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Would Bonds, Clemens Entry Open Up Hall of Fame Floodgates?

How much juice can the National Baseball Hall of Fame hold? We're going to find out.

The sea change in the voting for the Hall of Fame can't be ignored. It first became apparent when Mike Piazza, long suspected of needing performance-enhancing drugs to slug more homers than any other catcher, got into Cooperstown with 83 percent of the vote in 2016.

Now the revolution is projected to continue in 2017.

The latest Hall of Fame class won't be revealed until January 18, but all the votes were in on December 31. And thanks to Ryan Thibodaux, the tireless Samaritan who aggregates Hall of Fame ballots, we already know how the votes are trending:

With the cutoff for induction set at 75 percent, Vladimir Guerrero is too close to call. Otherwise, it looks like congratulations will soon be in order for Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez.

This trio's induction would draw applause from plenty but also raise eyebrows from others. Bags, Rock and Pudge come with big numbers but also with suspicion and/or baggage.

Bagwell was a muscly steroid-era slugger who admitted to using androstenedione to the Houston Chronicle (via Sports Illustrated's William Nack and Kostya Kennedy)—the stuff Mark McGwire was on.

Rodriguez, another steroid-era star, once gave a curiously vague response when he was asked about PEDs, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com). Raines was in the back end of his career during the steroid era, but he did use cocaine during his prime with the Montreal Expos in the 1980s.

This is neither here nor there for those of us (hi there!) who see the scuzzier portions of baseball's past not as parts to be shunned but as those to be discussed and examined. But all should be prepared for the rabble about to be raised by a small army of handwringers. They'll echo the Hall of Fame's insistence on integrity and character and wonder if nothing is sacred anymore.

A word to the hand-wringers: If you don't like how those three are trending, you'd better not look at how Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are doing.

Bonds, baseball's all-time home run king, and Clemens, its only seven-time Cy Young winner, debuted with just 36.2 and 37.6 percent of the vote in 2013. By last year, they had only climbed into the 40s.

Never mind the argument that Bonds and Clemens may be the greatest hitter and pitcher ever, respectively. This seemed to clarify that their status as poster boy 1A and 1B for the steroid era weighed more heavily.

But look! Now they're tracking at darn near 70 percent. "How about that?" says Mel Allen's ghost.

Although Bonds and Clemens will likely fall short of their current marks in the end, this is still writing on the wall that says their support is in for a major boost. With five years left on the ballot after this one, they finally have a light museum at the end of their tunnels.

Some things are random. Like lottery numbers. Or Bryce Harper's year-to-year performance.

But Bonds and Clemens' push to Cooperstown? That's not random.

This is an effect of the Hall of Fame's purging inactive baseball writers from the Baseball Writers Association of America voting bloc in 2015. That did away with a lot of older and out-of-touch voters, giving younger and more progressive voters more influence.

This is also an unintended consequence of the Hall of Fame's welcoming legendary manager Tony La Russa in 2014 and former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig this year. Juiced players (McGwire included) helped the former win 2,728 games and three World Series. Juiced players did the latter a huge favor by putting on a show that erased the 1994-1995 strike from memory and ushered in an era of unfathomable prosperity.

Selig's induction seems to be the real kicker for many voters. Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports recently offered a sampling of their thoughts, with the consensus being it's no longer fair to scorn the juiced-up labor of the steroid era while the beneficiaries of said juiced-up labor are going scot-free.

"When Bud was put in two weeks ago, my mindset changed," veteran Philadelphia sportswriter Kevin Cooney wrote to Passan in an email. "If the commissioner of the steroid era was put into the HOF by a secret committee, then I couldn't in good faith keep those two out any longer."

Clearly, the line in the sand has been redrawn. That doesn't just spell hope for Bonds and Clemens, but it also does so for other steroid-era stars gunning for Cooperstown. That's you, Gary Sheffield and Sammy Sosa. 

As for you, Manny Ramirez...uh...hmmm...

OK, you're a tough one.

It's easy to miss Ramirez on this year's ballot, but he's there. And his numbers loom large. He hit 555 dingers in a 19-year career and is one of only 13 players to accumulate more than 9,000 plate appearances and post a slash line better than .300/.400/.500.

The only number that matters, though, is the 26.7 percent Ramirez is polling at.

There's no big secret for why he's struggling. Ramirez enjoyed success during and after the steroid era but missed the memo when the era ended. Michael S. Schmidt of the New York Times reported in 2009 that Ramirez tested positive for PEDs in 2003. He was then busted and suspended for PEDs later that year. When he was caught again in 2011, he ducked the consequences by retiring.

Ramirez is the first superstar to have been caught riding dirty to appear on the ballot since Rafael Palmeiro in 2011. That doomed him to 11 percent of the vote that year and an early exit in his fourth year. Ramirez might last longer, but it looks like his fate will be the same.

Certainly, more players would have been caught and punished had there been rules and punishments during the steroid era. But it was a different time.

"There were no rules before 2004," wrote Bob Nightengale of USA Today. "No signs in clubhouses banning PEDs. You were free to take whatever you desired with no testing, no penalties, nothing."

The shorthand: There's a difference between breaking "rules" and breaking rules. As MassLive's Nick O'Malley's helpful compilation makes clear, this is a common refrain for voters regarding Ramirez.

Earth to Alex Rodriguez: This concerns you.

After retiring in 2016, Rodriguez isn't due on the ballot until 2022. Like Ramirez, he's an all-time great producer who had success during and after the steroid era. Also like Ramirez, he was on the 2003 list and later busted and suspended in 2014. 

For now, he's screwed. As much as the Hall of Fame voters are loosening their standards for PED guys, they still have some standards. They came for Palmeiro and Ramirez. They'll come for Rodriguez, too.

Unless, of course, another unexpected sea change comes along.

Before long, the effect of the Hall of Fame voting bloc's getting younger and more progressive will go from minor to major. As Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated pointed out after A-Rod's retirement, there will be an influx of analytically minded baseball writers starting in 2018.

If for no other reason than to reverse the effect of "small hall" thinking—MLB.com's Mike Petriello has a good article out on that—these voters could be more inclined to vote for Ramirez and Rodriguez. Modern times need more representation in Cooperstown. Like it or not, they're two of the biggest stars of modern times.

They also still have time to repair their images. Ramirez has already begun with his work with the Chicago Cubs. Rodriguez, meanwhile, played the good soldier on the field following his suspension and has since emerged as an extremely likable television analyst.

The other thing time can do is thin out the competition. In contrast to the tidal wave of superstars of recent years, the future should see only a slow drip of superstars onto the ballot. In the meantime, the 10-year limit will push some off the ballot. Others will get squeezed by the annual 10-player voting limit. Others still, such as Bonds and Clemens, will get voted in, leaving fewer titans to contend with.

This is better news for someone like David Ortiz, who was flagged for PEDs in 2003 but was never busted in 13 fruitful years after that, than it is for Ramirez and Rodriguez. But if nothing else, this is all basically Lloyd Christmas telling them there's a chance.

For good or ill, the Hall of Fame's days of just saying no to PED guys are over. We're in new territory, and the task of charting it is just beginning.

                    

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. 

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