Barry Bonds is eligible for election into the Baseball Hall of Fame this… (Mike Zarrilli / Getty Images )
Barry Bonds owns the most cherished record in baseball, and more than twice as many most-valuable-player awards as anyone else. No pitcher has as many Cy Young awards as Roger Clemens.
Under ordinary circumstances, the Hall of Fame debate would involve whether Bonds or Clemens might become the first player to get 99% of the votes in his election.
However, with the residue of the steroid era sprinkled over ballots on their way this week to about 650 voting members of the Baseball Writers' Assn. of America, the debate involves whether Bonds or Clemens might be elected at all.
The results will be announced in January. A player must get 75% of the votes for election.
In a Los Angeles Times survey of a small group of BBWAA members, 10 said they planned to vote for Bonds and Clemens and eight said they did not. Others declined to reveal their votes.
The survey, while not a statistically valid sample, foreshadows a polarizing election with one side leaning toward recognizing the dominant players of the era and another side leaning toward barring any player tainted by allegations of steroid use, even if that player never failed a drug test.
As voters consider their decisions on the current class of candidates, they also wrestle with the long-term implications of slamming the Cooperstown door to a decade or two of stars.
"I'm troubled by the idea that we will wipe out close to an entire generation," Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports said. "So, I'm constantly looking at this, trying to stay open-minded."
Bonds, who hit a record 762 home runs, was cleared last year of charges he lied to a grand jury when he testified he had not knowingly used steroids. He was convicted of obstruction of justice; he is appealing the conviction.
Clemens was acquitted in June on charges he lied to Congress when he testified he never had used steroids or human growth hormone.
Although candidates linked to steroid use have been rejected in previous votes — most notably Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro — there is no rule against their election.
The Hall of Fame ballot entrusts voters to evaluate "the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."
Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle said he has distilled his criteria to on-field accomplishments.
"I've decided to vote based purely on statistics," Ortiz said. "Despite what some consider a mountain of evidence against some guys, I refuse to pretend I can determine which guys accomplished their feats without the help of performance-enhancing drugs.
"My experience tells me that some of the guys people assume are clean actually weren't, so why would I punish others?"
Danny Knobler of CBS Sports said he has decided, for now, not to vote for any player if there is "reasonable belief" of his steroid use.
"If I'm withholding my vote, it's because I believe there's a belief that you cheated the game," Knobler said. "If you did, I'm not voting for you for the Hall of Fame."
This year's ballot also includes Mike Piazza and Sammy Sosa, not the incomparable players that Bonds and Clemens were but strong candidates nonetheless. Piazza might be the best hitting catcher in baseball history; Sosa ranks eighth all-time with 609 home runs.
Piazza told the New York Times in 2002 that he had briefly used androstenedione earlier in his career — baseball did not ban the substance until 2004 — but had not used steroids. The New York Times reported that Sosa tested positive for steroids in 2003, though he has denied using performance-enhancing substances.
Yet, the 2003 tests were intended to be anonymous, with no penalties attached. Baseball did not hold players accountable for using performance-enhancing drugs until 2004. Bonds, Clemens, Piazza and Sosa failed no tests under the MLB protocol.
"It's too difficult to distinguish who was on something and who wasn't during that era," said Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe. "We're all guessing about the level playing field, so I look at players and their accomplishments individually.
"Where I am able to draw the line is on those players who tested positive after the PED policy was put in place. That is tangible proof."
Even without such tangible proof, Gary Shelton of the Tampa Bay Times said he would vote "no" on players he believes used performance-enhancing drugs.
"To me, the question of PEDs is about what you believe, not what has been proven," Shelton said. "This isn't a court of law."
The quandary has left some voters in search of a middle ground. Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News said he considers, among other factors, whether a player might have been worthy of the Hall of Fame before the earliest alleged use of steroids.
Rosenthal said he generally refrains from voting for steroid-era players in their first year of eligibility, at least for now.