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Hall of Fame Voters Shift on Steroids, But That Won't Help Sammy Sosa

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens seem well-positioned to receive Hall of Fame voters' pardon over the next few years. Sammy Sosa has made no such progress.

by Steven Goldman
Jan 19 2017, 5:14pm

RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

It might be a question of betrayal.

In the 2017 Hall of Fame election, the Baseball Writers Association of America electorate moved, but Sammy Sosa did not. Jeff Bagwell and Ivan Rodriguez, who had been linked via innuendo with performance-enhancing drugs, were elected; Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, whose steroid usage is more concretely known and who therefore had become about as close to being a pair of pariahs as baseball has this side of Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, saw their percentage of the vote bounce up from 44.3 and 45.2 percent, respectively, to 53.8 and 54.1. Enshrinement is still a long way off for both, but clearly the forbidding puritans of the recent past, who knew with grim certainty that PEDs were wrong even if they couldn't explain precisely what they did for a ballplayer, have been swamped by a new mood of liberality, forgiveness, or good old American not-caring. Except.

Read More: Manny Ramirez, Steroids, and Having It Both Ways in the Hall of Fame

Except another player emblematic of the era of inflated muscles and pumped-up home-run totals, Sammy Sosa, stayed more or less precisely where he was.

A year ago, in his fourth go-round on the ballot, Sosa received 31 votes, or just seven percent of the total 440 ballots cast. It was roughly the same percentage he had received in both 2014 and 2015. This year he was all the way up to 38 votes, or 8.6 percent. Despite 609 career home runs, three single seasons in which he blasted past Roger Maris's old standard of 61, and a Most Valuable Player award, Cooperstown is almost certainly not going to happen for Slammin' Sammy. The question now is why Bonds and Clemens seem well-positioned to receive the voters' pardon over the next few years but Sosa—one of the biggest stars of the 1990s and early 2000s and a player who, unlike Bonds and Clemens, was never connected to PEDs with legalistic certainty (he reportedly failed the imperfect 2003 survey test)—does not.

The reason, as with many things, is a little bit rational and a little bit emotional, and it comes with a healthy helping of bullshit aversion on the side.

The change in the electorate's attitude toward compromised candidates was telegraphed as recently as December, when the Hall of Fame's Today's Game Committee—it's one of the more recent iterations of what used to be called the Veterans Committee—elevated former commissioner Bud Selig to the Hall. This was a pro forma election, the proverbial retirement gold watch; other commissioners have been inducted, too, regardless of merit. Despite the inevitability of Selig's enshrinement, there was a backlash among some voters, with former BBWAA president Susan Slusser tweeting, "Senseless to keep steroid guys out when the enablers are in the Hall of Fame. I will now hold my nose and vote for players I believe cheated."

Selig helped put in place Major League Baseball's strong anti-doping policy, but was only moved to do so once Congress started breathing down his neck. Before that, he was content to nod along happily as all those dingers helped displace memories of the World Series that he had cancelled. Confronted with evidence that players were juicing, to whatever effect, Selig's defense was that he hadn't known or hadn't heard, which was either a bald lie or a blithe confession of incompetence. Either way, Selig slept on the issue. His election marked the collapse of a moral stand that always had the flimsiest of evidential underpinnings; voters were now free to vote for the best players of the Selig era.

With Selig in the Hall of Fame, who's to keep the other guys out? Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This psychological evolution amplified a broader change in the electorate. Almost two years ago, the BBWAA and the Baseball Hall of Fame's board of directors agreed to shrink the pool of eligible voters by limiting what had been a lifetime privilege for members; members more than ten years removed from covering the game lost the privilege. Over 100 voters were purged.

The resultant voter pool is smaller, younger, and apparently less inclined to play forensic detective regarding a given player's back hair. In fairness, many journalists have done responsible research into performance-enhancing drugs and their impact on the game, but even they have not been able to draw a straight line between this injection and that home run, for the simple reason that squarely hitting a baseball is not the same as running track or pedaling a bicycle. One can make a purely ethical argument about drugs and cheating, but since the former wasn't illegal in baseball at the time, the latter stand is weak. That doesn't seem to have helped Sosa, though, who was, if not the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived figure on the order of Ted Williams, at least the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Had Long Segments of SportsCenter Slavishly Devoted to Him for a Decade.

