Then came the congressional steroid hearings of March 2005, when former Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire sat uncomfortably in a chair on Capitol Hill and repeatedly refused to answer pointed questions about whether he took performance-enhancing drugs.
"McGwire's performance before Congress was disgraceful, and his hermit-like status since hasn't helped his cause," said Tom Haudricourt, baseball writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I would think he has little or no chance of joining Ripken and Gwynn as first-time electees. If he had 'fessed up before Congress, that might be different."
The results of the BBWAA vote will be announced tomorrow at 2 p.m., and while Ripken and Gwynn could challenge the all-time highest vote percentage, McGwire is expected to fall far below the required 75 percent needed for induction.
A small faction of writers believes the omission is appropriate, not only because of McGwire's congressional tap dance, but because his presence on the Cooperstown dais on July 29 would take away from Ripken and Gwynn, two baseball ambassadors with squeaky-clean images.
Of the 169 voting BBWAA members who responded to an e-mail question from The Sun, 162 said that Ripken's and Gwynn's likely induction did not factor into their decision on McGwire. Most said they don't compare one candidate to another while filling out their ballots.
Said San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ray Ratto: "I consider every player separately, since none of them ever stood on each other's shoulders and played in one giant uniform like some weird Little Rascals skit."
But seven voters said it was difficult to think about McGwire's induction without considering how the controversy would affect Ripken and Gwynn.
"There are no doubts with those two guys, and I would think [McGwire] would detract from the atmosphere. It would be all about McGwire," said Don Burke of The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.
View from St. LouisBurke said he likely wouldn't have voted for McGwire no matter who was on the 2007 ballot. The inclusion of Ripken and Gwynn made it that much easier.
"For what Ripken did for the game in '95, he shouldn't have to play second fiddle to anybody," Burke said, "on that day especially."
The man who perhaps most closely monitored McGwire during the famed 1998 home run chase, when the slugger hit a then-record 70 homers, also thinks Ripken and Gwynn hurt Big Mac's Hall of Fame candidacy this year, but not so much because of the "ceremony spoiling" aspect.
Rick Hummel, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's baseball columnist who covered McGwire during his playing days, thinks McGwire wouldn't have been inducted this year even if the steroids issue had never surfaced.
"If he had a perfect, impeccable record, he still wouldn't have gotten in this year," Hummel said.
His theory is based on voting history.
Although voters are allowed to select as many as 10 candidates each year, most don't. So, inadvertently, candidates might end up in competition with one another.
Shades of '99Hummel points to the 1999 election, when there were four quality first-time candidates - Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Robin Yount and Carlton Fisk - as well as holdovers and eventual Hall of Famers Tony Perez, Gary Carter and Bruce Sutter.
Ryan and Brett had near-historic vote totals, but Yount received just 2.5 percent more (12 votes) than he needed for induction and Fisk fell 9 percent (43 votes) short.
Hummel contends Yount was more Hall of Fame-worthy than McGwire, and if Yount almost failed because of stiff competition in 1999, Hummel didn't anticipate McGwire would make the cut in 2007, with or without a steroids cloud.
Not with a lifetime batting average of .263 and only 1,626 hits, barely half of the totals posted by Ripken (3,184 hits) and Gwynn (3,141).
By far, McGwire's best attribute was his prodigious power. He slugged 583 home runs (seventh all-time) and had four consecutive seasons in which he hit 52 or more. He accomplished that before Major League Baseball enacted a steroids policy and formally banned performance-enhancing drugs.
"I voted for [McGwire], but I didn't slam-dunk it in there," said Hummel, who will be honored at July's ceremony as the 2007 J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner for excellence in baseball writing.
"A lot of things are involved, and I can see where 1,600 hits is not good enough," Hummel said. "But I saw the impact he had on the game, and that put me over the top. I don't think I ordinarily would vote for someone with 1,600 hits, but he had a special two or three years going there."
Willing to waitAt one point, Hummel said he predicted McGwire would be named on more than half of all submitted Hall of Fame ballots. Now, he said he could see the slugger fall well below the 50 percent mark and perhaps as far down as 10th in votes received, behind holdovers Jim Rice, Goose Gossage, Lee Smith and Andre Dawson, among others. One Internet betting site put the over-under line for McGwire's total at 31 percent.
"At first, I thought between 40 and 50, then 35 and 45 [percent]," Hummel said. "Now I don't think it will be even that high. I'd be surprised if it is over 30 percent."
Although The Sun survey did not ask specifically about McGwire's candidacy, 40 of the 44 who volunteered their opinion said they wouldn't vote for him in 2007. The common theme is that voters aren't in a hurry to put him in; a player can remain on a ballot - assuming he continues to get at least 5 percent of the vote - for 15 years.
"All I can say to McGwire is this: The truth shall set you free," said Tom Dienhart of The Sporting News. "Until he figures that out, he's not getting a whiff from me."
The debate will rage on - and next year Ripken and Gwynn won't be a factor.
Then, it will be solely about McGwire as a player and a congressional testifier.
"I'd vote for McGwire in any event. It's not a moral vote," said Jeff Blair of Toronto's The Globe and Mail. "And say what you will about his performance in front of Congress, [but] isn't stonewalling and skirting the issue the thing you're supposed to do in front of those windbag committees? Seems to me that's how you get a Cabinet post."