A yes for Mac, but with plenty of trepidation

Would I cast a Hall of Fame vote for Mark McGwire?

I would.

And not just because I once used to tell people that chronicling McGwire's home-run rampage in 1998 was the best story I ever covered.

No, I would vote for Mark McGwire because this is a much more complicated question than people want to make it.

I can't say I feel good about the thought of casting that vote. I wish I knew more than I know right now. And I have a feeling I will know more about this whole situation the day the ballot arrives than I know today.

But if I had to vote right now, I'd cast a troubled, conflicted vote for McGwire on the first ballot, just because I don't know how to untangle a number of issues that are twisted inside his story.

Let's start with this premise first: Baseball needs to police itself.

It isn't the job of anyone covering this sport to make the rules or enforce them. We can raise issues and report stories. But playing the cop is the sport's job. And nothing was done to police this issue while McGwire was playing. Zero.

So what happened, happened. We can't make it disappear, much as many people would like to. The '90s happened. We can place a permanent cloud over their weather map. But they happened.

The primary argument against McGwire, obviously, is that he cheated. And at this point, it's almost impossible to assume he didn't.

But you don't even want to know how many players are in the Hall of Fame who cheated in some way, shape or form. With sandpaper or cork or Vaseline.

And baseball looked the other way and let them do it. Every one of them. So for me, McGwire -- like virtually all the members of this number-inflated generation -- probably gets lumped into the same category as Gaylord Perry.

Gaylord Perry was allowed to cheat, wrote a book about cheating, even made a video about cheating. And people not only looked the other way, but thought it was hilarious. So all we could do, when he appeared on our ballot, was vote on what he did on the field -- which was have a Hall of Fame career.

I recognize that what Perry did was a different form of "cheating" than what the steroid-users did. I recognize the health issues and the integrity issues. And I'm all for having this sport address every one of them.

But Hall of Fame voting isn't about that. In the steroid era, all these players were allowed by baseball to do what they did. So that's the context -- for now -- unless more specific information comes our way, or even some legal issues.

If McGwire or Barry Bonds or any of these other players are ever charged with a steroid-related felony, I reserve the right to reconsider. But that's a decision I don't have to make until the ballot arrives. This is about what we know, and about how I'd lean, right now.

The other big argument against McGwire that has emerged in both the AP poll and the ESPN poll is that he wasn't a Hall of Famer until he took steroids. Not sure I agree with that, either.

True, he hit 42 percent of his career home runs (245 of 583) in a four-year period from 1996-1999. But his problem before that wasn't that he couldn't hit. It was that he couldn't get on the field, because he was always hurt.

From the day he was drafted, McGwire was regarded as one of the great power-hitting prospects of modern times. Even before 1996, he'd never had a 500-at-bat season in which he'd hit fewer than 30 homers. And he'd hit between 39 and 49 four times.

That didn't make him a Hall of Famer, obviously. But it didn't eliminate him, either. So the question is how we're going to evaluate what he did after that.

I hate to quote Jose Canseco as an authority on anything. But he was right when he said there is no way to know exactly how many more home runs anybody hit because they took any specific substance.

Would they have hit more if the pitchers weren't taking this stuff, too?

How much were the shrunken ballparks and the harder bats and the livelier balls responsible for those numbers?

We can't answer any of those questions. Not one. And we'll never be able to answer them.

So we'll stop counting McGwire's homers the day the NFL takes back the Steelers' Super Bowl rings. Because all we have to go on, in both cases, is what we think we know about the role steroids played in those feats, based on what has been said -- or left unsaid.

We're assigning "guilt" these days on a thoroughly haphazard basis. A name here. A name there. And now we're being asked to cast Hall of Fame judgments based on knowledge that is way too scattered.

How do we separate McGwire -- whose "guilt" was established just because he was subpoenaed by Congress -- from other stars we might suspect who just haven't had as many fingers pointed at them? How do we even know whether to believe the guys who have denied everything?

Baseball has left us no trail of evidence with which we can prove or disprove anything. That's the most frustrating part of all of this.

We're left with nothing more than circumstantial evidence, and we're applying it only to people who showed up either in Jose Canseco's book or on the BALCO witness list. What a way to do business.

So if we can't definitively answer these basic questions -- who "cheated" and who didn't, how many "extra" homers were contained in each syringe, what forms of cheating disqualify a player from Hall of Fame entry and what forms don't -- we're stuck with assessing what we saw on the field.

And if you're just asking me to judge the Mark McGwire I saw on the field, that guy was the best slugger of his generation -- a man who represented his sport at the time with class, and with respect for its history and for the men he played with and against. That's the guy I'll vote for.

But do I feel as good about voting for him as I did a few months ago? Heck, no. It might be the most painful vote I ever cast.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.