Mark McGwire’s Hall of Fame votes should frame Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds debate

The result of this year’s Hall of Fame election, in which no payers were elected, is already controversial enough, but the number of votes for some players who appeared on the ballot for the first time is what could set the stage for vehement arguments for years to come.


Known steroid users Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds graced the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year, and each received slightly more than one-third of the vote. That’s fine. Two-thirds of the Baseball Writers Association of America voting members said they don’t think steroid users should be in the Hall of Fame, at least not yet.

The “not yet” part is what could get really messy in future years.

Mark McGwire, who was one of the first steroid-era players to reach the Hall of Fame ballot, received about one-quarter of the votes in his first year of eligibility, and his percentage of votes has steadily decreased each year. This time he received 16.9 percent of the vote.

Similarly, Rafael Palmeiro, who has more than 3,000 hits and 500 homeruns but tested positive for steroids, received just 8.8 percent of the vote. He received 11 percent in his first appearance on the ballot three years ago.

In one sense, the relatively high number of votes Clemens and Bonds received could mean attitudes have softened toward steroid users in part because time continues to distance the sport from the height of the steroid years.

It’s human nature for old wounds to begin to heal. Someone who gets punched in the face will want to punch the other person back immediately at the time of the altercation, but it takes a heck of a lot of effort to hold a grudge that burns just as hot many years later.

However, if Clemens and Bonds receive more votes in future years because voters start to think steroid players should be elected, players such as McGwire, Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa should also see their vote totals rise. Otherwise, Clemens and Bonds simply got lucky to retire years after other players took the brunt of the punishment for using steroids.

Some people try to use the logic that Clemens and Bonds were great before they started using steroids. That’s a possibility, but none of us know when these players started using steroids.

Yet even with that sort of reasoning, McGwire set the rookie record for homeruns in a single season with 49 homeruns in 1987. Surely he was already considered a special player at that point.

The greatness-before-steroids argument shouldn’t even matter. We don’t know when players began using steroids, and we never will. But, if Clemens and Bonds start to receive more Hall of Fame votes in upcoming years, so should McGwire, Palmeiro and Sosa.

This problem even extends to current players. People talk about Alex Rodriguez as a future Hall of Famer even though he’s admitted he used steroids. He’s done the exact same things the 1990s steroid guys did, so why should his chance at being elected to the Hall of Fame be any better than the rest?

There’s no easy answer to any of the current Hall of Fame debates. Given the voters relative inconsistencies, the cruelest part might be that the generation of baseball fans who watched and attended games in the steroid era might never know what to think of the greatest players of their time.

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