We live in a world of sports that is broadcast in full color and high definition. We try to view it through a prism of moral and ethical absolutes. And still, when faced with the great issues of our time, everything ends up being cast in shades of gray.
If you doubt that, you might want to take a look at the ballot that will determine who will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013.
It is, more than any before it, a snapshot of baseball's steroid era, for the first time adding Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa to a list of candidates that already included Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and a handful of other players who fell under suspicion during one of the darkest periods in the history of the sport.
Baseball fans can be forgiven for wanting to wipe the whole tawdry episode from their collective memory, but the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) aren't going to get off that easy.
The deadline for filling out the ballot is Dec. 31, which leaves just five more days to agonize over the list. The voters have heretofore shown little sympathy for players who have admitted using illegal performance-enhancing drugs or tested positive for any of them, but they have never been faced with a ballot that includes so many of the most accomplished and controversial players of our time.
Before we go any further, I should point out that I am an eligible voter but am prohibited from voting by The Baltimore Sun's ethics policy, so any indication of how I would vote on any specific candidate is merely the educated opinion of someone who has met the criteria for taking part in the election.
Which brings us back to those pesky gray areas that make it hard to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to a group of players who each arrived on the ballot with his own particular set of steroid-related circumstances.
Bonds, who was a central figure in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) scandal, has long denied knowingly using steroids in spite of a seeming mountain of evidence to the contrary. Clemens sued his personal trainer for claiming that he injected the pitching great with illegal performance-enhancing drugs, despite damning testimony from close friend Andy Pettitte. Palmeiro is the only current candidate to test positive under baseball's steroid-testing program, but he claimed that was the result of a contaminated B-12 injection.
McGwire, who has failed to gain induction in six previous appearances on the Hall of Fame ballot, finally admitted in 2010 to using steroids after waffling on the subject during a 2005 congressional hearing.
Then there are the players who never tested positive but came under suspicion because of the era they played in, the musculature they developed and statistical bodies of work that closely matched those players with more evidence against them.
So, if you're a voter, what do you do?
I'll tell you what you don't do. You don't assume that "everyone was doing it" or that everyone with large biceps was doing it. But you can look at the fact that Sammy Sosa averaged 25 homers during his first eight full seasons in the major leagues, then averaged 61 homers (the previous all-time single-season record) the next four seasons, and draw the fair conclusion that something was not on the up and up.
That's why I wouldn't vote for Sosa but would vote for catcher Mike Piazza, who was the subject of unsubstantiated PED whispers while he built a Hall of Fame body of work at his position. I don't know if Piazza — or a player like third-ballot candidate Jeff Bagwell — did or didn't use anything illegal, but I wouldn't be willing to tank their great careers because I merely think so. To put a spin on one of my favorite John Mellencamp lyrics, that ain't America.
For that matter, it isn't even as simple — for me — as whether a player did or didn't use steroids, since I likely would vote for Bonds and Clemens because I believe they were well on their way to the Hall of Fame before the steroid era really kicked into gear. Bonds is not a sympathetic character, and it's fairly evident he lied about his steroid use. The same goes for Clemens, but both were historically elite players long before they showed up at the PED party.
If you're an ethical purist, you probably think that showing up at all should disqualify a player from the Hall of Fame because there is a personal integrity component to the rules for election, but that's just another shade of gray.
Based on any strict standard of ethics or morality, there are plenty of players in the Hall of Fame who must have sneaked in through the back door. Pitcher Gaylord Perry is not only famous, but beloved for his reputation as one of baseball's most accomplished cheaters, and several of the greats of the early 20th century were considered men of questionable character.
The steroid era put a terrible stain on the national pastime, but it wasn't the first drug scandal to rock baseball. There was a time when amphetamines were the drug of choice in major league clubhouses, but nobody is calling for the great players of the 1960s and 1970s to be kicked out of Cooperstown based on admitted amphetamine use or guilt by association with that period.
Don't misunderstand, cheating is wrong and using illegal drugs is cheating, but it's only fair to take into account the time and circumstances that governed each individual situation. The BBWAA voters have done a pretty good job of that over the years, and it will be interesting to see how many are willing to vote for Bonds and Clemens on their first ballot.