The BBWAA announced the selections for entrance to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and I couldn’t be happier for the deserving candidates that got in. Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Craig Biggio, and John Smoltz earned their way in, and there really is no debating that. Of course, what many have been debating are the qualifications of the other guys on the ballot.
Usually, the topic of conversation turns to steroids. I don’t think many would argue that they like performance enhancing drugs being involved in baseball, but the simple fact is they are. And it’s not a new phenomenon. In fact, many members of the hallowed fraternity that is the Hall of Fame used some sort of drug to enhance performance, whether it be injecting steroids with a needle or popping greenies in the 70’s.
The list of suspected steroid users on the ballot consists primarily of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, and former Cub Sammy Sosa. Bonds and Clemens both got around 37% of the required 75% vote, while Sosa dropped from 7.2% last year to 6.6% this time. A lot of the hand-wringing has been that ignorant and regressive voters are holding out Bonds and Clemens, who should be in the Hall. I’d like to see the ballots of the same guys voting against Bonds and Clemens when David Ortiz and Andy Pettitte are eligible.
But if popular opinion is that those guys are good enough to beat the steroid issue, why not Sosa? First, let’s attack the steroid topic head on. I’m okay with steroid users getting in. It’s as much an illegal part of the game as the spitball, whatever was on Kenny Rogers’ arm, whatever was on Jon Lester’s hat, the aforementioned greenies (essentially amphetamines), and stealing signs from the catcher. People try to argue that keeping cheaters out of the Hall is their due punishment, but I’d argue that their punishment is the negative effects of putting steroids in their bodies.
You can only assume a lot of this information, too. While there is a preponderance of damning evidence against Bonds and Clemens, the evidence on Sosa is really only a leaked failed drug test from 2003. And even that has a lack of complete information. We don’t even know what substance he tested positive for, so we’re really guessing. All we know is that he supposedly came up on a list of guys who tested positive for a banned substance a single time.
Don’t take this as me championing his innocence; rather, I’m merely pointing out that while the other guys were caught red-handed (or openly admitted it, like McGwire), Sosa’s link to steroid use is less about evidence and more about public opinion. In front of congress in 2005, Sosa testified that he had never used PEDs, saying “I have never taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs. I have never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything.” I’d love to take Sammy at his word, but if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck…
Now let’s look at the numbers. Some argue that Sosa’s numbers are fueled purely by steroids, and that’s somewhat true and somewhat false. The most valid argument for Bonds and Clemens being worthy of the Hall while Sosa is not is that the former pair were Hall of Fame players before their supposed use of PEDs. However, because of the nature of the information we have, we really don’t know when any of them started using.
But back to Sosa. From 1993-2004, a span of twelve seasons from age 24-35, Slammin’ Sammy put up a .285/.360/.576 slash line with 537 home runs, 1389 RBI, and 166 steals in 7607 plate appearances. According to his Baseball Reference page, his average per 162 games was 50 homers and 130 RBI during that span. That’s his average. No matter the era, those are insane numbers.
Let’s go ahead and break his prime years down into two sections. In the 1993-1997 time period, he hit 40 homers and put up 117 RBI per 162 games. That’s pre-suspicion. Sosa averaged 31 stolen bases per 162 games during that period as well. A lot of people forget that Sosa was a good base-stealer and was considered a decent outfielder with a cannon for an arm early in his career.
That brings us to the 1998-2004 period, or the period of swollen arms and crazy home run totals. Sosa put up 57 home runs and 137 RBI per 162 games during this period while posting a 1.006 OPS. He won the MVP in 1998, hitting 66 home runs and leading the Cubs to the playoffs. Sosa would finish in the top 10 in MVP voting seven times in his career (1993, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003).
Sosa’s best season is also one of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history. In 2001, Sammy hit .328/.437/.737 with 64 home runs and 160 RBI in 711 plate appearances. That looks like the kind of numbers you’d see in High Heat Baseball 2001 (it’s sooo real!). Sosa finished second in the MVP that season because that’s the same year that Bonds put up the record-shattering 73 home runs.
Sosa doesn’t benefit from having played for great teams and only made the playoffs twice in his career, famously falling just short of the World Series during one of those runs. He also lead the Cubs to contend for the playoffs in 2001 and 2004, but they came up short. You can’t totally blame him for lack of playoff success; the unworthy teams lacked either impact pitching (1999, 2000, 2002) or a supporting lineup (2001).
It’s a shame that Sosa is trending downward on his Hall of Fame chances, because I’d love to see him up on stage explaining his career. I think there are a lot of ways to do it right, but Major League Baseball needs to come up with something agreeable to accommodate the Steroid Era. Whether it be a special wing of the Hall or putting asterisks on plaques, almost anything would be better than the current system of subjective voting by writers that are sometimes less-than-informed.
When the day comes that Major League Baseball caves and suspected cheaters start flooding the Hall, I hope that Sammy Sosa still has a chance to be inducted. If the other guys deserve to be in, so does Sammy.