The rumor factor: Cooperstown limbo

Craig Biggio was a tough man to slow down in his two decades with the Houston Astros. He finished his career with 414 stolen bases and 1,844 runs scored, the 15th-highest total in history and more runs than Frank Robinson, Ted Williams and Honus Wagner scored in their careers. And he made only one trip to the disabled list while navigating countless foul tips as a catcher, dozens of takeout slides as a second baseman, and 285 career plunkings as a hitter.

It's amazing that Biggio sat still long enough for that disgusting glop of pine tar to collect on the top of his batting helmet.

So it felt odd last January, with his milestones and statistical achievements all in a row, for Biggio to sit and wait in vain for a call from the Hall of Fame. Worse yet, when his phone rang shortly before the announcement, it was a false alarm in the form of an unsuspecting reporter from New York who was calling about an interview.

Ultimately, Biggio fell 39 votes short of the 75 percent required for induction to Cooperstown. Other than Rafael Palmeiro, who laid waste to his chances with a Congressional finger wag and a failed drug test in 2005, and the permanently banned Pete Rose, every other member of the 3,000-hit club has a plaque in Cooperstown.

Jeff Bagwell, Biggio's longtime running mate in Houston, called the vote a "travesty." And it didn't take long for the elephant to appear in the room and the conversation to gravitate where it always does these days. During a post-vote conference call, Biggio acknowledged that he might have been lumped in with the performance-enhancing drug crowd even though he had never failed a test, appeared on a list, received a mention in a Jose Canseco book or been connected to PEDs in any tangible way during his 20-year career.

"I think it's kind of unfair, but it's the reality of the era that we played in," Biggio said. "Obviously, some guys are guilty and others aren't, and it's painful for the ones that weren't."

Here we are a year later, with another Hall class to be announced on Jan. 8, and it isn't getting any easier or less painful -- for the voters or the candidates.

Reality vs. perception

Hall of Fame voting time is always eventful for writers, and it's become even more challenging with the advent of statistical metrics that cast players' achievements in a different light. When Tom Glavine has 89 more wins than Curt Schilling and they're separated by a hair in career wins above replacement, it's a surefire indicator that the criteria for admission have evolved.

Factor in a never-say-die steroid debate and an overstuffed ballot -- with as many as 20 players having a legitimate Hall case and writers limited to 10 choices under the current voting system -- and the process is bound to be more confusing and contentious than ever.

Judging from recent results, the news will never be good for Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Palmeiro, each of whom received less than 17 percent of the vote last January. The voters are also going to need some convincing on Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, who've damaged their reputations enough to outweigh accomplishments that would make them no-brainers under typical circumstances.

For players who have the statistical credentials to make the Hall of Fame but arouse PED suspicion because of changes in body type, or spikes in production, or "whispers," or just because somebody says so, the steroid debate hangs heavy in the air. And Biggio isn't the only player affected.

• Based on his on-field achievements, Mike Piazza should be a Hall of Fame lock. He was a 12-time All-Star and a 10-time Silver Slugger Award winner who finished in the top 10 of MVP balloting seven times. Piazza's 396 home runs as a catcher are the most ever at the position, and he ranks 30th all-time with a .545 slugging percentage. Piazza ran the bases as if he were pulling a trailer, yet he still scored 100 or more runs eight times in his career.

Nevertheless, he received a disappointing 57.8 percent of the vote in his first appearance on the ballot, and it appears some voters punished him for reasons other than his defensive shortcomings. He was a 62nd-round draft pick who bulked up and became a monster slugger, and he suffered from bouts of acne on his back. In the minds of some voters, that apparently was enough to brand him as a cheater.

So Piazza pleaded his case. In his 2013 autobiography, "Long Shot," he admitted he used amphetamines "a couple of times," and then stopped because they made him feel jittery. As for the muscles, Piazza credited weight training, a rigorous dietary regimen and the GNC Monster Pak -- a combination product that includes androstenedione, creatine and "various types of amino acids."

"There was clearly a line that had to be crossed to get from the Monster Paks to the controlled substances classified as performance-enhancing drugs," Piazza wrote in his book. "For those, essentially, you needed a dealer. You had to seek out somebody to supply you with something you couldn't get at the mall. You had to break the law. I was interested in power, but not prison."

• Even though Bagwell fell short of 500 home runs, he, too, has all the statistical attributes of a Hall of Famer. He ranks 22nd in MLB history and 10th among right-handed hitters with a career .948 OPS. He's the only first baseman with 400 homers and 200 steals, and he has a higher career WAR (79.5) than Pete Rose, Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Bench. But he came up short with 59.6 percent of the vote in his third year on the ballot.

Bagwell's steroid links, like Piazza's, are largely grounded in hearsay. Shortly before the release of the Mitchell report in December 2007, a New York TV station reported that it had obtained a list of "expected" violators. But the list was bogus, and Bagwell, Albert Pujols, Johnny Damon and Albert Belle were among more than three dozen reported steroid "violators" whose names never appeared in the actual Mitchell report.

Several months later, in May 2008, the New York Daily News reported that a Pasadena, Texas, trainer named Kelly Blair had boasted to friends that he had supplied PEDs to Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Bagwell while the players were teammates in Houston. But Blair later gave conflicting versions to the media and a federal grand jury about his interactions with Clemens and Pettitte. And Bagwell insisted from the outset that he'd never met Blair.

