The Voting Day After, Part 2

By Derek Rosenfeld

Now that two months have passed since the 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame (HOF) voting caused a few days of serious debate among the game’s purists; casual fans; and the “keepers of the fame”—the sportswriters—and the beginning of spring training and the latest World Baseball Classic have taken the focus away from the controversy and placed it back on the game itself, it’s back to business for many who make their living between the white lines.

In Part 1 of this two-part article, I examined the careers of Craig Biggio, Jack Morris, and Dale Murphy; three players who were among the 371 who failed to garner the 75 percent of votes needed from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) to warrant admission into the HOF, leaving this summer’s HOF induction ceremony with no new inductees for the first time since 1996. These 37 included, statistically speaking, some of the game’s all-time greatest players. From the finger-waving 3,000-hit/500-home run club member Rafael Palmeiro to two-time Most Valuable Player Juan Gonzalez to the dubious Mark McGwire, this year’s ballot was riddled with superstars and legends that, in other years and amid other circumstances, would have been shoe-ins to enter professional sports’ greatest building.

Alas, those and all others were rejected under the guise of the Steroids Era, which turned every player into a suspect and several into pariahs. Part 1 looked at some who were guilty by association. Now, let’s look at some who were either suspected of being guilty or just plain guilty.

 

BARRY BONDS—San Francisco Giants, Pittsburgh Pirates, OF (1st year, received 36.2% of votes)

ROGER CLEMENS—Boston Red Sox, three other teams, P (1st year, received 37.6% of votes)

SAMMY SOSA—Chicago Cubs, three other teams, OF (1st year, received 12.5% of votes)

The three most anticipated, divisive new names on last year’s ballot were also three of the most obvious performance enhancing drug (PED) users to ever have played. To go into their career numbers, achievements, and awards would be simply repeating controversies and statistical anomalies that have already been written by hundreds of sportswriters and digested by millions of sports fans. Either way, a look into the possibilities and time frames of each player’s PED use brings to light interesting discussions about their place in the grand scheme of things.   

This triad of players represents the starting point for these conversations about the actual effectiveness of PED use and the theories about the points at where the players began using PEDs. Yes, PEDs were the number-one reason for the skyrocketing of home run and overall offensive totals of the past 20-25 years, but what about the rise of maple bats and the proliferation of smaller ballparks? They have also contributed to the rise in offense and have muddied the waters on the debate of how responsible PEDs were for “cheating” in the game.

Bonds, of course, shattered major records during what was supposed to be a slow but graceful decline from the game. He broke his personal best home run total at the age of 35 with 49 dingers in 2000. The following season, he began to dismantle major league baseball (MLB) pitching at a rate never before seen in the game’s history, outslugging even the immortal Babe Ruth. For a quick comparison, from 1986—his rookie season—to 1999, Bonds batted .288 while averaging 37 home runs and 107 runs batted in per every 162 games. From 2000-2007, ages 35-42, he posted a batting line of .322/52/115 while averaging an amazing 185 walks during the same 162-game average. Before 2000, he posted an on-base (OBP) + slugging percentage (OPS) of .968, an all-time elite level that had him bound for Cooperstown as a first-ballot HOFer. However, his production spiked after his suspected PED use, resulting in a never-before-seen 1.241 OPS over the remainder of his career. And, considering Bonds was once walked 232 times in one season, think about the damage he would have done had he been pitched to!

How much did PEDs help Bonds? You decide.

On July 18, 2012, Roger Clemens was acquitted of lying to Congress about his PED use during a February 13, 2008, Congressional hearing, ending a 4½-year ordeal which basically incriminated him in the use of anabolic steroids by his former trainer Brian McNamee.

Clemens’ PED use, though apparent, is a little tougher to nail down when attempting to pinpoint the chronology of when he started using it. As first stated in 2007’s George Mitchell Report (which mentioned Clemens’ name 82 times) regarding PEDs in baseball, McNamee began injecting Clemens with Winstrol in 1998, before and during the season in which he won his second consecutive Cy Young Award (CYA) with the Toronto Blue Jays.    

