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Why Should a Little Thing like PED Use Keep Great Players Out of the Hall of Fame?

(Image: Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Earlier today, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America announced that Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas had been elected to the Hall of Fame.  In recent years, the annual HOF inductee announcement has been accompanied by various BBWAA voters explaining why they did or did not vote for “steroid era” players.  For example, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale justifies his votes for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens on the basis that they never admitted PED use and never publicly failed a drug test.

In his On Baseball column, Brewers beat writer Tom Haudricourt offers the same explanation for why he voted for Bonds and Clemens – and why he won’t vote for the 2011 National League MVP:

Last year, when I revealed my ballot and explained why I voted for perceived cheats, I received considerable — and expected — criticism. With no direction from the Hall of Fame, I decided to exclude only those who had failed a drug test (Rafael Palmeiro) or admitted to using (Mark McGwire). Call that arbitrary if you will, but voters are left to make their own judgments on these players, and it makes your head hurt to try to separate them. And, yes, that means I never would cast a vote for Ryan Braun when his time comes.

I accept Haudricourt’s invitation to call his judgment arbitrary.  Obviously, he’s under no obligation to explain himself at all, so as a fan I’m grateful he did.  And I’m sure most of his peers agree that Braun has essentially no chance at HOF election no matter how the rest of his career plays out. 

But as long as we’re being arbitrary – Braun did just serve a 65-game suspension for using PEDs.  Mark McGwire was never suspended, and Rafael Palmeiro only served a 10-game suspension in 2005.  If Braun plays another decade and never tests positive for PEDs, at least he can say he paid a price.  I would argue that if Braun stays clean from this point forward, the fact he’s been publicly humiliated (which he brought upon himself, of course) and served a lengthy suspension (which he earned) should not disqualify himself from the HOF.  What’s the point of handing out penalties if we’re not going to forgive and give people another chance once they’ve done their time?

Call that arbitrary if you will (because it is), but most discussions about PEDs in baseball are loaded with arbitrariness.  If the point of the HOF is to recognize superior performance, there’s something to be said for PED-using players who achieved great things.  Although plenty of fans and pundits pretend otherwise, it is not at all clear that using steroids guarantees the kind of production that Bonds, McGwire, Clemens, or Palmeiro had during their careers.

If you look at the players named in the Mitchell report, the majority of them were men of (ahem) modest accomplishment.  Of all the players who are suspected or have admitted to using PEDs, only a handful had careers that merit HOF consideration.  Since they were playing during a period when PED use was supposedly extensive, why shouldn’t they be recognized for exceptional performance relative to their peers?

After failing a drug test in 2011, Braun went on to have arguably the best season of his career when he was surely being watched closely.  If Braun continues to have those kinds of seasons, it would demonstrate he has extraordinary talent – the kind of talent worthy of HOF induction.  If respected BBWAA members are willing to give players a pass because they didn’t get caught using PEDs, I would suggest they give some consideration to players who did get caught, took their punishment, and kept playing at a high level.  Even if today you say you would “never” cast your vote for a certain player, the nice thing about being arbitrary is you can always change your mind.