Divergent HOF fates for Ortiz, Bonds and Clemens show history is a moving target

Watch as Josh Rawitch announces that David Ortiz has been elected into the MLB Hall of Fame on his first ballot.

TORONTO – The final verdict, at least from voting members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, does not end the debate on whether Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens belong in the Hall of Fame.

Really, the tumult over the candidacies of the two problematic superstars is merely a reflection of how, even after all these years, a historical accounting of perhaps Major League Baseball’s most tainted era remains largely unsettled.

As much as 2005 Congressional hearings on steroids in baseball, the 2007 Mitchell Report and the high-profile scandals tied to the BALCO and Biogenesis helped expose the performance-enhancing substance use rampant in the sport, they still painted only a partial picture.

Inevitably, that turned the Hall of Fame vote into an annual referendum on the contextualization of those controversial days, every box checked or blank a judgment on the player and the period.

One school of thought is that if PED usage was as rampant as some have suggested, than what’s the biggie in electing cheaters who dominated against cheaters? Another is that without fully understanding who did what, all we can do is judge the numbers. Yet another is that any link to PEDs at all is enough to disregard a player’s case, given the disrespect to the game and those who played clean.

Complicating matters is that criteria for election – “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played” – can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

To that end, Tuesday’s results – David Ortiz elected with 77.9 per cent of the 394 ballots cast, with Bonds (66%) and Clemens (65.2%) falling short of the 75 per cent threshold needed for induction in their 10th and final year on the ballot – didn’t provide much clarity.

Instead, they helped demonstrate how history is a moving target.

Critical in that regard is how changes implemented by the Hall of Fame in 2014, when a player’s eligibility on the ballot was cut from 15 to 10 years and the voting pool was culled of those 10 years clear of active coverage, have altered the trajectories.

In 2013, when they were first eligible, Clemens received 37.6 per cent and Bonds 36.2 per cent of 569 votes. Their results remained in that range until 2016, when the ballots cast were pared down to 440 and their totals jumped into the mid-40s.

As the voting pool continued to turn over annually, the duo hit the mid-50s in 2017 and broke 60 per cent last year.

Given that trend line, another five years on the ballot probably leads to their eventual election, pushed across the finish line by voters further and further removed from the day-to-day happenings of that era.

Time, of course, allows for history to be viewed through different perspectives and certainly there is a more educated degree of analytical analysis, with an objective bent, within the current voting pool.

While social media loves lighting up the handful of outlier ballots submitted each year, even within the tightened voting pool they remain largely statistically insignificant, and the high bar for entry ensures only those who garner a strong general consensus gain selection.

So, right now, the recent results suggest a degree of generational polarization and an ongoing disagreement on how to frame the careers of Bonds and Clemens among the sport’s GOATS.

What will be telling is whether Alex Rodriguez, who clocked in at 34.3 per cent in his first year of eligibility, experiences similar helium in the years to come. Certainly his admission of PED use during his career as well as a suspension for the entire 2014 season change the calculus for him.

But he’s already started out higher than Manny Ramirez (28.9% in his sixth year), another no-brainer for election if not for his PED suspensions. Sammy Sosa, whose home run race with Mark McGwire in the summer of 1998 helped resuscitate baseball after the 1994 strike led to the World Series’ cancellation, also comes off the ballot after collecting 18.5 per cent in his final year, although that’s double the single-digit tallies he’d been collecting until a boost in 2020.

McGwire, who in 2010 also confessed to using steroids, debuted at 23.5 per cent in 2007 and came off at 12.3 per cent in 2016, underlining the general outlook’s evolution.

Ortiz’s election shows just how fine judgment’s line can be.

In 2009, the New York Times reported that he and Ramirez were among the 104 positives in Major League Baseball’s 2003 survey drug testing, although he’s denied wrongdoing and commissioner Rob Manfred in 2016 said there were 10 false positives within that sample, without confirming Ortiz was on the list.

The grey there provided Ortiz with enough benefit of the doubt, a grace not provided to Sosa and others. And while like Sosa, Bonds and Clemens never failed an MLB drug test, Bonds was a central figure in the BALCO scandal (his trainer, Greg Anderson, served a year in prison for refusing to testify in court) while Clemens was implicated by testimony from Brian McNamee, his former trainer, in the Mitchell Report and in court.

Both were subject to thoroughly reported and damning books, as well, and collectively, that’s why there’s a degree of false equivalency in claims that Ortiz escape punishment because he was loved by media, while Bonds and Clemens didn’t because they weren’t.

The Hall’s veterans committees will now take up the debate and depending on the composition, they may be even less forgiving than the BBWAA voters.

Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter who is voting because framing the steroid era is a contentious task, especially as viewpoints change and standards evolve. In that last regard, consider how support waned for Curt Schilling (58.6% in his final year, down from 71.1% in 2021) and Omar Vizquel (23.9%, down from 49.1% last year) due to their off-field behaviour.

There’s an important discussion to be had about why Hall of Fame inductees should be Hall of Fame people, too.

Either way, getting 75 per cent of any group to agree on anything is really, really hard. Ortiz cleared that bar in his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot, while 10 years later, Bonds, Clemens, Schilling and Sosa did because the wrestling over their legacies continues.

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