It would have been easy to simply plug my nose, close my eyes and make my mark in the boxes (with big scarlet letters?) next to their names.
Barry Bonds. Roger Clemens. Sammy Sosa.
On the baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year, the trio is also on the Mount Rushmore of the national pastime's Steroid Era.
Give them my vote for the game's ultimate honor as a first-ballot Hall of Famer?
Sorry, couldn't do it. Not with a clear conscience, anyway. Not now. Just don't expect me to rail against cheating cheaters and the way they cheated while standing on some soap box at the corner of Third and King, or on the foot-traffic bridge between BART and the Coliseum.
Yes, I was that conflicted as I faxed in my ballot on New Year's Eve. But this is not some overzealous moralist ploy with its flag planted in Rule 5 of the BBWAA Rules For Election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.
And there it is, the so-called "character clause," which really is not a clause at all. And yet, by juicing and making a mockery of the record book, which is a much more sacred text in baseball than in any other sport, they impugned the character of the game, regardless of the legal ramifications, or lack thereof.
I asked around -- fans, other voters, family members, writers from other sports who did not understand why "character" was such a big deal in baseball for consideration. And the responses were as varied as the people whose opinions I gathered. I read interviews of already inducted Hall of Famers to get their take, of players currently on the ballot, of their contemporaries and recalled conversations with old timers.
Perhaps the most clarity I gained came from my seven-year old son.
"Mijo," I asked, "would you give an award to someone who cheated."
"No," the second-grader said, without hesitation, or influence, or any clue as to what I was asking him about.
"But what if you only thought they cheated?" I asked again.
"Then just go interview them and ask them, daddy," was his innocent-yet-clarion response.
If only it were that easy.
On one hand, the Steroid Era happened, and Bonds and Clemens were the headliners from the batter's box and the pitcher's mound. Seven MVPs. Seven Cy Youngs. You can't ignore it, can't simply look the other way as baseball itself did at the time. Cooperstown is a living, breathing testament to the game, and to ignore the era would be a disservice to baseball's history.
And honestly, there was a part of me that thought of voting for any and all players at the very least suspected of imbibing in the juice, just to prove a point. This, the thinking would go, is what baseball deserves. Put your head in the sand while your players are becoming muscle-bound freaks? Fine. Then when you come up for air, your shrine will be filled with drug cheats and scoundrels and previous inductees will boycott enshrinement weekend en masse, as the likes of Goose Gossage threatened.
That would be exactly what baseball deserved, right?
Maybe, and they were the best of their generation. But that would seem spiteful, immature and, well, childish. Which gets us to the other side of the spectrum.
Bottom line, what do you tell impressionable children about the short cuts taken with illegal-by-government-standards pharmaceutical help, and the lack of forthrightness coming from these players? To vote now for the likes of Bonds, Clemens and Sosa, let alone Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, would serve as an endorsement of PED use, akin to telling kids it's OK to cheat the integrity of the game to get ahead, while playing Russian Roulette with your health.
This is not to say I will never vote for a PED guy. The fog of time has a way of changing perspective and perhaps witnessing the shame of the Steroid players having to sit out a while before being voted into the Hall serves as a needed cautionary tale for those impressionable youths.
Yes, I know the Hall is already full of cheats and scalawags and racists and drunks and womanizers. And, in writing "Tommy Davis' Tales from the Dodger Dugout" back in 2005, I'm not naive enough to think previous generations were clean, either. "Greenies" used to be the rage, but as someone smarter than me once said, such things were performance-enabling, not performance-enhancing.
I'm not overlooking that, or baseball's cocaine scandals of the late 1970's and early 1980s, or the presence of one Tyrus Raymond Cobb. Or that, in my opinion, baseball did not truly enter the modern age until 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line, when Pumpsie Green joined the Boston Red Sox and, thus, every big league baseball team had been integrated…in 1959.
I was not honored enough at the time with a vote to do anything about it then, like not voting for Cobb.
I am honored to have a ballot now, and that's all mine is -- one ballot. One that this year has six names, four carry-overs from previous years -- Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez, Lee Smith and Dale Murphy -- and two first-year guys -- Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza. Catchers will always get bonus points from me. And yes, I've heard the PED whispers about Piazza -- who hasn't? -- but there is not the mountain of circumstantial evidence against him like there is piled up against the Steroid Era's Not-So-Holy-Trinity.
Jeff Bagwell, he's the wild card. His stats jump out at you now, but he never really jumped out at me as a player. The steroid suspicions on him are strong, but that's not what's keeping him off my ballot. McGwire? His Cooperstown-worthy accomplishments occurred after he became a cartoon character.
So why "come clean" with my ballot, which is no more important than anyone else's? I believe in transparency. Period.
I used to be a staunch believer that there should be no difference between being a second-ballot Hall of Famer and, say, a 15th-ballot Hall of Famer. A Hall of Famer's a Hall of Famer, right? Except, with a maximum of 10 players you can vote for per year, and the Steroid Era guys becoming eligible, a logjam is coming, especially if there is a shutout this year.
Fred McGriff, Jack Morris and Curt Schilling are on this ballot. Next year, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Jeff Kent and Mike Mussina enter the discussion.
So yeah, I respect how the other nearly-600 voters lean, even if I might not agree with how they arrived at their conclusion. That's part of the debate.
So how to reconcile it all? The easy thing to do -- easier than simply voting for the pillars of the Steroid Era the first time they appeared on the ballot -- would be to include the simple following inscription on the bottom of plaques: PLAYED IN BASEBALL'S SO-CALLED STEROID ERA.
The problem, though, as pointed out to me by a friend who happens to be a Yankees fan, "Are you going to put that on Derek Jeter's plaque? What about Mariano Rivera?"
The inference, of course, is they were and remain clean. See, the Steroid Era has infinitely more questions than answers. And ain't nothing easy about that.