Hall of Famers take innocent-until-proved-guilty approach

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Commissioner Bud Selig isn't the only Milwaukee fixture with a personal affinity for Hank Aaron.

Robin Yount was 19 years old and playing shortstop for the Brewers in late 1974 when Aaron, barely a year removed from breaking Babe Ruth's record, arrived in a trade for outfielder Dave May and a player to be named. Baseball's home run champion stuck around for a two-year Wisconsin sunset tour, and impressed Yount for reasons other than his hand-eye coordination and strong wrists.

"The biggest impression he made on me was, he was just one of the guys,'' Yount said. "It was unbelievable. Here's arguably one of the greatest players of all time, and he was just one of the guys. That was so cool to me. I'll never forget that.''

Yount is now 51 years old and part of the same Hall of Fame club as Aaron, and perhaps more conflicted than the rest of America as Barry Bonds zeroes in on career homers Nos. 755 and 756. Yount is watching Aaron's record fall amid a backdrop of steroid-related controversy, and every day seems to magnify distinctions between the two sluggers based upon both style and, for want of a better word, substance.

Aaron was understated, reliable and stoic amid the enormous pressure of chasing a white icon through a torrent of racial abuse. Bonds, moody and abrasive, is so disliked beyond San Francisco, there are major questions about security as he heads for Los Angeles and San Diego. Beyond that, nobody questions the adverse reaction he'll generate should he hit the record breaker on the road.

In the aftermath of the publication of "Game of Shadows,'' amid a pile of circumstantial evidence taller than the Coit Tower, what's an FOH (Friend of Hank) to think?

"I'm not accusing Barry of anything, because I don't know,'' Yount said. "Until somebody tells me for sure that this guy had some 'artificial help,' I won't hold it against him. But it does make you think of things in a little different way. Like, how many home runs would Hank have hit if he had this help?''

Hall of Fame induction weekend, as serene an event as you'll find, is occasionally knocked off kilter by real-world events. For years the Hall of Famers went round and round on the subject of Pete Rose. The majority opinion seemed to be that Rose would never be welcome in the fraternity. Then Rose's public admission of betting on baseball as Cincinnati Reds manager erased all doubts.

Now the hot-button issue is steroids and what went on during the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run race and Bonds' record haul of 73 in 2001. As guardians of the game, the Hall of Famers who traveled to Cooperstown for the Tony Gwynn-Cal Ripken induction are naturally suspicious of the numbers and the players who amassed them.

The manifestations of the steroid era are already being felt in Cooperstown. McGwire, who would have been a lock for the Hall based on his 583 home runs, received a mere 23.5 percent of the vote on his first try. It appears his name will be on the ballot for a while yet.

As former Sen. George Mitchell's investigation drags on and a grand jury reconvenes to consider perjury charges against Bonds, the news is wall-to-wall steroids. If it's not Patrick Arnold, inventor of "the clear,'' expressing his belief that Bonds and Gary Sheffield used performance enhancers, then Jose Canseco is promising to come forward with some scintillating new information on Alex Rodriguez in his next book.

Then there's Curt Schilling, who took some shots at Bonds, who inexplicably retaliated by taking shots at Bob Costas. In a debate this chaotic, the combatants simply pick a side, then duck.

To some ballplayers, the debate isn't as simple as good versus evil or upright versus morally reprehensible. Great athletes are always looking for an edge, and the question is: How far are they willing to go to get it?

In 2005, Mike Schmidt told HBO that he probably would have used steroids if they were around in his day. Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, who played with Ted Williams in Boston from 1937 to 1951, equates steroid use with "cheating.'' But like Schmidt, he understands the lure of a magic elixir.

"Mike Schmidt summed it up pretty good,'' Doerr said. "I think all of us, if somebody said, 'You could find a way to get more strength and hit five to 10 more home runs,' we might have tried it. At the time these guys started, I don't think they realized it was as serious a thing as it turned out to be.''

On the subject of Bonds, most Hall of Famers take the "innocent until proven guilty" line in public. But when the doors close and opinions fly, the lines are drawn between baseball greats who are waiting for a definitive answer on Bonds and those who've already made up their minds.

"Usually the conversation is very heated,'' said former Detroit Tigers star Al Kaline. "There are pros and cons and guys voicing their opinion every which way.''

Want proof? Here's a compilation of ESPN.com and ESPN television interviews with Hall of Famers on the subject of steroids and Barry Bonds:

Bob Feller: "If Barry Bonds breaks Hank's record, I'm all for it. It could be good for baseball. But if he is caught using steroids or he lied to a jury or he's caught evading taxes, that's another story. … If I knew a fellow were taking steroids or cheating, I wouldn't want him in the Hall of Fame. I wouldn't boycott it, but I wouldn't be shaking hands with him and welcoming him to become a member.''

As far as I know, nothing's been proven. [Bonds] and Ken Griffey were the greatest players I've seen in the last 25 years. I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

-- Former Tigers great Al Kaline

Tony Perez: "It's great. I mean, I root for Barry. I played against his daddy and I've seen him grow up and I'm really very happy for him. Everybody has his own opinion. I respect that, but I keep saying I'm pulling for him.''

Tom Seaver: "It's an oily situation -- no pun intended. I'm one of those people who believes you're innocent until you're proven guilty. You either prove it or drop it, one of the two. You have 'X' amount of time to prove if something happened, then get it done. Make your decisions and let the chips fall where they may.''

Yount: "Good or bad, we didn't have any rules against any of this. It was a sign of the times, and baseball historians and followers of the game will understand it was an era. Maybe that's the way it should be looked at. These guys haven't been proven guilty of anything, so why should they be kept out?''

Kaline: "No question there are going to be people who'll question the reason why [Bonds] was able to get better in late 30s than he was in late 20s. But as far as I know, nothing's been proven. He and Ken Griffey were the greatest players I've seen in the last 25 years. I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt.''

The closer people are to Aaron, the harder it is to divorce personal feelings from the cold and clinical assessments. While Yount played two seasons with Aaron, Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro was Aaron's teammate from 1964 to 1974, and he knows what he's going to remember.

"It wasn't so much watching Henry hit homers,'' Niekro said. "I watched how he put on the uniform and walked out of clubhouse, and how he played nine innings every day. It was nothing flashy. But when the game was over, you said you wanted to see every player play that way. He did it clean, honestly, with pride, and as a gentleman.

"Henry will look you in the face and say, 'I did it the right way.' Will Barry do that? Maybe he will. I don't know. Only Barry knows.''

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.