This season, seven-time National League MVP and 14-time all-star Barry Bonds makes his return to baseball as a hitting coach for the Miami Marlins. Bonds, like many of the so-called “steroid era,” has largely avoided the media’s spotlight since his retirement as a player in 2007.
Many of the best sluggers of the 1990s and early 2000s — players such as Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa — have been accused of using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) to, well, improve their performance. These steroid users — both supposed and confirmed — shattered numerous batting records, joining the ranks of baseball’s greatest players. But the decades-long controversy surrounding the accused players prevents their election to the Hall of Fame.
PED usage, which was remarkably prolific during the steroid era, should not be used to justify keeping the sport’s best players out of the Hall of Fame. Rather, the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) who cast their ballots each year should accept that PED usage was — for a time — a rule of the game.
Unsurprisingly, Bonds — who hit the most home runs in MLB history (762) —faced questions about his potential to (eventually) be voted to Cooperstown when he appeared at the Marlins’ media day leading into spring training.
“There’s not one player that ever could say I’m not [a Hall of Famer],” he said. “There’s not a coach who ever coached me who says I’m not one. In my heart and soul, and God knows, I’m a Hall of Famer.”
Ken Griffey, Jr., one of few superstars of his era never associated with PED usage, was elected to the Hall of Fame this year (the first he was eligible) by the largest margin ever — appearing on over 99 percent of voters’ ballots. When recently asked about Bonds’ chance to join his ranks in Cooperstown, Griffey pointed to statistics — not to the pharmacy — for evidence.
“[If] you look at what he’s done, those numbers speak for themselves,” he said.
Fans, players and members of the media are increasingly echoing Griffey’s perspective. While some players (like Griffey and Jim Thome) likely never used PEDs, and others (like Bonds, McGwire and Sosa) admitted to using them, an even greater proportion of the era’s players have faced steroid accusations without any evidence.
Mike Piazza, for example, has long been associated with the PED controversy, but his usage was never proven (at least not after the league began testing in 2003). So, without any real proof, voters finally elected Piazza to the Hall of Fame this year, his fourth year on the ballot.
Piazza’s admittance demonstrates that voters are becoming more lenient —many assumed he would never get in the Hall of Fame. The BBWAA is finding that they cannot exclude everyone from the steroid era based on mere suspicion.
But many of the 1990s’ best players, including Piazza, probably did use PEDs. As Jose Canseco laid out in his his 2005 book, steroid usage was rampant throughout the league (and, quite honestly, produced some of the best players in history).
Because of the widespread nature of steroid usage in the MLB, distinguishing between players who actually used PEDs and those who didn’t is an impossible task. Consequently, writers should instead vote for players based on the quality of their on-field performance. Confirmed users, like Bonds, should not be excluded when their friends they shot up with in the locker room are being allowed in the Hall of Fame simply because they never admitted it.