Only a month before the great referendum on juicers in Cooperstown, baseball has gone through an intriguing streak of PED amnesty.
In their search for a new manager, the Rockies interviewed two men cited in the Mitchell Report, lead actor Jason Giambi and cameo-role player Matt Williams. Neither got the job, but just five years ago, when the Mitchell Report came out, who could have imagined that any confessed drug user would end up so close to claiming the most visible leadership position in a franchise?
Only two years ago, Tony La Russa's decision to bring Mark McGwire back into the game as a hitting coach seemed like little more than a ploy to rehabilitate his image, and perhaps La Russa's as well. Now, the Dodgers have eagerly seconded that move, hiring McGwire away from the Cardinals and into a market with none of St. Louis' sentimental attachments to the former slugger. They knew that they'd have to answer for vesting authority in a man effectively barred from Cooperstown because of his pharmaceutical transgressions. They obviously thought he was worth the trouble.
"It's a mistake that I have to live with for the rest of my life,'' McGwire told Fox Sports Radio in part of his introductory media tour. "I have to deal with never, ever getting into the Hall of Fame. I totally understand and totally respect their opinion and I will never, ever push it. That is the way it's going to be and I can live with that.''
One has to wonder whether people within the game would embrace McGwire as a Hall of Famer. We can't know because the vote belongs to baseball writers. In a few weeks, they will each receive the Class of 2013 ballot, the first to carry the names of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. I am supposed to get one. I don't want it. I gave up voting a long time ago. I'd rather that the entire task, and especially the doping question, go to a committee of enshrined players.
Their verdict would mean more. If the writers leave out Clemens or Bonds, the most accomplished pitcher and hitter of the last generation, large portions of the public will simply disregard the message. After all, the media have already had their say on the topic of PEDs. This vote won't reveal anything new. But it's never been clear what former players think, if there is anything resembling consensus. Only a few speak up loudly. Most duck the issue. It's too much for them. They fear sounding like blowhards, or worse, bitter old men jealous of the buff studs who replaced them and make much higher salaries.
But placed in a room for a long weekend, knowing they must debate their peers and arrive at a decision, they will take the responsibility seriously. The game would benefit from creating the forum for such a conversation, even if we never hear details of it. Instead of giving random interviews on the topic, players like Goose Gossage, who is ardently anti-doping, and Mike Schmidt, who has said he understands the temptation, could express themselves with a purpose.
Everyone in the room would have something precious at stake. Henry Aaron had no way to defend his home-run record; he was discouraged every time he tried to express reservations about Bonds' late-career power surge. Given the ballot, he could defend the meaning of the Hall of Fame, whether that means barring Bonds or saying that 762 home runs count as an unimpeachable qualification.
This voting method would also greatly reduce the risks of rejecting certain suspects while admitting a player who doped but didn't get caught. If that player gets in, he will know that the Hall is not a fortress of purity. When he becomes a voter, he is more likely to take a permissive view toward dopers on the ballot and try to rectify the imbalance he represents. There's no guarantee of that, but it's an absolute certainty that writers cannot gain the same insight.
We could also avoid the spectacle of Clemens' attorneys lobbying on his behalf. Two of them, Rusty Hardin and Michael Attanasio, spoke on a law-school panel in southern California and confused the "not guilty'' verdicts in the pitcher's obstruction and perjury case with conclusive proof that he deserves his sport's greatest honor.
"For (writers) to say, 'He's not getting into the Hall of Fame because I know he did it'?" Attanasio said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "I think that's shameful."
Does anyone think he'd direct that kind of comment at Aaron or Schmidt? He'd have too much respect to condescend to them that way. The athletes know that the Hall of Fame is not an entitlement and that refusing someone entry is not akin to convicting them of a crime. They know it better than the writers. They earned their places there, and they know what that required of them.
This election is going to throw most of that up for grabs. It's going to be unseemly and chaotic, primarily because of Bonds and Clemens, but also because of Sammy Sosa and his 609 home runs. It won't be decided by voters saying "I know he did it.'' It will be decided by the brand of reasonable doubt that shapes legacies.
But this vote will only decide whether those players are first-ballot Hall of Famers. If they don't make it now, they have 14 more years to get in. The information about their careers and PEDs may arrange itself like McGwire's place in baseball over the 7 ½ years since he testified on Capitol Hill, or like Giambi's in the eight years since his grand-jury testimony, a full confession under oath, was published.
Over that time, the voting process should rearrange itself, too. The players may have to be persuaded to take over. They might not want the responsibility, fearing pressure from under-qualified former teammates to vote them in. The Veterans Committee had that problem about 40 years ago, and the Hall ended up with a surplus of Frankie Frisch's pals. But the Veterans Committee works well now, and its continued existence acknowledges fallibility in the current system.
Regardless of which way the vote goes, that fallibility is about to balloon. Leave Bonds and Clemens out, and the Hall's a farce. Put them in, and the vote's a punch line. The writers can't win. They need to get out of the game.