The arrival of the Hall of Fame ballot in the mail used to be a highly anticipated event in my household.
I couldn't wait to see the first-time names because memories of those players would come rushing back. I looked forward to exploring the names and numbers on the ballot before deciding who I thought was deserving of a spot in Cooperstown.
Now, thanks to the taint of the steroid era, the arrival of the ballot brings dread instead of anticipation, suspicion instead of admiration.
For the second straight year, I look at Jeff Bagwell's name and wonder if he beat the system while he was also pounding baseballs out of ballparks all across the country. I'd love to vote for him, because he was always a class act whenever I had to interview him and his numbers scream Hall of Famer.
Mark McGwire, Juan Gonzalez, and Rafael Palmeiro remain on the ballot as documented cheaters, and I don't vote for them even though their numbers also are Hall of Fame-worthy.
I've listened to the argument that Bagwell should be a Hall of Famer because there is no proof he used the same performance-enhancing drugs that inflated the heads, bodies, and resumés of some of his peers. I suspect, however, that there are a lot of players who cheated and never were caught. We're going to see many of those names on the Hall of Fame ballot in the near future.
Next year, for example, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, and Craig Biggio are going to be among the first-time candidates. Based solely on their bodies of work, they all deserve to be first-ballot inductees. That fact alone says something about the steroid era because there have never been more than three first-ballot inductees in the same year, and that happened only once.
It will be fascinating to see how many of those guys, if any of them, get in next year.
Curt Schilling will also be on the ballot for the first time and he was arguably the most outraged and outspoken player about steroid use. During a 2007 interview with Bob Costas, Schilling claimed players should be stripped of their awards if they were caught cheating. More recently, during an interview with Dan Patrick he said steroid users do not belong in the Hall of Fame and "of the top 10 hitters and pitchers in my generation, over half of them are cheats."
I would love to see a survey of current Hall of Famers who feel the same way.
For me, the dilemma deepened recently when 2011 National League MVP Ryan Braun tested positive during the postseason for elevated levels of testosterone, according to multiple reports. Braun, through his attorney, has denied that he used a performance-enhancing substance and baseball is still investigating the issue. The possibility exists, however, that the BBWAA voted for someone who cheated, and that would mean the albatross that has hung around baseball for more than a decade still is in place.
My problem, which is the same as that of every BBWAA member who receives a Hall of Fame ballot, is trying to figure out how to proceed in my voting.
It's an issue I've discussed with some of my closest colleagues. Two of my most respected peers - Jayson Stark of ESPN and former Daily News baseball columnist Paul Hagen - have handled the issue by voting on credentials alone.
Hagen told me recently that he thought you have to either vote that way or not vote for anybody who played during the steroid era. He does not think we can be the judge and jury on each player. I understand the logic and I've also listened to arguments that a player like Gaylord Perry is in the Hall of Fame despite throwing an illegal spitball. In other words, these would not be the first cheaters to make it into the Hall of Fame.
My problem with acknowledging the steroid issue and still voting for guys who used is that it potentially punishes players who may not have used and would have had Hall of Fame credentials otherwise. A perfect example on the current ballot is Fred McGriff.
I think he had a Hall of Fame career regardless, but based on the steroid-enhanced numbers put up by guys like Palmeiro, Sosa, and McGwire, a certain faction of voters may feel he comes up short.
There are sportswriters and sports editors across the country who do not believe the BBWAA should be in the business of making news based on whom it does and does not select for postseason awards or the Hall of Fame. They see the exercise as being unethical. The argument is that we're supposed to report the news, not create it.
More and more I'm moving toward that line of thinking, but the ethics is only part of the reason. I did enjoy seeing Terry Mulholland's name on the ballot this year, because he was a lot of fun to cover. I did not enjoy actually filling out the ballot and I am starting to believe it is an impossible task that would be better left to someone else.
For at least one more year I took on the task anyway.
Here are the guys who got my vote: McGriff, Barry Larkin, Lee Smith, and Alan Trammell.