The Hall of Fame's darkest era

Figuring out who among suspected and admitted drug cheats should be honored in baseball's museum is "just a mess."

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FILE - In this Aug. 24, 2007 file photo, San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds hits his 761st career home run.

Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

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Debates about Hall of Fame worthiness should focus on statistics, not on drug tests. Yet, on Wednesday, results of the biggest referendum to date on the Steroid Era will be revealed.

That's the day the Hall of Fame will announce which players, if any, have been elected for enshrinement. This year's ballot, which had to be submitted by Dec. 31, includes first-time eligibles Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa, all no-brainers for Cooperstown if the decision were based solely on their statistics.

But there's this little, stuffed, brown envelope the Hall of Fame mails to voters that includes a cover letter, ballot, stat pack and rules. The page of rules includes the following: "Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."

And therein lies the rub for the approximate 600 voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, who can vote for up to 10 players on their ballot. A player must be named on at least 75 percent of the ballots received.

St. Paul native Jack Morris is among the former players with a chance of being elected, but no one knows how the addition of players from the Steroid Era will affect his candidacy.

The Hall of Fame's guidelines on voting haven't changed since 1946, and Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall of Fame, has reminded everyone that it is a museum and not a courthouse.

"As a museum, we look at every subject through the prism of history," Idelson said. "Our job is not to create history; it is to document and present it."

But some voting members wish the Hall of Fame would provide some direction.

"The voting system isn't damaged or dysfunctional; it's broken, and will be until the Hall of Fame's board of directors opts to replace the outdated instructions on voting," said Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune. "Steroids were an attack on the integrity of the sport, and the players who took them knew they were doing wrong or they would have taken them openly, and no one did.

"I don't see how I can vote for a known steroid user, given the integrity clause in the instructions. Any player directly linked to steroids won't get my vote. So until the Hall updates the voting guidelines, if I vote for a cheat, it will be for a good cheat, not a known cheat."

The problem

Voters have to wrestle with incredible statistics, plus a mix of fact and innuendos when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs:

• Bonds hit 762 career home runs and won seven National League MVP Awards. During his 2003 appearance before a grand jury, he claimed he unknowingly took steroids and ended up being convicted of obstruction of justice during his appearance. But the book "Game of Shadows," written by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters, painted a picture of Bonds as a willing PED user.

• Clemens won 354 games and seven AL Cy Young Awards. But he was linked to PEDs in the 2007 Mitchell Report, and a former trainer claimed that he injected the fireballer with PEDs. Clemens attacked the accusations during a Senate hearing and later was tried on six counts of perjury, of which he was acquitted.

• Sosa hit 609 career home runs and at least 63 in three separate seasons. But he was one of 104 players who tested positive for PEDs in 2003, a test that was supposed to have been done anonymously but was leaked to the media.

Others, such as Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, are not known to have failed a test (Bagwell admitted to taking androstenedione before it was outlawed by the league) but could be victims of suspicion.

"I think there are some cases that will be a little easier to determine than others because we have more proof of steroid use, which would make it easy for me to say that the guy shouldn't enter the Hall of Fame," Hall of Famer Paul Molitor said. "But the ones that are difficult are just more speculative or people who have been charged and exonerated -- although the suspicion remains very large."

When you have a voting body of 600 members, it's no surprise that there is a wide range of views.

"The one thing I won't do is guess which players used PEDs and which players didn't and base a Hall of Fame vote on that conjecture," said Paul Hagen of MLB.com, who is being inducted into the writers' wing of the Hall. "Given that nobody knows with absolute certainty, I believe a voter has only two options. Vote for nobody who played in the so-called Steroid Era. Or vote as we always have for the dominant players of their generation."

Other voters believe they must act on the information they have.

"Just because the commissioner, the owners and, especially, the players union abdicated their responsibility to the game for so long, to me, only increases the obligation for somebody, somewhere to stand up for what's right,'' said Scott Miller of CBSSports.com. "If I can do that even from my small corner of the voting world, then I am grateful to have that chance.''

Mark Faller of the Arizona Republic wrote that he sent a blank ballot, which is a no vote for every candidate. John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer and T.J. Quinn of ESPN.com have indicated in columns that they are abstaining from voting -- meaning their votes are not considered.

Molitor called that approach "a bit of a cop out,'' because it penalizes players such as Morris, whom he believes deserves to get in.

Past offers insight

It will be a surprise if Bonds, Clemens or Sosa is elected in his first year of eligibility.

Mark McGwire, who hit 538 homers -- 70 in 1998 -- has been on the ballot since 2007. He has yet to draw more than 23.7 percent of the vote, with last year's total slipping to 19.8 percent. He admitted in 2010 to using steroids during his career.

Rafael Palmeiro, who smashed 569 home runs in his career, wagged his finger during a Congressional hearing in 2005, firmly denying any use of steroids. But later that year he tested positive for stanozolol and was banned 10 games. He has been on the ballot twice, getting 11.0 and 12.6 percent of the vote.

"I think we have seen a pattern over several years that writers have held back on people who have been connected to it," Molitor said. "I imagine that trend is going to continue."

There is growing speculation that no one will be elected this year. Morris' candidacy appeared to look strong after receiving 66.7 percent of the vote last year, but every voter who sends in a blank ballot or refuses to mail one at all potentially damages Morris' case.

The only certainty is that voters lack a clear consensus of how to treat players from one of baseball's darkest eras.

"Obviously, it is going to be a challenge," said former major leaguer Harold Reynolds, currently an analyst for the MLB Network. "I'm of the belief that you can't throw everyone in the collective pot. We don't know exactly what everyone was doing.

"Derek Jeter. He is going to get lumped into this steroid group. Piazza's name has been thrown in there. I don't really have an answer about how [writers] are going to go about it. It's just a mess."

Editor's note: Star Tribune staff writer La Velle E. Neal III is vice president of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

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