Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are on the Hall of Fame ballot for the 10th and final time in 2022. But don't expect the debate about how Cooperstown should view players believed to have cheated for part or all of their otherwise Hall of Fame-worthy careers to subside anytime soon.
Frankly, we're just getting warmed up.
While you would be hard pressed to find anyone who believes Bonds and Clemens didn't benefit from some form of chemical enhancement, both were Hall of Fame-caliber players before they started juicing. For others, like Sammy Sosa, it's unclear what their careers would have looked like without PEDs. And some voters that have no problem voting for Bonds, Clemens and David Ortiz, will refuse to vote for Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez because they were actually suspended for using banned substances, unlike the aforementioned trio.
It's a messy debate, especially since some voters view the Hall of Fame as just a museum, while others view electing a player to Cooperstown as an endorsement. The truth may lie somewhere in between.
And while the PED debate has affected how we perceive some of the greatest offensive players of the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, the next generation of BBWAA voters will have another issue to consider—should star pitchers from the 2010s be omitted from HOF ballots if there's credible evidence to suggest they doctored baseballs?
After looking the other way for years—just like they did with PEDs—MLB began a league-wide crack-down on sticky substances in June. While it didn't take long for glove checks to become just another part of the game, it was a very awkward process when first implemented. The most notable incident came on June 22, when Nationals starter Max Scherzer blew a gasket after Joe Girardi asked umpires to check him for the third time that night, this time in the the bottom of the fourth inning:
Girardi took a ton of heat in the days after—including being called a 'con artist' by Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo—but Scherzer is actually the perfect person to examine for this debate.
A three-time Cy Young Award winner, Scherzer should be a lock statistically for the Hall of Fame, and is pretty frequently referred to as "a future Hall of Famer." With that said, Girardi's request wasn't out of the blue.
In an in-depth feature story written by Stephanie Apstein and Alex Prewitt of Sports Illustrated, Brian "Bubba" Harkins spoke up about being fired as the visiting clubhouse manager for the Los Angeles Angels. The cause for termination? After closer Troy Percival left the Angels ahead of 2005, Harkins essentially became the point person for creating and distributing a sticky substance that consisted of rosin, liquid pine tar and Manny Mota grip stick.
In the article, Sports Illustrated confirmed the legitimacy of text messages sent from various star pitchers or those in their inner circle hoping to acquire foreign substances from Harkins to get a better grip on the ball. Among those who Harkins claims to have supplied are Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Corey Kluber and Adam Wainwright. Wainwright has admitted to using the substance for "six or seven starts" in 2019, before deciding he didn't find it effective. As far as we can tell, none of the other four have been asked specifically about the SI report.
With Cole, several of his direct texts to Harkins are cited in the story:
“Hey Bubba, it’s Gerrit Cole,” came a message from Cole’s number in January 2019. “I was wondering if you could help me out with this sticky situation,” the text continued, along with a winking emoji. “The stuff I had last year seizes up when it gets cold, can you come up with, or do you have a mix that will play better in cold weather?”
“Hey Cole, the only thing I think I can do is put more tar in it and less [Mota] stick,” Harkins responded. “I’ll play around with it and see.”
The reply from Cole’s phone: “We tried mixing the liquid in it and it definitely helped but it was a sloppy mess. I feel like incorporating a different ratio from the beginning of the process would be more ideal.”
Now getting ready for his third season of a nine-year deal with the New York Yankees, Cole also all-but admitted to using the substance Spider Tack when asked about it this past June:
So with Cole—like Rodriguez and Ramirez—there's pretty clear evidence he was doctoring balls. Cole leads all starting pitchers in fWAR over the last three seasons and is trending towards possible enshrinement in Cooperstown. Some voters won't care, just as they don't when evaluating the Hall of Fame cases for Rodriguez and Ramirez. Others will penalize Cole, viewing doctoring the baseball as a mortal sin in baseball terms. But either way, no voters will be able to plead ignorance—if you cover or follow baseball, you're aware of Cole's ties to foreign substances.
However, for whatever reason, the SI story doesn't seem to have harmed Scherzer or Verlander's legacies in any way. Neither had a hand-in-the-cookie-jar moment like Cole seemingly did over Zoom. That may be because neither were asked about it. Verlander missed the entire 2021 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery and hasn't spoken to the media that covers the Astros since the report came out. Similarly, no one in the D.C. or L.A. media ever bothered to ask Scherzer—now a New York Met—about Sports Illustrated's findings. There are politics to covering a team, and some are able to ask questions that others can't. To this point, no one in the media has stepped up to press Scherzer or Verlander on this subject.
Verlander was teammates with Percival on the 2005 Tigers, where Harkins says he was introduced to the substance and later reached out to him for more. It's not clear when or how long Verlander may have used that substance.
Meanwhile, there's no evidence that Scherzer directly reached out to Harkins himself. But, he was teammates with Verlander in Detroit from 2010-14, and the SI story included text messages from an unnamed Nationals staffer in February of 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 asking for sticky stuff on Scherzer's behalf. It's possible that staffer ordered it without Scherzer's permission and he never used it. Common sense, though, leads you to believe the eight-time All-Star probably benefited from it, cementing himself as an all-time great while helping the Nationals win their first World Series in 2019.
None of this is to suggest that Cole, Scherzer and Verlander were outliers in the sport, because, by all accounts, use of various sticky substances was rampant throughout baseball. But even if the league looked the other way, these substances were banned. The "well, everyone was doing it" argument hasn't done much to sway Hall of Fame voters for players connected to PEDs. By that logic, the same standard should eventually apply to Cole, Scherzer and Verlander, among others.
It's true Gaylord Perry is in the Hall of Fame, despite openly admitting to doctoring baseball throughout a career that saw him win 314 games. Conventional wisdom would tell you then that doctoring balls isn't enough to keep you out of the most famous museum in sports, so Scherzer, Verlander and Cole will probably be fine.
It's not that simple, though. While Bonds, Clemens, Sosa and Mark McGwire are among those who have been kept out of the Hall of Fame because of connections to PEDs, the culture of "greenies" in baseball during the 20th century has largely been accepted. It was in the coffee they served in major-league dugouts. No legendary player—not Willie Mays, nor Mike Schmidt—was ever penalized by Hall of Fame voters for their connections to amphetamines.
No one is suggesting "greenies" had as profound an effect on the sport as drugs used during the Steroid Era, but if a player was caught using a similar substance today, they would be suspended and their legacy would assuredly be tarnished. An entire era of superstars, though, was grandfathered into the greenies culture.
There could be similar dynamics at play for Cole, Scherzer and Verlander one day, particularly with Cole, who all but admitted to using Spider Tack in his famous Zoom meltdown. Just because Hall of Fame voters in 1991 looked the other way for Perry, doesn't mean Hall of Fame voters in the 2040s will do the same for pitchers who doctored balls during an entirely different era.
It's possible, though, that names like Bonds and Rodriguez are kept out of the Hall of Fame, but voters ultimately decide to look the other way on pitchers believed to have gained an edge using sticky substances.
You're left with the feeling that as long as baseball exists, the line between pushing the envelope and cheating will be very subjective. And good luck trying to determine what level of cheating gets you only a slap on the wrist, as opposed to disqualifying you from the Hall of Fame. There's no 100% right answer here, just a debate we'll be having as long as we all live.