In three years, I will get a vote for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The prospect is exciting. It's also frightening.
I'd like to say I know how I'm going to vote, that I have a well-formed, airtight opinion on the candidacy of Rafael Palmeiro and Jeff Bagwell and every other player cocooned by performance-enhancing drug questions. I've spent days arguing with myself and others to help shape the proper way to handle the quandary.
Out of all that self-examination, I emerged with four schools of thought my colleagues in the Baseball Writers Association of America will fall into as they shape Hall of Fame elections for the next few decades. The four schools might provide insight into the thought processes of the voters – who is affected, what sort of logic affects them and whether it's the proper tact to take.
To which school do I belong? I still don't know. I think steroid use is wrong. Perhaps I'm naïve, but I believe in the spirit of the game. And much like the Supreme Court's definition of obscenity, I think morality in baseball is a know-it-when-you-see-it proposition. Steroids certainly tripped the sport's moral Geiger counter. Players cloaked their use in secrecy. Baseball may have implicitly allowed steroids by not testing for them until 2003, but players knew using was unseemly.
And yet the prospect of trying to parse this ever-complicated subject with limited amounts of knowledge troubles me. I like to base my opinions in fact, and unless somebody hits all 30 ballparks' water supply with truth serum, the majority of steroid secrets will go to the grave.
[Related: Disgraced player says he never used steroids]
I've got three years to figure out down which avenue I'll travel. In the meantime, as Palmeiro and Bagwell and others wait to hear the results of this year's election Jan. 5, use this as a primer for the arguments you'll hear this year and every one going forward.
School No. 1: Vote for everyone
Position: Multi-pronged. Includes those who …
a. Do not care about steroids.
b. Do not believe steroids had a tangible effect on players.
c. Do not penalize users because baseball did not test for steroids nor stringently enforce its policy banning them.
d. Feel unable to effectively put into context a confusing time in baseball history and thus base their vote on numbers.
The affected: Anyone who believes steroid use was wrong
Issues: Point by point …
a. Can't begrudge anyone for an opinion, though Hall of Fame voters whose responsibility is to one of the game's great institutions should, at very least, not ignore steroids' importance in modern baseball.
b. Spare me. Now, the difference between PEDs and supplements or analgesics is arguable and impossible to quantify. Still, if you can work out longer and recover faster, that is an advantage. Ignoring that truth about them – one espoused by users and doctors alike – because you don't agree with the demonizing of their use is intellectually dishonest.
c. Commissioner Fay Vincent banned steroids in 1991. Bud Selig reaffirmed that edict six years later. Just because baseball's leaders turned a blind eye to steroid use does not make the act itself OK. Governments allow – even encourage – employees to break rules all the time. Those who choose to do so are still making an active decision knowing what they're doing is against the law, be it of sport or nation.
d. A level-headed point of view that can be argued effectively. Allowing steroid users in victimizes the players who stayed clean and didn't perform as well. Not voting for users and others increases the likelihood that someone presumed guilty will be unfairly left out despite superior accomplishment.
Either way, somebody is screwed. And it's much easier to argue that to the Baseball Hall of Fame, accomplishment should be rewarded more than morality. Sure, it's laudable that those second-tier players decided not to use steroids. More important, though, is that the ones who played best are ensured enshrinement. Morality is a moving target. It shifts within careers and generations. People today are immoral by 1950s standards. Accomplishment is timeless, and a Hall of Fame without two decades' worth of the sport's best players – steroids or not – would seem naked.
School No. 2: Vote for everyone but the definitively guilty
Position: Those who have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs or been revealed to have used them are out, everyone else is kosher.
Issues: Convict those you can convict. Simple as that.
As much as there are different strata within this category – Bonds' habitual, post-testing, still-denying PED use weighs more heavily on the game, as well as voters' consciousness, than Pettitte's supposed light use and strong apology – a user is a user is a user, and if nothing else, the public should expect voters to stay consistent in their judgments.
