Atop the cover letter accompanying my ballot from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is a slogan:
“Preserving History. Honoring Excellence. Connecting Generations.”
It’s a slogan begging for two more words:
I used to anticipate the arrival of the Hall of Fame ballot with the same eagerness I once fit my small fingers into a glove to play catch with my dad. This year? When the ballot showed up, I left the letter unopened for a few days, the way I do with notices for overdue bills.
The challenge of determining the Hall of Fame worthiness of any player can be stimulating, enlightening and — dare I say it? — fun. Voting for the likes of Dale Murphy and Don Mattingly, guys I happen to support with more vigor than my baseball-writer colleagues, makes me proud to be part of the process.
But when a ballot contains the names of three all-time greats in their first year of eligibility — three would-be, should-be Hall of Famers who won’t be Hall of Famers, at least any time soon — I’m not proud to be part of a process that denies enshrinement to seven-time MVP Barry Bonds, and seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens, and 609 career home-run hitter Sammy Sosa.
While it’s anybody’s guess how many players artificially sweetened their statistics during baseball’s steroid era — 30 percent sounds low, 80 percent sounds high, my hunch hovers around 50 percent — there’s little doubt about Bonds, Clemens and Sosa.
Bonds, during his perjury trial, admitted he used steroids. Clemens disputed the evidence, but his DNA, along with traces of steroids and human growth hormone, was found among the drug paraphernalia kept by Brian McNamee, his personal trainer. Sosa, according to reports, tested positive in 2003.
Those are the facts, and here’s the quandary: “Voting,” according to the rules for election, “shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
Integrity, sportsmanship, and character: I didn’t make these rules; I’m merely obliged to follow them.
Bonds, in the prime of a Hall of Fame career when he saw how Sosa and Mark McGwire captivated fans during their home-run chase of 1998, decided to beef up his power numbers by beefing up on steroids. He doesn’t pass the integrity-sportsmanship-character sniff test.
Nor do Clemens and Sosa, who came to compete at baseball as if it were a personal numbers game.
The way I see it, I’ve got four choices.
• Surrender my voting privileges, because I’ve got no business serving as both judge and jury. (True that. Aside from a wood-shop class in high school, the only F grade I ever received on a report card was in communications law, as a college senior. As if to prove the failure wasn’t a fluke, I flunked the course a second time before getting serious and managing a D.)
But surrendering a vote, any kind of vote in any kind of election, is a gutless cop-out.
• Select nobody on the ballot, because if Bonds, Clemens and Sosa aren’t Hall of Famers in this 2012 Class, who is? Except selecting nobody is tantamount to surrendering the privilege of voting: It’s another gutless cop-out.
• Select Bonds, Clemens and Sosa without rendering any judgment on their drug-enhanced performances, because no testing procedure was in place while they were rewriting the record books. This would alleviate the headache factor, and rescue me from the sense that I am an out-of-touch grump who screams at the kids who dare stray on my lawn.
But to cast an all-cheaters-are-fine vote simply because I’m wary of the stereotype associated with my age group? Not happening. I’m 58, and my lawn looks like hell.
• Plod on and do the best I can as a Hall of Fame voter who has no better solution to this mess than anybody else. I’m prepared to select as many as 10 players on my ballot whose achievements did not mock the notion of integrity, sportsmanship and character. The headache is part of the bargain. It won’t kill me.
As for the presumptive first-ballot snubbing of Bonds, Clemens and Sosa, it won’t kill them, either. They get to keep their specious records, and the unfathomable wealth their specious records assured them. They get to keep everything near and dear to them.
I get to fill out a ballot. I get to mark an “X” in the boxes next to the names of Dale Murphy and Don Mattingly. I get another reminder of why I love the summer game that brings so many headaches in the December mail.