The most striking aspect of Sunday's surprise announcement from Alex Rodriguez—that he would retire from playing, effective after one final game on Aug. 12, despite a contract that runs through 2017—is the degree to which he and the Yankees have reconciled in the wake of the rancor and drama surrounding his year-long suspension in 2014 for violating the game's drug policy. Now the question becomes whether he can reconcile with Hall of Fame voters as well.
Just over three years ago, on Aug. 5, 2013, Major League Baseball suspended Rodriguez a total of 211 games—the remainder of the 2013 season and all of '14—for his connection to the Miami-area Biogenesis clinic, from which he had received performance-enhancing drugs. Rodriguez and his legal representatives fought the allegations to the point of filing lawsuits against commissioner Bud Selig and the Major League Baseball Players Association for allegedly conspiring to force him from the game, and against Yankees team doctor Chris Ahmed and New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center for allegedly misdiagnosing his left hip injury in October 2012. The lawsuits were later withdrawn, and an arbitrator later reduced the suspension to 162 games, or all of the 2014 season.
By contrast, in Sunday's emotional press conference at Yankee Stadium, Rodriguez was showered with laudatory words from managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner (in a statement), general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi, and he in turn spoke of his commitment to the organization and his desire to mentor the next generation of Yankees. After being unconditionally released as a player, he will head home to Miami and then transition into a role with the team as a special adviser and instructor. The agreement runs through the 2017 calendar year; he will receive all of the remaining $27 million on his contract.
Rodriguez's return from his suspension in 2015 was a surprisingly productive one, not only for his performance but for his public rehabilitation. Transitioning to a role as a full-time designated hitter at age 39, he clubbed a team-high 33 homers (his most since '08), played in 151 games (his most since '07), surpassed Willie Mays on the all-time home run list and collected his 3,000th hit. As he worked his way back into the good graces of the team and its fans, he summoned heretofore-unseen reserves of remorse, humility, candor and self-deprecating humor, shedding the awkwardness that had surrounded his public persona for most of his career. After compiling superhuman numbers, he was suddenly humanized.
"A lot of people are going to focus on the numbers," Rodriguez said at Sunday's press conference. "What I'm really happy about are the relationships I've been able to mend.” He cited the commissioner’s office and the Yankees front office as well as the fans.
For Rodriguez, the numbers themselves are jaw-dropping. Though he apparently won’t make it to 700 home runs or to surpass Babe Ruth's total of 714—which at one point seemed possible given his 2015 performance—his 696 is still the fourth-highest total in history behind only Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Ruth. He's third in RBIs (2,084), sixth in total bases (5,811) and 20th in hits (3,114). His 117.9 WAR ranks 12th all-time and is second among players who spent the majority of their careers at shortstop. Via my JAWS system, he trails only Honus Wagner at the position.
Though some will never forgive Rodriguez's PED-related transgressions, which includes both his Biogeneiss suspension and reportedly failing the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey test to determine whether MLB would introduce mandatory drug testing, he is one of the few PED users who has illustrated the possibility of winning back fans after those transgressions were revealed. No doubt that's at least partly a function of his having the chance to return to the field in the first place, and then to play productively while helping his team succeed—after all, his 2015 performance helped New York to its lone playoff berth since 2012.
In that, he has something in common with ex-teammates Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte (both of whom were in the Mitchell Report, but neither of whom was suspended) and Bartolo Colon (who was suspended late 2012). All three men have shown that it's possible to win back some measure of respect, even if it’s not universal. Giambi was cheered in his final years with the Yankees and became so popular as a bench player in Colorado and Cleveland that he's now viewed as a future major league manager. Pettitte returned to the Yankees, helped them win a championship in 2009 (as did Rodriguez, who posted a 1,308 OPS in that year's postseason) and was welcomed back with open arms when he returned to the team in 2012 after a one-year retirement. Colon has become a folk hero during his three seasons with the Mets.
Statistically speaking, Giambi, Pettitte and Colon don’t have numbers that make them anything but longshots for Cooperstown. By contrast, most of the other stars who have been connected to PEDs have been treated more harshly by the public and, eventually, by Hall of Fame voters. Those who escaped discipline by MLB, which did not begin testing for steroids until 2004, have been shunned by substantial blocs of voters despite statistics that generally qualify them for the Hall. Consider:
• Mark McGwire, who did not acknowledge having used PEDs until January 2010, didn't receive more than 23.6% of the vote in 10 years on the ballot, an eligibility that expired this past January.
• Bonds, who was blacklisted after the 2007 season despite hitting 28 homers—including the record-setting 756th—and posting a 1.065 OPS at age 42, largely maintained a public silence as he continued to combat charges in connection to receiving PEDs from the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO). Initially eligible on the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot, he set a new high of 44.3% in '16, his fourth year of eligibility.
