Should a bunch of baseball writers be in charge of making moral judgments? Both sides of that question could be argued, the negative one with perhaps more emotion. But this is the situation that presents itself when voting for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The eligible members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America are now being asked to vote on not only the careers of candidates for the Hall of Fame but on the sins of players who used performance-enhancing drugs. As one of these eligible voters, I can safely say that I was happier weighing the careers rather than the sins.
What do we do with players from the steroid era? In what light do we consider statistical achievements that may or may not have been tainted by the use of performance-enhancing drugs?
There are no guidelines for this sort of thing. At the 2009 midsummer BBWAA meeting, a motion was introduced to have a committee formulate guidelines for Hall of Fame voting on players from the steroid era. A vehement but healthy debate ensued. At the end, the argument that carried the day was that this is not the Soviet Union, and nobody could tell us how to vote. The motion was defeated by a sizable margin.
So the voters -- 500-plus sports journalists in this instance -- go their separate ways. Some have said that they will vote for anybody who would otherwise qualify for the Hall, because nobody knows for certain who was using and who wasn't. Others, looking at the same candidates and the same evidence, have said that they will not vote for anybody from the steroid era on the grounds that the one thing that is certain is that the use of PEDs was widespread.
The early returns have been coming in from, well, basically one precinct. That would be the case of Mark McGwire, who hit 583 home runs and once held the single-season homer record. That looked like Hall of Fame territory until McGwire appeared before a Congressional committee investigating steroid use in baseball and gave the performance of a guilty man. The repetitive phrase "I'm not here to talk about the past" was insulting not only to the members of Congress but to anybody who had ever voted for a member of Congress.
Since that non-testimony, McGwire has been on the Hall of Fame ballot for four years. Here are his percentage totals for those four years: 2007, 23.5 percent; 2008, 23.6 percent; 2009, 21.9 percent; 2010, 23.7 percent. With 75 percent of the vote required for induction, this was not a candidacy that was on the doorstep of Cooperstown.
McGwire admitted his steroid use last January in a televised interview with Bob Costas, but he said that he did not need steroids to hit more home runs and took PEDs only "for health purposes."
It is possible that this semi-candor will make the voters look more favorably upon McGwire's candidacy. But it is also possible that it will simply offer voters who were giving him the benefit of the doubt conclusive proof of his guilt.
New on the ballot this year is a second test case, Rafael Palmeiro. Palmeiro reached both 500 home runs and 3,000 hits, both of which have been reliable Hall of Fame thresholds. But he also had a positive steroid test.
Palmeiro insists that the positive test was an accident, the result of a tainted vitamin shot given to him by Miguel Tejada, then a teammate on the Baltimore Orioles. This could be the absolute truth, but it appears to some voters to be primarily a steroid alibi constructed by throwing a teammate under the proverbial bus. When the 2011 voting for the Hall of Fame is announced on Wednesday, we will see how Palmeiro's candidacy fares.
There will be similar cases in years to come, including some of the biggest names in the game -- Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa. It is too early to make predictions about those outcomes. But it is obvious in the case of McGwire that the voters have chosen to make a moral judgment. For a Hall of Fame voter, this act could be seen not only as an option but a duty. There are standards for induction to the Hall of Fame, and they aren't all statistical.
From the election rules for the BBWAA Hall of Fame voting, we have this passage: "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."
Somewhere in the "integrity, sportsmanship, character" portion, the idea of taking steroids seems to be clearly ruled out. This may be a moral judgment made by a sportswriter, or it could be a reasonable interpretation of a small piece of the English language. Either way, this issue is now an integral part of voting for the Hall of Fame.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.