The so-called "steroid era" and the users of performance-enhancing drugs changed the nature of this vote and damaged the nature of this entire discussion.
Some of the greatest players in the game are in this category. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens come immediately to mind. If they were the greatest of their era, aren't they supposed to be in the Hall?
No, not if the vast preponderance of evidence shouts that they used PEDs. Here is what the Hall of Fame asks the electorate from the Baseball Writers' Association of America to consider:
"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."
The "integrity, sportsmanship, character," portion of that statement would seem to rule out a user of PEDs. I don't pretend to speak for any of the other 500-plus voters, but this seems to be an unmistakable place to take a stand against people who cheated the game. But these days, moral judgments often seem to be etched not in stone but in the eye of the beholder.
And this is why, in their first year of eligibility, Clemens and Bonds fell far short of the necessary 75 percent of the vote, Clemens receiving 37.6 percent and Bonds getting 36.2. Perhaps the writers were merely giving them a one-year punishment, but perhaps it was a more lasting judgment.
Saying that the voters are conflicted about this issue is a gross understatement. There are some voters who have said that they will vote for anyone who was great enough from the "steroid era" because it is impossible to discern who was using PEDs and who wasn't. Others have said that they will vote for no one from the "steroid era" for exactly the same reason.
The lines of truth and fiction have been blurred. There are players who have been linked to PEDs, despite the fact that absolutely no tangible evidence supports this linkage.
Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell are in this category.
Look at their career numbers. They merit election to the Hall of Fame. And yet, last year Bagwell received 59.6 percent of the votes, Piazza 57.8 percent. There is a certain portion of the populace that has reversed the American tradition of the presumption of innocence, making Bagwell and Piazza guilty until proven otherwise.
That isn't an accurate way to do business. It also might be just plain wrong.
Last year's Hall of Fame election came up empty. No one received the 75 percent necessary for induction. This is always a disappointing result for the baseball public, and it stirs up discontent with the voting habits of the writers.
"What do they know?" fans ask.
It's a fine question.
The Baseball Hall of Fame is by far the most exclusive of its kind in North American sports, and the writers look upon themselves as guardians of Cooperstown's gates. The borderline cases are always answered with a "no." This beats the alternative, the slippery-slope lower standard. But that could be just another value judgment.
This year the good news is that there isn't going to be a shutout. One of the strongest fields in years will present some voters with an opportunity to cast ballots for the maximum allowable number, 10.
Not that 10 candidates will be elected, but three first-timers on the ballot should be virtual locks: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas. There are other strong first-year candidates, and one returning candidate who was already on the brink of election. Craig Biggio received 68.2 percent of the votes last year in his first year on the ballot. That sort of first-year performance has historically meant that eventual election is inevitable.
At the other end of the ballot spectrum is Jack Morris, in his 15th and final season on the writers' ballot after pulling 67.7 percent of the vote last year.
There are difficult decisions to be made, many more of them than in the past. Looking back, the pre-steroid era probably wasn't all that simple for Hall of Fame voters, but it certainly seems that way compared with what we have now.