Hall of Fame ballots were distributed to the more than 600 voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America on Wednesday, and they are due back by the end of the year. In the time between will come a moral and intellectual conundrum unlike any other in the long history of the process.
In the interest of full disclosure, I don't have a Hall of Fame vote. But I sympathize with those who do, because much is being asked of them. Too much, perhaps. They are, after all, being asked to determine whether certain known or suspected users of performance-enhancing drugs deserve the game's highest honor, and they are doing so with only the vaguest direction from the Hall's voting guidelines.
The voters, then, must measure the statistical merits of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa -- each of whom has Hall-worthy numbers but has, of course, been associated with highly publicized performance-enhancement attention -- against the ethical dilemma of the so-called "character clause" and all it entails.
At the risk of playing spoiler, I can all but assure you -- based on the cases of Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro and the voting body's typical approach to first-timers on the ballot -- how this will turn out. There is no sense in pretending that Bonds, Clemens or Sosa has an especially realistic shot of entry in 2013, and the same likely goes for Mike Piazza, who seems to fall into the slippery-slope bucket that Jeff Bagwell encountered, one in which benefit of doubt is replaced, no matter how slight or unqualified, by presumption and penalty.
And so forms a clog that no amount of Drano can fix. Because along with those aforementioned players, you've got several others with compelling Hall of Fame cases -- Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling, Kenny Lofton -- on the ballot for the first time. You've got Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina eligible next year. You've got Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz and Gary Sheffield on it the year after that.
At some point, very soon, you'll have a ballot with a couple dozen reasonable contenders for a Hall call, many of whom will be left twisting in the wind because of the continued dissension in the ranks as to how to properly address the PED era.
Well, if you're a voter, there's a way to handle this, and it's quite simple, really.
Follow the rules of the league.
Follow the rules of the Hall.
If a player has the statistical qualifications to gain entry; if those statistics are fully intact within the record books; if the player is not banned by Major League Baseball in any way, shape or form (a la Pete Rose); if the player was not suspended for breaking baseball's rules (and here Palmeiro gets tripped up); and if the player is eligible via the Hall's ballot to receive votes, it is wholly acceptable and downright defensible to cast a vote for that player.
Many voters have voiced their beliefs that it is incumbent upon them to protect the Hall, to cast away those who have sullied the sport by negatively affecting its competitive integrity and moral compass. And I respect that desire to serve a higher purpose. But this just opens the door to a discussion about some of the, shall we say, "colorful" characters long ago inducted. The guys who used spitballs or sharpened spikes or corked bats or stole signs to gain an edge. The gamblers, the racists, the amphetamine users (and more on this in a minute), the alleged or convicted criminals.
It's not a perfect ensemble, because it is a human ensemble. And taken together it comprises all of the game's assorted eras, from the 19th century on, and those who excelled (on the field, mind you) within those eras.
That's all a Hall of Fame can reasonably accomplish. The rest is up to us, as Hall president Jeff Idelson explains on the museum's website.
"In all cases, as an educational institution and history museum, our job is to supply the facts and put stories into context," writes Idelson, "letting visitors and students make their own value judgments about how they feel about all topics related to baseball."
Indeed, the Baseball Hall of Fame isn't the Hall of Moral Uprightness, nor can it attempt to be. The Hall seeks to reflect history, not cast aspersions on it.
How do we feel about Bonds and Clemens? Well, many of us feel as though they were inordinately gifted athletes who knowingly broke the laws of the land (not the sport) in order to improve or sustain their performance. For many of us, this feeling forever has an impact on our perspective on what these great players accomplished.
But we also know, through testimonies and admissions and investigative reporting, that the use of performance-enhancing drugs was prevalent during the era in which Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, McGwire, et al., were in their primes. And what we don't know -- what we'll never know -- is the full scope of the involvement.
Short of every player who ever used PEDs confessing what they used and when they used it, we will never get to the bottom of this issue. So we're left with a lot of gray area in which the temptation exists to go off the not-at-all-infallible "eyeball test." We're left crucifying those who have been caught or fingered, all the while not knowing if those we celebrate weren't also accountable.
As my MLB.com colleague Paul Hagen, who has a Hall vote, articulated in a story we ran earlier this year, "To vote for candidates just because their names didn't turn up in the Mitchell Report assumes an omniscience that simply doesn't exist."
At some point -- perhaps in this voting cycle -- a player from that era who cheated without our knowledge will be elected into the Hall of Fame.
It's going to happen.
And when it happens, that player will essentially be rewarded for successfully covering his tracks, unlike many others whose names showed up within the 409 pages of George Mitchell's well-intentioned, though ultimately incomplete, report five years ago.
And once a player is in, the BBWAA has no power to revoke his admission. So what happens if -- or when -- an established Hall of Famer is revealed to have compromised the integrity of the game by using a PED during his career?
Well, we already know the answer to that question, because this scenario has already occurred many, many times. In the time since such luminaries as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt and Mickey Mantle, among others, were inducted, we've learned of some players' alleged amphetamine use -- be it experimental or protracted. It doesn't necessarily cloud our perceptions of those players, because we usually shrug it off as part of the game's culture at the time.
But like it did with steroids, baseball didn't specifically ban and test for amphetamines until the mid-2000s. Like steroids, amphetamines were illegal in the U.S. without a prescription. Like steroids, amphetamines benefit a player's ability to sustain his performance throughout the grind of a long season. And like steroids, amphetamines have negative side effects and can be harmfully addictive.
This argument has been made many times, but it's one worth repeating -- not to tarnish any perceived "golden days" or reputations, but to help us understand historical context:
In literally every era of the game's long history, players have bent or outright broken the rules in some manner. The only distinction is which specific methods or medicines were available to them.
Look, I hate the steroid era. I hate what it did to the record books. I hate what it retroactively does to our memory banks. But it happened, and there is no pretending that it did not. And because it is practically impossible to sort all the users from all the non-users, and since it is intellectually dishonest to pretend we have all the facts, the voting members of the BBWAA need to approach this ballot and future ballots in the only rational way available to them.
Follow the rules of the league.
Follow the rules of the Hall.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.