Commentary

Rafael Palmeiro doesn't pass the test

It would be nice to ignore steroid controversy in HOF voting, but it would be wrong

Updated: January 18, 2011, 1:03 AM ET
By Jim Reeves | ESPNDallas.com

For years, Rafael Palmeiro ducked the phone calls, ignored the messages, stayed out of the public eye and hoped that perhaps people would forgive and forget.

If only it were that easy.

I didn't vote for Raffy for the Hall of Fame at the end of December, as much I would have liked to do exactly that. I offer no apologies for that either, nor do I apologize for leaving Mark McGwire off my ballot, or Juan Gonzalez, or any of the others closely linked with steroid use whose numbers should have easily qualified them for admittance.

I voted for both players who made it this year, Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven, and a handful of others who didn't.

Based on the numbers, I was hardly alone when it comes to Palmeiro's situation. Out of 581 qualified Hall of Fame voters, 517 (89 percent) decided not to check the box next to Raffy's name. For that omission, we have been accused of setting ourselves up as the Hall's "moral compasses," or its "gatekeepers." We've been depicted as judgmental and unforgiving.

[+] EnlargeRafael Palmeiro
AP Photo/Chris GardnerA fan's sign after Rafael Palmeiro's positive steriods test expresses how most Hall of Fame voters still feel about him.

Sixty-four voters chose to overlook Palmeiro's positive test for steroids, or decided it didn't matter, and voted for him anyway.

I understand their reasoning, while certainly not agreeing with it. It would be far easier to be able to simply ignore the steroid era and just judge everyone by their numbers and between-the-lines contributions to the game. For instance, this guy had 3,000 hit and 500 homers, he's in; this guy won 10 Gold Gloves and had a lifetime batting average of better than .300, he's in; this guy won five MVP awards and hit 70 homers in a season, he's in.

Simple.

But dead wrong.

It would be nice if life actually worked this way because we could all ignore controversy, questions and allegations, check the boxes next to the appropriate names based on the black and white facts and move on to the next task. But it doesn't.

Baseball has never been just about numbers, as much as the statisticians would like to sell that bunk to us. It's just as often about heart and about character. It's about the will to win as much as it is about the ability to hit home runs or throw fastballs, and that's why teams that simply don't seem to match up to their opponent on paper persevere anyway.

I give you this year's world champions, the San Francisco Giants, as a shining example.

Judge and jury? Moral compasses? Gatekeepers? Yeah, maybe so, because that's the responsibility we accept when we qualify to become a Hall of Fame voter. Because of the steroids issue, it's a responsibility that has become so charged with controversy, I have even considered rejecting that honor and asking that my name be taken off the rolls as an active voter. It was a difficult and often agonizing challenge before the steroids era descended upon us. You can only imagine what it's like now.

But I haven't quit as a voter -- not yet, anyway -- because I consider it a sacred responsibility to the great players of the past to keep their exclusive club as clean and pure as possible. And yes, I say that with full knowledge that there are already a few in there with questionable credentials and backgrounds. All I can do is the best that I can. I owe that to late greats such as Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig, Eddie Matthews and Roberto Clemente. I owe it to Nolan Ryan and Fergie Jenkins, to Alomar and Blyleven.

Here's what it says on the National Baseball Hall of Fame website about qualifications for entrance to this exclusive club: "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."

At least three of those qualifications have nothing to do with numbers.

Unfortunately, there are no guidelines for the unique circumstances we find ourselves challenged by. Each of us, as voters, has had to develop our own standard about how to deal with steroids players. Nor is this a court of law, in which someone is innocent until proven guilty. So for myself, I've come up with an informal rule of thumb: If a player has tested positive or was implicated in the Mitchell report, I'm almost certainly not going to vote for him for the Hall of Fame. It's hardly scientific, but it's the best we can do.

That's how I feel right now. I reserve the right to change my position as more evidence presents itself or if I just get softer in the future. Maybe time will eventually heal this wound, but I don't expect that to happen in my lifetime.

A black and white fact: Raffy tested positive. He says it must have happened inadvertently from a tainted B-12 injection. Maybe that's the truth. I hope so, but then, almost all of the steroid cheats have lied about their culpability, haven't they? Palmeiro was also named in the Mitchell report (because of his failed test), and Jose Canseco claimed to personally have injected him with steroids. I have no respect for Canseco but, unfortunately, his claims can no longer simply be brushed off as a sordid attempt to sell books.

In the aftermath of his suspension, Palmeiro basically disappeared. He didn't return phone calls. He made no public statements, offered no further explanations and declined interviews. He didn't begin to talk to reporters again until the last few months, not long before his name would appear on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. He should have spent the previous 4 1/2 years trying to convince anyone who would listen that he was innocent.

I loved watching Raffy play, loved that sweet left-handed swing which seemed so effortless and pure. His numbers say he belongs in the Hall of Fame. I thought he was headed there for sure. But unless Miguel Tejada, who reportedly provided the B-12 injection that Palmeiro claims must have been the culprit, confesses to having accidentally given him steroids instead, I fear Palmeiro will never be there.

I didn't vote for him. I doubt that I ever will. I can't and won't apologize for doing my job the best way I know how.

What I won't ever do, I hope, is bury my head in the sand and ignore my responsibility as a Hall of Fame voter. I'll quit before it comes to that.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.

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