In March 2005, Rafael Palmeiro, in his opening statement to Congress, uttered words we've heard dozens of times since: "I have never used steroids, period." By August of that year, Palmeiro would find himself suspended after testing positive for an anabolic steroid. Palmeiro's professional baseball career would last just a few more games, ending with four hitless at-bats on August 30, 2005.
And that synopsis is, unfortunately, what people will remember when they think of Rafael Palmeiro. His career, which spanned 20 years, boiled down to one nightmare season.
As naturally happens with players of impressive longevity, Palmeiro garnered some eye-popping statistics. He is one of just four players with more than 3,000 hits (3,020) and 500 home runs (569). He is a four-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, and two-time Silver Slugger. And though Palmeiro never won, he received MVP consideration ten times. Not one of the all-time greats, but certainly worthy of debate for the Hall of Fame.
After just four years on the Cooperstown ballot, that debate is over. Palmeiro received 4.4% of the votes in 2014, falling just shy of the 5% necessary to stay on the ballot. Palmeiro was shocked after receiving just 11% of the vote in 2011, his first year of eligibility, telling USA Today:
"This is one of those dark days in my life. The last five years, ever since that incident, I've felt like they were putting me in a coffin and putting nails in. Today, they were throwing dirt on my coffin."
Palmeiro actually gained support in 2012, increasing to 12.6%. But when he received just 8.8% in 2013 - a year in which no one was elected - the writing was on the wall.
The Hall of Fame debate is no longer a robust discourse about an individual player's merits. As the 2014 voting totals for Roger Clemens (35.4%) and Barry Bonds (34.7%) illustrate, there is now a litmus test for Hall of Fame entry. Those guilty or suspected of using PEDs need not apply.
As a result, the Hall of Fame voters and pundits spend more time discussing PED use among candidates than individual qualifications. Perhaps that's because Bonds' and Clemens' credentials are otherwise beyond dispute. But what about the borderline cases like Palmeiro? And what about the players whom some writers merely suspect of PED use, without a shred of proof? How is the process fair to them?
This is baseball's fault - for failing to vigorously pursue suspected cheaters, adjudicate their guilt, and place them on the ineligible list or expunge their records; in essence, for punting the matter of the steroid era to the writers. The Hall of Fame and the BBWAA, too, could have been more proactive about addressing the steroid era. By leaving it to the individual writers' views on morality and fair play, these institutions have all but guaranteed the debate about PEDs in the Hall of Fame will carry on ad nauseum.
No matter how you come down on steroids in baseball, a one-issue ballot makes for a pretty boring election process.