The Washington Times - January 29, 2009, 02:28PM

Mark McGwire’s thus-far woefully unsuccessful Hall of Fame candidacy indicates that the Baseball Writers Association of America intends to keep the stain of the Steroid Era from tarnishing Cooperstown’s hallowed hallways. Some thought the BBWAA might eventually forgive the former single-season home run king for his alleged transgressions, but that looks a lot less likely after his percentage of the vote dipped from 23.6 in 2008 to just 21.9 percent this year. The requisite 75 percent is a long way off, and it’s tough to imagine that anything - up to and including an admission of wrongdoing and a sincere apology - could sway such a large number of voters.

McGwire smacked a rookie-record 49 home runs in 1987, but after some mediocre seasons and numerous injuries, he hit just 18 homers total in 1993 and 1994 and appeared to be on his last legs. If you believe his bodybuilder - and now, author - brother Jay, that’s exactly when Big Mac went over to the dark side. Even if you don’t believe Jay McGwire but do think Mark McGwire used performance-enhancing drugs the timeline makes sense, and he hit 403 of his 583 career homers between 1995 and 2001, when he retired at age 37. If you believe disgraced slugger and former teammate Jose Canseco, who claims McGwire began using steroids in the late 1980s, basically everything McGwire ever accomplished on a big league ball field is called into question.

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While McGwire has never - as far as we know - tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, his refusal to deny using them is seen by many as sort of a cowardly admission of guilt. If McGwire hadn’t done anything wrong, he likely would have used the public forum provided by the 2005 congressional hearing on steroid use in baseball to clear the air; instead, he tearfully told the panel that he wasn’t there to talk about the past. Because of this, and because McGwire did little between the lines other than hit for power, it’s easy for fans - and more importantly, the BBWAA - to make the case that McGwire wouldn’t even be knocking on Cooperstown’s doors if not for performance-enhancing drugs.

In other words, McGwire’s candidacy didn’t actually serve as the test case that many said it would; the only real precedent it established is that the BBWAA won’t vote to induct a one-dimensional slugger widely believed to have used performance-enhancing drugs during his prime years. As the names of McGwire’s contemporaries begin to appear on the ballot in the coming years, however, the BBWAA will be faced with far more nuanced - and perplexing - decisions. The majority of the BBWAA’s members clearly care deeply about the game and its history, and while the organization obviously wants to maintain the integrity of the Hall of Fame, the writers surely don’t want to deny deserving players the honor of induction, either. The way they collectively choose to view the stars of the Steroid Era and their accomplishments will play a major role in determining this period’s place in baseball’s long and storied history. Let’s take a closer look at some of the difficult decisions the BBWAA will soon face.

Rafael Palmeiro

Keeping Rafael Palmeiro out of the Hall of Fame is actually an even easier call for the BBWAA than excluding McGwire, but it wasn’t particularly long ago that Raffy looked like a first-ballot lock. The sweet-swinging lefty is one of only four players in Major League history to amass both 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, and he also won three Gold Gloves for his defense at first base. During the same congressional hearing at which McGwire sealed his fate, Palmeiro came across as a hero by pointing a finger at the panel and firmly asserting that he had never used steroids. That, however, only made him look like more of a goat when he was suspended for 10 days on Aug. 1, 2005, after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Palmeiro will appear on the ballot for the first time in 2011, and you can expect the BBWAA to clearly establish once and for all that no player who has been suspended for performance-enhancing drug use will ever be voted into the Hall of Fame.

Sammy Sosa

Sammy Sosa comes up for induction in 2013 and presents a very interesting case. Many people assume that Slammin’ Sammy used performance-enhancing drugs because of his gaudy, McGwire-like numbers and his cartoonishly muscular build, but it has never been proven. And while McGwire essentially pleaded the fifth at the infamous congressional hearing and Palmeiro simply lied, Sosa - well, his lawyers, anyway - at least went as far as to say that he had never used “illegal performance-enhancing drugs” or “injected [himself] or had anyone inject [him] with anything” or “broken the laws of the United States or the laws of the Dominican Republic.” It’s certainly at least possible that, through experience and hard work in the weight room, Sosa evolved from a good player to a great player in the mid-90s, and it will be hard for the BBWAA to keep the man with the sixth-highest career home run total in Major League history (609) out of the Hall of Fame if no concrete evidence surfaces that he used performance-enhancing drugs. The way things stand now, my guess is that Sosa won’t get in on the first ballot - an honor that seems to be reserved for the all-time greats - but will be inducted eventually.

