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Pandora's Boxes

Filling in those little squares on ballot could open a can of worms for Hall voters as McGwire and others from `steroid era' become eligible.

July 31, 2006|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

The next ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame will appear similar to those that have come before it; a few dozen names, listed alphabetically, their places held by small black squares on the left.

"Please check the candidates of your choice," it will read.

Below that, standing amid the sure things, the tough calls and the easily dismissed:

Mark McGwire.

The Hall of Fame inducted its 65th class in Cooperstown, N.Y. on Sunday, 18 players and contributors in all, one -- reliever Bruce Sutter -- by vote of the Baseball Writers' Assn. of America.

The 2007 ballot will include newcomers Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr., who are expected to garner the required 75% support for induction, each bringing more than 3,000 hits with them to Cooperstown.

Then there is McGwire, who to the election process carries the first hint of baseball's steroid era, and the first all-out confrontation between a player's numbers and the voters' consciences.

He is joined on the ballot by two confessed abusers of performance-enhancing drugs -- Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti, both former league MVPs.

Canseco described his own career as steroid fueled, and has accused McGwire, among other top players and former players, of a similar chemical routine. First in Oakland, then in Congress, now on a Hall of Fame ballot, the Bash Brothers are together again. Caminiti's career is not generally believed to be of Hall standards.

McGwire's is. He hit 583 home runs, 70 in a single season. He was chosen for 12 All-Star games and won a World Series. His name, swing and drawing power became Bunyan-esque, particularly as his arms and chest approached the same dimensions.

"Without question, I believe he belongs there on the first ballot," said Tony La Russa, who managed McGwire in Oakland and St. Louis. "You're talking about a long and distinguished career."

But what, voters might ask themselves, is a vote for Mark McGwire?

A vote, someday, for Rafael Palmeiro, and the guilty. For Barry Bonds, and the accused. For Sammy Sosa, and the suspicious. For Jason Giambi, and the confessed. For Canseco, and the defiant.

A box checked is recognition of the reality of the time, acceptance of steroids as little more than the new amphetamines -- illegal and yet, for years, not banned or documented -- or the medicinal equivalent of the corked bat and the spitball. No voter ever asked about amphetamines.

Barry Bloom, a longtime baseball writer who covers the game for, said he will cast his vote for McGwire and, when he becomes eligible, Bonds, but probably not for Palmeiro, who tested positive for steroids last summer.

"Whatever performance-enhancing drugs [McGwire] did were not illegal in the sport at the time he was playing," Bloom said. "They knew he was doing [androstenedione] and they didn't do anything at the time. Regardless of what happened since, I can't assume McGwire did anything.

"I'll carry my vote through on anybody there isn't empirical evidence against during his time playing major league baseball."

An unchecked box is, perhaps, to stand forever against the convicted cheaters, the charged, the curiously swollen and the whispers.

McGwire retired in 2001, the year before baseball began its testing program. Canseco and Caminiti also retired before the 2002 survey testing, though Canseco has attempted and failed to come back since. Caminiti died in 2004 of a drug overdose.

Bob Nightengale, national baseball writer for USA Today, said he would withhold a vote for McGwire this year and perhaps next, based solely on what he perceives to be McGwire's statistical shortcomings. He said he expected to vote for McGwire at some point in the future, assuming McGwire is not elected before then and otherwise receives enough votes to remain on the ballot.

"The biggest trouble I have with McGwire, he hit so many home runs in such a short period of time," Nightengale said. "It's not like he was a consistent Hall of Famer his whole career."

Bonds and Palmeiro will have his votes.

"If Bonds and Palmeiro came out tomorrow and said we used steroids, it wouldn't change my thoughts," he said. "I'd still vote for them. So many other guys were taking them, including pitchers. So it's almost like a level playing field. ... Because of this era, since everybody was on the same playing field, everybody was allowed to cheat, you still choose the best of that particular era. In this case, the best of the steroid era."

The evidence says McGwire took androstenedione, that he went from gangly to massive, and that he hit 49 home runs as a rookie, only 21 fewer than he hit 11 years later, setting a record since broken by Bonds.

The record says that under oath before a congressional committee he neither admitted nor denied he used steroids. He simply wouldn't say, and left observers -- and now the voting members of the BBWAA -- to draw their own conclusions as to why a man would raise his right hand and choose camouflage.

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