Commentary

Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven in HOF

But the steroids cloud that hovered over the game now taints the Hall of Fame vote

Updated: January 5, 2011, 5:29 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar both waited too long for their congratulatory January phone calls -- it was simply a question of degree -- so you won't find many people who take issue with their election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Alomar deserves to go for his artistry, and Blyleven belongs for those mounds and mounds of numbers, and they'll make a nice pairing on the Cooperstown podium in July alongside Veterans Committee inductee Pat Gillick.

The question now is, what did they leave behind?

As we pay tribute to Alomar and Blyleven and cull through the vote totals, it's only natural to wonder what comes next. Barry Larkin, with 62 percent of the vote, is looking very strong with an underwhelming list of candidates on the horizon next year. But Jack Morris is caught in a vise between voters who value "grit'' and those who abhor 3.90 career ERAs, and Lee Smith could be in trouble now that Trevor Hoffman has surpassed 600 saves and Mariano Rivera is on his way there. As much as the writers loved Big Lee, they might be ready for a temporary moratorium on closers.

Beyond that? You can color the electorate dazed and confused.

[+] EnlargeMark McGwire
US PresswireMark McGwire's votal total went down this year. No, the steroids talk isn't going away.

Fans undoubtedly hate to hear this on what should be a day of celebration, but if there was a single overriding theme to the 2011 Hall vote beyond the Blyleven and Alomar elections, it was the pall that steroids cast over the process.

In too many ways to count, the backlash from the steroid era shaped and molded the dialogue throughout the lead-up to Wednesday's announcement. Hall of Fame voting is an emotional and often draining experience for voters who take the responsibility seriously and regard Cooperstown as so much more than a baseball museum. Now that the "steroid era'' is ostensibly behind us and it's time to put the numbers in proper context and hand out the plaques, the process is more muddled, chaotic and confusing than ever.

This year, we got heaping doses of sanctimony and suspicion on one side, and cries of McCarthyism emanating from the other. Consider the events of last Wednesday, when Jeff Bagwell and Rafael Palmeiro both went public with their take on performance-enhancing drugs and their respective decisions not to use. So what if Palmeiro actually failed a test and Bagwell has never been linked to PEDs in any tangible way? It's all one big morality play, and nobody cares about the details.

Get used to it. In the absence of precedent or concrete guidelines, that's going to be the norm in coming years. When you have almost 600 sports journalists making up their own individual rules on the fly, there are going to be inconsistencies and lots of voices shouting over one another. And just imagine how reasoned and civil the debate is going to be in 2014, when Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza all make their first appearance on the ballot.

Where is the Hall of Fame electorate headed with this thing over the long run? No one is smart enough to provide a definitive answer to that question. But if you look at selected results from Wednesday's balloting, they provide some intriguing clues:

Jeff Bagwell, 41.7 percent

Jeff Bagwell
Bagwell

You could argue that Bagwell should have done better, given his impressive 14-year statistical run in Houston. But it's amazing how much of the debate surrounding his candidacy revolved around what he did or didn't put into his body.

Bagwell never failed a drug test, wagged his finger before Congress or popped up in one of Jose Canseco's books. But he made himself into a slugger after hitting six homers in the minor leagues, and he's credited obsessive weightlifting for his bulked-up physique. That's all it takes these days to make someone a target of suspicion -- or, if you prefer, character assassination.

Even when Bagwell tried to distance himself from steroid use in a recent ESPN.com interview, some voters took issue with his contention that Bonds and Mark McGwire were great players regardless of what they did. In doing so Bagwell violated the cardinal rule that it's not enough for a player to deny PED use; he also has to condemn others for having done it.

Still, Bagwell's relatively strong debut suggests that a lot of voters believe him, don't care or are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. If Bagwell had accumulated more than 2,314 hits and 449 home runs, he might have come close to Larkin's 50 percent total from a year ago.

Mark McGwire, 19.8 percent

Mark McGwire
McGwire

It's often said that a player can't do anything to strengthen his Hall of Fame status in retirement, but McGwire tested that theory a year ago. As part of his quest to return to the field as hitting coach in St. Louis, McGwire delivered a tearful admission of steroid use -- not for the purpose of hitting home runs, he claimed, but to help him recover from injury. The storm eventually subsided, McGwire landed his hitting gig and voters didn't seem to care that he cried real tears on that television set with Bob Costas.

Big Mac dipped from 23.7 percent last year, and his total was the lowest of his five appearances on the ballot. The message: "Coming clean'' might be good for a steroid abuser's soul, but it doesn't earn him much sympathy from Hall voters. It just gives the electorate a bigger sledgehammer to club him over the head with.

Fred McGriff, 17.9 percent

Fred McGriff
McGriff

McGriff is widely perceived as one of the "clean'' players whose accomplishments were unfairly eclipsed by the juicers. This year his vote total dropped from 116 to 104, and he's destined to be crowded out by all the star power that's due to appear on the ballot in coming years. The Crime Dog had a fine and admirable career, but there might not be enough protest votes out there to give him much traction.

Rafael Palmeiro, 11 percent

Rafael Palmeiro
Palmeiro

It's sad that Palmeiro has gone from a great player and surefire Hall of Famer to the butt of so many jokes. But whether his failed test was an act of deception or stupidity, he has only himself to blame. The longer he stays on the ballot, the debate over the abuses of the steroid era will continue and voters might be able to distance themselves from the raw emotion and view his case in a different light. But barring something unforeseen, he has no prayer of making it to Cooperstown.

Juan Gonzalez, 5.2 percent

Juan Gonzalez
Gonzalez

The Rangers sent out a nice, glossy brochure in Igor's behalf, with testimonials from former teammates and erstwhile team owner George W. Bush.

Those two MVP awards and 434 career home runs bought Gonzalez another year on the ballot. But it was just a temporary stay of execution.

Kevin Brown, 2.1 percent

Like Gonzalez, Brown appeared in the Mitchell report, but you wonder how many voters who failed to check his name even took that into account. Maybe Brown logged only 12 Hall of Fame votes because he won a mere 211 games, signed that outrageous contract with the Dodgers and was universally regarded as cantankerous and unapproachable.

Kevin Brown
Brown

Or maybe he's just another example how unpredictable Hall of Fame voting can be. Check out Brown's profile on Baseball-reference.com, and his two closest career comparables are Bob Welch and Orel Hershiser. Welch received a grand total of one vote in his lone appearance on the ballot, and Hershiser was dropped from the ballot after two tries.

Brown's third- and fourth-closest comparables? A pair of Hall of Famers named Don Drysdale and Catfish Hunter. Sometimes the debate is just about baseball. And you never can tell.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer