Rich "Goose" Gossage, the newest member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, likes to talk about how he witnessed a great evolution in baseball, and he did.
Just not the one he thinks.
Yes, the management of bullpens changed the game, and Gossage played every role, from nine-out closer to one-inning middle reliever. At the same time, performance-enhancing drugs were infiltrating baseball the same way they're doing so with the Hall of Fame: the trickle before the onrush.
So for all the stories Gossage told Tuesday after his election was announced – how he spent the morning shoveling six inches of snow off his driveway and how the first post-phone call words he managed were "Oh my God" – he couldn't celebrate without a barrage of steroid questions lobbed his way. Which, it seems, is de rigueur and will be for future candidates, because the flood is coming.
First Roger Clemens dropped his bomb toward the end of his news conference Monday, the reference to a rat's derriere vis-à-vis Cooperstown. It was about as genuine as, oh, pretty much all the other garbage Clemens is spewing these days. His entire deny-attack-deny-attack exercise is about validation, and what greater back-pat for a baseball player than induction into the Hall?
Then, of course, there is the Gossage connection, which jumps out with a look at the men with whom he shared a uniform toward the twilight of his career. In 1987, with the San Diego Padres, Benito Santiago. A year later, with the Chicago Cubs, Rafael Palmeiro. Then Matt Williams. And Randy Velarde. And Kevin Brown. And Jose Canseco. And Mark McGwire. Year after year, he played with at least one person later accused of steroid use.
McGwire received 128 votes this year, the exact number he did last year in his first time on the ballot, and 23.6 percent leaves him not even a third of the way to induction. And unlike Gossage, who over nine years worked his way from 33 percent to the 86 percent he received this year, McGwire's number won't move demonstrably.
His case is not about numbers and their link to deservedness; if it were, McGwire would have stood alongside Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn at last year's induction. It's about baseball writers trying to right a wrong, or at least what a large majority must perceive a wrong. Voters have taken it upon themselves to judge, and from hereon, Hall of Fame elections will be as much about character as production.
"Mark McGwire was a great guy, a great teammate of mine, and what a thrill it was to play with him," Gossage said. "But this steroid thing is hanging over baseball right now. Hopefully we can put it behind us and clear the gray area."
Fat chance. The efforts to rid performance-enhancing-drug use from baseball is as futile as the War on Drugs. Even if all baseball players were to stay clean, the damage done by years of steroid abuse will continue to manifest itself in record books and institutions such as the Hall of Fame.
"Something definitely has to be done," Gossage said. "There's too much great history, too many great players who played the game the way it was supposed to be, with a level playing field and not having performance-enhancing drugs. It's just a shame. These guys are great players. What's happening to Bonds and Clemens – who knows what's going to happen?"
Gossage did not deflect steroid questions. He called Bonds and Clemens "on the same level," which is curious yet damning. Even though there's a mountain of evidence against Bonds compared to the molehill against Clemens, Gossage – a ballplayer, a peer and, most important in this case, a fan – regards them similarly.
Whether voters will do the same is the biggest question when it comes to Cooperstown. McGwire is done. In all likelihood, Palmeiro will be the first member of the 3,000-hit club denied entry because of steroids.
Bonds and Clemens, though?
Voters can and will take many tacks. Do they look at the pre-steroid numbers, in which both can make a good case for being Hall of Famers had they retired then? Do they recognize the alleged use as part of a sport-wide epidemic and not think twice about voting them in? Do they vote no on principle? Do they abstain completely?
Determining a Hall of Famer was tough enough. Exactly 300 more voters cast a ballot for Gossage this year than nine years ago, even though nothing in his career changed.
So perhaps, too, the judgments will change on those who used performance-enhancing drugs. Voters could soften their stances, loosen their criteria, bend their rules, bow to pressures. Time tends to warp voters' minds.
And time they'll have. The flood is coming – and it's not going away any time soon.