In an interview with ESPN.com in 2010, Bagwell attributed his Popeye forearms to massive quantities of red meat and an ungodly number of hours in the weight room.

"I never used [steroids], and I'll tell you exactly why: If I could hit between 30 and 40 home runs every year and drive in 120 runs, why did I need to do anything else?" Bagwell said three years ago. "I was pretty happy with what I was doing, and that's the God's honest truth."

• Biggio has generally been immune from PED speculation; but in the modern media age, things can change in a hurry. In a recent blog post, former New York Times writer (and Spink Award winner) Murray Chass said he would not give his Hall of Fame vote to 10 players who "were proved to have cheated, admitted they cheated or are strongly suspected of having cheated."

Chass' list of suspects: Bagwell, Bonds, Clemens, Eric Gagne, Paul Lo Duca, McGwire, Palmeiro, Piazza, Sosa … and Craig Biggio.

In a phone conversation last week, Biggio was caught off guard and understandably less than thrilled when apprised of Chass' comments.

"It hurts, because people are making accusations about you that are totally false," Biggio said. "It angers you, because I'd rather spend my time talking about the game. I hate wasting time talking about this in general. Enough's enough already.

"I played the game hard. I played the game the right way. I played the game clean. That's really all I have to say about it. I take offense to it when people want to lump me in with a group, because it's totally unfair and it's not right. It's not right."

How to respond?

Writers have the option of following their own internal compasses, but as Chass' hit list shows, the bar isn't especially high. Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, another longtime voter, shot from the hip in explaining his decision to vote for Frank Thomas and take a pass on Piazza and Bagwell.

"Like Thomas, guys such as Piazza and Bagwell have Hall of Fame numbers and never tested positive for PEDs," Shaughnessy wrote. "But they look dirty. Something doesn't make sense. Thomas makes sense."

Players in the crosshairs inevitably have a choice to make. Do they simply ignore the speculation for fear of perpetuating it? Do they angrily deny it, calmly shrug it off, or keep answering questions until they become irritated, at which point someone is bound to characterize them as "defensive"?

And what's the point of saying no, really, when Ryan Braun issued denial after indignant denial before accepting a 65-game suspension in the Biogenesis investigation last summer, and Alex Rodriguez steadfastly maintains that he's clean even though he did have that three-year lapse with Texas and MLB claims to have a mountain of evidence to indicate he's neck-deep in Biogenesis-related transgressions? The next high-profile player denial just leads to more eye rolls and sarcastic comments on Twitter.

In the absence of specific guidelines from the Hall of Fame, the 500-plus voters continue to invent their own rules on the fly. Some writers immediately discount any player with the slightest whiff of steroid use, imagined or otherwise. Some vote strictly on the numbers, because they think it's impossible to play detective. And others (like me) consider players on a case-by-case basis, try to weed through the static and make determinations that we know can't possibly be 100 percent foolproof.

For sake of full disclosure, Biggio, Bagwell and Piazza all appeared on my Hall ballot last year and made the cut again this year. Their numbers pass the test; and in the absence of something more than PED-related innuendo, I simply don't feel comfortable withholding my vote.

Biggio and Bagwell always felt and looked like Hall of Famers to me, and that opinion is shared by Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who played with the Killer B's for years in Houston. During a recent phone conversation, Ausmus recalled how Biggio habitually busted it down the line on rollover ground balls to the infield even when games were out of reach in the late innings, and Bagwell would invent some funky slide to score from second base in a blowout game so a teammate could make sure to collect an RBI. They were leaders by example who set an unyielding tone with their team-first ethic.

"I certainly thought those two would be in the Hall of Fame," Ausmus said. "I still think they will. I only have a handful of jerseys hanging up in my house -- Trevor Hoffman, Tony Gwynn, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. In my mind, all those guys will be Hall of Famers at some point."

The presence of Clemens on that list shows that former teammates might view Hall of Fame candidacies in a way that media members and fans don't quite embrace. But if there's one thing everyone should agree on, it's the danger of defining players' legacies through knee-jerk assumptions and generalizations.

"You've got to be very careful when you're painting everyone with the same brush," Ausmus said. "It's dangerous to say that any person who played from the mid-'90s to the mid-2000s is guilty just because a number of people confessed or were caught using performance-enhancing drugs. It's unfair mainly because if there was a person who worked their tail off and never touched them and is guilty by association, they're being punished for no reason."

As Biggio prepares for another day of waiting next week, he hopes the voters will judge him on his durability, professionalism and numbers rather than a preconceived notion about shortcuts he might have taken to amass them. He's the only player in history with 3,000 hits, 600 doubles, 400 steals and 250 home runs, and he had the privilege of doing it in 2,850 games and 12,504 plate appearances with one organization. That's a pretty impressive club right there.

"I got paid to do what I loved to do for 20 years, so I consider myself blessed and lucky," Biggio said. "If something good happens on Jan. 8, I think it would be great for my family, the Astros organization and the fans. Those are the most important things to me."

Biggio has enough faith in the process to trust that his time will come. But it's getting progressively harder to believe.