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Pandora’s Boxes

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.

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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.

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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 MLB.com, 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.

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“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.

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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.

The writers, BBWAA members who have served for at least 10 years and are permitted by their news organizations to vote (Times writers are not), have stocked the Hall of Fame since the 1936 inaugural class of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.

Now their votes are encumbered by rumors, confessions and positive steroid tests, along with another hard look at the voting guidelines, which state, “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

Bill Madden, longtime baseball writer for the New York Daily News, will not support any player he suspects of using steroids, in large part because of the above passage. “I’m not voting for any of those guys -- Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, any of them,” he said. “I draw the line at eyeball evidence and what I personally believe.

“I had three Hall of Famers come up to me last year at Cooperstown, three prominent Hall of Famers, during the weekend, and they all said the same thing, ‘We’re looking to you guys to uphold the integrity of this place.’ ... If the Hall of Fame doesn’t want me or any other writers to take a stand, then take that clause out of the ballot. I plan to invoke that clause.”

What constitutes evidence is left to the voter. Is it a positive test? A federal investigation? Misplayed testimony before Congress? Accusations leveled by a former teammate? Unusual statistical arcs? Twenty pounds gained over a winter?

“The standard is going to evolve,” said Sandy Alderson, chief executive of the San Diego Padres and former general manager of the A’s that spawned McGwire and Canseco. “To me, it’s not clear all the writers have to come up with the gold standard they’re going to apply for all years.”

With more information, Alderson said, “We can better put into perspective who participated [in performance-enhancing drug usage] and why and what impact it would have had on their achievements.”

Alderson, after some consideration, said he believed McGwire should be elected. He also said Hall voters have a duty to bar steroid users.

“I think there’s some justification for that consideration, definitely,” he said.

Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent, a likely Hall of Famer and a hard-liner against performance-enhancing drugs, said he sympathized with the decisions ahead of voters.

“I don’t know where you draw the line,” he said. “In the so-called steroid era, how do you draw the line? Where do the numbers start and stop? I applaud the Hall of Fame voters for stressing over this, because it’s worth it. Because it matters. And it should matter.”

For the moment, while Bonds continues on and Sosa and Palmeiro await their five-year waiting periods, the test case is McGwire, his place in the steroid era, and what that means for the Hall.

“I can understand votes that are trying to send a message,” La Russa said. “I’m disappointed this happened. But I’m afraid that message is personal to a guy I think deserves the induction.”

Either way, it won’t be an ordinary vote, and might not be again for a long time.

“It’ll be interesting,” Madden said, “to see if 75% of us are willing to overlook this steroids thing.”

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Begin text of infobox

The following names will be among those appearing on the 2007 ballot:

KEN CAMINITI - The National League MVP in 1996, he led the San Diego Padres to their second World Series appearance in 1998.

JOSE CANSECO - American League MVP in 1988, he was the first player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in one season. Finished with 462 home runs.

TONY GWYNN - Won the NL batting title eight times and finished his 20-year career (all with San Diego) with a .338 average and 3,141 hits.

MARK McGWIRE - Seventh on the all-time home run list with 583. Set the single-season record with 70 in 1998, before Barry Bonds broke it with 73 in 2001.

CAL RIPKEN JR. - Two-time AL MVP, he played in a major league-record 2,632 consecutive games spanning 16 seasons. Selected to 19 All-Star games.

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Los Angeles Times


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