[Related: Celebratory TD salute proves costly]
And this one says act on proof. In society, not every crime gets resolution. Is it fair to penalize these players simply because they were stupid in their PED cycling and tested positive or because they had a dumb drug dealer who got them caught? Perhaps that's best answered with another question: Is it right to punish no crimes because they all can't be punished?
The moment a player sticks a needle in his butt or ingests something meant for horses, he forfeits the fairness argument. In society, not every crime gets punished, but that doesn't keep us from holding responsible those we do catch. If the collateral damage so happens to strike those who used drugs – something within their control – isn't that better than opening the Pandora's Box that follows absolving such actions?
By allowing everyone in, you tacitly endorse adverse behavior. If you ignore steroid use, do you tolerate players corking their bats? And if steroids, which affected the game on and off the field, are acceptable, why isn't gambling, which has far-reaching implications, too? If you ignore one thing, you must ignore them all, and any morality left in the game disappears.
School No. 3: Vote based on gut
Position: We're not sure who did it, so we'll go on a case-by-case basis and employ circumstantial evidence, scuttlebutt and other things we believe to be true but can't confirm strongly or on the record.
Issues: Here is where it gets problematic, particularly because so much of the voting bloc employs this standard. Bagwell and Rodriguez are examples of midcareer musclemen who, as they aged, lost weight in something of a shocking manner. Steroid rumors dogged Piazza much of his career. They are among the three most intriguing candidates of the next 20 years, and Bagwell's vote percentage this year could be a barometer for the other two.
[Related: Hoops player, 48, still playing pro ball]
The reality is that we don't know if they used. We probably never will know. In fact, the majority of the steroid story likely has been told. The usual suspects have been grilled and, Mark McGwire excepted, not changed their story. The ones who slinked by without suspicion are unlikely to offer their deeds unprompted. We won't ever find out for certain everyone who did and didn't, and if the BBWAA unfairly jails someone, there is no DNA evidence to exonerate.
It's easy – too easy, really – to peg a possible PED case on a number of players who are surefire Hall of Famers otherwise. Alphabetically:
Roberto Alomar: The spit? Roid rage.
Craig Biggio: Played into his 40s – and with Ken Caminiti and other users.
Tom Glavine(notes): Pitched until he was 42.
Vladimir Guerrero(notes): From Dominican Republic, where they're easily available.
Randy Johnson(notes): Pitched until he was 45.
Pedro Martinez(notes): Latin American and injury prone.
Albert Pujols(notes): Hugely muscled athlete.
Mariano Rivera(notes): Dominant into his 40s.
John Smoltz(notes): Recovered from major injuries to dominate again.
Ichiro Suzuki(notes): Aging too well.
Frank Thomas(notes): Unnaturally large.
Jim Thome(notes): Massive muscle growth after his rookie season.
These reasons are nothing more than empty assumptions and hollow deductions – just like much of the chatter around Bagwell, Piazza and Pudge. Until you can prove demonstrably, it's negligent to ascertain something based on what you see or feel or hear.
The Hall of Fame is not the place for educated guesses. It deserves better.
School No. 4: Vote for no one
Position: Since we don't know who really did what, it's unfair to vote for anybody.
Issues: It actually affects all players, though Maddux, Griffey and Jeter, because of their body types, aging patterns and perceived moral standing, are widely considered the three least likely first-ballot players in this generation to have used. For those who choose to see steroids as a black-and-white issue, this is utter darkness – the symbolic erasure of an era through conscientious objection.
It penalizes those who did abstain from using steroids, though the argument can be made those players could have done more to speak up and advocate against PEDs – especially the Madduxes and Griffeys and Jeters, whose gravitas might have helped curb what turned endemic. The responsibility of the game can be in the players' hands as much as management, if the players wish to grab that power.
They don't, and that as much as anything defines the Steroid Era: a bunch of selfish decisions that will continue to wash over the sport like acid rain into the next decade. Players are still using, and more big names will get caught or exposed, and the same charade will be played out until the social mores change and PED use in baseball becomes accepted fact.
Perhaps three years will help me figure out my qualms, though I doubt it. The issue will get no clearer, the problems with each path no tidier. I fear the best option is not doing the right thing. It's doing what's least wrong.