Why Jim Thome Might Not Make the Hall of Fame

He’s too big and too good to escape suspicion in the Steroid Era. But is that fair?

If you’re a fan of the Phillies—or really, of any other baseball team—you probably love Jim Thome.

In this era of widespread cynicism about sports, there aren’t a lot of things that just about everyone feels good about, but Thome is one of them. In a 22-year career, the slugger hit 612 home runs, which is seventh all-time. His career on-base percentage is .402 and his career slugging percentage is .554.

The slugger has a special place in Phillies fans hearts, as in 2003, he was the first major free agent to sign with the team in the Citizens Bank Park era. He even briefly returned to the Phillies last year, in a league with no DH, even though he was 41 and could barely play in the field.

But it’s not just the numbers. Thanks to his gregarious personality, Thome is the rare athlete who played in several cities and was beloved everywhere he went. I saw the Twins and Phillies play each other in Philadelphia when Thome was with the Twins, and the same two teams in Minnesota two years later when Thome was a Phillie, and the opposing crowd cheered Thome both times, even when he hit home runs for the road team. Thome was similarly loved in his long stints in Cleveland and Chicago, as well as shorter runs in Los Angeles and Baltimore.

And through all of that, Thome is the rare star slugger who has never been tied in any way to steroids or any other performance-enhancing drugs. He has always said that he didn’t use PEDs, and I have no reason not to believe him. So with those stats, and that reputation, shouldn’t Thome be a shoo-in for first-ballot Baseball Hall of Fame induction, as soon as he’s eligible?

Maybe not.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), which votes for the Hall of Fame, last week elected… no one to the 2013 class. The veterans’ committee earlier voted in three men who are long dead, so the only living person going into the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer is Paul Hagen, the longtime Daily News reporter who is this year’s inductee to the writers’ wing as J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner. At least Hagen’s friends and family members probably won’t have much trouble securing hotel rooms in Cooperstown for induction weekend.

The ballot famously included publicly named users like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, as well as other stars from the period, like Norristown native Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, who put up numbers consistent with Hall of Fame enshrinement. But none reached the 75 percent threshold for induction. In fact, many BBWAA members made a show of handing in blank ballots, as if to punish baseball itself for the actions of the known drug cheats.

We can argue over whether known users  deserve election to the Hall. I tend to believe Bonds and Clemens were so dominant that they deserve inclusion and the others don’t, but that’s just my opinion.

But another deserving group, led by Piazza, Bagwell, and Biggio, were all denied entry into the Hall of Fame, even all though all three more than meet the established statistical thresholds for induction. None of the three has ever failed a drug test, been named in any government or official Major League Baseball investigation, or admitted steroid use. For all three, their crime was that they were large individuals, they hit a lot of home runs, and they played during an era in which many players used steroids.

And that’s what’s so unfair to someone like Jim Thome. He’s never been known or even thought to have used PEDs. But mere suspicion—for players who happened to play at the same time that others were using steroids—has been established as enough proof to keep someone out of the Hall.

Throughout this entire process, the baseball writers have practically outdone each other with an air of smug grandstanding. They’ve appointed themselves not merely electors to the Hall, but policemen, drug enforcement agents, moral guardians of baseball history, and karmic arbiters of the universe. And many of the same writers who, in their capacity as journalists, failed to notice the growth of steroid abuse have then turned around and denounced it as the worst thing that’s ever happened.

Jim Thome is a big man who hit a ton of home runs and played during the same era as all the known steroid guys. By the BBWAA’s deeply silly logic, Thome must be kept out of the Hall of Fame. After all, there’s no more hard evidence that Mike Piazza used performance-enhancing drugs than there is that Jim Thome did.

Thome hasn’t announced his retirement, but hasn’t signed with a team yet for 2013. If his career is over, he’ll be eligible for the Cooperstown ballot in 2018. Hopefully by then, we’ll have either seen a change in how the Hall of Fame is chosen, or an adjustment in attitude that doesn’t involve punishing players with no evidence of wrongdoing.

Because—and nothing against Paul Hagen, who is a fine journalist—it would be nice  for Phillies fans to be able to schedule a Cooperstown trip, to see the enshrinement of someone who’s not a beat writer.

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  • Turk502

    Ummm, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Biggio, a strapping 5’11”, 185 lbs., is hardly a “big man”, and there’s never been any accusation of steroid use. Baseball writers are notoriously stingy (and stupid) when it comes to 1st ballot Hall of fame inductees, and the fact that Biggio, Bagwell and Piazza got 68, 59 and 58 percent of the vote respectively, in their 1st, 3rd, and 1st year of eligibility, respectively, means that if history is any barometer, each of them will get the 75% they need for induction within the next 1-5 years. And Thome’s lack of steroid buzz (unlike Bagwell and Piazza), good guy rep and huge HR numbers make it a virtual certainty that he’s a first ballot HOFer. However, your paragraph that starts, “Throughout this entire process” is spot on. In fact, if the baseball writers had any stones, they wouldn’t induct any WRITERS who covered baseball during the steroid era. I was a teenager in the late-80s, and used to have discussions with my friends debating WHICH steroids Canseco was on, not if he was using them. So if we knew, how could someone who is embedded with the team and supposed to be a journalist not know and report it. Hagen, who covered the steroid-riddled 1993 Phillies, is as complicit in this as the Comissioners Office, the owners, and the players, and shouldn’t be allowed in the Hall either, as long as his brethren who continue to keep out people who actually played the game atthe highest level, and in many cases (like McGwire) never did anything that was against the rules of baseball at the time. Somewhere, spitballer Gaylord Perry and every player who played from 1965-1985, when bowls of amphetamines were out on the catering tables next to the cold cuts, laughs.

    • kmandingo

      Bowls of amphetamines? Wrong. Small vials in the lockers. Greenies didn’t cause massive muscle growth and strength, it added stamina and nervous, caffeine-like energy. There’s a big difference.

      • Turk502

        No, bowls. Read up on it. And an illegal drug that boosts your performance is an illegal drug that boosts your performance.

        • ihatesteroids

          Now I have been listening to the steroid debate for what 10 years now and I have never put my two cents in. At this point baseball is becoming almost unbearable to watch or listen to and now read about. We cant write an article about a future Hall of Famer like Jim Thome’s without mentioning that he played during the steroid era? Perhaps every time we mention Ozzie Smith we should mention that he played in the Amphetamine era. Or, every time we mention any player that played during the mid-1940’s we should mention how if they played during world war two their stats are inflated and if they fought in the war their stats are deflated. Perhaps every time we mention a pitcher that played before 1969 we don’t forget to leave out that they pitched from a rubber half a foot higher. In 1968, there were 11,109 total runs scored. In 1969, the total increased 42% to 15,750.

          It is almost as if everyone believes that nobody cheated before the use of steroids and amphetamines. You don’t think that players before the late 80’s were taking performance enhancing drugs when they have been around for pretty much as long as baseball? You don’t think players were taking speed or any other methamphetamine’s before teams had planes and were taking long bus trips to and from games. Get real.

          I drink coffee every day because it enhances my performance. It doesn’t make me superhuman. And if a drug is not harmful to your body and can help your muscle regenerate faster, why is that illegal at all. With that said anyone who has taken a banned substance should be kicked out of the sport, period. I don’t care if it is Greg Dobbs or Mike Trout.

          In the U.S. there are 1 million people arrested for DUI each year. In Brazil, if your bac is .2 you get a $957 fine and get can your license taken away for a year. It is called a deterrent and it works.

          • Doc1038

            You lost the little credibility you had by talking about DUI stats. You made no sense really in any of it, but considering DUI in most states in the US is .08 compared to .2 in Brazil, not sure what the comparison is. Not to mention, what does Brazil have to do with any of this? What a useless rant. 10 years of pent up anger about this? Try to let loose a little more often, and it may have made just a little bit of sense.

  • kmandingo

    Piazza has been linked to steroids for years you just never heard about it while he was in LA. Thome is known as a big country boy and has never been linked even in hushed tones. He has 600+ homers and is going straight into the Hall.

    • Tonto Epstein

      Define “linked.” It’s a ridiculous word, especially in this context.

      • Doc1038

        LOL, Really?

  • J.Kennedy

    I agree about Craig Biggio–Hardly a big man. Piazza is only the greatest hitting catcher of all time so obviously, he belongs in there. Piazza carries the bisexual label though likely unfounded—not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  • J.Kennedy

    Piazza was big at 17, real big and strong. Look at the pictures. He never looked freakish though Bagwell did and McGuire and Sosa etc. Biggio never seemed perversely big. Also, greenies etc. are like coffee and caffeine NOT steroids. They’re in a whole different group. It’s like saying Willie Mays and I both played baseball so we’re the same. Yikes !!

  • http://www.facebook.com/shawn.p.gregg Shawn Gregg

    Thome will make HOF. Clearly you have NO CLUE about Thome. Writers love and respect the guy. He ain’t going into HOF as a Philly though. He will wear an Indians Jersey

    • Doc1038

      As a Phillies fan, I would LOVE to see Thome go into the hall as a Phillie, but You are probably right, Cleveland would be my guess as well

  • Motoflou

    Stephen Silver, are you really a sports writer? hmm…

    • Doc1038

      Not a chance. LOL. The entire article with no facts.

  • Tonto Epstein

    Stupid posts. Guys like Thome and Mike Sweeney were worshipped by the media for being so likeable. So even though it’s painfully obvious both juiced, nobody ever went out of their way to call them out on it.

    Stupid, stupid, stupid.

    • Jsol

      Obvious? Unless you have clear evidence to prove someone did something they are innocent. That is the problem with fans view of players now. They think players are guilty no matter what. Again got anything to prove your statement?

      • Tonto Epstein

        What do I have to prove my statement? My eyes and my brain, that’s what. He was a 175-pound singles hitter.

        • Doc1038

          Based on your post, there are 2 things you definitely are not using by implicating Thome are your eyes and your brain.

  • Jsol

    God people need to stop acting like no one is getting into the Hall Of fame anymore. People think just because a few big names didn’t make it in on the first ballot that no one will ever make it in again. Hello that is why you are on the ballot 15 years. Look at history. Joe DiMaggio, Cy Young, Rogers Hornsby, Yogi Berra, Carl Hubbell, Lefty Grove, Hank Greenberg, Robin Roberts, Whitey Ford, Eddie Mathews, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Harmon Killebrew, Jimmie Foxx, Ferguson Jenkins, Duke Snider, Mel Ott, Tris Speaker, Juan Marichal, Pie Traynor, Dizzy Dean, Roy Campanella, Bill Dickey and Catfish Hunter all had to wait some elections to get in.

  • Carlos Rolon

    In My opinion bonds and clemens not should be into hall of fame to they used steroids for long time if they make into hall of fame then palmeiro sosa bagwell biggio a Rodriguez they can go too it’s that’s the simple

  • Earl

    The only thing Jim Thome ever abused was a big breakfast of bacon and eggs.
    Best of luck to you Jim Thome in your eventual election to the HOF.