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Schmuck: PEDs will continue to dominate Baseball Hall of Fame discussion for years to come

Maybe someday, there will be another baseball Hall of Fame election that isn't a referendum on the sport's ugly steroid era, but it probably won't happen anytime soon.

When the results of this year's vote are announced Wednesday, we'll find out if the voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of American (BBWAA) have softened on the steroid issue, which has been a major subplot of the annual Hall of Fame induction process since suspected users began appearing on the ballot.

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For the most part, voters have taken a hard line against the players who they feel cheated their way to greatness, dismissing the likes of Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire with small vote totals. But Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens saw their vote percentages increase significantly last year after being selected on about a third of the ballots in each of their first three years of eligibility.

It seems highly unlikely either one will reach the 75 percent necessary for induction this July. But another solid increase in support could signal a sea change in the way Hall voters view the best players who were tarnished by either the strong suspicion or proof that they used performance-enhancing drugs during their otherwise Hall-worthy careers.

By some accounts, the fact that former baseball commissioner Bud Selig will be inducted in Cooperstown, N.Y., this year after being selected by the Today's Game Era Committee — one of the era-pegged groups that replaced the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee — is reason to rethink how we view the players who used PEDs during his tenure.

The flawed logic goes something like this: Selig was the commissioner during the steroid era and was guilty of looking the other way for a decade before a series of well-publicized scandals and pressure from Congress pushed him to commission a wide-ranging steroid investigation in 2006. Since Major League Baseball benefited greatly from the exploits of the suspected players and Selig will soon be rewarded with a plaque in upstate New York, it isn't fair to continue punishing the players tainted by the scandal.

That's absurd. Selig never stuck a needle into anyone and — while his response to the growing evidence of widespread steroid use in baseball was slow — his ability to act was severely limited by baseball's collective bargaining agreement.

It's fair to debate whether Selig deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, just as it is fair to debate whether Bonds and Clemens should get some slack because they were headed for the Hall long before they came under steroid suspicion. But the two situations aren't really related.

It will be interesting to see how the vote totals change as more steroid suspects appear on ensuing ballots.

This year's ballot also included Sammy Sosa, who barely survived the five percent requirement to remain eligible last year, and first-time candidate Manny Ramirez, who would be a slam dunk if he had not been suspended for PED violations twice during a career that included 555 home runs and 1,831 RBIs.

Ramirez's vote total also could be an indicator of any attitude change on the part of some Hall voters, since he — unlike Bonds and Clemens — actually tested positive under baseball's enhanced testing protocol in 2009 and 2011.

Palmeiro, who was the first legitimate Hall of Fame candidate to appear on the ballot after testing positive for steroid use, was chosen by just 11 percent of voters his first year and remained eligible only four years before falling below the five percent requirement to stay on the ballot.

This year's ballot was headed by Houston Astros star Jeff Bagwell, who was chosen by 71.6 percent of voters in 2016 and appears likely to gain induction in his seventh year of eligibility, but he might already be in if not for steroid suspicion.

Bagwell regularly denied steroid use, never tested positive for any banned substance and was not named in either the Mitchell Report or the leaked list of players who tested positive in the supposedly anonymous steroid survey testing in 2003. But some voters have said publicly they didn't vote for him in the past because of PED-related doubt.

Perhaps the real tragedy of the steroid era is that no one is above suspicion. And with controversial superstars Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz just starting their five-year wait to become eligible for the Hall, we're pretty much guaranteed to be talking about the subject for many years to come.

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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