Should Steroid Users be Allowed in the Hall of Fame?

This is what GDS baseball coach Todd Carter told me when I asked about former baseball slugger Barry Bonds: “Bonds is probably the greatest hitter of all time—and I don’t think he should be in the Hall of Fame.” 

Bonds was a seven-time MVP and holds the all-time home run record with 762. Roger Clemens won the Cy Young Award for being the best pitcher in his league seven times and has two triple crowns on his resume. Alex Rodriguez ended his career four home runs away from the magical number of 700 and finished with over 3,000 hits. Players with these numbers are typically shoo-ins for the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. 

But Bonds, Clemens and Rodriguez all played right in the middle of MLB’s steroid era, a period in the late ’90s and early 2000s when players across the league frequently used illegal substances to enhance their performance. All three were later heavily suspected by fans and the media of having taken performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs); Rodriguez tested positive late in his career and was suspended for the entire 2014 season. “That whole era was tainted,” Carter said.

Peter Gammons, a writer for The Athletic and one of over 400 Hall of Fame voters, believes that both Bonds and Clemens have done more than enough to deserve a place in Cooperstown. “Maybe they are in a separate place in the Hall of Fame, but they belong there,” Gammons said in an interview. Neither Bonds nor Clemens was ever formally suspended for taking PEDs, and most suspect they did not start taking steroids until later in their careers, when they may have already had Hall of Fame–worthy resumes. “Barry Bonds already had like eight gold gloves. He’s one of the 10 to 12 best players in the history of the game,” Gammons said. 

Whether to allow steroid users into the Hall of Fame is an ongoing debate in the baseball world. 2021 is Bonds and Clemens’ final year of regular eligibility, while Rodriguez will make his debut on the ballot when the voting takes place at the end of the year. 

MLB’s Hall of Fame is different from those of other pro sports because of a specific clause that appears on its ballots: “Voting shall be based upon a player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” Under that guideline, it can be difficult for voters to induct players who took PEDs. 

“I wouldn’t want to be in a position of voting,” Carter said, arguing that the added pressure of having to take into account players’ integrity and character has lessened the prestige for writers of voting for the Hall of Fame. 

“The system is broken,” Julie Andrews, a GDS middle school running coach and former producer for ESPN and NBC Sports, told me. The current requirement for being a Hall of Fame voter is membership in the Baseballs Writers Association of America (BBWAA) for a minimum of ten years. Andrews argued that the BBWAA should welcome a broader set of perspectives by including more writers from newer platforms such as Barstool Sports in the voting process. 

Andrews is afraid that the current batch of voters sees the Hall of Fame as a sacred place and has overly high standards for admission. Like Gammons, she supports inducting Bonds and Clemens, the steroid-era stars, into the Hall of Fame. 

According to Carter, writers tend to forget that, at the end of the day, the Hall of Fame is a museum for fans to learn about the history of the sport. “The Hall of Fame is for fans to get excited about and to go and visit,” he said. 

But Carter argues that inducting players who took PEDs would send a bad message to players who played the game cleanly and that voters should honor the integrity clause that the Hall of Fame instructs them to consider. “That’s one reason to not let them in. It’s hard to say this shouldn’t happen, and then let it,” Carter said.

Proponents of inducting steroid users into the Hall of Fame argue that PEDs once played an important part in MLB and that the league benefitted from allowing such cheating to run rampant.

After a players strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series in 1994 for the first time in almost a century, baseball was struggling to gain popularity.

Then, during the 1998 season, Mark McGwire of the Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Cubs engaged in an epic battle for the single-season home run record. “They are the reason baseball was recovered,” Gammons said. Both McGwire and Sosa used PEDs, so that magical record-breaking race is forever tainted. 

The league office decided to let the steroid use slide because they knew they needed the national recognition for the sport to thrive again. “They needed to get their fans back,” Andrews said, so the league “turned a blind eye to all of that.” The McGwire-Sosa home run race will forever be remembered by fans, but MLB showed that it cared about its best interests, not the steroid issue.

If you gather ten people in a room and ask whether steroid users should be inducted into the Hall of Fame, you might get ten different answers. But later this year, baseball writers will be forced to make a series of binary choices: to check the box next to the names of tainted one-time greats like Bonds and Clemens, or not.