Saying no to ‘roids in HOF, for now

I’m wavering.

No, I’m not ready to vote for confirmed steroid users or even certain alleged users for the Hall of Fame. But I’m so torn, I’m closer to saying, “yes,” than ever before.

Doesn’t mean I will next year. Doesn’t mean I will in five years. It just means that my own internal debate continues, and if I sound indecisive, so be it. This is not an easy question to decide.

This year, I did not vote for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens or any of the other first-time candidates. I generally do not for any player from this era on the first ballot, though I have made exceptions before and probably will again.

As I’ve written previously, this is my way of distinguishing, say, Bonds from Hank Aaron, players from a dubious period from the greats of the past. To those who ask, “What about players thought to be clean?” my response is, “They all were part of a union that had the power to implement change.”

Obviously, my stand could lead to a major problem — if every voter followed suit, first-time candidates would not get the necessary five percent of the vote to remain on the ballot. But to my knowledge, no other voter takes the same approach. So, I’m comfortable proceeding in this fashion.

The real question for me will be how to vote on Bonds, Clemens and others linked to performance-enhancing drugs in the future, knowing that each will be eligible for 15 years and that 75 percent of the vote is required for induction.

For every argument, there is a perfectly valid counter-argument. I cannot wag a disapproving finger in print at my colleagues who will vote for Bonds and Co. I understand and respect their positions, and also agree with some of their views.

Of course, if I agreed to a greater extent, I’d abandon my current position and ignore the steroid question entirely when making my selections. But I don’t know if I’ll ever get to that point.

Here are my problems with some of the counter-arguments — and one counter-argument that gnaws at me, and ultimately might prompt me to change my mind.

The voters are not judge and jury

Actually, we are precisely judge and jury. The Hall of Fame specifically instructs us that 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.”

You may disagree with selective application of the “character clause.” You may believe that the clause should be eliminated entirely. And you may think that a player’s performance matters far more than his character.

All that is fine, but the clause exists, and it allows voters not only to take a subjective view of candidates, but also to apply a rather wide lens.

My friend Ray Ratto of recently dismissed that approach, telling voters, “You don’t work for baseball! You are not guardians of the game! It is neither your job, your responsibility or even your right to keep the game pure of miscreants when it shows every day that it doesn’t want to be!”

Actually, Ray used caps to make his point EVEN CLEARER, and I understand what he’s saying. But the accusation that the “no” voters are moralists, modern-day Puritans, “guardians of the game” — I don’t buy it.

I’m just following the rules.

Voters need actual evidence of a player’s steroid use to withhold a vote

Wrong. This is not a court of law. Voters are not required to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a player used steroids. What’s more, the Hall of Fame is a privilege, not a right.

So, while Clemens was found not guilty of perjury about his alleged steroid use, voters may reasonably choose not to vote for him, believing that he indeed used PEDs.

Of course, there is a question of fairness, too.

I wrote last year that suspicion is not enough to withhold a vote from a player such as Jeff Bagwell, who has never admitted to PED use, never tested positive to public knowledge, never been the subject of government investigation.

Some would say that the evidence against Clemens is no stronger than the evidence against Bagwell; that’s a question on which reasonable people can disagree. The point is, voters don’t need any actual evidence. Like it or not, they can vote on their instincts, vote with their hearts.

We don’t know exactly who used PEDs, and to what extent

Obviously true, and a big problem. We also don’t know the effects that the substances had on the players, and whether some benefited more than others. So, the argument goes, who are we to pass judgment?

Fair point. But ultimately, a cop-out.

No, we don’t know everything. We’re never going to know everything. But we know enough, at least about certain players. And we damn well know that, for a certain period of time, some offensive numbers were inflated.

So, if some of the numbers are or were not real, how can anyone use them to the exclusion of all else when determining their votes?

All voters can do is judge the information at hand. Mark McGwire, for example, has admitted using PEDs. It’s reasonable to conclude that without the drugs, he would not have produced the same power numbers, the numbers that are the essence of his candidacy. Thus, I do not vote for him.

Other players on this year’s ballot — players believed to be “clean” — also might have benefited from PEDs. It’s entirely possible that a user who escaped detection will be elected to the Hall, if one hasn’t been already.

Well, fear of the unknown should not override all that we know. To ignore the excesses of the era is to ignore reality.

PEDs were part of the game’s culture

According to this rationale, pretty much everyone was doing it, so you can’t hold it against anyone.

Not only is that premise false — plenty of players abstained from PEDs — but it’s also false that baseball condoned use of the drugs.

In a 1991 memorandum, former commissioner Fay Vincent wrote, “The possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance by major league players is strictly prohibited.”

True, baseball did not adopt mandatory steroid testing until 2004, and fostered a Wild West culture by failing to act sooner. But the sport’s negligence hardly excuses the users, who in many cases broke U.S. laws.

I don’t care about voting practices of the past; the fact that the Hall includes a number of questionable characters should not be justification to elect more. The users cheated, distorting a seemingly level playing field, putting non-users at a disadvantage. Their actions cannot simply be disregarded.

Consider all of the living Hall of Famers who played the game without chemical enhancement (and no, I don’t believe that even users of amphetamines gained the same edge as users of PEDs). Many members are appalled by the prospect of juicers entering their elite club. The sentiments of those all-time greats should not be ignored.

I hate when people pose the sanctimonious question, “What about the children?” — it’s a parent’s responsibility to explain right and wrong and everything in between. But you know what? The thought of a user making his acceptance speech in Cooperstown makes me cringe. It would not be a good message. Not at all.

The Hall is a museum

Here is where I start to waver, and doubt everything that I’ve written above.

Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall, described the museum in November as not simply a gallery of plaques, but “a social institution where baseball is used as a lens to teach American history.” And history, as we know, is not always pretty.

The Hall of Fame is not the Hall of Virtue. Scandal is part of American history, and part of baseball history, too.

“In the Museum, you’ll find artifacts from players who tested positive for performance-enhancing substances or played under that cloud of suspicion,” Idelson wrote. “It’s up to you to decide how you feel about those players and their feats.”

Electing such players — honoring them — is not necessary to properly record history. But 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?

If Bonds earned a plaque in Cooperstown, some fans would say, “He was perhaps the greatest hitter ever,” while others would say, “He became the all-time home-run king only because he was on the juice.” Such debate would be healthy, even enlightening. As Idelson wrote, it would be up to each fan to decide.

As a voter, I’m not yet ready to make such a concession, not ready to overlook all the wrong that occurred. But I’m wavering like never before. Wavering every time I think about history, every time I think about the other side.