It is rare for a player to collect 500 home runs or 3,000 hits. It is even more unusual for a player to surpass both milestones. But it would be unique for a player with that pair of achievements to fail to gain entry into the Hall of Fame. That is a prospect Rafael Palmeiro may face, however, when his entry to Cooperstown comes to a vote.
It is difficult to ascertain how much of the reaction to the disclosure that Palmeiro tested positive for steroids reflects actual outrage among fans as opposed to posturing indignation by baseball writers paid to fill column inches. Since Palmeiro’s return, the crowds have voted with their boos in his home park. Going on the road will likely be even less pleasant. Negative fan reaction makes news, but it is the writers who own a monopoly on Hall of Fame balloting. Some writers always look for a reason to withhold their vote, which is why nobody, not Ty Cobb (four dissenters) or Babe Ruth (11), not Hank Aaron (nine) or Willie Mays (23), has ever received a plaque unanimously.
And a sizable constituency of the scribes chafes at the idea of voting for any but the most deserving candidates on the first ballot, which is why it sometimes takes a year or two for players with sound credentials to get elected. The ballot is a privilege jealously guarded by writers who have lost to television much of their primacy as the game’s storytellers. Which is why much controversy may surround Palmeiro’s candidacy when he finally retires and waits the six years until he appears on the ballot. Palmeiro has overcome the two markers that traditionally guarantee election for a position player. He became the 19th player to hit 500 home runs in 2003 and this summer the 26th player to reach 3,000 hits.
With his 3000th hit, Palmeiro joined Aaron, Mays and Eddie Murray as the only players to reach both milestones. He has also moved considerably beyond 500 home runs, with 569 as of his suspension, and has the potential to hit 600, joining Aaron, Mays, Ruth, Barry Bonds and, probably by then, teammate Sammy Sosa in that inner circle. Those accomplishments, despite any other doubts in his record — an all-star “only” four times, never finishing higher than fifth in MVP voting, leading the league in a major category just three times (191 hits in 1990, 124 runs in 1993, 49 doubles in 1991) — would make it safe to bet that Palmeiro will enter the Hall of Fame.
Except for the steroids. If unelected, Palmeiro would obviously not be the first player denied entry to Cooperstown due to scandal. Pete Rose is one of just two members of the 4,000-hit club. It is legitimate to wonder why Palmeiro should be elected while Rose, with his many accomplishments, is excluded. Rose and Palmeiro both broke the rules. Rose’s offense, betting on baseball and on his own team, is rightly perceived as a threat to baseball’s integrity, since a player consorting with or, even worse, in debt to gamblers may be tempted to fix the outcome of the game. That is why baseball has long sought to distance itself from gambling.
But what Palmeiro did also disturbs baseball’s intergrity. Palmeiro’s actions, unlike Rose’s, were a form of cheating. Rose’s betting did not give him a competitive advantage over other players (or managers) like Palmeiro’s steroid use presumably did. Indeed, Rose got his 4,256 hits, three batting titles, 1973 MVP award and three World Series rings fair and square.
Whereas the numbers that have propelled Palmeiro’s candidacy may well be tainted. Palmeiro’s career statistics are a product of longevity, piling up solid seasons, including nine straight with more than 30 home runs and 100 RBI, into his late 30s. Did steroids allow him to maintain that consistent success? Thus, even without any moral or ethical objections to his induction, one could argue from a purely statistical perspective that the numbers otherwise making him worthy are ill-gotten. It is impossible to know whether Palmeiro would have reached 500 home runs or 3,000 hits without steroids. We do not even know when or for how long Palmeiro used them.
All we know is that he recently tested positive. But it is Palmeiro’s own fault that this is in doubt, because he is the one who injected uncertainty into the situation by using steroids. Even if he only used them once, well after hitting 500 home runs or getting within striking distance of 3,000 hits, Palmeiro created the presumption that his achievements were garnered by cheating. (This calls to mind Gaylord Perry, who doctored the ball on the way to 314 career victories. But the writers and fans seem more forgiving of Vaseline use than steroid use. In any event, the writers did inflict on Perry the minor inconvenience of waiting a couple of extra years for induction with 77 percent of the vote, despite Perry’s membership in the 300-win club.)
A crucial distinction does exist between Rose and Palmeiro. Rose broke rules that he knew would make him permanently ineligible if he got caught, and the Hall of Fame then changed its rules so that a permanently ineligible player may not appear on the ballot. Palmeiro’s positive test brought the meager sanction of 10 days’ suspension. This formalistic argument is not binding on the writers, however. Many people have argued that the penalties for steroid use should be increased substantially, including a lifetime ban. Attempting to impose enhanced penalties on Palmeiro retroactively, however, would drag the commissioner into a legal proceeding that he would surely lose.
But nothing prevents the writers, once Palmeiro appears on the ballot, from voting against him regardless of whether the rules then in place resulted in a petty penalty. In fact, there is reason to believe the writers would prefer the chance to exercise that judgment as opposed to having Palmeiro’s fate decided by a lifetime ban. There used to be speculation that the writers would elect Rose were he eligible to appear on the ballot. Indeed, he received write-in votes. Some writers complained bitterly about not being permitted to vote for him. Since that time, Rose’s lack of contrition has probably eroded his support. Even if reinstated now, it is too late for him to appear on the ballot absent a rule change.
But Palmeiro may face the humiliation of getting a chance before the writers and failing. That will be at least as humbling as the boos that he will likely hear from crowds the rest of the twilight of his career, or going back before Congress to be remonstrated by sanctimonious legislators to whom Palmeiro previously swore he never took steroids. Palmeiro says that the time will come when he will prove his denials that he ever took steroids. It would be marvelous if Palmeiro could provide evidence to clear his name. Nothing is more just than a condemned man proving his innocence. Moreover, it might spare us the media drama likely to play out when the Hall of Fame elections come around in 2012 or so.
Palmeiro’s will likely not be the first Hall of Fame election to feature this drama, though. Mark McGwire will appear on a ballot just around the corner in 2007. He is the first worthy candidate likely to face serious questions about steroids. And he will not be the last, as Palmeiro, Bonds and others come up for a vote. It will take a long time to fully realize the effects of steroids on the record books, baseball history and the Hall of Fame. This summer’s discussion about Palmeiro is simply a taste of what is to come.