Hall of Fame might no longer be off limits for steroid-era players

Roger Clemens could have kept his mouth shut. People would have believed what they were going to believe. But Mr. Clemens went to Washington in 2008, for an extraordinary day of political theater.

Clemens testified under oath that he never had used steroids. Rep. Henry Waxman, the chairman of the congressional committee grilling Clemens, did not believe him.

Nine years later, neither man has given ground. But the ground has shifted in the Hall of Fame voting, and players linked to the use of performance-enhancing drugs no longer face exclusion from Cooperstown.

When the Hall's Class of 2017 is announced Wednesday, Clemens almost certainly will fall short of election. But, for the first time in his five years on the ballot, he is projected to receive more than 50 percent of the vote, based on the published ballots tabulated by Ryan Thibodaux. Clemens would have five more years to get to the required 75 percent.

Alex Rodriguez was welcomed back to the New York Yankees, with open arms. Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire coached last season. The only permanent sanction -- that the Baseball Writers Association of America would bar you from Cooperstown -- could be on the verge of eroding.

For all that Waxman did to shine a light on what he believed was Clemens' improper and illegal behavior, Clemens might end up in the Hall of Fame after all.

"I don't care," Waxman said during a recent interview.

Clemens was not the first baseball figure to testify before Waxman and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Three years earlier, McGwire had told that committee he was not there to talk about the past, and Rafael Palmeiro wagged a finger at the elected representatives as he denied ever using performance-enhancing drugs.

Bud Selig, baseball's commissioner, and Donald Fehr, the leader of the players' union, sparred over why the sport had not done more to police itself. Selig commissioned a distinguished alumnus of Congress -- Sen. George Mitchell -- to produce the report that fingered Clemens.

Ultimately, after several highly publicized nudges from Congress, owners and players agreed to a drug-testing policy that has gotten tougher over time -- from no suspension for a first-time offense, to 10 games, 50 games and the current 80 games.

"I am pleased, in the years that have passed, baseball has cleaned up its act," Waxman said.

That, Waxman said, was the goal of the hearings. No longer would kids see juiced-up sluggers as role models. No longer would kids assume stardom was most effectively reached through the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

He does not fret about whether a Clemens or Bonds gets into the Hall of Fame.

"The individuals are not my concern, as much as the message to kids," Waxman said. "That is what we wanted, and that is where we succeeded. ... We see a dramatic drop in kids using the drugs."

That would be a pretty good outcome if it were true.

Don Hooton also testified before Waxman and the committee. His high-profile foundation works to educate youngsters about the risks of steroid use; Major League Baseball is one of its strongest supporters.

So, does Hooton see a dramatic drop in kids using these drugs?

"No, we don't," Hooton said. "We've seen no numbers that indicate that."

To the contrary, he said, steroid use has risen among youths. In 2005, when he testified before Congress, Hooton said estimates of teen users ranged from 500,000 to 1 million. Today, he says, studies put that number in excess of 1.5 million.

"We make the mistake of thinking that it's just sports-involved drug usage," Hooton said. "It's not. The primary driver now is body image: the obsessive desire to look better, to get buff, to attract the members of the opposite sex."

That is not necessarily baseball's problem, but Hooton suggests it should be. He cited a study in which 85 percent of high schoolers said no adult ever had spoken with them about the risks of performance-enhancing drugs.

It's hard to argue the risks, he said, when an NFL star serves a four-game suspension for steroid use but returns for the playoffs, or when a baseball player whose performance was drug-aided could be elected to the Hall of Fame. That, he contends, should compel baseball writers to at least consider steroid use in discussions of whether Clemens and Bonds deserve a vote for Cooperstown.

"If the impact this is having on the youth of this country is not part of the discussion -- and I would argue it's not -- then shame on all of us," Hooton said. "It's terrible, the message that is getting sent to these young people.

"We try to fight it. And here we've got a group of sportswriters that is contradicting every message we are trying to deliver to the kids."

After Clemens denied to Waxman's committee that he ever had used steroids, he was charged with perjury. The feds said Clemens had lied to Congress; a jury disagreed. Clemens and his primary accuser, Brian McNamee, sued one another for defamation; Clemens' suit was thrown out of court and Clemens' insurers paid McNamee to settle his suit.

"Clemens, as far as I know, violated the law when it came to misleading Congress," Waxman said. "But he was found not guilty. I think otherwise. I think he intentionally misled us and did not level with us."

Waxman is not alone in that belief. There is no other reason why Clemens -- the only seven-time Cy Young winner -- has not been elected to the Hall of Fame.

Waxman, 77, retired from Congress in 2015, after 40 years representing the west side of Los Angeles. He does not want to have a say in the Hall of Fame voting -- he joked that he does not get to vote for the Academy Awards either -- and said he would understand if voters decided Clemens' greatness on the field merited a spot in the Hall of Fame.

"Maybe," Waxman said, "they can have a little asterisk on the plaque."