By Ernie Palladino
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What has become a yearly debate resumed two weeks ago when approximately 475 baseball writers nationwide received the Hall of Fame ballot.
We all know how it goes at this point. What will they do with the steroids guys? Is it time to let cheating bygones be cheating bygones and open the doors to Cooperstown? Or should they continue to deny the game's most dominant players of that era -- Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, and the biggest Mac-daddy of them all, Barry Bonds -- the plaque that cements their on-field accomplishments as among the greatest of all time?
No less than Clemens might have offered a glimpse into the near future during an interview last week with a Boston radio station. The Rocket told the hosts that, if he ever made the Hall, he would go in wearing a Red Sox hat since it was in Boston that the former Yankees ace started his record seven-Cy Young Award career along with his nickname.
Even thinking along those lines for a player whose case for alleged steroids use was about as strong as the one against O.J. represents at least the hope that the balloting iceberg has started to thaw.
A small break may even happen this year. Piazza, whose own candidacy has suffered because of unsubstantiated whispers about PEDs, may just make it this year after last year drawing 69.9 percent of the require 75 percent needed for election.
He was by far the leading vote-getter among the steroids suspects.
It could be a close call this year, however. With squeaky-clean Ken Griffey, Jr. just about a slam-dunk for a first-ballot call, and another great newcomer in reliever Trevor Hoffman sure to gobble up a bunch of votes, Piazza has to contend with the 17 holdovers from last year's ballot. Among them are the above-reproach Tim Raines and Alan Trammell.
Still, excluding those who live in the steroids shadow, the ballot does seem thin enough to allow Piazza to slip in if enough voters give him the benefit of the doubt.
Clemens has a longer road to travel, having attracted only 37.5 percent last year. Bonds came in at 36.8 percent.
The Hall did change its voting eligibility rules over the past year, taking away voting rights from so-called honorary members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who no longer cover the sport. All voters now must have covered games in the past decade.
That got rid of a handful of hard-line curmudgeons, some of whom had gone on record as saying they would never, ever vote for any player of the Steroids Era.
Purging that preposterous attitude should help, though there remain plenty of active voters who have proclaimed those with evidence of cheating or even suspected of nefarious behavior will never gain entrance on their watch.
If Piazza does get in, though, it may open the way for others. In truth, it may be time. Cheater or not, something has to be done with the stars -- those accused after their careers ended and those like Alex Rodriguez, who baseball punished and then reinstated to continue compiling his Hall of Fame-worthy stats.
The responsibility lies with the directors of the Hall itself. The job of the Hall is to put the history of baseball on display, the bad and shady as well as the good and sparkly. Whether that involves sequestering the cheaters in a separate nook, denoting the honored with a "Steroids Era Player" asterisk, or some other method, the time has come to encourage voters to loosen their attitudes.
Whether it happens this year, next year, or five years from now, the cheaters will have their day. Perhaps that is what Clemens was anticipating when he spoke with The Sports Hub.
It makes sense. Even the hardest of hard-liners can't overlook two World Series rings, a record seven Cy Youngs, and all those strikeouts over a 24-year career forever.
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