The Baseball Writers Association of America formally blocked Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens on their first ballot of eligibility for entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame Wednesday.
But Congress arrested this triumvirate's ascent into the national pastime's most-hallowed shrine nearly eight years ago.
And along the way, lawmakers curbed the trajectory of Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, too.
If you're Bonds, you amassed a record 762 home runs and seven MVP awards. If you're Sammy Sosa, you cracked 609 homers twice topping 60 dingers in a season - without even leading the league. Clemens collected seven Cy Young Awards, seven Earned Run Average titles and struck out a staggering 4,672 batters. McGwire pulverized Roger Maris's single-season home run mark with 70 bombs in 1998. Palmeiro quietly collected 3,020 career hits, ripping at least 38 home runs in each season between 1995 and 2003.
Yet none of them have a plaque in the Hall of Fame. And much of their repudiation, deserved or not, can be laid at the doorstep of the United States Capitol.
It all started with a House Oversight Committee hearing on March 17, 2005. That's when lawmakers summoned Sosa, McGwire and Palmeiro to discuss performance enhancing drugs (PED's) in the sport. Remarkably, the panel didn't require the attendance of Bonds who, at the time, faced a federal probe involving the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO). In fact, Bonds' absence at the hearing cast a shadow longer than some of the "splash hits" he swatted into McCovey Cove at San Francisco's AT&T Park.
McGwire sat at the witness table, a splinter of his once Adonis-esque physique. He worked the lawmakers deep into the count, repeatedly fouling off their hardball questions by invoking the Fifth Amendment.
"I'm not here to talk about the past," McGwire said over and over. "I'm here to talk about the positive."
Sosa sidestepped lawmakers' queries by responding in Spanish.
Palmeiro lectured the panel, shaking his index finger at committee members.
"I have never used steroids. Period," flayed Palmeiro.
By late summer, Palmeiro became the highest-profile big leaguer ever suspended for the use of performance enhancing drugs.
Such dubious Congressional testimony provoked Major League Baseball to enlist the services of former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME) to probe the use of PED's in the game. The "Mitchell Report" later accused 89 current or former ballplayers of using banned substances.
Roger Clemens was the most-prominent player listed in the Mitchell Report. Clemens participated in a closed door deposition with lawmakers and staff. But Clemens requested then-Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) convene an open hearing to clear his name in early 2008.
At the hearing, Clemens contended he never used PED's. But that did little to impress Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD).
"It's hard to believe you sir," said an incredulous Cummings to Clemens.
Clemens's strategy was worse than hanging an 0-2 curveball over the heart of the plate with the bases loaded. Waxman and then-Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) then crafted a perjury referral of Clemens to the Justice Department. Federal prosecutors later indicted Clemens and took him to trial last year. A jury finally exonerated Clemens over the summer.
But the damage is done.
Induction into Cooperstown requires that a player secure votes on 75 percent of the ballots.
McGwire and Palmeiro have appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot before. This is the first go around for Bonds, Sosa and Clemens.
McGwire has now admitted he used PED's, despite his elusiveness at the 2005 hearing. This was McGwire's seventh year of Hall of Fame eligibility. Yet he garnered just 16.9 percent of the vote, a paltry figure for a slugger who captivated the nation in his pursuit of Maris's record just 15 years ago. McGwire's voting percentage has dwindled during each year of eligibility.
This was Palmeiro's third year of eligibility for the Hall. Only three other players - Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray - are members of the 500 home run and 3,000 hit club. That trio joined the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Palmeiro isn't even close, walking away this time with just 8.8 percent of the vote.
Then there are Bonds, Sosa and Clemens. Yet the likes of Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and Craig Biggio outpolled them, but still fell short of reaching the Hall. Bagwell, Piazza and Biggio are all superstars. But they're hardly a troika with careers on par with Bonds, Sosa and Clemens.
Michael Weiner, the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, characterizes this year's plebiscite as "unfortunate if not sad." Weiner specifically defended Bonds and Clemens, saying "to penalize players exonerated in legal proceedings - and others never even implicated - is simply unfair. The Hall of Fame is supposed to be for the best players to have ever played the game."
Clemens was cleared of his lying to Congress charge. Congress passed on accusing Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro of lying. Lawmakers never touched McGwire as he painted the black with his elusory 2005 testimony. A court convicted Bonds two years ago of obstructing justice in the BALCO case.
Weiner makes an interesting point. The Hall of Fame membership now lacks perhaps the most-storied pitcher in the game in Clemens. In Bonds, it's excluded the holder of both the all-time and single season home run records. And baseball immortals such as Sosa, McGwire and Palmeiro aren't even close.
Wait until Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees retires....
But despite Weiner's protestations, this is familiar turf for the Hall of Fame. Cooperstown also has a vacancy for the all-time hit leader in Pete Rose - a luminary who holds 30 individual Major League records. Banned for life from baseball, Rose has never appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot. Unlike Mssrs. Clemens, Bonds, Sosa, McGwire and Palmeiro, no one ever accused Rose of taking anything - except an extra base when trying to stretch a double into a triple. But Rose remains ineligible for Cooperstown because he bet on the game while managing the Cincinnati Reds.
Congress never meddled with Pete Rose. But lawmakers infused themselves into the circumstances of the others - which, for right or wrong - helped tarnish their chances for Hall of Fame induction.
Is that fair to Clemens? After all, Congress requested the feds prosecute him. A jury exonerated the Rocket.
Still, Congress served as the prime mover toward erecting a blockade to the Hall of Fame for the rest. Sure, the Baseball Writers Association of America harbors reservations about this crowd regardless of Congressional intervention. They'll raise concerns about Rose if the game ever grants him eligibility. But for the others, Congressional inquiries initiated a de facto barrier for enshrinement in Cooperstown.
The game of baseball is full of sending "messages." An example of this is when a pitcher fires a brushback pitch to back a batter off the plate.
Congress delivered a purpose pitch with its 2005 hearings. The players appear to have gotten the message.
And this year, so did the Baseball Writers Association of America.