Voting for the National Baseball Hall of Fame has always been a privilege. But it has also been pristine in a way, a consideration of lofty career statistics and substantial individual accomplishments.
It was an election without the negative ads. It was a choice between better and best. It was an honor to participate, and a responsibility happily carried from year to year.
It may still be all of that. But for the balloting for the Hall's class of 2013, it will come with a heavy helping of controversy. There are not simply baseball decisions to be made. There are moral decisions to be weighed. These are no longer the good old days.
This ballot will contain the first substantial wave of players from the so-called steroids era. These are some of the biggest names the game has produced, accompanied by some of the most tainted reputations. I don't need to list the names and the cases. Your familiarity with them may already feel a little too prevalent.
There are no specific guidelines available to the eligible voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America on the topic of performance-enhancing drugs. It is every man/woman for himself/herself when it comes to voting yea or nay on the issue.
There are these general guidelines: "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. "
That part about "integrity, sportsmanship, character," doesn't say steroids to me. But there will be more than 500 people voting in this election. Their views cover the entire spectrum of possibilities.
Some have said that they will vote for anyone who they believe is deserving of election because the use of PEDs appears to have been widespread and there is no way of knowing exactly who was clean and who was not. Other voters, looking at exactly the same set of assumptions, have said that they will not vote for any players from the steroid era, regardless of their accomplishments.
Another subset of arguments has emerged around some of these candidates. That is that they were deserving of the Hall of Fame before they allegedly started using PEDS, and therefore they should be elected, anyway. The two most familiar names in this context are the two biggest names on the ballot, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
Nobody disputes the greatness of Bonds and/or Clemens. So that argument has one reasonable assumption behind it. But it conveniently short-circuits the need for a moral judgment regarding the use of PEDs.
Thankfully, there will be some candidacies that we can view from the healthy standpoint of merit alone. Last year, three candidates received more than 50 percent of the vote but less than the necessary 75 percent, thus putting them in the category of legitimate hopefuls.
Those were Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell and Lee Smith. In the case of Bagwell, performance-enhancement rumors cannot be considered facts. The same goes for Mike Piazza, a newcomer to the ballot.
Craig Biggio is in his first year on the ballot and appears to be a completely viable and meritorious candidate. Another first-year candidate, Curt Schilling, is, at the very least, worthy of serious debate and consideration. But then he always was worthy of serious debate and consideration, plus or minus.
Deserving candidates who are untainted by PED suspicion or usage may be lost in the pre-election discussion. But if they receive the necessary number of votes, justice will be served.
With Bonds, Clemens and Sammy Sosa all arriving simultaneously on the ballot, the PED arguments will be front and center. As a Hall of Fame voter, I am equal parts angered and saddened by this development.
Baseball's Hall of Fame is the most exclusive of all in North American professional sports. And this is precisely as it should be.
This is a magnificent institution, in the mind's eye, or in person, in Cooperstown, N.Y. In both symbolism and reality, it is the epitome of individual achievement in the grand old game. Now the shadow of PED controversy is passing over it. That doesn't diminish the worth of the Hall of Fame. But it muddies the selection process in a significant way.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com.