An uncomfortable vote for McGwire

It felt so uncomfortable to be casting a Hall of Fame vote for Mark McGwire, it made me realize just how bizarre baseball's Hall of Fame elections have now become.

It's hard to believe it's actually easier not to vote for the seventh-leading home run hitter of all time than to vote for him. But it is.

It's easier to pick out a guy who looks and feels and smells like a cheater than it is to process all the tricky shades of gray that are going to surround this process for the next 20 years. So, close to 300 more voters are going to snub this man than will vote for him.

Well, I totally understand the thinking of everyone who chose not to check the box next to McGwire's name. I've read, and listened to, the thoughts of many of those voters, and I respect their thinking.

It isn't my intent to belittle anybody or give some big spiel about why I'm right and why they're wrong. This is a tough, complicated decision, dumped in our laps by a sport that left it up to us to deal with its mess.

So there's no right and no wrong choice here. We probably can't do the right thing no matter what we do about Mark McGwire. But here's why I voted the way I did:

The fact is, people have oversimplified this issue, to the point that, if you listen to the way most folks talk about it, you'd think there were only 10 players taking any kind of performance-enhancing drugs in the '90s.

But we know that, in truth, there were probably hundreds. So should I cast votes only against players who happened to get mentioned in Jose Canseco's book, or who got subpoenaed by Congress? What about all the other players who I might suspect were doing something but whose names have never come up in this conversation?

Should I vote only against players who hit a bunch of home runs, or broke home run records? What about all the pitchers we know were taking something? Do we care about them or not? Should I vote against them if I just think they might have done something?

See, this is the essence of the problem. Mark McGwire is the first prominent player tied to performance enhancers with Hall of Fame numbers to show up on this ballot. But he's only the beginning. So how do we know where to draw the line? How do we know which guys we should or shouldn't vote for if we want to make some kind of statement?

It was baseball that allowed all of this to happen. In a sport with no rules, no testing and no punishment for using the hottest substances of the day, this was no tiny problem, involving a few obvious home run trotters. This was the culture inside the game, just as amphetamines were part of the culture in the '60s and '70s and '80s (and beyond).

It was baseball that allowed all this to go on, and it never furnished us with any evidence whatsoever of who did what when. So we hardly know anything concrete about what McGwire may or may not have done. And that's the truth.

We know how his appearance changed. We know when his numbers soared. We know he gave some horrible answers to some members of Congress. We know he has vanished nearly as completely as Amelia Earhart since he gave those answers.

But in reality, we hardly know anything about what anyone in the sport may or may not have done during those anarchic 1990s.

So just as baseball allowed Gaylord Perry to go out and cheat his way to 300 wins -- and eventually admire his plaque in the Hall of Fame -- it allowed McGwire and a host of other players to compile their stats, break their records, earn their money and listen to all those roaring crowds.

And now here it is, Hall of Fame election time -- and cleaning up this glop is supposed to be our problem? Sorry, the only way to be consistent about this generation is to apply the Gaylord Perry standard -- and evaluate what the sport allowed to go down on the field. Either the '90s happened or they didn't. And we all saw them happen.

We saw hitters on steroids face pitchers on steroids, as hundreds of players all around them used the same stuff, looking for the same edge. But we've never heard most of their names. So I feel more comfortable voting for players like McGwire than I do trying to pick and choose who did what, and when, and why.

If more evidence emerges, I always reserve the right to change my mind. But for now, I've cast an uncomfortable vote for McGwire -- and I might very well find myself doing the same for every great player of an obviously tainted generation.

If I could prove the innocence of the players I believe were clean as easily as I can assume the guilt of the men I think were cheaters, I might vote differently. But sadly, none of us can really prove much of anything.

So do we really want to be consistent about this issue? Well, if we do, we should either vote for all the best players of that era or none of them.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.