The PED Eight: players who continue to take hits from Hall of Fame voters whether they deserve it or not

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This is not new. Ever since Mark McGwire appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2007, a great many Hall of Fame voters have made it their mission to deny entrance to any player who was associated with performance enhancing drugs during his playing career. Or, even if the player was not formally associated via a report, a prosecution an admission or a positive drug test, if he was assumed to be a PED user he has fallen short of election. And the basis of those assumptions range from “fair” to “totally and utterly baseless.”

The 2014 election results are no exception.  Here are eight players — I’ve dubbed them The PED Eight — who, but for the fact or the presumption of their PED use, would certainly be in the Hall of Fame by now:

  • Craig Biggio: Yes, he fell just short, yes he’ll likely be inducted in 2015 and no, no one has ever made a credible, public accusation of Biggio using PEDs. But it’s madness to think that he wouldn’t already be in the Hall of Fame but for a whisper campaign that, however small, is real. Former New York Times columnist Murray Chass believes that Biggio did PEDs. ESPN’s Pedro Gomez left Biggio off his ballot and, when asked why, was quite cagey about it. If he simply did not feel Biggio measured up, he’d just say that. There are likely many others who do as well, either as a generalized suspicion of players of his era, more specific suspicion of an Astros team in which famous PED user Ken Caminiti was a clubhouse leader as Biggio was coming into professional maturity or because someone told them so third hand. Biggio was an all-around great player who finished with over 3,000 hits. He would’ve been inducted a year ago but for the whispers.
  • Jeff Bagwell: Biggio’s teammate is more directly in the crosshairs of a PED suspicion and, consequently, a PED-fueled Hall of Fame blackballing. Several writers have explicitly accused Bagwell of using PEDs, despite the fact that he has never been named as a PED user by any credible source and never tested positive for PEDs during his career. Bagwell had 449 homers and an OPS+ of 149. His career numbers are more or less comparable to a man who was born on the very same day he was: Frank Thomas. Thomas was just elected on his first ballot, with over 80% of the vote. Surely Bagwell would have been by now if not for the unsubstantiated allegations. Or perhaps if, like Thomas, he spent many years speaking out against PEDs toward the end of his career.
  • Mike Piazza: He’s in the same boat as Bagwell. Many have openly accused Piazza of PED use, none have provided any evidence of his PED use at all. And, for what it’s worth, he has denied ever using PEDs. Still, he is a PED user in the eyes of a great number of Hall of Fame voters, as is evidenced by his vote total of 62.2% this year. Which, yes, is quite good and is inching him closer to induction. But given his baseball resume — he is arguably the greatest hitting catcher who ever lived — he would have been voted in on the first ballot if not for the suspicions of voters.
  • Barry Bonds: Now we transition from the players who are merely suspected to the ones who either certainly or almost certainly did use performance enhancing drugs. Multiple well-researched books have been written chronicling the drug use of Barry Bonds, and multiple government and Major League Baseball investigations bolstered this evidence. The feds couldn’t bust Bonds for perjury when he claimed he did not use PEDs, but that says more about the criminal justice process than it does the actual information supporting his drug use. Still, as many, including this writer, have argued, Barry Bonds’ baseball exploits are so extraordinary — and were even so extraordinary before his documented PED use in the latter part of his career — that he should be in the Hall of Fame regardless of what he injected or rubbed into his body. Obviously, however, the majority of Hall of Fame voters disagree with that assessment, and continue to vote against Bonds on the grounds of poor character, even if his baseball bonafides are better than two or three other Hall of Famers glued together.
  • Roger Clemens: The same story as Bonds, though he has more stridently denied using PEDs. Those denials come in the face, however, of accusations from people who were willing to go under oath in courts of law to make them, and are supported by at least some physical and documentary evidence. Ask any Hall of Fame voter if the Rocket used PEDs and you can bet that virtually all of them will say yes. 35.4 % of them, however, don’t care, and voted for Clemens this year, agreeing that the Hall of Fame case for Clemens, PEDs notwithstanding, is overwhelming.
  • Mark McGwire: He admitted taking PEDs on national television after never previously denying that he took them. So much for honesty. The voters have raked him over the coals for years now. He only received 11% of the vote this year and it’s not at all certain that he’ll remain on the ballot beyond next year, as he is at risk of falling below the 5% threshold for eligibility. But for his drug use, McGwire would certainly be in the Hall now, as he was roundly talked about as a sure-fire future Hall of Famer when he was active and before the PED story began to dominate the conversation.
  • Sammy Sosa: 600+ home runs should be an automatic ticket to Cooperstown, but Sosa is hanging on just above the 5% threshold and is likely to fall off the ballot next year. Blame his presence — at least reported by the New York Times several years ago — on the list of players who tested positive for PEDs in 2004 when Major League Baseball ran a trial drug testing program to see if wider drug testing was needed. That information was never meant to be public. The test results were to be destroyed, but were seized by overzealous federal investigators before they could be. But its existence, even if only substantiated by one news outlet and denied by Sosa himself to this day has been enough to keep him out of the Hall of Fame. More than anyone, really, Sosa is believed by Hall voters to be a creation of PEDs — a player who would not have been more than very good if he didn’t take drugs — than any other player on this list, the rest of whom are generally perceived to have merely enhanced naturally-existing talent. It’s too easy a story by half and suggests some things many voters may not be comfortable acknowledging about culture and ethnicity, but that’s the narrative and nothing is going to change it, it seems.
  • Rafael Palmeiro: A 3,000 hit, 500 homer run player who has the ignominy of being the only one on this list to test positive for PEDs during his playing career and while a drug testing and penalty regime was in place. What’s more, he did it mere weeks after wagging his finger at Congressmen who had subpoenaed him, defiantly stating that he had never taken performance enhancing drugs. Oops. Palmeiro received a ten-game suspension for the flunked test, but received a defacto lifetime ban from Cooperstown for the test plus the finger-wagging. He fell below 5% this year and will not be on the writers’ ballot again.

