I reached the 10-year mark as a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America in 2010, earning -- or at least qualifying for -- a Hall of Fame vote. The minute I got my first ballot, jammed into that big, yellow envelope with the antique script, I started dreading the winter of 2012.
The anxiety level climbed, inch by inch, as the end-of-year deadline approached. I really didn't want to vote at first. I certainly didn't want to tell anyone about it. I kept putting off email requests from my boss to write about who I supported.
First, there were the winter meetings. Then, there was simply too much Los Angeles Dodgers news going on. Then, I felt I had to weigh in on the wobbly state of USC football. Then, I had a little vacation time coming. My office drawer needed cleaning out. There were dentists to see and DMV lines to wait in.
He kept at me, though, and this column is the reluctant result.
I voted for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Tim Raines and Lee Smith. I'll concede it's not a perfect ballot, but find one that is. In fact, forget perfect. Find one that doesn't leave an acidic, nauseating aftertaste.
This is the age of zealotry in baseball. Personally, I would have voted for Mike Trout as American League MVP, but I don't consider the people who voted for Miguel Cabrera to be relics pulled from the tar pits. I love the way advanced statistics have ushered in so many fresh voices to the sport, but I'm not ready to ignore what people in uniform have to say about things.
I just can't find any other path through the Steroid Era than the middle road, to make entirely subjective judgments and search out tiny distinctions. I just kept bumping into the same phrase as I was debating what to do about the handful of players on this ballot who have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs: If Bonds and Clemens aren't Hall of Famers, what's the point in having a Hall of Fame?
Is there anyone out there who doesn't think these guys would have made it in even if the most nefarious substance they'd ingested was Diet Coke? It's a museum about the game's history and on what earthly grounds can you justify shutting out an era's most dominant pitcher and its best player?
When the announcements come out Wednesday, it's quite likely that at least 25 percent of the voters will disagree with me. At least for now, Bonds and Clemens won't have to start brushing up on their speeches. No great loss to humanity. Different perspectives make the world more interesting. I don't really have any interest in hearing what those guys have to say, to be perfectly honest, and I don't look forward to the hysterics leading up to that day.
There are almost 600 voters and players need 75 percent of the votes to make it in. Some people think nobody's going to make it. Some voters will leave their ballots blank in protest.
Maybe those people care more about the sport or maybe they just believe in something called purity more than I do. My method is to presume that a large, never-to-be-determined percentage of players were using PEDs, to discount the numbers from the era in general and to take a fresh look. The basic question is: Would he have been Hall-worthy if he hadn't used? I can't answer it any better than anyone else, but I think it has to be the underlying test.
It's about navigating the process, weighing evidence, both legal/legislative and statistical. The only no-doubt PED users on the list are Rafael Palmeiro, who tested positive, and Mark McGwire, who has admitted to using steroids and says he respects Hall voters' decision to leave him out.
Bagwell, Biggio and Piazza aren't far behind Bonds and Clemens in the "no-doubt" category when it comes to career accomplishments. If we accept the "Game of Shadows" timeline, Bonds had 411 home runs, 445 steals, a .996 OPS and three MVPs before he ever starting using PEDs. Clemens had 213 of his 354 wins and four Cy Youngs before he was ever accused of using anything.
Biggio reached 3,000 hits. He is No. 5 on the all-time doubles list. Bagwell is the only first baseman ever to hit 400 home runs and steal 200 bases. Piazza was the best offensive catcher in baseball history. No reason to dig up too many numbers there. There has been nothing but whispers linking those guys to PEDs.
Sosa's a tough one. The New York Times reported he tested positive in 2003 during survey testing, but no one ever caught him doing anything besides embarrassing himself before Congress. His 609 career home runs are hard to leave out, but his power numbers are really his only slam-dunk recommendations and they're the easiest to discount from the era.
People will quibble with my inclusion of Raines, but he was elite by the standards of the speed kills era and by the on-base-obsessed standards of this one. It's fashionable to say closers are overrated, and they probably are. But somebody needs to tell the owners to stop paying them $10 million a year if they don't matter. Lee Smith was the all-time saves leader for many years and probably would have gotten out with a sub-3.00 ERA if not for some shaky years in his late 30s. The only substance he needed to intimidate hitters was a squinting grimace.
It's kind of nice to debate the merits of players from the era before steroids, but soon they'll start dropping off the ballot. We'll be left with year after year of trials in the court of public perception. Maybe one day I'll get used to it.