One thing every Baseball Hall of Fame voter seems to agree on is this: We all wish Mark McGwire were not on the ballot this year. It's too soon. None of us has any perspective about McGwire's career or the careers of any of those 1990s baseball players who put up astonishing numbers and probably injected illegal steroids.
What will history say about this era in baseball? We can only guess now.
But McGwire is on the Hall of Fame ballot this year, so choices must be made. Like many, I've tossed and turned about McGwire (this is, I believe, the 2,483rd McGwire column written in America this month). I asked two dozen of my smartest friends in and out of baseball what they think about McGwire. Most of them believe I should vote for McGwire. Their reasons are sound.
1. The job of a Hall of Fame voter is to judge a player's baseball career and not his moral character. Sportswriters have no business judging ethics.
2. The people running baseball did not test for steroids, so they obviously didn't care.
3. In fact, baseball people were stealthily encouraging steroid use. We in the media, on the other hand, celebrated home runs very loudly. It seems wrong to go back and judge players.
4. Lots of players, surely, did use steroids - and we'll never know about most of them. So how can you punish McGwire alone?
5. Let's not forget, McGwire never failed a drug test. We don't know he used.
6. Baseball has a long and celebrated history of cheating - from stealing signs to throwing spitballs to corking bats - so how is this any different?
7. We have no idea how much steroid use helped McGwire as a player. We do know he hit 583 home runs, and he had a .394 on-base percentage.
Friends offered other reasons to vote for McGwire as well, but these more or less cover the big points. Let me say, I agree, more or less, with most of these reasons. My head says: Vote for McGwire and let the chips fall.
But (you knew this was coming) I'm sitting here looking at McGwire's name on the ballot ... and I simply cannot put an X next to his name. Maybe next year. Maybe in 10 years. Maybe new information will clear up everything. I'm open to anything.
But for now, one thought overshadows all the rest: The Baseball Hall of Fame is the greatest honor in sports. The key word here is "honor." This is not like an award. As Bill James points out, if a player is the best defensive shortstop, he deserves to win the Gold Glove. If he doesn't win it, then, well the voters just messed up. The Baseball Hall of Fame is different. Voters are given one vague sentence to decide who belongs: "Voting shall be based on the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the teams on which the player played." That's it.
In the end, you vote from your gut. Like most, I take my vote very seriously, and I spend a ridiculous number of hours studying the statistics, talking to former players, listening to the Jim Rice lobbyists and creating Hall of Fame charts that probably do more to confuse than anything.
But there comes a moment when you have to decide what you believe.
Here is what I believe: I believe Mark McGwire used steroids. I couldn't prove it in a court of law, and I would not want to prove it. I still believe McGwire knowingly cheated and broke laws to become one of the greatest home run hitters who ever lived.
No, I don't know how much steroids helped him, but I believe he used them for a reason. They kept him healthy and allowed him to become unnaturally strong.
Yes, sure, everybody happily looked the other way. But I believe players knew what they were doing. They knew they were breaking laws - both American and the laws of sportsmanship. That's why they did it behind closed doors. And it's why so few have admitted it.
Finally, this is important: I don't think McGwire should be punished for using steroids - by that I mean, I don't think he should have his home runs rubbed out of the record book, and I don't think he should have asterisks placed next to his name. I would not boo him if I saw him at a ballgame, and I would not want him charged with any crimes, and I will remember him fondly for his home run season of 1998.
This has nothing to do with punishment. The Baseball Hall of Fame is the greatest honor in sports. In my gut, as of this moment, I just don't believe he deserves that honor.
Joe Posnanski writes for The Kansas City Star.