 “These cases are tough to prosecute,” said P.J. Meitl, a criminal defense lawyer at Bryan Cave LLP in Washington, D.C. “Here they had DNA evidence and a witness who said he did it and they still couldn’t get a conviction.”2

Regardless, all signs point to Clemens’ reliance on PEDs during at least part of his career’s second half surge. After finishing third in the American League CYA voting in 1992 at the age of 30, his abilities seemed to wane slightly; he went a combined 40-39 with a 3.77 earned run average (ERA) over the next four seasons, prompting Boston Red Sox brass to assume Clemens was on the downside of his career, and thus allowed him to test the free agent market.  After winning the two CYAs with the Blue Jays, a 36-year-old Clemens strong-armed his way onto the Yankees, who supplied him with a ton of offense on his way to posting a 77-36 record and a 3.99 ERA for the next five seasons. Although his league-average ERA indicated that he may not have been “juicing” (McNamee claimed he also injected Clemens in 2000 and 2001), that perception certainly changed after Clemens switched leagues when he joined the Houston Astros in 2004. Over the next two seasons (and a truncated third), the Clemens of old came back, winning the 2004 National League (NL) CYA while posting a combined 38-18 record and a 2.40 ERA, stunning for a power pitcher in his early 40s.

Clemens received 37.6 percent of votes from the BBWAA in 2013, falling well short of someone who is considered one of the greatest pitchers ever. It’s still a mystery as to whether that percentage will grow in the coming years, but one thing is certain: despite his government acquittal, he will never be looked at the same way again, with or without a plaque in Cooperstown.   

Although it is clear that Sammy Sosa began using some form of steroid before the 1998 season, when he and McGwire put on a dual home run display even greater than the Mantle/Maris chase of 1961, the questions regarding the overall impact that PEDs had on his career in the five years (1993-1997) leading up to that season remain. Before 1998, the lean-framed Sosa was a consistent 30-home run/30-steal threat who produced a low OBP (.321) and batting average (.268).

Then, the bombs began to drop while his frame exploded, and those once low percentages began to climb. The next five years found “Slammin’ Sammy” putting up an eye-popping batting line of 61/146/.308 per 162 games played, including an astounding three (!) 60-homer seasons. His respectable .831 OPS from 93-97 ballooned to 1.046 for the following five years, and he went from averaging 31 steals per 162 games to just eight. Was the pre-home run chase Sammy the major leaguer he was supposed to be? Or did his improprieties go back even farther? After being busted with a corked bat in 2003 and then being found on a supposed-to-be-confidential list of players who tested positive for PEDs that same season in 2009, there is no more doubt as to how Sosa achieved his place on the all-time home run list.

Sosa still has yet to be honored by the city of Chicago for his achievements; no number retirement ceremony planned, no statue suggested. After garnering just 12.5 percent of the BBWAA’s vote, it’s evident that he will never be recognized for anything other than captivating nations through tremendous feats that, once the cloud of suspicion had cleared, could no longer be taken at face value.                   

 

MIKE PIAZZA—Los Angeles Dodgers, four other teams (1st year, received 57.8% of votes)

The story of Mike Piazza’s climb from obscurity to MLB superstar to future HOFer is the stuff of movies: Godson of Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda, a 62nd round draft pick as a family favor, a complete lack of defensive ability. Then, in a flash, he becomes the 1993 NL Rookie of the Year (ROY), a perennial MVP candidate and all-star, a post-9/11 hero, and the greatest offensive catcher of all time. Next stop: the HOF.

Then, the 2013 vote happened, and Piazza was checked off on just 57.8 percent of ballots. Why? Simply, suspicion of PED use because of his gaudy offensive stats, and claims by several team reporters that he had “acne breakouts” on his back, a telltale sign of steroid use. Oh well.

