The issue will not be considered formally for years, but in light of the revelation that San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds has used steroids late in his storied career, the third-most-prolific home run hitter in baseball history might not enjoy an easy pass into the sport's ultimate destination.
According to a Tribune Publishing newspapers poll conducted among 150 of the approximately 500 Baseball Writers' Association of America members who are eligible to vote on National Baseball Hall of Fame admissions, 65.3 percent declared that they would elect Bonds.
To join the game's most revered class in Cooperstown, N.Y., a candidate must receive votes on 75 percent of the ballots cast. A player is not eligible for admission until five years after his retirement.
Bonds has taken a public relations hit in recent days. The San Francisco Chronicle reported Bonds told a grand jury last December that he unknowingly used steroids during the 2003 season. Bonds reportedly testified that he used a clear substance and a cream that were given to him by his personal trainer, Greg Anderson, who has been indicted in the federal Bay Area Laboratories Co-Operative investigation.
According to the Chronicle, Bonds testified he thought the clear substance was the nutritional supplement flaxseed oil and thought the cream was a rubbing balm for arthritis. In fact, they were synthetic steroids known as "the clear" and "the cream," which have been at the center of the BALCO scandal. Bonds reportedly denied allegations that he used steroids and the human growth hormone during the 2001 and 2002 seasons.
Eighteen percent of the writers said they would deny Bonds membership in the Hall of Fame, while 16.7 percent were undecided. In addition, of the 102 writers who considered whether Bonds deserved a first-ballot election, 61.8 percent said yes, while 22.5 percent said no, with 15.7 percent undecided.
And 68 percent of 150 writers said Bonds' records should not include an asterisk.
"The only true way to evaluate players all time is to break down the facts era by era," said Jeff Miller, a columnist with The Orange County Register of California. "Much like there was a dead ball era, this will go down as the `juiced player era,' since untold numbers of players have been on one thing or another, or most likely a combination of things. Bonds is easily the greatest hitter of this swelled era.
"Yes, I will vote for Bonds during his first year of eligibility. No, his records should not come with an asterisk. The record for consecutive 20-win seasons is 12 by Christy Mathewson. All 12 came during the dead ball era, and there's no asterisk next to his accomplishment."
Dave Kindred of The Sporting News strongly disagreed, citing his suspicions surrounding the power surge that has marked the twilight of Bonds' career.
"If I got a ballot in the mail tomorrow with Barry Bonds' name on it, I would throw it away. I anticipate never voting for him, just as I wouldn't vote for Pete Rose," Kindred said. "I'm persuaded Pete Rose was a gambler long before we knew it, and I'm convinced the last five seasons for Bonds have been a fraud."
Randy Miller of the Bucks County Courier Times of Pennsylvania was more conflicted about Bonds, saying, "He's a slimeball, but he's a great ballplayer."
At age 40, Bonds closed out his 19th major league season by winning his fourth consecutive Most Valuable Player Award - and record seventh overall - and finishing the season with 703 career home runs. He trails Babe Ruth by only 11 homers and needs 52 more to catch Hank Aaron, the all-time leader.
Bonds has gone through a well-known physical transformation since he broke in with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1986 as a slender, speedy hitter not known for the long ball. That gradually changed during the 1990s, and over the past four seasons, a bulkier Bonds has been by far the game's most-feared home run hitter. In 2001, he set a major league record with 73. Bonds has 209 homers in the past four years.
"If you don't vote for Bonds, whom do you vote for? Was Randy Johnson dirty? Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Rickey Henderson? How do we know who was clean and who wasn't?" said Dave van Dyck, baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune.
"It could be we'll decide not to put any suspected steroid guys in the Hall. It could be we'll overlook some transgressions. Remember, Paul Molitor was just voted into the Hall of Fame, and he was an admitted cocaine user. Basically, this is a mess for voters. But we have several years to figure things out."
Some writers, such as St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz, don't believe Bonds should be penalized because he has operated under the guidelines of Major League Baseball's lax rules regarding performance enhancers.
"He was having a great career before steroids, and the juiceless numbers would have been worthy of Cooperstown," Miklasz wrote via e-mail. "I think we can safely presume that Bonds wasn't the only artificially pumped-up superhero action figure in baseball."
Jay Dunn of The Trentonian of New Jersey wants to judge Bonds after seeing where the BALCO investigation leads.
"To me, there's only two choices. Either there is conclusive proof that he violated the law and/or the rules of baseball or there isn't," Dunn said. "If he did, he shouldn't be eligible at all. If there's no proof, then I plan to vote for him the first time I see his name on the ballot."
Joe Haakenson, a reporter for the San Gabriel Valley Tribune of California, added: "I'd be tempted to vote no because I think he's made a mockery of everything. It's ridiculous to think he didn't know what he was getting. [But] I would probably want to wait and see how things fall out with this."