By any measure, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez is one of the greatest catchers in baseball history. Over his 21-year career, Rodriguez set Major League Baseball records for games caught, putouts by a catcher and assists by a catcher. He threw out 46% of attempted base stealers, the highest percentage by any catcher in 40 years. Rodriguez was the rare great defensive catcher who could also hit, setting the doubles record for catchers – he had 572 of them – to go along with 311 home runs and a .296 batting average. Rodriguez was also a 14-time All Star, 13-time Gold Glove winner, the 1999 American League Most Valuable Player and the 2003 National League Championship Series Most Valuable Player.
After an injury-plagued 2011 season with the Washington Nationals, Rodriguez wasn’t invited to spring training by any Major League team this year and decided to retire. Given his superb play, Rodriguez would seem to be a shoo-in for enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2017, the first year he’s eligible. However, it’s very likely Rodriguez won’t get into the Hall of Fame in 2017 and it’s possible he’ll never get a plaque in Cooperstown.
Why? Only God knows.
Those three words were uttered by Rodriguez in 2006, when a reporter asked him if he tested positive for steroids in 2003, the first year Major League Baseball tested for the drug (the tests were meant to be an anonymous survey and the names of the players who tested positive have never been released publicly). In his 2005 book Juiced, admitted steroids user Jose Canseco claimed he injected Rodriguez with steroids when they were teammates with the Texas Rangers in the early 1990s, a claim Rodriguez has denied.
A cryptic answer to a question and a book passage not backed by corroborating evidence are circumstantial evidence, at best. However, such evidence is enough for many of the Baseball Writers Association of America writers with Hall of Fame votes to keep Rodriguez off their ballots. Heck, players have been kept out of the Hall of Fame based on even less; Jeff Bagwell, who had an outstanding 15-year career as the Houston Astros first baseman, has been eligible for Hall of Fame enshrinement for two years and has yet to come close to getting the required 75% of the vote because of “whispers” that he may have used steroids. In other words, I could make up a rumor about a great player using steroids and, if that rumor gains enough steam, it could be enough to keep that player out of the Hall of Fame.
Rodriguez and Bagwell both played during the 1990s and early 2000s, a stretch of time that will forever be known as the Steroid Era in baseball; testing was nonexistent and fans, media and Major League Baseball looked the other way, deciding to ignore the rapidly changing physiques that hinted at the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. Without question, Major League Baseball should have instituted mandatory drug testing sooner and the media should have paid more attention to why muscles were bulging and home run records were falling at an unheard-of pace. But, history can’t be rewritten. Just as we don’t look down on all of the great Major League ballplayers who competed before integration or pitchers who achieved success largely by scuffing and doctoring baseballs with foreign substances before the practice was banned, we shouldn’t shun those who played in the Steroid Era. Indeed, steroids are illegal in the United States, but that’s immaterial; since baseball didn’t test for steroids, they were implicitly permitting their use. Some believe the Major League Baseball powers that be knew what they was doing; the rise in home runs – especially the legendary pursuit of the single-season home run record by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 – helped increase attendance after a debilitating strike that created ill will and wiped out the 1994 postseason and shortened the 1994 and 1995 regular seasons. So, why attempt to curtail an activity that may be one of the principal reasons business is booming?
This is different from Pete Rose, Major League Baseball’s all time leader in hits, being excluded from the Hall of Fame. Rose, who was banned from the sport for life after it was found he violated a long-standing rule by betting on baseball games, isn’t even allowed on the ballot. A year before he was eligible for enshrinement for the first time, the Hall of Fame passed a rule prohibiting anyone on baseball’s ineligible list from being considered for election. Whether Rose should be in the Hall of Fame has been taken out of the voters’ hands. However, it would be impossible and/or unfair to unilaterally ban all Steroid Era players from being considered for enshrinement, because it’s difficult to know for certain who did and didn’t take steroids during that era and many of that era’s deserving players who never took a performance enhancing drug would be shut out because of the misdeeds of their peers.
I kind of understand BBWAA members not voting for McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens or Rafael Palmeiro; all those players have either admitted using steroids, were found to have used steroids after an extensive investigation or tested positive for steroids, so there is more than just hearsay or circumstantial evidence that they juiced. But, I’d even vote for those players; why penalize anyone simply because of the era in which he played? If a player was one of the best in his era, he should be in the Hall of Fame, regardless. Baseball players have been looking for a competitive edge over the game’s entire history and can’t be expected to regulate themselves, especially when millions of dollars are at stake. It’s up to those in charge to make decisions that level the playing field and account for player safety in a reasonable fashion, and those in charge dropped the ball during the Steroid Era. Therefore, players who achieved success during that era shouldn’t be punished because of their bosses’ lack of oversight when it comes to performance enhancing drugs. It shouldn’t be up to the BBWAA’s Hall of Fame-voting members to determine who did the right things off the field and who didn’t. It shouldn’t be up to the baseball writers to determine what’s morally and ethically acceptable in the game.
After all, they’re writers. Not God.Follow @raford3