There’s a chance that the current ballot has a couple more guys who have lost votes due to PED suspicion. I think most of the reason for Jeff Kent’s criminally low 15.2% vote total is because voters don’t appreciate his talent and because the ballot is crowded, but it would not shock me if someone accused the power-hitting second baseman of something at some point over the next few years. And of course, at least a few voters submit blank ballots or vote for no one who played after some point in the mid-90s as some sort of generalized protest against the Steroids Era. But for the most part, I think these eight are the current players being kept out of the Hall of Fame because of PED use, real or imagined.

And their ranks will grow. Gary Sheffield, who was named in The Mitchell Report, comes onto the ballot next year. Others, who either tested positive during baseball’s testing era (Manny Ramirez), had their names leaked from the 2004 trial tests (David Ortiz) or who suffer the same baseless  whisper campaigns that bedevil Bagwell, Biggio or Piazza (Albert Pujols) will have to run this same gauntlet. I predict most will be caught up in limbo for many, many years.

Will they ever make it? Or, for that matter, will The PED Eight? Biggio probably will. I think Bagwell and Piazza have a decent shot. The evidence against them is so much weaker (or non-existent) and their current vote totals and time remaining on the ballot suggests that, over time, they’ll overcome.

As for the others? It’s hard to see it happening absent a fundamental change in the voting process. One that removes the “character clause” from Hall of Fame ballot or radically changes the Hall of Fame electorate to favor people who prefer a bit more evidence before denying otherwise worthy players of baseball’s highest honor. Or, in my preferred solution, a committee is formed to look into what are becoming mounting and damn nigh embarrassing oversights by the Hall of Fame voters. A committee which appreciates that, drugs or not, Barry Bonds was one of the best baseball players in history. A committee which appreciates that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire didn’t hatch the idea of taking banned substances themselves nor did they do it in a vacuum.

I’m not holding my breath, of course. Against the current backdrop of the Hall of Fame’s structure and voting, that would be suicide.

And That Happened: Tuesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Yankees 3, Red Sox 2: The Red Sox could’ve clinched the AL East on the Yankees’ home field but their bullpen had different ideas. After Nate Eovaldi tossed six shutout innings, Brandon Workman and Ryan Brasier teamed up to cough up three runs, capped by a Neil Walker three-run homer in the seventh. To their credit, the Yankees tried to give up the lead in the ninth with some bad defense, but their effort fell just short. Aaron Judge made his return to the Yankees lineup and went 0-for-4, but he made a lot of contact and, to be honest, didn’t look too terrible for a guy who has been on the shelf four a couple of months.

Phillies 5, Mets 2: Philly mounted a sixth inning rally, scoring all five of their runs that inning, three of which crossed on Jorge Alfaro‘s three-run jack. After the game Gabe Kapler analyzed the homer thusly:

“It was quite evident from the very beginning that he was standing a little looser in the batter’s box and swinging with a little less, I guess, ferociousness . . . And the bat was whistling through the zone.”

Recently people have been debating whether or not overly-complicated advanced stats have alienated fans from the game. No one seems to want to ask whether post-hoc b.s. is doing so.

Pirates 2, Royals 1: Ryan Lavarnway hit a walkoff single in the 11th to give the Buccos the game. This has been your once every three or four years or so Ryan Lavarnway report. This is the second night in a row that a backup catcher has had a walkoff hit for the Pirates, with Jacob Stallings doing it on Monday. And we’re not talking your standard catcher caddy here. Lavarnway and Stallings are closer to “bullpen catcher” than “starting catcher” on the old depth chart.

Blue Jays 6, Orioles 4: Toronto spotted Baltimore a 4-0 lead and still led 4-2 in the seventh. That’s when third baseman Steve Wilkerson made a two-run throwing error to tie the game, after which Lourdes Gurriel hit a two-run single to put the Jays up for good. Not fun thing: the O’s broke the record for their most losses in Baltimore, surpassing that 1988 team that began the year 0-21.  Fun thing: the Orioles had their team and player names spelled out in Braille and fans were given cards with Braille letters on them so they could spell out their favorite players. This was done in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the National Federation for the Blind moving its headquarters to Baltimore. Definitely not the usual ballpark promotion, but certainly more interesting than anything else the O’s have done this year:

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Indians 5, White Sox 3: Corey Kluber struck out eleven batsmen and allowed three runs over eight innings to pick up his 19th win. I’m gonna guess I have not used the word “batsmen” all year and I just wanted to do that there. OK, I checked. The last time I used the word “batsmen” was on August 4 of last year, describing the Nolan Ryan-Robin Ventura fight. The last time I used it in a recap was on July 13 of last year, in an “And That Happened: Classic” during the All-Star break. That was for 1903 games and I was purposely using over-the-top antiquated language, which I suppose “batsmen” is. Anyway: batsmen.

