We may be at the end of the Hall of Fame as we know it. And if we reach that end on Wednesday, as we very well might, there can be no turning back.
Spoiler alert, in case that apocalyptic first paragraph didn't already give it away: You're reading another hand-wringing Hall of Fame column, chock-full of what some of you -- with a touch of justification -- will consider overstatement and ponderous truthiness from a full-of-himself voter. Consider yourself warned as we sound this latest alarm.
Here's the take: There is a good chance, perhaps even a likelihood, that when the results of this year's voting are released next week, Rafael Palmeiro will not have been checked on enough ballots to be eligible for future elections. There is also a reasonable chance, though slightly smaller, that Sammy Sosa will come up short of the required votes to maintain his candidacy. And it's even possible that Mark McGwire's presence on the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) Hall of Fame ballot will end after this year.
They need to receive votes on a minimum of 5 percent of the returned ballots to be on next year's list, and they might not make it.
Those three were bottom-feeding near the 5 percent line a year ago -- Palmeiro at 8.8 percent, Sosa at 12.5 percent, McGwire at 16.9 percent. They were among the four who came closest to ineligibility last January. (Don Mattingly at 13.2 percent is the fourth.) And their vote totals aren't trending up. Palmeiro went from 12.6 percent in 2012 to the 8.8 percent he got last year. McGwire's percentage has dropped in each of the past three years. (Sosa's first time on the ballot was last year.)
And they are in particular peril on a 2014 ballot crowded with Hall-worthy candidates who -- at least at the moment; who knows what future revelations await? -- haven't been tainted, as they are, by baseball's performance-enhancing drug culture. It's hardly likely, for example, that many votes will be withheld on PED-related grounds from Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Jeff Kent, Mike Mussina or Frank Thomas, who are all in their first year on the ballot. Jack Morris, because he's in his last year of eligibility, figures to have significant support, too.
Throw in Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and Tim Raines -- who, along with Morris, were named on more than 50 percent of last year's ballots (though none reached the 75 percent level necessary for election) -- and, well, the 10-player maximum on each BBWAA voting ticket ain't going to leave Palmeiro, Sosa and McGwire much elbow room this year.
So, it could happen.
And once they're off the writers' ballot, their Cooperstown prospects are gone forever, or at least until some future incarnation of a Veterans Committee fringes them in.
(Overwrought aside: How much do we perceive a player inducted on a Veterans Committee vote to be a sort of second-class Hall citizen? If, say, Dick Allen or Keith Hernandez is ever admitted that way, do we place him at a mind's-eye table near the back of the room, or do we seat him up on the Ruth-Aaron-Gehrig dais in a sort of one-for-all Hall of Fame democracy? Just askin', 'cause I struggle with that question myself.)
The thing is, this has never happened to players with credentials as strong as Palmeiro, McGwire and Sosa bring to their eligibility. (Pete Rose doesn't count. He was never on the ballot in the first place.) You know the stats: Palmeiro is one of only four players in baseball history with at least 3,000 hits and 500 home runs; McGwire is 10th on the all-time home run list and is the all-time leader in at-bats per home run (10.6); Sosa's 609 home runs are eighth all-time. And on and on and on.
And they probably aren't going to be in the Hall of Fame. By this time next week, we might not need the "probably" in that sentence.
We knew, or should have known, this was coming as far back as January of 2007 when McGwire was named on only 23.5 percent of the ballots in his first year of eligibility. But back then, he still had time, or so it seemed. There was, and still is in some quarters, a reasonably prevalent school of thought that attitudes toward performance-enhancing drugs will change as the years go by, or that turnover in BBWAA voting membership will bring new thinking to the transgressions -- or perceived transgressions -- of the McGwire-Sosa-Palmeiro-Barry Bonds-Roger Clemens group.
Silly me: I always harbored the pipe dream that somebody in a position of authority (meaning, somebody other than we clueless writers) -- say, a commissioner of baseball, or a Players Association executive director, or a Hall of Fame director, or maybe an author of a 311-page report (not counting appendices) on an "independent" investigation into the illegal use of steroids in baseball -- might step into the fray and deliver a deus ex machina stroke of decisive clarity about what to do with PED cheats and Cooperstown. Yeah, right.
Anyway, according to those points of view, Palmeiro & Co. had a chance of finding a way to get in eventually, even as their vote totals stayed unimposing. There wasn't the sense of closure that looms large now.
Maybe that thinking still has relevance for the candidacies of Bonds and Clemens, who are only in their second year of eligibility and started with stronger support in their first try (Clemens at 37.6 percent; Bonds at 36.2 percent) than Palmeiro, McGwire and Sosa did. But those changes, if they're happening at all, aren't happening quickly enough to assure us of a here-and-now Hall of Fame that will honor three of the best sluggers the game has known.
And as much as I wonder about what the Hall will be, what it will mean, without Palmeiro, McGwire and Sosa, I can't make any sense at all of a future writers' vote that puts Clemens and Bonds into the Hall of Fame when we didn't see our way clear to send those other three. (Assuming, again, that they fall off the ballot sometime soon.)
Yes, I'm among those voters responsible for hurrying us along to this point. I haven't voted for any player -- including McGwire, Sosa and Palmeiro, as well as Bonds and Clemens -- for whom hard evidence of PED use exists. There is no sense wasting much more energy trying to convince anyone it's the right approach; the other hand-wringing Hall of Fame columns written in the past couple of years cover that ground.
I look at it this way: The debate as it pertains to PEDs is a tension between those who want the Hall to celebrate the best in baseball and those who want the best in baseball to be worthy of the Hall's celebration. I side with the second half of that dynamic. No apologies, even if it means that little baseball museum in Cooperstown might have a different feel to it next Thursday morning than it does right now.
I don't know what the loss of Palmeiro or McGwire or Sosa might do to the future of the Hall of Fame. But I do have an idea of what that different feel might be like, if it happens.
It'll feel a little sad.