Commentary

Wait 'til next year

Cooperstown controversy looms with Bonds, Clemens on the ballot

Updated: July 25, 2012, 12:36 AM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- It was an idyllic weekend for baseball and American values in upstate New York. Birds chirped. The sun shone. Business hummed at the lemonade stands. And former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, the quintessential hometown kid made good, shed any pretense of faux cool when he stood on the Clark Sports Center podium and exclaimed to no one in particular, "This is un-stinking-believable!"

The weekend evoked a certain innocence that traditionalists hold dear. But it's about to get steamrolled, in a Pete Rose-Ray Fosse kind of way.

[+] EnlargeBarry Larkin
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesBarry Larkin in the moment? Believe it. But who will be at the podium in 2013?

The 2012 National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony is complete, and speculation is already rampant over what will become of the star-studded and performance-enhancing drug-stained 2013 class. It's headed by Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, baseball greats whose reputations were irretrievably tarnished even before they went through the wringer of highly publicized trials. Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza, two other hitters with gaudy credentials, will also face considerable scrutiny because of steroid allegations when their names appear on the ballot in December.

The fate of those players will be determined by the Baseball Writers Association of America electorate, which has shown little tolerance for steroid offenders to this point. Mark McGwire, 10th in baseball history with 583 homers, has yet to surpass 23.7 percent of the vote in six years on the ballot. That's barely a fraction of the 75 percent necessary for induction. McGwire is Mr. Popularity compared to Rafael Palmeiro, who is mired in the 11-12 percent range. Palmeiro's 3,020 hits and 569 homers are no match for a failed drug test and an ill-advised finger wag before Congress in 2005.

While the writers grapple with their consciences and moral compasses, an undercurrent of distaste has surfaced among some current Hall members, who have sent out warnings that they would rather not have PED offenders soiling the carpets and stinking up the drapes in their exclusive fraternity.

Reggie Jackson recently made news when he questioned the validity of Alex Rodriguez's career statistics in a Sports Illustrated interview. Jackson, who subsequently apologized, wasn't in Cooperstown this weekend. But fellow Hall of Famer Jim Bunning picked up the mantle of outrage in an interview with Willie Weinbaum of ESPN's "Outside the Lines."

"You don't cheat to get in," Bunning said. "In my opinion, taking steroids, or juicing up as it's called, is cheating. It is taking and giving yourself an unfair advantage over someone who is not using steroids."

[+] EnlargeJohnny Bench and Yogi Berra
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesWill future inductions of PED-implicated players make Hall of Famers stay away from Cooperstown?

One of the potential repercussions: Hall of Famers could decide to express their displeasure by not coming to Cooperstown in July. This year, 44 Hall members shared the stage with Larkin and the widow of fellow inductee Ron Santo. Depending on whom you believe, the election of a known steroid user could put a major crimp in the star appeal on the podium.

"If any of those guys get in, no Hall of Famer will attend," Jackson told SI recently.

Several Hall of Famers told ESPN.com that they have yet to engage in a full-blown dialogue on the issue. But some expected the issue to be raised during their annual Sunday night dinner with commissioner Bud Selig. If Selig thought it was uncomfortable sitting on the stage when Larkin gave a shout-out to Rose during this year's induction ceremonies, he hasn't seen anything yet.

In reality, Bunning and Jackson were probably overstating the case when they raised the specter of an empty podium in Cooperstown. Most Hall of Famers are going to great lengths to avoid the topic or dance around it, if only because it's a no-win proposition.

Tony Perez said he plans to return in 2013 regardless of what happens in the voting, although he acknowledged, "I'm glad I'm not in [the writers'] shoes." Roberto Alomar similarly acknowledged that the writers face a difficult decision and said he's doing his best to remain "neutral" in the debate. Alomar is a recently minted Hall of Famer from the class of 2011, so it's hard to blame him for sitting back and letting others drive the discussion.

Andre Dawson isn't so reticent. During a Saturday afternoon autograph session, Dawson sat at a back table of the Safe at Home collectibles store and pondered the big question that's dogging the Hall. He shared his thoughts between signing Louisville Sluggers and vintage Montreal Expos jerseys.

"I'm a big Pete Rose fan, and he's not in the Hall of Fame for the integrity of the game," Dawson said. "That's one of the key components, I think, to getting in the Hall of Fame. When you're talking about the criteria of the game and what it takes to be represented here, I don't think you can break the rules.

"I know some players were maybe Hall-worthy before [they took steroids]. But they did what they did for selfish reasons -- and that was numbers and monetary value. If somebody falls through the cracks, then it's going to open the door for a lot of others."

The steroid debate comes as the Hall of Fame is dealing with the same challenges faced by businesses throughout America. Attendance peaked at 410,000 in 1989 and gradually declined to 270,000 last year. A stagnant economy and spiraling gas prices clearly haven't helped matters. But when Ken Griffey Jr., Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas are likely to be inducted in coming years and Bonds, Clemens and Sosa most likely won't, baseball isn't exactly maximizing its star appeal.

[+] EnlargeCooperstown
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesGetting more fans to come to Cooperstown is something else at stake in the years to come.

The merchants who live for big late-July crowds on Main Street have seen the fallout in smaller crowds roaming the streets on induction weekend. A pristine Clemens would draw fans from Boston, New York and all the way from Houston. A Brian McNamee-damaged Rocket would be significantly less popular. And no Rocket means a 354-game winner and seven-time Cy Young Award winner sitting at home in Texas looking for some way, any way to reclaim his reputation.

Throw in a Manny Ramirez here and a Gary Sheffield there, and the fallout could drag on for a while. Baseball might be cleaning itself up through its new drug policy, but the Hall of Fame will be sifting through the wreckage of the late 1990s and early 2000s for years.

"You know how it works," said Andrew Vilacky, owner of the Safe at Home shop. "If less people come here, it's less money. It's less people eating, less people shopping and less people staying overnight. I've seen the effects the last three years, and I think it gets worse before it gets better."

The upcoming focus on Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, et al has already put a new slant on old rituals. Years ago, Hall of Famers looked forward to coming to Cooperstown, playing golf at the Leatherstocking course and taking in the scenic lakeside view from the back porch of the Otesaga Hotel. Now, all of a sudden, they're pressed to answer questions about tainted achievements, "steroid wings" and asterisks on plaques.

"I think all of us, as baseball purists, have a problem with what has transpired as far as the purity of the game is concerned," Cardinals great Ozzie Smith said. "The people who are here worked hard to get here. But the numbers have been tainted so much, it's hard to know what's real and what's not. This is going to be a very tumultuous year for everybody in the game."

Baseball remains the same game on the field, and the Hall retains its allure for people who treasure the game's rich history. But the mere presence of the words Cooperstown and "tumultuous" in the same sentence tells you how much things have changed in this quaint village. In the words of Barry Larkin, it's un-stinking-believable.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer