When the Red Sox traded Manny Ramirez in 2008, they were giving up a surefire Hall of Famer. With 500 homers already to his name, it didn't matter what he did over the last few years of his career--there would be a space reserved in Cooperstown.
Here we are eight years later, with Manny on the ballot for the first time this year, and I can say with some certainty that he will not be selected. It's not just a question of it being his first time on the ballot, either. Manny might well never make his way into Cooperstown. One failed steroid test is enough to condemn a player in the eyes of many voters. Two in such short succession, though, paints an ugly picture indeed. Manny Ramirez was not a player who simply made a mistake. He was a player who clearly showed his disinterest with playing fair if it meant he could get ahead.
We'll likely never know just how far back this all ran with Ramirez. His MLB career spanned 19 years. Was he always in some part a product of PEDs, or was he just another aging player who felt he needed something extra to keep up with the game's new blood? The best hint we have are unconfirmed rumors that Manny was on the list of players who tested positive during MLB's initial sweep back in 2003.
For some, that question--1993, 2003, or 2009--might make a big difference. Likely for most, it will not. There are those who would try to separate a player's contributions into legitimate and illegitimate categories and, if they see the former as worthy of the Hall of Fame, might give that player their vote. Usually, though, the steroid question is pretty black and white. Some voters will let it slide for any number of reasons, others will say a failed test is disqualifying, and that's that.
(Others say even the whiff of steroids is enough to keep a player off their ballot. I'll leave them to The Platoon Advantage of old.)
And so Ramirez has become the latest in a line of test cases on this question. The thing is, that's a role he won't really fill for many years to come, if he even gets his opportunity.
While Ramirez might be the biggest test case debuting on the ballot in 2016, he's just getting in line behind the likes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Their low vote totals suggest there's a long way to go before voters will allow the steroid kings into the Hall of Fame, but if there is a softening, we'll see it with their election first as voters give in with the pair coming closer and closer to falling off the ballot.
But even if those two do manage to make their way to Cooperstown, that's no guarantee for Ramirez. While it's true that Clemens and Bonds making the hall would guarantee there's enough voters willing to consider steroid users to carry a candidate, and Ramirez' accomplishments should clearly be enough for all of those voters to consider him worthy of the hall if they're willing to overlook his PED use, the reality is that his transgressions are not the same as those of Bonds and Clemens. Ramirez was not simply a product of the steroid era, going along with what everyone else was doing. While his late violations as least allow the possibility that much of his career was legitimate, they also remove any chance to write off his transgressions as part of a shameful period in league history that could maybe be blamed on the game as a whole rather than just the individuals. It's like breaking the speed limit. Sure, you're not technically supposed to go 65 in a 55, but there's more people on I-95 breaking the limit than obeying it. Take that 65 and put it on the streets of Arlington, on the other hand, and suddenly we have a very real problem.
In that sense, Ramirez may well find himself one of the first canaries for a new generation of steroid users. 15 years from now, if Dee Gordon manages to recapture the success of 2014 and 2015, find himself a perennial All-Star, and get into elite base-stealing territory, perhaps he'll look at Manny's Hall of Fame voting as a reason for hope or despair. It's not exactly the example Ramirez was hoping to be. It's not what we expected his Hall of Fame candidacy would become when he left for Los Angeles in 2008. But it's very much the bed he made for himself. Now we'll see how long he has to lie in it.