• Clemens, whose career was ended by his 2007 appearance in the Mitchell Report, spent years contesting that finding in court and battling charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements to Congress; he too set a high in 2016, receiving 45.2% in his fourth year on the ballot.
• Sammy Sosa, who hit 609 home runs but in 2009—two years after his retirement—was reported to have failed the 2003 survey test, received 12.5% of the vote in 2013, his first year of eligibility. He has since dwindled into the single digits; he is currently estranged from the Cubs, having been excluded from celebrations surrounding the 2014 Wrigley Field centennial.
• Gary Sheffield, who hit 509 home runs but was named in the BALCO investigation, was generally well-received through the end of his playing career in 2009. Even so, he has received a high of 11.7% of the vote in two years on the Hall of Fame ballot.
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What's more, Rafael Palmeiro, who failed a PED test and was suspended for 10 days (!) in 2005, just weeks after collecting his 3,000th hit, was effectively jeered into retirement after going 2-for-26 in seven games upon returning from his suspension. Despite his hit total and his 569 home runs, he fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after four years in which he received a maximum of 12.6% of the vote. His candidacy can't be reconsidered until at least 2022, by the newly-christened Today's Game Committee, a successor to the Veterans Committees of years past.
That’s not a particularly encouraging trend when extrapolated to Rodriguez’s case, though it’s worth noting that the 2016 election cycle offered a glint of optimism with the election of Mike Piazza and the 71.6% received by Jeff Bagwell. In the late 1990s, both players quietly acknowledged using androstenedione—the substance made famous during McGwire's 1998 pursuit of the single-season home run record—when it was still legal but have denied using any illegal substances. The number of voters holding that—and their own suspicions against them—when they initially hit the ballot, in 2013 and 2011, respectively, has dwindled to the point of making their elections possible.
All of which is to say that when it comes to Cooperstown, time may be on Rodriguez's side. Predicting what may happen by 2031, his final year of eligibility in front of the writers, is no easier than it would have been to predict the run-up to 2016 from the vantage point of 2001. What’s more, there’s no limit to the number of times he can be considered by whatever small-committee process exists after 2031; the Veterans Committee considered pitcher Vic Willis—who last played in 1910 and who died in 1947—23 times from 1957 to '95, when it finally elected him. Forever is a long time to keep a player out of the Hall of Fame, at least if he hasn’t been banned for life as Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose were for gambling.
Back to the BBWAA. For as conservative as its electorate may be, historically speaking, it’s always evolving. Starting in 2018, a wave of analytically-inclined writers who were previously shut out of the BBWAA when it was confined to old-media outlets, will reach the 10-year service mark that allows them to vote. That wave may be more sympathetic to PED users than the reporters from the late 1990s and early 2000s who feel that they were lied to directly by many of the aforementioned players. ESPN’s Keith Law, who will be eligible to vote in 2018, said on Sunday via Twitter, “The Hall of Fame is worthless without these three [Bonds, Clemens and Rodriguez]. It's a monument to revisionist history.”
Meanwhile, former BBWAA president Jose de Jesus Ortiz, a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who has voted in the past 10 elections, said via Twitter, “Alex Rodriguez deserves a place in the Hall of Fame. He was caught cheating, but he was one of the greats of his era. He'll get my vote.”
Not every voter will feel that way, of course, but sooner or later, the voters will elect a player who has been disciplined under the game’s drug policy, although, as I noted recently, it’s more likely to be one who was disciplined as a first offender on a minimum penalty than one whom MLB once considered banning for life.
Speaking only for myself (I become eligible in 2021), in my JAWS-based virtual balloting, I have drawn a distinction between players whose PED allegations hail from the period before baseball introduced mandatory testing (2004) and those who came after. The absence of a means to combat rampant PED use by introducing testing and penalties was the result of a complete institutional failure on the part of the commissioner, the owners, the players’ union and to at least some extent the media, as well as the players themselves. Sticking to that system means that among the players who clear the JAWS standards at their positions (i.e., not McGwire and Sosa), I would vote for Piazza, Bagwell, Bonds and Clemens but not Palmeiro, the twice-suspended Manny Ramirez, or Rodriguez. I have five years to consider my stance on the latter, so that may change.
But even if I and other Hall of Fame voters don’t wind up electing Rodriguez, there’s no denying that his career has been a fascinating one, full of thrills and awesome displays of talent that no pill or syringe could have produced given the natural ability that put him on the baseball map as a teenager. He was the overall number one pick of the draft in 1993, nearly two months shy of his 18th birthday, and an All-Star in his age-21 season. His career since then has had wild ups and downs; he’s been a combination of superstar, matinee idol, cheater, villain, and cautionary tale. He may not get to Cooperstown, but he doesn’t need that to be remembered on the terms he set on Sunday: “I’m hopefully going to be remembered as someone who tripped and fell a lot and someone that kept getting up.”