COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The ceremony ended. The fans who had come to celebrate another Hall of Fame induction weekend began walking away from the Clark Sports Center. Barry Larkin and Ron Santo had officially been enshrined, joining the very best players in baseball history. And, with that, the focus turned to which former greats might be standing at the dais under the big silver tent a year from now. That's normal.
What's far from normal is the attention this ballot will receive. Among those eligible for the first time will be Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling and Mike Piazza.
In the cases of Bonds, Clemens and Sosa, each has the numbers to be a no-brainer first-ballot winner. Each has also been tainted by rumors of performance-enhancing substances, although they never publicly tested positive. It's been a storm gathering on the horizon for years, a countdown of the five-year waiting period that began the moment they retired.
The day of reckoning will come next January when the results of the voting by 10-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America are announced.
Adding to the intrigue is the sense that several current Hall of Famers strongly oppose the inclusion of any players tarred by the so-called Steroid Era. George Brett, Goose Gossage and Reggie Jackson are among those who have expressed strong opinions on the subject. Forty-four of the 65 living Hall of Famers returned to Cooperstown on Sunday; there have been suggestions that many might boycott next year if any of the suspected PED-users are elected.
"I wasn't a home run hitter," Brett told the Arizona Republic during Spring Training. "But I know from talking to guys in the 500-home run club, guys like [Mike Schmidt] and some other guys like that, if those guys make it in, then they'll never go back. ... Those guys will never go back and attend [the Hall of Fame inductions] if the cheaters get in."
Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson is prepared for every possibility.
"There's a lot of great talent coming up on the ballot next year, as there is every year. In terms of the rules for election, we feel the rules are very clear," he said. "In terms of the process, we're very pleased with the process. And, historically, in terms of the baseball writers, as a group they've shown great diligence in electing people who belong in the Hall of Fame. Because when you walk through the gallery of plaques, you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who's in there who doesn't belong."
Idelson is staying studiously neutral on the steroid issue.
"Our position is that the rules are very solid, that whomever the writers choose to elect we're looking forward to honoring," he said.
The rule most at issue is the guideline that voters should consider "integrity, sportsmanship [and] character" when casting their ballots.
And that's where it gets tricky. Some BBWAA members have publicly stated that they will never vote for players suspected of using PEDs because they were cheaters. Others point out that Gaylord Perry, for example, was on the stage Sunday even though he has admitted throwing illegal spitballs.
The threshold for election to baseball's Hall of Fame is high. A candidate must be named on 75 percent of the ballots cast. So it wouldn't take many hardliners to block admittance. And, to this point, there has been little support for players about whom there's been the slightest suspicion. Mark McGwire, in his sixth year, got 19.5 percent. Rafael Palmeiro received support from just 12.6 percent of the electorate in his third year of eligibility.
That raises the possibility that no players could be inducted, possibly for several years in a row. Idelson said he's not worried about that. Nor is he bothered by the possibility that Bonds, the all-time home run leader, might not get in despite clearly being one of the best players ever. Or that Clemens, with 354 wins, could be left on the outside looking in. Or that Sosa could be marked absent even though he hit 609 homers.
"There is no concern. We feel very, very comfortable, as I say, with the rules. We feel very comfortable with the process. And at the end of the day, history is what it is," he explained.
"In Cooperstown, we're three entities under one roof. We're a history museum that takes the visitor from the beginning of baseball history up until today. And you find artifacts, stories and exhibits that tell the history of the game. We're an education center, and we go into classrooms around the country, to all 50 states every year. And we're a Hall of Fame. And, at the end of the day, however history plays out, we're prepared to honor that."
The next induction is set for July 28, 2012. One way or another, it will be a very interesting day.