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Carlos Beltrán’s Eligibility Offers New Ethical Dilemma for Hall of Fame Voters

The star center fielder’s Cooperstown case will be clouded by his role as one of the architects of the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme.

When MLB commissioner Rob Manfred discussed his punishment for the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme in February 2020, he took a moment to address the more abstract consequences, and how long they might last.

“I think if you look at the faces of the Houston players as they went out there publicly addressing this issue, they have been hurt by this. They will live with questions about what went on in 2017 and 2018 for the rest of their lives,” Manfred said at the press conference. “And frankly it’s rare … for any offense to have any punishment that you have to live with for the rest of your life.”

The last two seasons have seen their share of heckles and boos and skeptical looks for former Astros. But it will not be until later this year that the questions, the rest-of-your-life questions, will really begin to take shape—when Carlos Beltrán is on the ballot for the Hall of the Fame.

Oct 14, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros designated hitter Carlos Beltran (15) bats during game two of the 2017 ALCS playoff baseball series of the Houston Astros against the New York Yankees at Minute Maid Park.

Beltrán’s presence on the ballot this November will give voters a new ethical dilemma just as they’d washed their hands of an old one. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and all the attendant questions about their participation in the Steroid Era will be gone, as all three players exhausted their eligibility on the writers’ ballot without getting elected. (Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramírez remain, but their cases are different in that they deal in fewer shades of gray—both played after the league began to police steroids more strictly and ended up with related suspensions on their records.) A ballot without Bonds and Clemens should, in theory, create space for arguments and analysis that have been crowded out over the last decade with steroid discussions sucking out all of the oxygen from the proverbial room. Yet the big-picture themes of morality, cheating, individual responsibility in a terrible system, and the character clause? Beltrán ensures those will all stick around.

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There’s little doubt that Beltrán would have been a clear Hall of Famer without the Astros scandal—not a first-ballot slam dunk, necessarily, but all but guaranteed as an inductee within a few years. (His career WAR numbers sit smack-dab in the middle of those for inducted center fielders: 70.1 career bWAR compared to an average of 71.6 for Cooperstown centerfielders, and 44.4 bWAR over a seven-year peak, versus an average of 44.7.) But, of course, there is no “without the Astros scandal.” And so here is where voters will find themselves next winter, looking at some of the same questions that have made the election process so messy over the past decade, now with a different lens.

It’s easy to argue that cheating is cheating—to draw a line and refuse to cross it. Yet the Hall is already full of little contradictions here, reminders of context and of baseball’s long, tangled history with trying to brush up against that line without destroying it. It’s certainly true that amphetamines are different from steroids and that something like throwing an illegal spitball is different from using illegal technology for sign stealing. But the fact that those situations exist to make comparisons between in the first place demonstrates the messiness of the issue: This is a matter of distinguishing between shades of gray. The only line that baseball has decided is truly uncrossable for the Hall is that of being banned for life by MLB; anything and everything short of that requires a stronger case to keep out. And Beltrán presents a situation unlike any that voters have seen in a long, long time, if ever.

Carlos Beltrán

So, the context. It’s easy to see how some of the arguments that fit for steroid discussions might work here. Other clubs did get caught using technology to steal signs; it was banned by the league but allowed to grow unchecked until it blew up in the commissioner’s face. There is some responsibility not just with those who broke the rules but with those who allowed them to do so. It was larger than one team, and even in the limited context of the Astros, it was necessarily larger than one player. Yet at the same time—Houston’s actions were more craven and more egregious than any other known examples, and Beltrán, specifically, was reportedly one of the key architects. The rules were clear, even if other teams were trying to bend them, too. And the Astros broke them in a jaw-dropping, sport-shifting way that justifiably angered opponents and fans alike.

What is the appropriate punishment for that? Beltrán, in a sense, is the only player who was actually punished: Because he’d already retired by the time the news of the scandal broke, he had a new job to lose, and he was fired as manager of the Mets. There has been some measure of forgiveness for others; Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who lost his job and was suspended from the game for a year, was hired by the Tigers before the 2021 season. Yet Hinch’s role was different from Beltrán’s—Hinch had the responsibility of being the leader of the club while Beltrán had the murkier, more abstract responsibility of being a veteran player identified as the leader of the scheme. Will that forgiveness extend to the Hall? Will it extend to the first ballot?

Ultimately, as Manfred said in 2020, Beltrán and the rest of the Astros players will have to live with these questions for the rest of their lives. And that will start, in a far more concrete sense than it has so far, with the ballot this November.

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