When people find out that you have a Hall of Fame ballot, they ask you a lot of questions. More often than not, the first one is "are you voting for the 'steroids guys'?" And for many years my answer has been an unequivocal "no."
The way I saw things, it was on the voters to value the integrity of the game, above all on this most prestigious honor.
I'm having a harder time giving that answer this year.
No, I haven't filled out my ballot yet. It feels a lot harder this time to leave off people like Barry Bonds and Rogers Clemens, who were two of the most spectacular performers in baseball history and who captivated the imaginations of more than a generation of fans.
There seem to be a number of reasons why it's gotten harder.
Perhaps the biggest was this month's near unanimous first-ballot selection to the Hall of former commissioner Bud Selig by the Eras Committee (which used to be known as the Veteran's Committee).
Selig was supposed to be the ultimate protector of the game's integrity. Instead, he chose to ignore that performance-enhancing drugs were beginning to run rampant in baseball. After the strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series, where Selig led management, the great 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa brought eyes back to the game.
Of course we now understand that all of that was about performance-enhancing drugs. But, for the person presiding over the sport, getting the fans back was critical.
Like Bonds' time in baseball -- where we so often hear the argument that he "was a Hall of Famer already" before he allegedly added PEDs so he could become the single-season and all-time home run record holder -- Selig's time in baseball included good and bad. He was the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and a key figure when ownership was proved to have conspired to collude and keep player salaries down, which was proved and resulted in a $280 million decision against them.
But he also oversaw expansion of the game into Denver and Miami, an extension of the postseason and huge monetary growth.
So if it was all right with the MLB's highest executive that PEDs were in the game, should it matter to us, the voters?
But there's more. It's not just about Selig.
The Hall of Fame honors the greatest performers from the game. It includes players who may have excelled because they were not competing against the very best: many of the biggest talents played in the Negro Leagues because the sport was not integrated. It also includes those who didn't compete against the very best because so many of the biggest talents were serving in the military.
In both cases there were Hall of Famers who had an edge; so too was the case for players who are alleged of using PEDs.
To some extent the Hall of Fame is about connecting baseball fans with what they saw, the stories they heard and the legacies they studied. If you were a Giants or Pirates fan over 30 and go to Cooperstown, how do you feel about Bonds not being a part of it? If you loved the Red Sox in the 1980s and 1990s, and were riveted by every game Roger Clemens pitched, do you not feel something is missing when you go to the Hall?
Another thing that is troubling is the reaction to Mike Piazza's election to Hall of Fame last year. My ballot was public and other voters used an accusatory to tone when bringing up that I voted for him. There was no direct tie between Piazza and PED use and so, in my role as protector of the game's integrity, I saw nothing wrong with voting in the game's most-accomplished hitting catcher.
But who knows? There is a chance that we, who have a ballot, have already voted in someone who was a PED user. We could have elected someone who wasn't even suspected. No one knows. There's a part of me that wishes someone in the Hall of Fame would out himself and end the agonizing debate every year over who belongs.
So in reconsidering the position, there is this question we face this year. Jose Canseco says he took steroids with Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez. Yet while a 'cheat' himself claims he witnessed the superstar catcher using, he never tested positive. So what are we to think?
And what of Manny Ramirez? He tested positive more than once. And he is probably the greatest right-handed hitter I've ever seen.
What is the measure for induction? Obvious use but no positive test? Alleged use? Tested positive but still the best?
Looking down the ballot, I see clear-cut choices. I also see a whole lot of questions.