Clemens, Bonds, Piazza? Hall, yeah

Mike Piazza should not be denied entry into the Hall of Fame merely because some credentialed voters waiting at his locker might have noticed an unruly tangle of acne stretching across his back.

Jeff Bagwell should not be denied his bid to Cooperstown merely because he developed video-game arms, the kind many professional athletes buy in an underground drug store.

Would anyone bet their life, or their mortgage, that Piazza and Bagwell never used performance-enhancing substances at a time when they were as much a part of the big-league culture as, say, overheated groupies in hotel lobbies? Of course not. If Lance Armstrong, once ravaged by cancer, can use banned drugs at the risk of his health and his legacy and his everything, how can you trust any athlete who swears he or she climbed his or her mountains without the help of some potion or pill?

But Piazza and Bagwell deserve the benefit of the doubt, and a yes or no vote for the Hall of Fame based strictly on their on-field merits, if only because suspicion and anecdotal evidence that's supermodel-thin don't add up to a verdict that they cheated the game.

Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa -- like Piazza, first-timers on the ballot released Wednesday -- belong in a different category, one that already includes Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro. Either by their own admission, or by the reports of failed tests, or by evidence that would convince any reasonable observer of their participation in one of the great frauds ever perpetrated on the sporting public, these stars can't be presumed innocent.

They reduced the national pastime to a game of your shadow chemist against mine.

So now they stand before a jury of people they've never considered their peers, the voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. On the main page of the BBWA's Web site Wednesday, Clemens, the seven-time Cy Young Award winner, and Bonds, the seven-time National League MVP, were not described as steroid users who were chased into courtrooms by federal prosecutors who would, for the most part, swing and miss.

No, Clemens and Bonds were described as "the two most decorated players in the history of the Baseball Writers' Association of America awards voting."

Question: How do you keep these two out of the Hall?

Answer: You don't.

Or I don't, anyway, even if I'm charged as a voter to consider a player's integrity, sportsmanship and character in weighing his candidacy.

As much as I recognize Clemens and Bonds as incredibly flawed human beings, I also recognize the Hall as the established home of some incredibly flawed human beings. And measuring integrity and character isn't as cut and dried as it might seem.

Paul Molitor, former cocaine user, was widely credited as one of baseball's good guys and was rightfully inducted into the Hall. Tim Raines, former cocaine user, played the game with a rare generosity of spirit and deserves his own plaque in Cooperstown.

Perfect games do happen, occasionally, but perfect people are never part of them.

In recent years, I've given more thought to the issue of steroid use and Hall of Fame worthiness than any other issue in sports. Agonized over it, really. In the end, I don't think the steroids era represents baseball's most shameful period, not when the game's elders spent decades shutting out African-American prospects.

But I do think the bad guys of this era should be punished, and I do think the whole integrity, sportsmanship and character thing is in the voting instructions for a reason.

My teenage son runs with the you-use-steroids, you're-locked-out-of-the-Hall-forever crowd, which makes me wonder if his moral compass is sturdier than mine. Believing that denying the greatest of the great from the Hall of Fame makes something of a mockery of the Hall of Fame, I've searched for a middle ground, an area of compromise that allows the transcendent stars who used PEDs to secure the vote.

These players belong to the With or Without Club. As in, they were so staggeringly good that they would've been Hall of Famers with or without drugs. I believe that Clemens and Bonds belong to this club, and that Sosa, McGwire and Palmeiro do not.

I realize the distinction is impossibly subjective, and that some would make a With or Without case for those I'm not voting for, and a With or Without case against those I am voting for. But if nothing else, in holding the PED cheats to a higher career standard than those assumed clean, a penalty is imposed on the users while the door to Cooperstown isn't slammed shut.

Bonds was a remarkable hitter and outfielder at half the size he would become, and it's a shame his jealousy of McGwire and Sosa and America's fascination with them drove him to the dark side. Clemens was called "a freak of nature" by Derek Jeter, and the Rocket will have to live with the fact that many believe he turned himself into a freak of pharmacology instead.

How many of those 354 victories were made possible by something pulled out of Brian McNamee's travel bag? Who knows? Chances are a clean Clemens, the same relentless competitor who used a 20-foot rope to tie a sand-filled tire to his waist before running 60-yard sprints at his Texas high school, would've fought his way to 300 somehow, some way.

Some would argue Clemens wouldn't have made it to 250, and maybe they're right. Let's face it: Sometimes it's easier to cheat than it is to judge the cheaters.

Last year, McGwire was named on 19.5 percent of the ballots and Palmeiro on 12.6 percent, a country mile south of the 75 percent needed for induction. Sosa, he of the reported failed test (not to mention the corked bat), could find himself with similar poll numbers in January.

But Bonds and Clemens, defining players of their generation, are in a different class. It's right there on the main page of the BBWAA site, where the Hall of Fame's voting body cites them as its most decorated players and makes no mention of needles or creams.

So yeah, I'm willing to vote for the bad guys. But only if they're really, really good.