As ridiculous as the latter anecdotal evidence may seem, there is no denying that not only did Piazza put up the greatest offensive years ever by a catcher, but he did it in cavernous Dodger Stadium, a place where home runs usually go to die. After getting a cup of coffee with the big club in 1992, Piazza raked during his first full season by posting an obscene 35/112/.318 batting line and a .932 OPS. He would go on to average 40/127/.340 per 162 games over his first six full seasons, all the while taking a major beating behind the plate. He continued his onslaught of NL pitching after being traded to the New York Mets in 1998, and he finished his career in 2007 with more home runs than any catcher in history.

Although Piazza’s name was never associated with McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, Jason Giambi, and other known PED users, many felt there was something rotten in Los Angeles and New York. It is difficult to comment on someone like Piazza because there is no solid evidence against him. In 2009, several excerpts from a book on Roger Clemens by writer Jeff Pearlman found Piazza as both admitting to and being accused by several MLB peers of PED use.    

Like Jeff Bagwell (who is up next), Piazza is being treated by the media as a wait-and-see candidate; they would rather hold off judgment now than let him in and be found wrong later. He released his autobiography in February proclaiming his innocence on the PED matter, and he was not associated with Kirk Radomski, a former Mets clubhouse attendant and known steroid distributor who played a big part in the Mitchell Report’s findings and who outed several Mets teammates. Unless actual evidence is obtained, Piazza will likely be voted into the HOF in either 2014 or 2015. Regardless, when someone who displays Piazza’s prodigious feats in a time where prodigious feats were common and artificial, the questions will always remain.    

 

JEFF BAGWELL—Houston Astros, 1B (3rd year, received 59.6% of votes)

After the HOF vote was announced, you could not discuss Piazza’s name without evoking Bagwell’s as well; the two became intertwined when discussing the results. Both never tested positive for any PED, both were among the best hitters of their generation, and both seemed destined for enshrinement. However, both found themselves on the outside looking in thanks to heresy and association with their cheating contemporaries.

As the better half of one of the most lopsided trades in modern baseball history, Bagwell turned longtime MLB relief pitcher Larry Andersen’s quality career into a footnote when he began torturing NL pitching in 1994 after three above average seasons for Houston, which included the 1991 NL ROY award.

Bagwell earned his 59.6 percent of the BBWAA’s vote by being the 1994 NL MVP while posting a career line of 449/1,529/.297 and a hefty .948 OPS. He lost the other required 15.4 percent by being an extremely muscular, steroid era masher who showed little indication of that future power as a Red Sox prospect in the late 1980s.   

Bagwell’s candidacy, being similar to Bonds without the actual proof, rests on fans’ and the BBWAA’s perception of his being someone who displayed an unnatural, bulky physique after entering the MLB as a leaner version of himself. It is still a mystery as to whether he will ever get in; like Piazza, there have been grumblings about his career, and that won’t likely stop any time in 2014 when “clean” players such as Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, and Frank Thomas storm the ballot.   

 

Photos found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of, from top to bottom, AaronY, Steve Lipofsky, U.S. Navy Chief Mass Communication Specialist Dave Kaylor, Jjj222, and UCinternational.

ENDNOTES

1.       www.baseball-reference.com/awards/hof_2013.shtml.      

2.       www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-06-18/roger-clemens-acquitted-of-federal-charges-over-steroid-use.html.

 

Derek Rosenfeld is an associate editor for Fire Engineering. He is an assistant baseball coach at Bloomfield (NJ) College, a NCAA D-II program that plays in the wood bat Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference. He has coached baseball at the collegiate level for eight seasons, including stints at New Jersey’s Bergen Community College and Ramapo College. He has also been an infielder in several highly competetive semipro baseball leagues throughout the New York tri-state area.

During the mid-90s, Rosenfeld was a three-year starter at second base for the Ramapo College baseball team in Mahwah, New Jersey, where he earned all-New Jersey Athletic Conference honors and was a two-time New Jersey Collegiate Baseball Association (NJCBA) all-star selection. He was named MVP of the 1997 NJCBA All-Star Game. He has a bachelor of art’s degree in communications from Ramapo College.

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