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Cooperstown standards subjective, and that’s good

Seeing the names of baseball’s alleged steroids users in the recently released Mitchell Report is one thing. Seeing them on the official 2008 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot is quite another.

Seeing the names of baseball’s alleged steroids users in the recently released Mitchell Report is one thing. Seeing them on the official 2008 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot is quite another.

So you pause a little longer than you otherwise would have when you scan the list and come across David Justice and, right below him, Chuck Knoblauch. Neither of those players had a legitimate chance at Cooperstown enshrinement before they were linked in Mitchell’s report to the use or possession of steroids. So they surely don’t have an illegitimate chance at enshrinement now.

Then you notice a couple of names that didn’t surface in Mitchell’s 409-page findings, compiled in an investigation lasting 20 months, but have carried the taint of illegal performance-enhancing substances for years. There’s Brady Anderson, the lean outfielder who spent most of his career in Baltimore and whose home run production went like this from age 29 to 34: 13, 12, 16, 50, 18, 18. In a 15-year career, Anderson hit almost 25 percent of his lifetime home runs in the 1996 season, the same year in which he slugged .637 after never topping .449 in his first eight seasons.

A little farther down the page, there’s Mark McGwire. It is McGwire’s second season on the ballot and an accompanying data sheet reminds voters (I’ve been one since 1991, qualified by 10 seasons as a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America) that he slammed 583 home runs in his 16-year career. Not only that, the Paul Bunyanesque slugger hit balls out of the park at a more prodigious rate — one for every 10.6 at-bats — than anyone else in major league history. He bashed a then-record 70 in 1998, out-homering Chicago’s Sammy Sosa in what looks now to be one guilty-pleasure summer.

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Hall of Fame parade passing McGwire by
Then you recall that McGwire, for all his Homeric feats, got just 23.5 percent of the available Hall votes last year, way short of the 75 percent needed for election. You think about his ill-advised and pathetic performance in front of Congress in 2005 (“I’m not here to talk about the past”), his empty pledges to be part of an anti-steroids education program for kids, and a reclusiveness these days approaching J.D. Salinger proportions.

You know where you stood on McGwire’s eligibility a year ago and where you still stand today. And you move on.

Then you think about players who were talked about, and fared rather poorly, in the Mitchell report, a handful who otherwise might have been solid to shoo-in candidates: Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield and, of course, Barry Bonds. Fortunately, you can move on from them, too, because they won’t show up on the ballot for several more years. Then again, you’re pretty sure you won’t be making any marks next to their names when the time comes.

Nope, no asterisks, the scarlet letter of the sports set. But no X’s in their boxes either.

“Who’s to blame for this? I have to blame the players,” says longtime Twins pitcher Bert Blyleven, who is now part of the Twins’ TV broadcast team.

“It’s not the ownership. The players have to control themselves. It’s the decisions that the players made,” he told me Friday. “Did Roger Clemens take steroids? Did he take HGH? Only Roger Clemens can answer that.”

Blyleven — who says he would have considered steroids late in his career, if someone had offered them for his ailing right shoulder — also is on the ballot, for the 11th time. His 287 career victories rank 25th all-time; his 3,701 strikeouts rank fifth; his 685 starts rank 10th; and only eight pitchers threw more than his 60 shutouts. And 260 voters (47.7 percent) felt that earned him a spot in the Hall. But 285 looked at his 250 defeats, his lone 20-win season, and his lack of Cy Young trophies and did not.

That’s the beauty of the process, frankly — the opportunity to measure each player by a variety of criteria, from batting statistics to post-season accomplishments. From a guy’s peak performances to his longevity, consistency and durability. From a burning desire (and an ability) to win, to intangibles such as class and openness to the fans.

Flexible standards a strength of Hall of Fame
That is what makes it all so appealing as a system and so special as a shrine. It isn’t based on automatic standards. Statistics are treated as suggested thresholds, but there are plenty of Hall of Famers above and below those standards. Character matters — it’s right there in the guidelines: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which he played.”

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So disregard the bloviation you might hear nationally from folks who should know better, like ESPN’s Buster Olney, or the hokum of some local yokels who declare — with no foundation at all — that voters now must either embrace everyone in baseball’s unofficial “steroids era” or support no one.

Nonsense. It is a subjective process. Those of us casting ballots are encouraged to draw our own lines and conclusions. If enshrinement were a simple in/out, black/white, yes/no switch to flip, voting wouldn’t be needed.

I’ve traveled to Cooperstown three times. There is a museum attached to the Hall of Fame, right between the plaques room and the national baseball library. This “steroids era” can be accounted for in the museum, which has exhibits that include Pete Rose, the 1919 Black Sox scandal and, even now, Bonds surpassing Henry Aaron as the home run king.

But the Hall of Fame proper, the men honored in bronze, requires an invitation based on all of the above ingredients, not just one or two. When it comes to alleged steroid users, one could argue that the game’s elite should be held to the highest standards, in the old to-whom-much-is-given, much-is-expected view.

Maybe someone can cheat his way to a six-year, multimillion-dollar contract, an appearance in an All-Star Game, or a muscled-up outlier season like Anderson in 1996. But someone shouldn’t be able to cheat his way into the Hall of Fame, not if integrity counts, not if guys like Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn count.

Oh, and for those who might argue that Bonds and Clemens were worthy of Hall inclusion before they might have turned to creams, clears and needles, I’ll say it just one more time: That’s like arguing that Warren Buffet and Donald Trump shouldn’t be convicted of bank robbery, since they already were rich.

Next week: I’ll open up my ballot for readers.