Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are on my Hall of Fame ballot for first time

The nearest post office to my home is less than two blocks away. I made the brief walk on the evening of Dec. 21, the last day the Hall of Fame ballots could be postmarked. Three times I stopped to ask myself, "You sure?"

My ballot was in the self-addressed stamped envelope. All I had to do was deposit it in the mailbox. But all of my old arguments against voting for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and other alleged users of performance-enhancing drugs were running through my head.

They cheated their peers.

Election to the Hall is a privilege, not a right.

The question is one of authenticity.

Proof is not necessary; this is not a court of law.

I remember writing in Dec. 2012, the first year Bonds and Clemens were eligible, "The thought of a user giving his acceptance speech at Cooperstown makes me cringe. Yet I also remember saying in the first sentence of that Hall of Fame column, "I’m wavering."

HOT STOVE LEAGUE

I never dismissed the arguments on the other side. And I’m not necessarily embracing them now that I’m reversing course. I’m simply fulfilling my vow to stay open-minded and make the best decision possible each year.

I voted for Bonds and Clemens. I might vote for other alleged and confirmed users in the future. Honestly, I’m no more content with my current ballot than I was with my previous ones. But at the same time, I no longer could justify snubbing two of the greatest players of this era.

A PED user is going to be in the Hall soon, if one isn’t already. Mike Piazza, the leading vote-getter among those who failed to reach the 75 percent minimum last year, likely would have been elected by now if certain writers did not suspect that he was a user. It would be a surprise if he fell short again — he missed by just 28 votes a year ago, getting named on 69.9 percent of the ballots.

I consistently have voted for Piazza, believing that suspicion alone is not enough to withhold a vote from a player who has never admitted to PED use, never tested positive to public knowledge, never been the subject of a government investigation. I also have voted for Jeff Bagwell, a player who has faced similar questions.

But once one of those players is elected, how could I be truly confident that they were different than Bonds and Clemens, and other recent inductees were as well?

I could not.

And for me, this is where the hair-splitting ends.

In addition to Bonds, Clemens, Piazza and Bagwell, I voted for Ken Griffey Jr., Trevor Hoffman, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Tim Raines and Curt Schilling. I did not vote for Mark McGwire, a confirmed user, and Sammy Sosa, an alleged one. But every year I reconsider. This is McGwire’s 10th and final chance on the ballot. Maybe I will vote for Sosa in the future, maybe not.

AROUND THE HORN

The core problem in judging players from the so-called Steroid Era is that we don’t know who did what and to what extent, the effect that the substances had on players, whether some benefited more than others from the drugs.

I still believe that those who use the uncertainty to justify voting for "everyone" are copping out, acting almost as if nothing inappropriate had ever happened. And I still don’t buy the argument that those who withhold votes from alleged users are self-righteous "moral gatekeepers." The Hall instructs voters to consider "integrity, character and sportsmanship" as well a player’s performance. Voters are free to interpret those instructions however they see fit.

In reversing my position with Bonds and Clemens, I’m simply acknowledging that I no longer am comfortable performing the mental gymnastics necessary to submit a ballot without their names. I also believe that both have paid enough of a penalty — and will continue to pay a penalty in the future, whether they are elected or not.

The Hall need not chronicle an alleged user’s misdeeds on his plaque. We all know the stories. We all have our opinions. The debate over such players will continue, and that debate will be healthy, even enlightening. The scarlet "S" for steroids, at least for the foreseeable future, will not go away.

Yet, as I wrote three years ago, "Snubbing such players is not necessarily the right thing for the Hall, or for the sport. Do we really want a Hall of Fame without Bonds, Clemens and Co? Would it be proper to exclude many of this generation’s best players and create a gaping hole in history? Does it make sense to further punish these players when their names already are tarnished?"

The Hall’s Board of Directors certainly seems to have an opinion — they do not want players linked to PEDs enshrined. Yes, the Hall includes artifacts from such players to fulfill the museum’s mission of recording history. But two recent decisions by the Board revealed its passive-aggressive hand.

In July 2014, the Hall decided to reduce a player’s eligibility from 15 years to 10. In November, the Hall rejected a proposal from the Baseball Writers Association of America to raise the maximum number of votes on each ballot from 10 to 12.

The combined effect of those decisions is less time to consider players such as Bonds and Clemens, and less room to include them on ballots. Bonds received no more than 36.8 percent of the vote in his first three years on the ballot, Clemens no more than 37.6 percent. The percentages of both were fairly steady, indicating that the same bloc is voting for them every year, with few exceptions.

I cannot worry that at their present rates, Bonds and Clemens seem unlikely to be elected. I cannot vote for them simply as a protest of the Hall’s heavy-handed actions. Really, all any voter can do is use his or her best judgment, knowing that holes and contradictions diminish every argument.

I made it to the mailbox. I deposited my ballot. I walked home, no less conflicted, still unsure.