The debate was supposed to have ended on that night last month in Seattle when Rafael Palmeiro stroked his 3,000th hit, a well-placed double that bounced in front of the left field fence at Safeco Field, a spot in baseball immortality landing with it.
As one of four players with 500 home runs and 3,000 hits, Palmeiro - who has had a career cast in the background for so many years - appeared to be destined for baseball's Hall of Fame.
That, at least, was the prevailing opinion until less than a week ago when the Orioles first baseman was suspended for 10 days on Monday after testing positive for steroids, making him - according to the results of a Tribune Publishing newspapers survey - now a long shot to gain admission to the halls of Cooperstown, N.Y.
In the survey, conducted among 147 of the approximately 500 Baseball Writers' Association of America members who are eligible to vote on Hall of Fame entry, only 20 percent of the respondents said they would vote to elect Palmeiro.
"Not now, not ever," said Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News. "[Last] Sunday, I would have voted for him; 569 home runs, 3,018 hits - those are Hall of Fame numbers, but those numbers were enhanced by steroids. I've set my personal policy, and I won't vote for him."
Added Paul Sullivan, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune: "[Palmeiro] is the poster boy for the steroid era. Others are fortunate they have not been caught, but they won't get my vote, either."
Palmeiro, who wouldn't be up for consideration until five years after retiring, which he has said he likely will do after this season, would need to be named on 75 percent of ballots to gain admission.
Forty-one percent of the survey's participants said they wouldn't vote for Palmeiro at all, and another 7 percent said that they definitely wouldn't vote for Palmeiro on the first ballot but might in later years.
"I would not vote for cheaters, and I think steroid abuse is one of the most heinous crimes in baseball," said Gary Hyvonen, a columnist for the North County (Calif.) Times.
Only 30 of the 147 voters said they'd include Palmeiro's name on the ballot.
"The 500/3,000 club is awfully exclusive," said John Perrotto of the Beaver County (Pa.) Times, who said he'd vote for Palmeiro as of now. "That being said, I've never been happier that there is a five-year waiting period between the end of a player's career and the year he is included on the Hall of Fame ballot.
"While I can't speak for all the voters, I think a lot of perspective is going to be needed on this matter because it's so unprecedented. The only way you can really gain that perspective is with time."
Like Perrotto, many respondents appear intent on taking a cautious approach to the decision, waiting for Palmeiro's situation to unfold. Twenty-seven percent of voters said that they were undecided at the present time or that it is much too early to even consider the question.
The Sun, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The Atlanta Journal Constitution are among the papers that don't allow their baseball reporters to vote on Hall of Fame entry to avoid possible conflicts of interest.
"I don't think I'll have a ballot with his name on it until 2012," said Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle. "Why don't we just wait?"
Several of the voters said they are waiting for Palmeiro's explanation on the failed steroid test before coming to a conclusion.
Arn Tellem, Palmeiro's agent, said last week that the disgraced slugger, who tested positive for steroids in May, "will tell his side of the story soon." Palmeiro testified before Congress on March 17 that he never used steroids, pointing his finger for emphasis.
He maintained after his suspension that he has still never "intentionally used steroids."
However, he has reportedly tested positive for stanozolol, a powerful anabolic steroid that doctors say is unlikely to be ingested by accident. Several voters admitted that they were ei ther unsure or leaning toward voting Palmeiro in, until they heard about the severity of the steroid.
"I was on the fence until the report came out that he tested positive for stanozolol," said LaVelle E. Neal III, a Minnesota Twins beat reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "There's no way that he could have unknowingly taken that."
Others are hoping that by the time Palmeiro is eligible for consideration, a precedent will have been set by the induction of other players who have thrived in what has become known as the "steroid era."
Mark McGwire, a suspected steroid user who testified before Congress alongside Palmeiro, is eligible to be considered in 2006 in the same class with near-certain first-ballot selections Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn.
Sosa and Bonds are the only two active players with more home runs than Palmeiro, though neither of them has been caught taking an actual substance, unlike Palmeiro.
"I think in five years you have to evaluate the culture of that time," said Joe Strauss, a reporter for the St. Louis Post- Dispatch who is undecided on Palmeiro. "What are you going to do, exclude everyone you suspect?"
There are others who feel that since it is unclear when Palmeiro started using steroids, it is unfair to punish him for baseball's lax rules regarding performance-enhancing drugs for most of his career.
Palmeiro, according to this point of view, was simply doing what many of his competitors were also doing.
"I blame the rules," said The Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Daugherty, who said that he will vote for Palmeiro on the first ballot without reservation.
"People who instantly knee- jerk react to ban him need to ask themselves how many current Hall of Famers would have made it without amphetamines.
I'm not that self-righteous. I don't think much of the guy for what he did, but I don't take my kid to the Hall of Fame to see saints; I take him to see ballplayers."
Sun staff reporters participated in compiling the survey. Reporters from the Chicago Tribune, Hartford Courant, Newsday, Orlando Sentinel, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Newport News (Va.) Daily Press participated in the survey. All are Tribune Publishing newspapers.
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