaly) from amphetamines, plasma or platelet infusions, creatine, protein or other supplements, and the like — steroid use cannot be justified as being no different from other means athletes have used to enhance performance. Nor should we excuse steroid use prior to baseball’s formal testing and penalties. Federal law proscribed nonprescription use of anabolic steroids in 1991. Baseball does not need a formal penal code that specifically lists all banned behavior. It should be obvious that illegal activity is unacceptable.

We do not want a baseball culture that condones illegal substances, and we do not want to commemorate performances that required them.

But while this principle should be unobjectionable, particular cases present difficulties. We don’t always know for sure which players used steroids or for how long. Because of that uncertainty, some argue that no one should be penalized in the balloting. Others argue the opposite: all suspected steroid-users from this era should be denied induction. Neither extreme is justified.

The demand for certainty and direct evidence belies the world around us. Civil law cases are decided by the “preponderance of the evidence” — something must only be more likely than not. Circumstantial evidence is accepted in all courts and puts many criminals behind bars. We all make important decisions based on uncertain evidence: whom to marry, what job to take, where to live, etc. We do the best we can based on the evidence at hand and accept that errors are inevitable. There is no reason that HOF voting should be held to a standard of certainty not required with other important decisions. We can and should assess HOF candidates via the available evidence. 

McGwire, Sosa, and Palmeiro are fairly easy cases. The evidence suggests that they lack a steroid-unaided body of work worthy of induction. Bonds and Clemens are different. Their late-career statistical surges, along with obvious changes in their physiques, indicate that they began using steroids after they had already amassed careers that easily established their HOF credentials.  

Inducting Bonds and Clemons would not condone their steroid use. Rather, we can commemorate the steroid-free part of their careers but not the latter steroid-fueled parts. Their plaques should avoid mentioning career totals or the MVPs, Cy Young awards, and other achievements that were aided by steroids. Bonds’ plaque, for example, should make no mention of his record-breaking 73 home run season. (HOF plaques are not intended as a complete history of the player. For that, we have biographies and other HOF exhibits.)  

Piazza presents a different situation. We can’t be certain he used steroids at all, though that is not to say there is zero evidence. Piazza’s back acne, scoffed at by some, matters. Physicians consider de novo adult acne as a symptom of androgen excess that might prompt an evaluation for various diseases. If it’s a significant symptom to physicians, why should HOF voters ignore it?  

Of course, voters should be mindful of the presumption of innocence. According to the oft-cited maxim in the criminal law, it is better to acquit many guilty people than to convict any who are innocent. While excluding someone from the HOF is not the same as convicting him of a crime, some asymmetry between false positives and false negatives makes sense in the HOF context. Inducting a few players who were actually users would hardly be catastrophic, but excluding players who were entirely innocent would be a grave injustice. Accordingly, writers should resolve doubts about steroids in favor of players. Bagwell should get in, as there is no specific evidence against him.   

Looking forward, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, and Manny Ramirez should be excluded, as each of them either reportedly failed a drug test in 2003 and/or were admitted users (Rodriguez as of 2001, Sheffield as of 2002). Unlike Bonds and Clemens, they lack a clear HOF record prior to the onset of steroid use (particularly since use might have antedated their failed test or self-admission). David Ortiz had a single allegedly failed test that remains disputed, which falls short of the evidence needed to justify exclusion. Ivan Rodriguez seems like Piazza – some incriminating evidence (for Rodriguez, marked waxing and waning musculature corresponding to vacillations in performance) but no positive tests. Another difficult case. Jim Thome and Albert Pujols are more like Bagwell - no evidence of steroid use - and should be inducted.    

Readers will, of course, disagree with some of our particular assessments. HOF determinations are complex and subjective. How much should voters value different statistics, postseason play, peak years versus longevity, intangibles, etc?  Numerous issues germane to HOF induction always have and always will produce a range of opinions. It is regrettable that voters must assess possible steroid use, but doing so simply adds another subjective assessment to the process.

Making informed judgments on a case-by-case basis using the available evidence beats an all-or-nothing approach.