Yankees: Andy Pettitte’s PED Problem and the Hall of Fame

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 23: Former pitcher Andy Pettitte of the New York Yankees stands next to his retired plaque which will go into Monument Park before the game against the Cleveland Indiand at Yankee Stadium on August 23, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 23: Former pitcher Andy Pettitte of the New York Yankees stands next to his retired plaque which will go into Monument Park before the game against the Cleveland Indiand at Yankee Stadium on August 23, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) /
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Will Yankees lefty Andy Pettitte make the Hall of Fame, with PED issues lingering?

A couple of years ago, I convinced myself that Andy Pettitte is a “Hall of Famer.”

My change of heart was the result of learning to embrace modern baseball statistics. As a kid who looked at stats like wins and ERA, I saw Pettitte’s career as accomplished, but far from profound.

When I learned to put Pettitte’s career into context of steroid-era Yankee Stadium, however, I realized he was an all-time great.

He doesn’t make the cut by much, but he makes it.

However, Pettitte shares a statistical and situational plight with several other players who’ve failed to get voted into the Hall. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Gary Sheffield were overwhelming power hitters. The fact that they are all suspected (or known) users of performance enhancing drugs, however, has held back voters from honoring their accomplishments.

The vote climbs by Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens in recent years suggest that younger voters are willing to disregard (or at least forgive) PED use. There is good reason to take this position. Steroid use is understood as a fundamental part of 1990s baseball culture. Penalizing individual players for assimilating to the atmosphere almost amounts to victim blaming.

But while this ideological shift is underway, it is far from complete. We have reached a point where PED use is not an absolute barrier to  Hall of Fame induction, but it’s still a major roadblock.

And so far, no player overwhelmingly believed to have used PEDs has overcome it. In the case of Pettitte, McGwire, Sheffield and Sosa, the obstacle may be those who take a middle of the road position on steroid use. Because all four would be lower-tier Hall of Farmers, the fact that their careers may have been drug-boosted is treated as reason to deem their statistics below the line.

Does that approach make sense in general, let alone in the case of mere HGH injury rehab users like Pettitte? Probably not, but it is an understandable position.

Another obstacle to Pettitte’s entry is the fact that Bonds and Clemens, arguably the best pitcher and best hitter of all time, have not been inducted. There are no doubt some voters who feel that if the best of the accused PED users have not been inducted, than “mere” 60-WAR types like Pettitte have no place near Cooperstown.

Yet Bonds and Clemens face problems of their own. Fans have forgiven players like Pettitte, Jason Giambi, Dee Strange-Gordon and Nelson Cruz for their PED use, since they all seem like nice people who simply made a mistake.

Bonds and Clemens, by contrast, were made particular villains of the steroid era. Both were put through the criminal justice system for allegedly lying about their PED use (with Clemens juxtaposed against the comparatively honest Pettitte). Both were perceived as arrogant, and may have real skeletons in their closets: Clemens’ Mindy McCready scandal, and Bonds’ tumultuous first marriage.

In short, many voters are somewhat willing to vote alleged PED users into the Hall of Fame. But unless the PED issue can be untangled from others, it may never truly be resolved. On the one hand, it’s hard to argue the Pettittes and McGwires of the world are worthy Hall of Famers if Bonds and Clemens are not. And on the other hand, Bonds and Clemens’ own non-induction can’t really be reduced to anti-PED sentiments.

For any of these players to get into the Hall of Fame, it will likely take another candidate. A candidate whose only blemish is alleged PED use, and who will thus force the voters to take a direct position on the matter.

Unfortunately, there only seem to be two plausible candidates left, and neither is ideal.

2022 will bring A-Rod and David Ortiz to the ballot. Statistically A-Rod is an unmistakable Hall of Famer. And while he was viewed with similar scorn to Bonds for much of his career, he’s recently established himself as a congenial elder statesman of the game.

A-Rod’s biggest problem, however, is that he was caught using PEDs in 2012, well after the steroid era had already ended, and after he had already apologized for past use. As such, A-Rod is not the test candidate we’re looking for.

Ortiz, meanwhile, passes the likability test, and his alleged steroid use has been subject to relatively little scrutiny.

Ortiz’s problem is that his statistics barely reach Hall of Fame standards. That said, like Vladimir Guerrero before him, he’s near universally regarded as a better player than his statistics imply. Ortiz only emerged as a force at the age of 28. It would seem many fans implicitly assume that had Boston gotten their hands on him earlier, he would have put up a few more prestigious years.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens may or may not get into Cooperstown this year. Andy Pettitte will almost certainly have to wait. But his hopes are not lost forever. While once upon a time Pedro Martinez called the Yankees his “Daddy,” now it’s a Yankee who’ll have to rely on a Papi for salvation.

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