Steroids throw next Hall vote a curve

July 30, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.-- -- Bruce Sutter is the father of the split-fingered fastball and was one of the most dominating relief pitchers of his time, so his induction into the Hall of Fame today honors both the man and a role that has long been underrepresented in baseball's most hallowed shrine.

The 17 Negro leagues greats who will be installed posthumously this afternoon imbue the occasion with added historical significance.

Still, I can't help but view this induction weekend as something of a warm-up act.

Cal Ripken is on deck, and the next Hall of Fame election just might be the most controversial in history.

There is no question about Ripken, of course. The only thing that could keep him out of Cooperstown next summer is a call-up this September ... and I don't believe he's pondering a comeback. The only real question about the election this winter is whether he'll eclipse Tom Seaver with the highest percentage of votes from the 500-plus eligible members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA).

If he doesn't, he probably won't miss by much. He is one of the most revered players of his era, and the combination of his cumulative numbers and the fact that he broke Lou Gehrig's supposedly unapproachable record for consecutive games will make it very difficult for even the most curmudgeonly old ball writers to leave him off his first ballot.

Tony Gwynn, the enormously popular San Diego Padres star, also is a mortal lock to join Ripken on the big stage at the Clark Sports Center, but it is the other member of next year's Big Three who figures to dominate the Hall of Fame conversation over the next 12 months.

Mark McGwire also was expected to be a big percenter until his squirrelly performance at last year's congressional steroid hearings left everyone assuming that he must have used much more to build his huge biceps than just the then-legal pseudo-steroid Androsteindione.

It will be interesting to see how the BBWAA voters deal with that perception, which could be damaging enough to keep McGwire below the 75 percent threshold for induction.

What an uncomfortable situation for all concerned. The Hall of Fame voters are stuck with two unpalatable choices. They can either vote for McGwire and ignore what seems obvious to everyone, or leave his name unchecked on the ballot and convict him of steroid use without any real evidence.

Personally, I would find it hard to pass Big Mac over, if only because I still believe that innocent until proven guilty is more than just a legal cliche. The guy may have embarrassed himself in front of Congress, but he spent most of his life working very hard to be a great baseball player, and I don't think you throw his life's work into the ashcan of baseball history without a little thing called proof.

That said, McGwire's presence at next year's induction ceremony would, at the very least, create an awkward juxtaposition - the suspected steroid cheat standing side-by-side with Mr. Clean from Baltimore and Mr. Happy from San Diego.

Which leaves Hall of Fame voters to decide whether it's more important to give McGwire the benefit of the doubt ... or give Ripken and Gwynn an induction weekend that doesn't take place under the cloud of baseball's tawdry performance-enhancement scandal.

Perhaps the best course of action for voters would be to withhold endorsement of McGwire until Major League Baseball has sorted out the whole steroid mess. Former Sen. George Mitchell may complete his steroid investigation by the time the 2007 Hall of Fame ballots are mailed out in December, but it seems more likely that the MLB probe will drag on into next year.

The House Committee on Government Reform could have cleared up this particular issue during the March 17, 2005, hearing by forcing McGwire to answer the did-you-or-didn't-you question under oath, but committee chairman Tom Davis stifled several attempts by committee members to compel the former Athletics and Cardinals star to confirm or deny past steroid use.

Like everyone else, I'm curious how this will all play out, since it will be the first in a series of decisions that Hall of Fame voters will have to make on the stars of the so-called steroid era. Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa - if neither makes good on his threat to stage a comeback - will appear together on the ballot after the 2010 season, and Barry Bonds figures to show up soon after that.

Oh, and by the way, congratulations, Bruce. peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Peter Schmuck is an eligible Hall of Fame voter, but The Sun does not allow its reporters and columnists to take part in the selection process.

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