Steroids change game for Hall voters

I used to love voting for the Hall of Fame. Now I hate it.

Don’t get me wrong — the vote is a tremendous honor, a privilege earned by serving 10 years in the Baseball Writers Association of America.

While a writer’s job is to cover news, not make it, the BBWAA remains the right group to select Hall of Famers. No one buys or coerces our votes. We generally get it right. I am not about to relinquish my ballot out of frustration.

But I am indeed frustrated now that players from the Steroid Era are becoming prominent candidates.

The Hall of Fame vote never was simple. Distinguishing between players from different generations never was apples-to-apples. But at least before steroids, the comparisons were baseball comparisons.

Now it’s, “Who did what? For how long? To what extent?” No one knows the answers. It’s likely that no one ever will. But if you believe, as I do, that the questions matter, you can’t help but be torn.

I’m not comfortable wiping out almost an entire generation of players, not when the use of performance-enhancing drugs — while illegal in many cases without a prescription — was part of the game’s culture.

I’m also not comfortable ignoring the excesses of the era, not when the playing field was uneven. A certain baseball morality was violated. Users had an unfair, and undeniable, competitive advantage.

Many sabermetricians, in particular, ignore this aspect of the discussion — heaven forbid anyone suggest that their sacred numbers aren’t pure. But the non-users were the true victims of the age.

Let’s be clear: This is not a trial by jury. A voter does not need to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that a player used performance enhancers in determining his choice. The Hall, in fact, invites subjective views, instructing us to consider character, integrity and sportsmanship, as well as a player’s record, playing ability and contributions to the team(s) on which he played.

Let’s be clear on something else as well: This is a complex issue, more gray than black and white. Clear-cut answers are scarce; inconsistencies abound. For every argument, there is a valid, compelling counter-argument.

And more arguments, all the time.

This year’s ballot includes 19 first-time candidates, many of whom have been linked to steroids or suspected of use. Two years from now, the ballot will feature the poster boys of the era, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. And the debate will grow even more intense.

A player becomes eligible for the Hall five years after he retires, then remains on the ballot a maximum of 15 years. I hold out hope that the passage of time will allow for better perspective. One of my friends, someone who says he never will vote for a confirmed user, says, “What else do we need to know?” Fair point, but ideally, I’d like to have more information, as much as possible.

Some voters choose to ignore the use of performance enhancers entirely, voting as if the drugs never existed. What they’re saying is, “We don’t know what exactly happened. We can only vote on what we do know.” It’s not an unreasonable viewpoint. But in the end it’s a cop out.

We do know what happened, at least to some extent. The trick is figuring out how to vote based on our limited knowledge.

Some argue that players from previous eras used amphetamines; those drugs also were performance enhancers. I can’t dispute that. I just feel that steroids created a far greater imbalance. And in the end, a voter’s feelings on the matter, like a fan’s feelings, are personal.

It’s not a matter of being sanctimonious; baseball writers — beat writers especially — are among the least sanctimonious people you will ever meet. It’s a matter, simply, of wanting to do the right thing.

We did not, as a group, do the right thing with our initial reporting on steroids in baseball. Most of us whiffed pretty badly and were rightly criticized for it.

I was among those who failed to properly recognize the problem. I feel a special obligation to pay particular attention to the issue, both in my writing and my Hall of Fame votes.

Yet, I also ask myself: At what point does my sense of responsibility amount to almost a grudge?

I don’t have the answer to that. There is no answer to that, at least not in an absolute sense. All you can do is vote with your gut and your conscience.

Several years ago, I determined that I would not vote for any player from this era on the first ballot. It was to be my way of distinguishing, say, Bonds from Hank Aaron, players of an uncertain present from the greats of the past.

I tried that for a while, knowing that the process would be derailed if other voters followed my lead — a player drops off the ballot if he receives less than 5 percent of the vote. Last year, though, I voted for four first-timers: Roberto Alomar, Edgar Martinez, Barry Larkin and Fred McGriff.

I had my reasons for each. But now I’m going back to my original premise. No one on the first ballot. Not even those thought to be clean; they all were part of a union that had the power to implement change long before Congress all but forced the players and owners to take action.

How will I vote on some of the first-time candidates next year? I can’t say. One thing I’ve learned as a voter: It’s important to stay open-minded. I didn’t initially vote for Bert Blyleven; now I do. The debates over such candidates are enlightening, invigorating. Many of us spend the entire year weighing our choices — and still change our minds in future votes.

I love that part of it. Always will. I just hate what steroids did to the process, to a sport and to a Hall of Fame that so many of us hold dear.