Barry Bonds

In their 2006 book “Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports,” San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams provided what many consider to be irrefutable evidence that Giants superstar Barry Bonds used many different performance-enhancing drugs, beginning in 1999. The publication of the book represented the culmination of a two-year investigation in which Fainaru-Wada and Williams conducted hundreds of interviews, reviewed thousands of documents and even obtained Bonds’ sworn 2003 testimony before a grand jury, which was supposed to be confidential. Bonds faces four counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice as a result of that testimony, in which he denied knowingly using performance-enhancing drugs. He pleaded not guilty in December, and his trial is scheduled to begin on March 2.

Some believe that the evidence presented in “Game of Shadows” automatically disqualifies Bonds as a potential Hall of Famer. Others - including some who are convinced that Bonds did in fact use performance-enhancing drugs - still believe he deserves a plaque in Cooperstown. One school of thought is that even if you throw out all of Bonds’ post-1998 accomplishments, he still belongs in the Hall of Fame on the strength of his achievements beforehand. By the end of the 1998 season, Bonds had hit 411 home runs and stolen 455 bases in his career, and was a three-time MVP and eight-time Gold Glove winner. Others argue that Bonds’ accomplishments - 762 career home runs, including a record 73 in 2001 - are so incredible that he belongs in the Cooperstown once he’s eligible in 2013, steroids or not.

If Bonds is convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for denying that he knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs before a grand jury, the BBWAA will probably view him in the same light as Palmeiro and deny him induction to the Hall of Fame - especially considering that prosecutors intend to show that Bonds failed a steroids test in November 2000. The exclusion of hit king Pete Rose for betting on baseball sets a precedent for keeping even the game’s all-time greats out of Cooperstown in order to protect the integrity of the most prestigious of all sports shrines, and some would argue that using performance-enhancing drugs is more detrimental to the game than betting on it - provided, of course, that you don’t bet against your own team, which Rose swears he never did. My guess is that Bonds, like Rose, will always have a place in history, but never in the Hall of Fame.

Roger Clemens

In 2013, Roger Clemens will join Sosa and Bonds on what promises to be the most controversial Hall of Fame ballot ever. Clemens’ statistics, of course, put him in the company of the game’s all-time greats. The Rocket won a record seven Cy Young awards and ranks third all-time in strikeouts (4,672) and ninth in wins (354). But, like Sosa and Bonds, Clemens may find himself on the outside looking in when it comes to Hall of Fame enshrinement, as allegations of performance-enhancing drug use have called the authenticity of his accomplishments into question.

Whispers about possible performance-enhancing drug use by Clemens turned into front-page headlines on Dec. 13, 2007, when his name came up a whopping 82 times in former U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s report on steroid use in baseball. According to Mitchell, former Yankees trainer Brian McNamee - who also served as a personal strength coach for Clemens and Andy Pettitte - reported that he injected Clemens with steroids and human growth hormone on several occasions between 1998 and 2001. Clemens appeared before a congressional committee on Feb. 13, 2008, and swore under oath that he had never used performance-enhancing drugs, while McNamee, who was seated just a few feet away from Clemens, stuck to his story. A federal grand jury is currently considering whether to charge Clemens with perjury as a result of his testimony.

Most of the arguments about whether Bonds belongs in the Hall of Fame could be applied to Clemens’ candidacy as well. There are those who believe Clemens shouldn’t even be considered because of his inclusion in the Mitchell Report, while others aren’t convinced that McNamee is a credible witness and believe Clemens when he says he hasn’t used performance-enhancing drugs. Some think he had accomplished enough by the end of 1997 (213 wins, four Cy Young awards) to deserve enshrinement even if his achievements thereafter are disregarded. And there are those who argue that any pitcher who can win 350 games and strike out more than 4,500 batters deserves a place in Cooperstown regardless of whether or not he used performance-enhancing drugs.

The truth is that if Clemens is in fact tried for and convicted of perjury, he’d stand almost no shot of ever getting into the Hall of Fame. However, if the grand jury declines to indict Clemens, some will view that as a victory for him, and possibly even a vindication. As it stands now, it’s Clemens’ word against McNamee’s, and Mitchell - who was recently selected by President Obama as the new U.S. envoy to the Middle East - felt McNamee was credible enough to include Clemens in the report that will forever be synonymous with his name. As great of a competitor as he was, Clemens - barring some unforeseen development - appears destined to go down as another tragic figure of the Steroid Era.

