Next to each nameon the annual Baseball Hall of Fame ballot is a simple blank square, aminimalist design that mocks the difficulty of the voters' decisions. Entirecareers must be weighed without room for gradation. You're either in or you'reout. The box is either checked or left blank. Can you divine the differencebetween Bruce Sutter (in) and Rich Gossage (out)? Kirby Puckett (in) and JimRice (out)? We must. The voting members of the Baseball Writers Association ofAmerica, leaning heavily on player stats for guidance, have been making suchtough calls for 71 years. But we've never had a dilemma like the one we'refaced with this year.
With theinclusion on the ballot of Mark McGwire—and to a lesser degree, Jose Cansecoand Ken Caminiti—voters now and for the foreseeable future must wade into theradioactive waste of the Steroid Era. Stats are no longer enough. As a voter Imust ask, "Do I believe this player likely violated federal law and theminimum standard of sportsmanship, by using illegal performance-enhancingdrugs?" This is one drug test McGwire flunks.
McGwire admittedin 1998 to using andro, which since has been classified as a steroid, but thatshould not ruin his candidacy. Andro was perfectly legal and available over thecounter in '98.
Far more damagingwere the revelations by Canseco in his 2005 book, Juiced, that he and McGwireinjected each other with steroids and the '05 report by the New York Daily Newsin which an FBI agent said McGwire had been provided with hard-coresteroids—charges that McGwire has never challenged in court. McGwire alsoawkwardly refused to deny he used steroids when he was called before acongressional committee in '05. Committee chairman Tom Davis later said hethought McGwire might have admitted using steroids but was concerned that hewould be prosecuted since the statute of limitations hadn't expired.
Give McGwire somecredit for going down with a shred of honor; a decent man, he was not raised toblatantly lie under oath. But if McGwire, with his professional reputation atstake, cannot defend his own career, how can a writer?
Actually, I camecloser to voting for the late Caminiti than for McGwire. While his numbers (239homers and the 1996 NL MVP award) don't approach McGwire's (583 homers,including 70 in that andro-fueled '98 season), Caminiti was an agent of changein the game. It was Caminiti who, in a 2002 interview with me, boldly spoke thetruth about what had been a conspiracy of silence. He admitted using steroids(he was the first player to do so) and expressed no regret about his behaviorbecause so many of his teammates and competitors were doing the same—though notonce did he mention a single other name to me. His honesty, not his drug use,made him a rebel. Their dirty little secret exposed, owners and players agreedto a first-ever drug-testing plan just three months later. "Think of thecourage it took for him to come out," Padres G.M. Kevin Towers said."He was the ultimate man's man. It's not an exaggeration to think that hehad a part in saving lives."
My vote forCaminiti would be a symbolic one, honoring his honesty in the most fraudulentof times. He deserves respect and remembrance forever, though I ultimatelydecided that the Hall of Fame ballot is not the place for symbolism. Besides,the ballot instructs voters to consider "the player's record, playingability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s)on which the player played."
Two players arenear locks to be elected in their first year on the ballot: Tony Gwynn and CalRipken Jr., members of the 3,000 hit club who played their entire careers withone club—and did so with dignity. (I will also check the boxes next to twoplayers who have been on the ballot for several years: Gossage, the iconicfireman, and Rice, the feared slugger, both of whom were dominant players foran extended period.) But the deserved election of Gwynn and Ripken will beovershadowed by the controversy surrounding McGwire's worthiness. He won't comeclose to being enshrined; nor will Canseco or Caminiti. (Players must be namedon 75% of the approximately 575 ballots.)
McGwire will getvotes, though, likely somewhere near 30%. Some writers will argue that Big Redwas never caught red-handed or they'll diminish the importance of the drugissue: Plenty of other players were juicing and they didn't hit 70 homers. Thegreat irony is that many of the same writers roasted commissioner Bud Selig,owners and the players association for being enablers of the Steroid Era byturning a blind eye to the problem.
A checked squareis an endorsement in full. It should signify more than a belief that a playerhad an excellent career worthy of enshrinement; it should indicate a sincerebelief that it was accomplished legally and ethically. Difficult? You bet.Shouldn't the Hall of Fame be synonymous with the highest standards?
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"I had a dream that was very de finitive: O.K.,I'm supposed to be a nun."
—ANDREA JAEGER Q&A, PAGE 29
ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO