There have typically been can't-miss mathematical guidelines that made the decisions more straightforward. Greatness is still a subjective judgment, but baseball generates enough meaningful statistics that a reasonable case can be built for or against a candidacy on the basis of objective facts.
But now we are coming to a place in the Hall of Fame balloting where there will still be on-base percentages and earned run averages, but these objective standards will be joined by moral judgments. Welcome to the Hall of Fame voting on players from the steroids era.
Some early returns have been tabulated. Those come from the three years in which Mark McGwire has been on the ballot. In the first two, McGwire received around 23 percent of the vote. This year, he received 21.9 percent of the vote. With 75 percent needed for election, the vast majority of the voters are speaking clearly and they are saying that this candidacy is going nowhere.
But there will be more candidates from this era in the years to come, more candidates who have been linked to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and those candidates will obviously include some of the biggest names in the game. What do you do? Bar all of them? Bar some of them? Bar none of them?
The Hall of Fame has some general voting guidelines. Current rules ask voters to consider a player's "record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played." That is all very reasonable, but nowhere in this list is a helpful hint on what to do with an extremely talented steroid user.
At a BBWAA meeting in St. Louis, on the day of the All-Star Game, Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig appeared for his annual "State of the Game" message. In the question-and-answer session that followed, the Commissioner was asked a question regarding how to judge players who used PEDs as candidates for the Hall of Fame. The Commissioner gave a detailed description of other substance abuse problems in earlier eras of baseball, but at the end, bounced the voting decision right back into the laps of the BBWAA members. This might not have been a problem-solving response, but it was the correct response.
"That, I'm going to leave to all of you," Selig said. "You all have to make your own decisions. I would not, however, disregard history. That's a very fair question, and I understand it's bothering a lot of people. But you'll have to make your own judgment."
After Selig's departure, a proposal was introduced that would have formed a committee for developing guidelines on evaluating players from the steroid era in Hall of Fame voting.
This proposal was made by Chicago Sun-Times columnist and author Rick Telander, a man who is widely respected in the profession. After a spirited and wide-ranging debate, the proposal was voted down, 30-25.
The question might logically be asked: If the baseball writers are seeking assistance in making these difficult Hall of Fame decisions, why wouldn't they look to their colleagues for helpful guidelines on these players with PED pasts?
As someone who voted against this measure, my bottom line on this issue was that, as an American citizen, I didn't want anybody creating "guidelines" on how I should vote in any election. This was a sentiment shared by many of the members at this meeting. As much as Telander's proposal was obviously well-intended and addressed a problem that needed to be addressed, some basic, long-held American values were on the other side of the argument.
So Hall of Fame voting will remain a matter of 500-plus individual decisions. As a voter, my basic inclination is that anybody who used PEDs and undermined baseball's credibility and integrity doesn't belong anywhere near the Hall of Fame. But you will hear, for instance, an argument on the other side such as "but Barry Bonds was a Hall of Famer when he weighed 190 pounds." That isn't untrue, either.
The baseball writers who have devoted their professional lives to studying the grand old game are as well-positioned, as well-informed as anybody could be for Hall of Fame voting. But these are uncharted waters we are entering now. There may be no vocational group fully-equipped to make the kinds of decisions that will be required here; combining judgments about athletic ability with judgments about moral conduct. But these elections will be conducted democratically and all the votes will be counted. Here as elsewhere, democracy is not a perfect system, but it light years above and beyond all the other alternatives.