Warning issued to steroid brigade

By John Romano, Times Sports Columnist
Published January 9, 2008

So Roger Clemens does not give a rat's patootie about the Hall of Fame.

From the looks of things, the feeling might be mutual.

You might have heard Rich Gossage was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame on Tuesday. Good man, worthy honor. But the bigger impact from this year's election might have been a 12-time All-Star who did not get elected. A guy who hit nearly 600 home runs, and did not come close to the necessary 75 percent cutoff.

In other words, the first nominee of the steroid era.

After getting 23.5 percent of the vote on his first year on the ballot in 2007, Mark McGwire made the leap to 23.6 percent in '08. With that kind of momentum, Big Mac can plan a Hall of Fame election party in about 515 years.

The news was obviously not good for McGwire, but it also did not bode well for Rafael Palmeiro, who will be eligible in a few years. Or Barry Bonds. Or, the increasingly agitated Clemens.

Clemens recently held his first news conference since being implicated in Sen. George Mitchell's steroid report, and he angrily tossed aside a question about his candidacy, saying he didn't give "a rat's a--" about "the damn Hall of Fame."

That's good because Hall of Fame voters do not appear to be in a forgiving mood when it comes to assessing the impact of steroids on baseball careers in the 1990s.

McGwire was unlucky enough to be the test case, and it's not going well for the one-time big lug. Only four Fame-eligible players hit more homers than McGwire's 583, and all four were elected in their first year of eligibility. Yet, after two years, McGwire is closer to being dropped from the ballot than being carried into the Hall.

Is it fair? I honestly don't know. I voted for McGwire last year, and did not vote for him this year. And I wouldn't bet against changing my mind again next year.

I voted for McGwire in '07 because I was convinced we will never know the full extent of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball in the past 20 years. I didn't think it was fair to penalize McGwire when plenty of others might have been using steroids without being implicated.

I still feel that way today. The difference is, after debating with colleagues, I now believe McGwire would not have been a Hall of Fame candidate without steroids. That his career was drastically altered by artificial means.

From ages 25 to 30, McGwire hit .238 with an average of 31 homers a year. From ages 31 to 35, he hit .287 with 57 homers a year. That's a seismic shift in production, even if you factor in better health.

I can justify a player's career perhaps benefitting from performance-enhancing drugs when steroids and HGH were apparently such a large part of the landscape, but it's hard to accept a career that may have been transformed.

From the looks of the ballot, a lot of other voters have similar concerns. I thought there was a chance some voters left McGwire off the ballot last year as a punishment for steroids, but would come into the fold this year.

That theory was shot apart on Tuesday. Gossage got 78 more votes this year than last. Bert Blyleven went up 76 votes. Andre Dawson got a 49-vote bump, and Jim Rice went up 46.

McGwire got the exact same number of votes this year as he did last.

Maybe attitudes will change - McGwire will remain on the ballot for another 13 years, as long as he receives at least five percent of the vote - and voters will soften their stance as we move further from the steroid scandal.

But the way it looks today, McGwire will not be a Hall of Famer.

Will the same attitude prevail when Clemens becomes eligible? How about Bonds? Or Palmeiro or Sammy Sosa?

There will be some who argue Bonds had a Hall of Fame career even before he fell in with the BALCO crowd. I'm inclined to make that argument myself. As for the others, it will probably be a case-by-case basis.

Palmeiro will have to overcome his apparent perjury before a congressional committee. Sosa may be lumped in with McGwire. And Clemens certainly did not endear himself to voters with his approach this week.

Once, you could debate worthiness by pointing at stats. By counting up All-Star appearances or arguing impact and domination. Now, every election has the feel of a police lineup.

The bottom line is it has never been more difficult to pick a Hall of Famer out of a crowd.

And it has never been more disheartening.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.