Until Thursday afternoon, Roger Clemens' legacy was etched in bronze. He was destined to go down as the greatest pitcher of his era -- the greatest ever, in the estimation of many. And he embodied the notion that age 40, for the driven modern-day ballplayer, is indeed the new 30.
If Clemens' 354 career victories, 4,672 strikeouts and seven Cy Young awards were never going to earn him a 100 percent pass to the Hall of Fame, Tom Seaver's all-time high vote total of 98.84 percent wasn't out of the question.
One press conference and 82 mentions in the Mitchell report later, Clemens is in a fight to retrieve his reputation and his place in history.
No player took a bigger hit from former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell's 20-month investigation into the steroids era than Clemens, whose alleged transgressions take up nine pages in the report. The case against Clemens stems from testimony by his former trainer, Brian McNamee, who claims to have personally injected Clemens with steroids during the pitcher's tenure in Toronto and New York.
The Mitchell revelations prompted a quick and angry response from Clemens' lawyer, Rusty Hardin, who called McNamee a "troubled'' man and said the allegations were both false and slanderous. When union leader Donald Fehr talked about some players having their reputations tarnished, perhaps forever, Clemens stood as Exhibit A.
Thankfully, there's no need for a snap decision. Even if Clemens has pitched his final game, he'll have to wait five years to be eligible for the Hall of Fame. In a bizarre twist, his name could appear on the ballot alongside that of Barry Bonds, who is fighting a perjury and obstruction of justice charge along with allegations of steroid use, and may never play again.
For the 500-plus voters in the Hall of Fame electorate, it doesn't get any easier. First came Mark McGwire, who fell well short of induction in his first appearance on the ballot last winter. Rafael Palmeiro makes his debut on the ballot in 2011. And after that, it's Bonds and Clemens in tandem.
What lies in store for Clemens? In an effort to gauge the sentiment on the heels of the Mitchell report, ESPN.com e-mailed surveys to more than 150 eligible voters on the subject of the Rocket and the Hall. The first wave of responses reflects an overwhelmed, conflicted and thoroughly divided electorate.
The question: "If the Hall of Fame election were held today, would you vote for Roger Clemens?''
The answers: All across the board.
Of 100 respondents, 37 said they plan to vote for Clemens; 22 put themselves in the "no'' camp; and the largest segment, 41, are currently undecided.
The split reflects the schism among Hall of Fame voters, many of whom have forsaken hard-and-fast positions in the name of keeping an open mind. Mark Purdy, columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, said this is the hardest time in history to be a Hall of Fame voter.
"Every writer I know takes the task seriously, and when I try to process all the information and morality and accusations and evidence through my brain as the ballot sits in front of me, I get a headache,'' Purdy said. "This may come to be known as the steroid era. But for writers who have a Hall of Fame vote, it's the Advil era.''
Clemens already appeared to be Cooperstown-bound when his performance began to slip and he went 40-39 over a four-year span with the Red Sox in the mid-1990s. Former Boston general manager Dan Duquette, once vilified for his observation that Clemens was in the "twilight'' of his career, now looks like a prophet in hindsight.
The same argument applies to Bonds, who had more than 400 homers and 400 stolen bases and ranked on a par with Ken Griffey Jr. as baseball's premier player in the 1990s before allegedly turning to human growth hormone.
Many prominent voters -- including several ESPN writers -- have pronounced themselves uncomfortable with playing detective and trying to guess which players were clean or dirty. So rather than pick and choose based on gut instinct or innuendo, they simply vote based on the numbers.
"The bottom line is that we really don't know who cheated or who didn't cheat, so I have no choice but to put everyone on the same playing field,'' said Bob Nightengale of USA Today.
As others point out, the Hall is filled with players who arrived in Cooperstown carrying some baggage. The list includes alleged Vaseline smearers (Gaylord Perry), ball scuffers (Don Sutton), amphetamine users (Willie Mays) and players with ties to "recreational'' drugs (Ferguson Jenkins, Orlando Cepeda and Paul Molitor, to name three).
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ray Ratto refuses to draw a distinction between steroid offenders and players with other black marks.
"I would vote for Bonds on the first ballot, as I would vote for Clemens, because the Hall of Fame isn't church,'' Ratto said. "It's the history of baseball, and this is part of the history of baseball. I can assure you that Bud Selig will be voted into the Hall of Fame, and he is the commissioner whose name will be linked with the steroid era by first ignoring it, then profiting from it, and finally blaming others for it.
"I know that Cap Anson is in the Hall of Fame, and he was instrumental in the creation of the color line, which is way worse than PEDs. So this discussion ends up being an excuse for people with no institutional memory or understanding to claim a moral superiority they're not really equipped to display.''
Other voters have determined that they're going to draw a hard-and-fast line at players who were chemically enhanced on the way to piling up their Hall of Fame numbers.
"My feeling is that the Hall of Fame is a reward, not an entitlement,'' said Dan Graziano of the Newark-Star Ledger. "And I don't feel I should reward cheaters. If Clemens cheated in an effort to elevate himself from great to immortal, I don't feel obliged to reward that decision with my vote, no matter how great he was before he cheated.''
This may come to be known as the steroid era. But for writers who have a Hall of Fame vote, it's the Advil era.
--Mark Purdy, San Jose Mercury News columnist
In between those two spectrums, there are dozens of conflicted voters who make their decisions on a case-by-case basis. They're reserving judgment until Jose Canseco's next book comes out, or the next Palm Beach Rejuvenation Center story hits the news wires. It'll be a while before the hyperventilating ceases and some perspective emerges.
Although the Hall of Fame ballot advises voters to consider a player's "integrity, sportsmanship and character'' as well as his accomplishments on the field, that proviso seems inadequate to address the complexity of the situation. So some writers will continue to make up rules on the fly.
"I'm in favor of a separate Rogues Wing which would allow Bonds, McGwire, Clemens, Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson to all get in,'' said Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune. "Then we wouldn't have to do any more annual surveys on who belongs.''
In the meantime, pass the ballots -- and the Advil.