Twins 5, Tigers 3: Jake Odorizzi had his second strong performance in a row, allowing two runs on four hits while working into the seventh. Tyler Austin doubled and knocked in three and Chris Gimenez had two hits, including a homer. The Tigers lose their 90th game, making them the third team in the AL Central to do so. How you can have three such awful teams in one division in the age of an unbalanced schedule — and a second place Twins team that is also going to finish below .500 — yet have the division leader, Cleveland, still be the worst playoff team in the league is a hell of a trick.

Nationals 4, Marlins 2: Stephen Strasburg struck out 11 in six innings and Anthony Rendon knocked in a couple as the Nats take their seventh in their last ten. They’re six and a half out. One has to wonder what might’ve happened with this squad had they not intentionally blown up their bullpen over perceived character issues and decided to pack it in at the deadline. Because, folks, neither the Braves nor Phillies are particularly good.

Cardinals 8, Braves 1: This is what I’m talking about. That’s four losses in a row for the presumptive NL East champs. Paul DeJong hit a two-run homer and Yadier Molina hit a two-run single in the Cardinals’ four-run eighth inning, giving St. Louis its third straight win and padding its lead for the second Wild Card to a game and a half over Colorado.

Reds 3, Brewers 1: Milwaukee is in the first Wild Card slot, but they’re now only two games ahead of the Cardinals. In other news, it sure would be nice for their offense to wake up, eh? Here they scored two or fewer runs for the third time in four games and, not surprisingly, have dropped those three of four. Milwaukee got only three hits against five Cincinnati pitchers all dang game. Jose Peraza hit a two-run homer for the Redlegs.

Rays 4, Rangers 0: Blake Snell seems to be putting the finishing touches on a Cy Young season. Here he picked up his 20th win which, while not necessary in our more enlightened, pitcher-wins-aren’t-terribly-important age, is a nice grace note. More importantly he allowed only one hit over five shutout innings, reducing his ERA to 1.97 and putting him on pace to be the first American League pitcher with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title to finish below 2.00 since Pedro Martinez did it back in 2000. Chris Sale has a chance at that too, but he’s borderline right now on having enough innings. Willy Adames hit a two-run homer for the Rays.

Astros 7, Mariners 0: Five Houston pitchers, led by Josh James, combine for the five-hit shutout. Marwin Gonzalez hit a two-run homer. With the win, the Astros eliminated the Mariners in the race for the AL West title. Not that anyone was holding their breath here.

Cubs 9, Diamondbacks 1: Javier Baez and Daniel Murphy hit two-run homers and Mike Montgomery gave up only one run on four hits while striking out eight over six. After a week or so of sweating, the Cubs are now back three and a half games ahead of the Brewers in the Central. The Dbacks fall to six back as their depressing late season fade continues.

Angels 9, Athletics 7: Oakland led 4-1 entering the top of the sixth inning and boy howdy did the wheels fall off. Two pitchers combined to load the bases and then a third pitcher, Lou Trivino, came in to face Andrelton Simmons. Trivino induced what should’ve been the second out of the inning in the form of a foul popup, but an A’s fan had other ideas:

Which, oh man, that’s bad. I guess, in her defense, I’ll say that Piscotty seemed to be feeling that wall, looking down a bit, and may very not have caught that ball — that’s why, I suspect, the replay crew decided not to call fan interference — but it’s not like she knew that. She wanted a souvenir. With new life, Simmons smacked a two-run single to pull the Angels to within one and then, following a plunked batter which loaded the bases back up, Kaleb Cowart hit a grand slam to put the Angels up by three. Mike Trout hit his 35th homer of the year and stole his 24th base. Oakland loses yet another game of ground to the Yankees for home field advantage in the Wild Card game.

Dodgers 3, Rockies 2: Kyle Freeland and Clayton Kershaw figured to be a pitcher’s duel but, while it was low-scoring, neither ace looked particularly sharp. Chris Taylor‘s infield single in the fifth inning tied the game at two and the bats were silent for some time after that. Taylor’s dinger in the 11th ended things:

That gave the Dodgers a 3-2 win over their closest competition for the NL West crown, pushing their lead to one and a half games over Colorado. It may be safe to say that the Dodgers are, finally, playing their best baseball of the season.

OK, it’s definitely safe to say it.

Giants 5, Padres 4: Hunter Pence homered, doubled and drove in three and Chris Shaw hit a go-ahead, two-run single in the eighth to give the Giants the win. In so doing, it also guaranteed the Padres last place in the NL West.