Palmeiro still worthy of Cooperstown

There are questions in life I never thought I'd have to answer.

And this is one of them:

Would I vote for a guy with 3,000 hits and almost 600 homers for the Hall of Fame?

Yeah, I would. On the first ballot. And every ballot.

It's some kind of commentary on the bizarro world we live in these days that stuff like this is now a subject for serious debate. But steroids have done that for us.

It was only a matter of time before some future Hall of Famer tested positive, right? So we'd like to thank Rafael Palmeiro for being the winner of that race.

In a way, it's almost fitting. This was, after all, a man who did commercials for the ultimate performance-enhancing drug (Viagra).

But Palmeiro was also a man who almost managed to turn himself into one of the good guys of baseball with that finger-pointing performance before Congress. Oops.

His life, his career, his legacy will never be the same now.

But I'd still vote for him. First ballot. Every ballot.

Why? Because I'm not a cop. I'm just a guy who covers baseball for a living.

So it's not my job to police this sport. It's the sport's job to police itself. And for 15 years -- maybe 20 -- baseball's police station was a place where the cops just sat around, played cards, smoked cigars and let the inmates hit 900-foot home runs.

Baseball's idea of policing itself in the '90s was to allow a whole generation of players to play -- without testing them, without punishing them, without preventing them from bulking up however they wanted.

So if they "cheated," it wasn't because I let them cheat. It was because baseball let them cheat.

Now it's too late -- for me, for any of us -- to retroactively pronounce these guys guilty of something baseball now considers illegal. It wasn't illegal then.

So they took what they took. They did what they did. And now, all I can do as a voter is vote on what they did on the fields they were allowed to play on.

Sorry. That's the deal.

So all I know is that Rafael Palmeiro had a Hall of Fame career on those fields he was allowed to play on.

Even if 3,000 hits and 600 homers don't mean what they used to, they still mean enough that any player who reaches both those plateaus is a Hall of Famer. Even if he once got suspended for testing positive.

You know, Gaylord Perry won 300 games in an age when 300 wins didn't mean what it did when Old Hoss Radborn did it, either. But it was still enough wins to make ol' Gaylord a Hall of Famer -- even though he might have been the most proud and famous "cheater" in the history of modern sports.

Baseball didn't seem to care if Gaylord Perry cheated for two solid decades. In fact, everyone mostly seemed to find it kind of amusing.

So the next thing we knew, his name was showing up on the Hall of Fame ballot. And I figured, if baseball didn't want to stop him from cheating at the time, why would a few thousand Vaseline-balls stop me from voting for him?

So I did.

I've written about this before, and I've heard from a lot of you who tried to convince me that that was a different form of cheating. This steroid stuff -- it's much more sinister. It's more dangerous to our youth. It's destroying the meaning of the great numbers of baseball. You made those arguments beautifully.

I don't disagree with them, either. But I have a problem, as a voter, with using them to justify not voting for the Rafael Palmeiros of our time.

The problem is, I still don't know who, from that generation, "cheated" and who didn't. Baseball has provided us with no evidence to go on here. None.

It never tested anybody. It never suspended anybody. It never convicted anybody.

So it's all guesswork. Are we just going to deny votes to players who showed up in Jose Canseco's book?

Or to players who got subpoenaed by Congress?

Or to players who gained weight?

Or to players who had pimples?

What's the magic standard here?

We all have players we suspect. But what about all the players we don't suspect? You want to propose some foolproof way to judge? We'd love to have one.

But unless it involves the concept of a time machine, don't bother -- because it's too late.

Just as we have no idea what other pitchers of Gaylord Perry's generation loaded up the baseball, or scuffed it, or taught it a bunch of Harry Potter tricks, we have no clear idea which players of the '90s "cheated" their way to greatness and which didn't.

So are we going to vote for none of them? I've heard some of my fellow writers suggest they might actually do that, to "make a statement." Hey, great. Let them make it. But if they keep some players out of Cooperstown who did it clean, that's wrong, too.

And let us remind you of what the always-eloquent Jose Canseco told the Congress of the United States just last March:

There's no magic formula that can tell us how many home runs any player would have hit if he hadn't used steroids. Heck, there's no way to know how many he would have hit if the pitchers hadn't been using them, too.

And that reminds us: You never hear any outrage about those pitchers, do you?

Who knows how many pitchers from The Steroid Era will sail on into the Hall of Fame with pharmaceutically aided numbers? We couldn't tell you how many will -- but we bet it won't be zero.

There won't be any cloud hanging over any of those guys, though, because nobody ever gets heated up about what pitchers do. But those criminals who tarnished the hallowed numbers of the Babe and Ted and Willie -- we'll show them. We won't vote for any of them.

Sorry. It just isn't rational to selectively pick out a guy here or a guy there -- whether it's based on a positive drug test or a page in somebody's book.

There is an argument to be made that what separates Palmeiro from the rest is that he did test positive, so we know what he did. But wait a second. Do we?

I'd love to know a whole lot more about what Palmeiro did that caused him to test positive, actually. Not to mention when he did it, how much he did it, how long he did it and exactly how many more hits and homers he hit because he did it.

But I'll never get those answers, will I? He'll never tell us everything. And even if he wanted to, even he doesn't know the answer to that last question. And never will.

For Rafael Palmeiro, the reverberations of this positive drug test will be shaking his floor for the rest of his life. And should. Unless he spits out a darned compelling explanation for it some day, he deserves all of those reverberations.

But the one reverberation he doesn't deserve is to have someone like me look at his name on a Hall of Fame ballot some day and treat it as if he were just another Manny Alexander -- or Jack the Ripper.

I wish baseball had taken care of this mess a decade ago. For me. For all of us. But it didn't.

So I might not feel the same about him as I felt a week ago. But when that ballot arrives, I'll check off that box next to Rafael Palmeiro's name. First ballot. Every ballot.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.