Years of discussing the effect an association with performance-enhancing drugs will have on Hall of Fame candidacy -- a debate that thus far has centered on Mark McGwire -- will reach a new level.Rafael Palmeiro is on the ballot for the first time. And there is no gray area where the Cuba-born first baseman with the sweet left-handed swing is concerned.
Or black: Palmeiro's career also ended in 2005 with a 10-day suspension for violating MLB's Drug Policy, marking him as the first star of the sport's so-called steroids era to actually be suspended.So Palmeiro's appearance on the 2010 Hall of Fame ballot that will be contemplated by Baseball Writers' Association of America voters is a sobering test-case of the residue of PED fallout. Palmeiro anticipated the forum months ago. "I'd hope voters would look at my body of work over my career and maybe put more emphasis on that," Palmeiro had said in mid-August. "That one steroid incident is unfortunately all people remember. They don't remember the other 19 years that I played the game the right way. I always played the game the right way, I never created any problems, and I always honored my contract and came ready to play." In the view of some, McGwire wasn't a surefire candidate, irrespective of suspicions of PED use, which he subsequently admitted prior to becoming the Cardinals' batting coach last season. He did briefly hold the single-season record of 70 homers and retired with a total of 583 -- but had only 1,043 other hits as a lifetime .263 hitter. Only two players with fewer than McGwire's 1,626 career hits have gained Cooperstown entrance through the front gate of BBWAA election (as opposed to via Old Timers or Veterans Committees) -- Jackie Robinson and Ralph Kiner. So evaluating McGwire's ballot scores -- percentages of 23.5, 23.6, 21.9 and 23.7 -- becomes murky.
Conversely, the first three 500-3,000 men were all first-ballot slam dunks: Willie Mays with a 94.7 percent in 1979; Hank Aaron with 97.8 in '82; and Eddie Murray with 85.3 in 2003.Performance puts Palmeiro in that company. Where does the PED issue leave him? The answer is forthcoming, and it figures to be revealing. When his suspension came down on Aug. 1, 2005 -- months after the alleged violation, after the test results were appealed and the case went through an arbitration process, and two weeks after he'd collected his 3,000th hit -- Palmeiro immediately knew his legacy was in danger. Conceding the test results but claiming not to know how the incriminating stuff entered his system, Palmeiro said at the time, "Why would I do this in a season when I was going to get to 3,000 hits? It makes no sense. I would not put my career on the line. I would not put my reputation on the line and everything that I've accomplished throughout my career. ... I'm not a crazy person. I'm not stupid. This is something that's an unfortunate thing. It was an accident. I'm paying the price." Whether the Hall of Fame vote will now bring him sticker shock is up to the hundreds of tenured (10-plus years) BBWAA members who do the voting. Plenty of those voters could be conflicted. While recognizing the hazards of profiling, they continue to think of Palmeiro as someone who never exhibited any of the physical and character traits typically associated with PED use: He was even-tempered with a soft, even borderline-pudgy, physique. Palmeiro's career timeline was devoid of spikes. Consistency was one of his key attributes: He had 10 seasons of 37-plus homers, 10 seasons of 100-plus RBIs, 11 seasons with 30-plus doubles. "Era domination" is viewed as one of the crucial elements of Hall of Fame worthiness, and few players ever stood out as Palmeiro did from 1993 through 2003. In that 11-season span, he hit 433 homers and drove in 1,266 runs, with a .555 slugging average that was supported by 364 other extra-base hits. And despite the impressive power, Palmeiro had the plate discipline of a slap hitter: Only once did he strike out more than 96 times, and his walks exceeded his strikeouts in eight of his 20 seasons. The credentials are flawless. The swan song was flawed. The verdict is forthcoming.