SEATTLE – The government spent several years and several million dollars trying to prove that Roger Clemens lied to Congress under oath about using performance-enhancing drugs. They failed miserably.
In December, as a Hall of Fame voter, I will be asked to decide whether Clemens belongs in Cooperstown – yet another impossibly complicated verdict to be made on yet another steroids suspect. There will be those who will plead with me to leave Clemens off my ballot because we all KNOW he used steroids, no matter what the jury of his peers concluded. And my strong hunch is that Clemens will not make it on the first ballot, same as 3,000-hit, 500-homer man Rafael Palmeiro (0 for 2 in voting) and 583-homer man Mark McGwire (0 for 6).
This is why Hall of Fame voting is no longer fun – and getting downright miserable as Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza join Clemens as first-timers on the next ballot, with Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez waiting in the wings.
I remember, years ago, as I pondered my first Hall of Fame ballot, having a long and passionate debate with my boss, a longtime baseball writer and Hall of Fame voter, about the credentials of Don Sutton. He was aghast that I planned to vote for Sutton. I argued about his 324 wins and his distinguished legacy of excellence. He argued that Sutton was never considered one of the best pitchers of his time.
We went back and forth, and it was a blast. It was a baseball debate, much like the ones about Andre Dawson, Jim Rice and Ryne Sandberg. Agree, disagree, you could dig into the numbers, make your case, and have at it.
Now, it’s no longer about the numbers. If it were about the numbers, Clemens and Bonds would be two of the easiest votes in the history of Hall of Fame voting. Clemens won 354 games and won seven – seven! – Cy Youngs. Bonds hit 762 home runs – 73 of them in one season – and won seven – seven! – MVP awards. Palmeiro would be a slam dunk as one of just four players in history with 3,000 hits and 500 homers. And so forth.
But now we are being asked to ascertain the legitimacy of those numbers, most often based on innuendo, hunches and circumstantial evidence. And I hate that. I’ve written many times of my reluctance to be the “steroids police.” We’ll never know definitively who used and who didn’t use – the Clemens case being Exhibit A. I have strong suspicions like everyone else, but the cases made by both the Mitchell Report and in the just-concluded trial aren’t exactly airtight.
Baseball has allowed the statistics of the steroids era to count in the record books. We may well have already unwittingly elected a steroids user, and almost certainly will at some point, because you just never know. Should those players who were unlucky enough to have their names squealed to the Mitchell Report investigators be judged more harshly than the ones who had more circumspect ’roids dealers? Should we vote out Clemens because we are pretty darned sure he must have used, even though Brian McNamee’s credibility was blown up by the defense attorneys? Should we vote out Bonds based on the Balco investigation that was just as ill-fated in court, save for one obstruction-of-justice conviction?
And even if you are 100 percent convinced Bonds was a steroids user – a reasonable conclusion – what about the fact that many of his peers were as well? What about the fact he was a Hall of Fame-caliber player before he was accused of juicing? What about the fact that amphetamines – the greenies that were gobbled up like M&M’s by previous generations of ballplayers – are now categorized by MLB as performance-enhancing drugs? Do we kick all the greenies users out of the Hall of Fame?
Tough questions. And despite the vehemence with which some people will respond to those questions – particularly the “keep the cheating bums out” faction – the answers are hardly cut and dry. Voters who kept out Jeff Bagwell because of steroids innuendo were rightly criticized, I felt, because there was no proof, just suspicions. Well, I think it can be argued that Clemens now falls into the same category.
To me, the Clemens verdict just strengthens my earlier stance about the impossibility of judging who is guilty and who isn’t. Charlie Moore, the former Toronto catcher, took the stand and explained that Clemens’ late-career surge was the result of learning the split-fingered fastball, not steroids. It’s plausible, right? The sainted Nolan Ryan, about whom no one has any suspicions, struck out 301 batters at age 42 – his most in a season since he was 30. It’s also plausible that Moore’s explanation is a smoke screen that obscures the real reason Clemens won four Cy Youngs after the age of 34 – the last one at 41.
We might never know for sure. In fact, those six words are the epitaph for the steroids era. For the next decade, there will be suspicions about almost every player who comes on the ballot. I’ll mull things over for the next six months, and do some final soul-searching when the ballot arrives. But right now, I’m poised to vote for Roger Clemens.