The Hall of Fame ballot arrived this month with more than the usual puzzles. Not long ago — like last December — an agonozing call consisted of decision about someone like Jim Rice or Jack Morris, two players you knew were the best going when they played but whose numbers don't add up to Willie Mays or Tom Seaver.
Then there's Bert Blyleven, who should have won 320 games. On the day he pitched, you knew he'd lose 1-0 or 2-1.
Those innocent days are gone for a long time. The next 25 years of voting will bring up the steroid issue, sinking voters into their best guesses about who did and who didn't, unless or until the commissioner's office or some other entity develops reliable evidence one way or the other.
In the meantime, even the most presumably innocent, Disney-fied players are under the cloud. Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn appear on the ballot for the first time this year.
Hmmm. Each retired after the 2001 season.
Each played about half of his career during the steroid era, which might have started around 1990 and definitely kicked in after a labor action cancelled the 1994 World Series.
No one has ever said a word linking Gwynn or Ripken to steroids, human growth hormone or anything of the sort. But suspicions run deep in these times, we might reasonably suppose that a lot of players who haven't been named are likely to have used the stuff and we just don't know.
We don't even know about Mark McGwire. All we know about him is that he and Sammy Sosa showed up one year at twice their normal size and obliterated a single-season home run standard that stood, mostly unchallenged, for four generations.
We also know a bottle of androstenedione, since banned, was found that year in McGwire's locker. For their efforts, he and Sosa emerged as the deities of every weepy sports journalist on the continent as well as the television networks in business relationships with Major League Baseball.
Then came the day in March 2005 when McGwire, Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro all made mockeries of themselves and a congressional panel before which they appeared to discuss steroids in baseball. McGwire, a natural-born American citizen, gave an especially tasteless performance, refusing to answer questions "about the past."
One wished the congressional interrogators would have pressed McGwire, made him sweat, pried out some answers, but recent congresses haven't made their mark with courage.
A poll of voting baseball writers by the Associated Press indicates that McGwire won't make it on this first year of his eligibility, nor is he likely to make it next year. He'll bear the brunt of humiliation suffered by baseball writers so childishly taken in by the 1998 home run chase.
Of course, that's not the correct reason for keeping McGwire out of the Hall, but it will serve the purpose of eliminating at least one suspected cheater.
Sosa and Palmeiro, both of whom accumulated Hall of Fame numbers, can forget it. They're not going to the Hall of Fame until some veterans committee decides in 50 years that the steroid scandal is relatively innocent compared with subsequent horrors.
But Barry Bonds, whose story concerning juice is the best reported and documented, still stands a good chance of going in on the first ballot because no one can deny that he was a first ballot Hall of Famer before 1998.
One is tempted this year to go ahead and vote in Ripken and Gwynn but then to bracket the most recent retirees until time has passed to gel perspective. Maybe voters will make local decisions about players in whom they've got confidence. People like Barry Larkin, Ken Griffey Jr. and Eric Davis come to mind for voters who spent time around the Reds.
But while we lay back on the players who made their mark on the 1990s, the ballot overflows with players in a borderline nether region who still haven't secured enough votes despite their obvious dominance during their playing days.
An entire summer can pass listening to former players comment on their contemporaries with remarks like, "How can Andre Dawson not be in the Hall of Fame?" or "It's a terrible injustice that Rich Gossage isn't in the Hall of Fame."
You know what? It's supposed to be difficult for players to go into the Hall of Fame. It's supposed to be exclusive. It's supposed to include only the most unquestionable cream of all baseball players. It's supposed to separate the greatest from the great. It's not an entitlement of players who were merely excellent to be in the Hall of Fame.
Does that mean deserving players are left out? Not according to the preponderance of voter opinion based on the high standard of admission. A player must be so unquestionably great that 75 percent of the voters agree. If a mere majority agrees, that's not good enough.
Rice has received a majority vote in each of the past seven years. Last year, he showed up on 337 of 520 ballots, 64.8 percent. Rice didn't hang around for 20 years so he could total 3,000 hits or 500 homers. But he batted .298 with 382 home runs over his career. Six times in his 16 years, Rice finished in the top five of the American League Most Valuable Player voting, winning it in 1978.
That means the baseball writers thought Rice was one of the AL's best five players six times, but he's still not in the Hall of Fame after 13 years on the ballot.
Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Stan Musial all were in the top five of the MVP voting nine times. Lou Gehrig and Henry Aaron eight times. Rice, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew and Joe DiMaggio all were in the top five six times. All those players are in the Hall of Fame except Rice.
Maybe McGwire is the most intriguing issue under the new challenge of the steroid era, but he's a freak show next to Rice, a hangover from the old style of voting controversy. Maybe that issue should be addressed first.