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In the 2012 Baseball Prospectus book Extra Innings, I wrote that the specter of performance-enhancing drugs might wind up looming over the Hall of Fame voting process for 30 years. I chose that timeframe based upon the outer boundaries of Mark McGwire's arrival on the 2007 BBWAA ballot — the point at which ESPN's Jayson Stark wondered aloud how long the issue would linger — and the expiration of Alex Rodriguez's eligibility following a 2017 retirement, a 2023 arrival on the ballot, and then a 15-year run on the ballot.
As of now, I don't think it will last that long, at least as it pertains to A-Rod.
At the time Extra Innings was written, the most damning point in the case against Rodriguez was his 2009 admission — in connection with Sports Illustrated reporting his failure of the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey test — that he had used PEDs, but only from 2001-03, during the pre-testing era. It stood to reason that time and an influx of younger voters willing to draw a distinction between that period and the arrival of a test program that carried some suspensions might offset the zero-tolerance view of an aging subset of voters, keeping the slugger's candidacy in limbo for a good long time, the fate that appears to have befallen both Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
PEDs may yet haunt the 2037 ballot, but now that Rodriguez has been suspended for the entire 2014 season, the strong likelihood is that he will have fallen off the writers' ballot well before that. In fact, it's fair to wonder if he'll even receive the five percent of the vote in his first year that is necessary to stay on ballots in subsequent years, not only because of his transgressions but because the ballot may still be backlogged once he arrives. On Friday, I looked into my crystal ball to get an idea of what the next five years of voting may hold, and the take-home message — at least if one assumes that the voting process remains the same despite the BBWAA's best efforts to recommend change to the Hall of Fame — is that the ballot will still be clogged with strong candidates.
Despite having three years and $61 million remaining on his contract, Rodriguez may never play in the majors again. Assuming he's unable to get his suspension overturned in federal court, he'll head into 2015 as a 39-year-old who has played 44 games over the previous two seasons, and who has spent far more time at the center of an unseemly circus than on the field. The Yankees may well release him and eat the remaining money, in part because that will greatly decrease the likelihood that he will reach 660 home runs (he's at 654), thereby triggering the first of several $6 million milestone bonuses. Perhaps some other team will pick him up and be on the hook for only the minimum salary, but between the precedent of the embattled Bonds not getting a nibble in 2008 while coming off a .276/.480/.565 line and the ongoing media attention that will inevitably surround Rodriguez, it's difficult to imagine a team desperate enough to take a chance.
If Rodriguez is done in the majors, he would be eligible for the 2019 ballot. Assuming none of the other notables who announced that they would be hanging up their spikes — or at least considering it — decides to mount a comeback, the field of first-time candidates on that ballot would be headed by all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera and would also include two-time Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, Yankee-dynasty staple Andy Pettitte, and sluggers Lance Berkman and Todd Helton. As I see the next five years playing out, the strong likelihood is that Bonds and Clemens will both remain on the ballot, progressing toward eventual enshrinement, albeit slowly. Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina will still probably be somewhere between 50 and 75 percent, and by my estimation, Jim Thome could slip to a second ballot after his first year of eligibility in 2018; despite his 612 career homers he never won an MVP award or a World Series and may not be granted immediate entry, particularly with Chipper Jones gaining eligibility in the same year with a much more well-rounded resume that points to his receiving at least 90 percent of the vote.
Rodriguez would have a tough time finding votes in that field, particularly if voters are still limited to listing 10 candidates,. In fact, with the most explicit laundry list of transgressions in the post-testing era, it's not too hard to see him doing worse than most of the PED-related candidates. Consider the arcs of these six:
Barry Bonds: The all-time home run leader hit the ballot in 2013 and received 36.2 percent of the vote, but he fell back to 34.7 percent in 2014. A certain faction of voters — perhaps more than 25 percent — will never consider voting for him under any circumstances. The ones who did can point to the fact that Bonds' transgressions occurred prior to the introduction of testing and suspensions, and that he likely would have been en route to the Hall of Fame even if his career had ended before he's alleged to have begun using PEDs.
Roger Clemens: The seven-time Cy Young winner is in a similar boat to Bonds in that his support has lagged (37.6 in 2013, 35.4 percent in 2014), some voters have dug in their heels and allegations regarding his use date to the pre-testing era. He will continue to receive substantial support even if he doesn't go in anytime soon.
Mark McGwire: First eligible in 2007, before he had confessed to using PEDs during his career, Big Mac debuted with 23.5 percent of the vote, and held more or less steady through the 2010 ballot (23.7 percent), but has lost ground since then in the wake of his confession: 19.8 percent in 2011, 19.5 percent in 2012, 16.9 percent in 2013 and down to 11.0 percent on the most recent ballot. He could linger at a similar level for a few more years, but amid continued waves of qualified candidates, he won't pick up lost ground, and some of his supporters may soon throw in the towel if they haven't already.
Sammy Sosa: Despite 609 home runs and an NL MVP award to his name, Sosa has lagged far behind McGwire, Bonds and Clemens in terms of support. Reaching the ballot in the same year as the latter two, he received just 12.5 percent of the vote, and slipped to 7.2 percent this past year. As traffic remains heavy, he could fall off.
Rafael Palmeiro: He is one of only four players with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, but Palmeiro won't be getting into the Hall of Fame for at least the next decade. His 2005 positive test and subsequent suspension — the first of any major star — doomed his candidacy from the start. He debuted at 11.0 percent in 2011, climbed to 12.6 percent in 2012, then receded to 8.8 percent last year and 4.4 percent this year. Because he fell below five percent, he's ineligible for the remainder of his 15-year window (which would end in 2025), and will have to wait for his candidacy to be taken up by the Veterans Committee starting in 2026.
Juan Gonzalez: Gone and virtually forgotten is the arc of this two-time AL MVP, who finished his career with 434 homers despite playing in just 34 games after his age-33 season. Perhaps not coincidentally, those 34 games came in the first two years of MLB's testing program, 2004 and 2005. Gonzalez never tested positive for PEDs, but he was implicated as a user in Jose Canseco's 2005 book, Juiced. In 2007, his name was included in the Mitchell Report, surrounded by details of a 2001 seizure of luggage by Canadian customs officials that contained anabolic steroids, syringes and other paraphernalia, and that was believed to belong to Gonzalez; it was claimed by a member of his entourage and attributed to belonging to his personal trainer, Angel Presnial. When Gonzalez reached the 2011 ballot, he received a frosty reception, getting just 30 votes (5.2 percent) one more than required to remain eligible. He slipped to 4.4 percent the following year, and now must wait for the VC in 2026 or later.
A-Rod's case isn't an exact parallel to any of those above, but as Palmeiro's example shows, a suspension may be an insurmountable obstacle to enshrinement even in the face of overwhelming numbers. As we saw with Gonzalez, even some extra hardware won't help to buffer that harsh verdict. Even if one sees MLB's conduct in the Biogenesis investigation as reprehensible and Rodriguez's full-season suspension as well beyond what he should have received as a first-time offender, it's clear that he's no innocent bystander. He violated the rules and told lies time and again. For as much talent as he once showed, he doesn't elicit the sympathy as McGwire and Sosa, who brought many fans back to baseball during the 1998 home run chase, and who are now the victims of retroactive morality.