Most Hall of Fame voters, historians and fans will remember January 2016 as the crowning achievement for a former prodigy and embodiment of baseball grace. One day we looked up, and Ken Griffey Jr. was 46 years old and ready to glide effortlessly into the gap and stick a Hall of Fame plurality of 98 or 99 percent in his back pocket.
Amid the wall-to-wall Junior love, I'll remember this round of voting as the year I dismounted from my high horse, acknowledged reality and took the plunge on baseball's home run king and a seven-time Cy Young Award winner. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens won't appear on the stage with Griffey in July. But they're on my 10-man ballot this winter after several years with an empty box beside their names.
Scratch a Hall voter, and chances are you'll find variations on three themes. The pragmatists refuse to play "CSI: Cooperstown" and pass judgment on a candidate's pharmacological makeup. They go by numbers and numbers alone. The hardliners, in contrast, refrain from voting for anyone with even a whiff of performance-enhancement baggage. When you see the words "back acne" in a Hall of Fame column, chances are that a hardliner is crafting it.
Since steroid use and PED allegations became a factor in Hall balloting, I've tried to walk a more discerning middle ground, judging players case by case and waiting for time to provide some clarity. I believed that clear-eyed detachment would win out in the long run and that the process of culling the real men from the shortcut-takers would become less onerous every year.
The joke was on me. For all my dilatory tactics, the passage of time has proved clarity is a mirage, and we just alternate between lighter and darker shades of gray.
Even without their turbo-charged ascents into statistical fantasyland, you can make the case Bonds and Clemens were Hall of Famers if they had only quit while they were ahead. In 1998, at age 33, Bonds was a three-time MVP who ranked 34th on The Sporting News' list of 100 greatest players. He had already accumulated a Wins Above Replacement of 94.6 -- more than Al Kaline, Joe DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson and several other outfield greats amassed in their entire careers.
Clemens, similarly, laid a strong foundation for the Hall before his improbable second act in Toronto. Through 1996, he had amassed 192 wins and a 3.06 career ERA, capturing three Cy Young Awards with the Boston Red Sox. Cooperstown guru Jay Jaffe rates those achievements as above the Hall of Fame standard for starting pitchers and a "whisker below" the numbers posted by Pedro Martinez, who sailed into the baseball shrine last year with 91.1 percent of the vote.
We know the rest of the story. Barry hitched his wagon to Greg Anderson and Victor Conte, and Roger hooked up with Kirk Radomski and Brian McNamee, and they pushed the envelope into a new and unprecedented WAR zone, marked by cartoon numbers and widespread public scorn.
Is it troubling that Bonds and Clemens were so narcissistic or tone deaf to perception to destroy their legacies? Of course. But they were also a product of their era. And it's delusional to think we, as baseball writers, can uphold some quaint notion of the Hall as a bastion of competitive purity while fans who trek to Cooperstown each summer just want to visit a museum and see the game's history on display with all its complicated messiness.
Where's the dividing line? Does a prospective Hall of Famer need to flunk a test (Rafael Palmeiro), get misty in front of Bob Costas (Mark McGwire), appear in the New York Times for a positive test result (Sammy Sosa) or earn a mention in the Mitchell report (Gary Sheffield) to be disqualified from consideration? And what about amphetamines? Do we simply wink at that transgression and move on? While debating these and other questions through the years, I've split more hairs than Vidal Sassoon.
Last January, as a social media experiment, I tweeted the question, "Should Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds be in the Hall of Fame?" One hour, 1,200 responses and a barrage of "yes" votes later, I felt like a guy piling sandbags against a tsunami in my efforts to rationalize my "no" vote.
Shoulder shrugs are the new clarity. When the Miami Marlins named Bonds their new hitting instructor three weeks ago, the world didn't end. McGwire is the San Diego Padres' bench coach. Sheffield does studio analysis for TBS, and Alex Rodriguez was the feel-good story of 2015 for the New York Yankees. They're all proof that redemption comes with selective memory loss or an .800 OPS, whichever comes first.
The mere presence of a plaque in Cooperstown, with or without an asterisk or a designated "steroid wing," can't change the public perception. Dodgers fans are free to regard Bonds as a cheater and a villain, and Giants fans are free to love him for eternity. As Jerry Seinfeld so famously observed, "You're actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it."
The debate will drag on for the foreseeable future. Sheffield and Sosa return to the ballot next year, and Manny Ramirez and Pudge Rodriguez will appear for the first time. Not far down the road, we'll address the same tired questions about David Ortiz, Ryan Braun and A-Rod.
History has shown that fans can be even more hypocritical than writers on the topic of Hall worthiness. The same Red Sox diehards who have serenaded A-Rod with chants of "ster-oids" will clog the Massachusetts Turnpike on their way to celebrate Big Papi if and when he makes the grade.
Through the years, a lot of us in the baseball writing community have felt an obligation to safeguard the competitive landscape for posterity. Meanwhile, the Hall of Fame wants the problem to disappear and keeps erecting artificial barriers to force alleged PED users off the ballot. Lots of Hall of Famers don't want cheaters in their midst, and the writers play the role of bouncers in determining admission to the club. And the more we lament the challenges of the task or describe it as a burden, the more fans gag and roll their eyes.
So I'm ready to declare a moratorium on hand-wringing and cast my ballot, with all its flaws and inconsistencies. Griffey is the certified no-brainer and the first name I checked. I'm voting for Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza, who have been dogged by PED whispers of their own, and Tim Raines, who slid into bases headfirst during his heyday in Montreal to protect the cocaine vials in his back pocket. Clemens, Bonds, Trevor Hoffman, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling and Edgar Martinez round out my list.
My apologies to Jeff Kent, who made my ballot last year but is a victim of the 10-man limit this time. The same for Billy Wagner and Sheffield, both of whom I considered. I hope they don't fall below the requisite 5 percent cutoff and disappear from the ballot, as Lou Whitaker, Ted Simmons, Mark Grace and other worthy candidates did before their time.
And to Alan Trammell, I'm especially sorry. I was hoping to give him a warm sendoff to the Veterans Committee, even though I have yet to check the box beside his name in the past. But I simply ran out of spots.
In years to come, I reserve the right to make choices based on gut instinct and individual preference. But I'm out of the business of moralizing or parsing distinctions based on real or perceived transgressions. In the case of Bonds and Clemens, I keep going back to the words of ESPN columnist Ian O'Connor, who explained his conflicted Hall of Fame thought process in a 2012 column. "I'm willing to vote for the bad guys," he wrote. "But only if they're really, really good."
As baseball writers and Hall voters, we're fooling ourselves if we think any of us has a monopoly on truth. We just do the best we can. And in the absence of a better alternative, we make up our own rules as we go along.