All that crushing hype might explain some of the apparent hostility to Sosa, but that's not all that's going on. Consider Wednesday's election of Tim Raines after ten years on the ballot, by contrast. Raines was under-appreciated in his time and after, and it took him too long to get his due as a result. Sosa was over-appreciated to the point of saturating fandom, and may still be living in the backlash. None of which is to say that Sosa was a one-dimensional ballplayer. The homers mattered most, but before he became totally musclebound at midcareer Sosa had speed, and though he made a ton of errors (128 career) by the standards of a modern outfielder, often due to overthrowing the cutoff man (and the cutoff man's backup, and the backup's mom sitting in the grandstand), he was hardly Adam Dunn in the field. That said, as Sosa's offensive prowess increased, his other skills declined. There is no overlap between his most athletic seasons and the five years (1998-2002) when Sosa hit about as well as anyone ever has.

Unlike Bonds and Clemens, Sosa is not what Bill James termed an inner-circle Hall of Famer, one of the best of the best. The special pleading that clearly has had resonance with those two—that their careers were so great you could cut them in half, dispense with whatever might be tainted, and still have Cooperstown-level players—does not apply to Sosa.

As such, if you look at Sosa's career using a total value metric like Wins Above Replacement, it becomes apparent that the kind of argument that can be made in favor of a Raines or Bagwell cannot be made for Sosa without also arguing that players of greater or approximately equal value—from Dwight Evans to Kenny Lofton to Larry Walker—also deserve to get in. Sosa is on the next tier down. There's a case to be made that the stars on Sosa's tier should be in the Hall as well; the Hall, as James wrote, is a self-defining institution, which is to say "Fame" has no intrinsic meaning. But "eh, whatever" isn't going to galvanize a movement.

Those 600 home runs are the most legitimate case Sosa can make, but they too have no intrinsic meaning. A quantity is only literally what it is, and any and everything else that can be said about it represents an arbitrary investment of meaning. Once you accept that there's nothing sacrosanct about reaching a certain number of hits or home runs, Sosa's case comes down to those five great seasons out of 18 full or partial years in the big leagues. Those were very special seasons. Whether they are enough to put him in the Hall is another thing entirely. But one of those years—the most memorable one, if also the most complicated one in retrospect—may be hurting Sosa's case.

There is no more proof to support this theory than there is to the one about Mike Piazza's back hair, so take it with a grain of salt, but let's remember Sosa's specific historic moment in the game. The 1998 season, when Sosa and Mark McGwire chased Maris' mark and each other, was perceived at the time to have been historic. Selig's effort to break the Players Association, which truncated both the 1994 and 1995 seasons, still cast a pall over the game. The friendly, affectionate competition that Sosa and McGwire undertook that year did a great deal to dispel the cynicism that had settled over the game. Books were written with titles like Summer of '98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America. Our resulting disillusionment will apparently not be easily forgiven; it has already kept McGwire out of the Hall, seemingly forever.

And then there's this: McGwire, Bonds, and Clemens have been forced to confront their transgressions. Sosa never has. The suspicions are not going anywhere; all it takes is a series of photographs of Sosa over the course of his career to see the possible effects of his rumored usage. Year by year his head waxes like the moon, changing from a standard-model skull to something more pumpkinesque. This transformation may or may not have been innocent, but it challenges the willing suspension of disbelief. It has often been said that Americans will forgive anything, but first you have to show contrition. Sosa has not exhibited the latter, and so he's ineligible for the former.

The wonderful irony in all this is that players on the cusp of the Hall are discussed far more than players actually in the Hall. Once in, a player is inert, a bronze face on a wall. Fans move on, and start to forget. That is not Sosa's lot. If he continues to wear the scarlet PED, though, he'll keep us thinking and his name, whether reverently or with disdain. He will stay alive as long as anyone bothers to disagree about him.

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