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Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Paul Sullivan

Paul Sullivan: MLB’s version of the Supreme Court may have the final word on the ‘Steroids Era’

CHICAGO — After years of debate over the Hall of Fame worthiness of players linked to performance-enhancing drugs, baseball’s Steroids Era stands trial this weekend in San Diego at the 2022 winter meetings.

If Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are selected to the Hall of Fame by the 16-member Contemporary Era committee that convenes Sunday, reversing 10 years of voting results by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, it could open the doors to the hallowed museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., to Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and others whose otherwise stellar careers were tainted by PED allegations.

But if Bonds and Clemens don’t get 75% of the vote, they’ll have to wait at least three more years and a precedent will have been set for a different group of voters that will decide on the next Contemporary Era ballot (1980s-present) in 2025.

In other words, the committee, which I prefer to think of as baseball’s Supreme Court, may have the final word on the so-called Steroids Era.

The Hall of Fame couldn’t have chosen a better group of representatives from the ranks of Hall of Famers, executives and media members. Former Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein, Chicago White Sox executive vice president Ken Williams and Miami Marlins general manager Kim Ng are among the six executives, while the list of former players includes Greg Maddux, Ryne Sandberg, Frank Thomas, Lee Smith and Alan Trammell.

I’ve known and covered most of the voters and can attest they have two things in common — strong opinions and a deep respect for the history of the game. Now they’ll be leaving a mark on the way the game deals with an era that stained the reputations of many of its greatest players.

Our esteemed Supreme Court judges will be debating the merits of eight players: the aforementioned Bonds and Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Don Mattingly, Albert Belle, Fred McGriff, Dale Murphy and Curt Schilling. Each committee member can vote for only three. An announcement will be made Sunday night on which, if any, met the 75% threshold.

Unfortunately the ballots will not be revealed, unlike the vast majority of those cast by BBWAA members in the annual process. The Twitter Hall of Fame tracker run by Ryan Thibodaux’s @NotMrTibbs account makes writers accountable. But the Supreme Court members won’t have to deal with the hostile and often profane reactions on Twitter from those who disagree with writers’ selections.

So Epstein won’t have to explain why he did or didn’t vote for Schilling, whom he acquired in a trade when he was the Boston Red Sox general manager. Thomas won’t have to say whether he cast a vote for Belle, his former teammate with the White Sox. And no one will have to explain their stance on PED candidates.

Of the eight candidates on the Contemporary Era ballot, I had a chance to vote for seven as an eligible BBWAA voter. If memory serves me correctly, the only one I voted for was Belle, who never had a chance after spending much of his career growling at the media members whose votes he needed. The corked-bat episode didn’t help.

Like Schilling, who barely missed getting elected on the BBWAA ballot in his 10th and final year in 2021, Belle’s hostility to writers probably cost him many votes. The former players on the Supreme Court may be more amenable to these two misanthropes, but it takes only five “no” votes to deny entrance.

Bonds and Clemens stand out on the ballot because they clearly would be in the Hall without the association with PEDs. No one argues they weren’t two of the greatest players ever. Whether alleged cheating toward the end of their careers should penalize them is the question. Palmeiro similarly was denied by the BBWAA for PED use but never came close, unlike Bonds and Clemens.

So are there five “anti-steroid” votes on the committee? The Chicago connection could provide a key.

Sandberg made his feelings known about PED users during his Hall of Fame speech in 2005, lauding teammate Andre Dawson’s 1987 MVP season as a “remarkable” feat.

“He did it the right way, the natural way,” Sandberg said to much applause.

Later that year Sandberg was among a group of Hall of Famers who spoke at a Senate hearing on PED use in baseball, calling for harsh penalties and saying, “We owe America’s pastime a strict policy.”

Maddux said before his Hall induction in 2014 that he had no sympathy for players being denied for PED use.

“I know you’re responsible for your actions,” Maddux said. “You never know when it’s going to come up. At the time, I think everyone was aware it wasn’t the right thing to do, but they did it anyway. It wasn’t that big a deal in the ‘90s, but now it is. You’re kind of responsible for your own actions, and now they’re paying the price.”

Thomas was so outspoken, he called for voluntary drug testing in 2002 — before it became mandatory — after former slugger and admitted user Jose Canseco claimed 85% of major-leaguers took PEDs.

“I want testing tomorrow, pitchers included,” Thomas said that day. “I think a lot of pitchers are on it, too, to throw harder and get more of an animal mentality. That stuff gives you an animal mentality, to focus on just killing the baseball.”

When he was elected to the Hall in 2014, I asked Thomas if he believed PED users eventually would be enshrined alongside him.

“They’re not going to get in,” he replied. “And talking to all the Hall of Famers, they’re going to boycott (if anyone gets elected) to make sure they don’t get in. They’ve already said to me: ‘Frank, it’s OK to like your peers and do so much with them, but a lot of them did a lot of bad stuff to the game and they shouldn’t be rewarded for something they weren’t naturally gifted to do. They cheated.’ ”

Times change, and maybe some of their views have softened over the years. A New York Times report said Maddux stated on David Cone’s podcast in January: “I think there’s guys that are good enough to be in the Hall of Fame if they didn’t take them, so I think they’re OK if they get in.”

So who knows which way they’ll go? Making the voting more complicated is the Bud Selig conundrum. The former baseball commissioner who presided over the Steroids Era was elected to the Hall by a Veterans Committee in 2017, so would denying entrance to alleged PED users be hypocritical?

It figures to be a fascinating debate — albeit behind closed doors — and perhaps the most closely watched vote in the history of Veterans Committees.

At the very least, the verdict by the Supreme Court should start the winter meetings with a bang.

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