Gary Sheffield

With 499 career home runs, the still-active Gary Sheffield would be a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame if judged only by his accomplishments on the field. However, Sheffield - believing his testimony was confidential - reportedly admitted to the BALCO grand jury in 2003 that he had used what he thought were undetectable steroids. Sheffield’s name also turned up in the Mitchell Report, and he admitted in his book, “Inside Power,” that he used a suspicious cream during a 2001 workout with Bonds, though he said that, to his knowledge, the cream did not contain steroids. It’s hard to imagine that the BBWAA would ever grant Hall of Fame induction to a player who admitted under oath to using steroids, especially when the ability to hit for power is that player’s signature trait. It’s possible that the voters could come to view Sheffield as someone who unfortunately just got mixed up with the wrong guy (Bonds), but it would take some proactive moves on Sheffield’s part in order for that to happen. A public admission and apology would be a good start. Educating young people about the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs would be a logical next step.

Other Steroid Era stars

Only time will tell how history will judge McGwire, Palmeiro, Sosa, Bonds, Clemens, Sheffield and the other stars of the Steroid Era, but reasonable assumptions can be made. For starters, Hall of Fame-caliber players who are believed to have never used performance-enhancing drugs in an era in which usage was rampant will be looked upon even more favorably. As of right now, this group includes pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Pedro Martinez, Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera and position players Fred McGriff, Barry Larkin, Craig Biggio, Roberto Alomar, Omar Vizquel, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Jim Thome, Mike Piazza, Jeff Kent, Manny Ramirez, Chipper Jones, Carlos Delgado, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero. Of course, with new allegations emerging all the time, this list is subject to change.

On the polar opposite side of the equation are the admitted users. Jason Giambi, who is closing in on 400 career home runs, told the BALCO grand jury that he had used steroids and human growth hormone. After being named in the Mitchell Report, Pettitte admitted that he used human growth hormone in order to speed his recovery from a 2002 elbow injury. Pettitte will probably be looked back upon more favorably because he openly admitted his mistake, while Giambi, like Sheffield, believed his testimony was confidential and may have never admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs otherwise. Pettitte and Giambi have had good careers, but were Cooperstown longshots and now have virtually no chance because of the performance-enhancing drug stigma. And, of course, there’s Canseco, who dumped a can of gasoline on baseball’s steroid controversy with the 2005 release of his book “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big.” Canseco finished with 462 home runs and won the 1988 American League MVP award when he became the first player in history to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in the same season, but even before he admitted to using steroids, he wasn’t viewed by most as Hall of Fame material.

And then there are the active and former Hall of Fame-caliber players who currently live under a cloud of suspicion, and may never get out from under it. Miguel Tejada - a five-time All-Star, and the 2002 A.L. MVP - has a chance to go down as one of the better power-hitting shortstops of all time. It’s more likely, however, that he’ll be remembered as one of the biggest-name players to be included in the Mitchell Report, though Tejada has admitted no wrongdoing. Two-time A.L. MVP Juan Gonzalez was also named in the Mitchell Report, and Canseco, in his book, claims to have injected Juan Gone with steroids. Canseco’s credibility is certainly debatable, and Gonzalez denies ever having used steroids. Canseco also claims in his book to have injected catcher Ivan Rodriguez, a 13-time Gold Glove winner and 14-time All-Star. Rodriguez was not named in the Mitchell Report and has not admitted to using steroids. It will be very difficult for the voters to make judgments on these players until more information is available.

Moving on

The Steroid Era was a huge black eye for Major League Baseball. Commissioner Bud Selig, the owners and the players all deserve shares of the blame, but on the bright side, all parties appear to be doing their best to put it behind them and move forward. The terms of the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program adopted in the spring of 2006 provide the deterrent that was missing from the MLB rulebook for far too long. All players will be randomly tested at least once between the start of spring training and the end of the regular season, and the Office of the Commissioner has the option of ordering additional tests. A player’s first positive steroid test results in a 50-game suspension; the second, a 100-game suspension; and the third, a lifetime ban. Most observers seem to be satisfied with these terms. The one problem that remains is the lack of a reliable, affordable and sufficiently unintrusive test for human growth hormone; one would hope that players will be tested for this banned substance as soon as a satisfactory test is available.

Baseball’s performance-enhancing drug problem has been exposed and positive steps have been taken as a result, which is cause for optimism. More frequent testing and harsher penalties make it more likely that cheaters will be identified and ostracized by teammates and fans, and clean players can now be more confident than ever before that they’re on a level playing field with their counterparts. The human growth hormone testing issue still must be addressed, but fans can be at least reasonably sure that their heroes’ accomplishments result from a combination of God-given ability and hard work, rather than some concoction created in a strip-mall laboratory. And all of this will make it easier for us to place what we’re seeing on the field in its proper context within the game’s rich and storied history.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.