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Stance on steroids taints HOF vote

KANSAS CITY, MO. — A brutal reality reinforced itself when the Baseball Hall of Fame vote was released Wednesday, but before we get to that we should at least acknowledge the part that's worth feeling good about but may be missed in a cloud of sanctimony:

After all the whining and look-at-me gimmicks and intolerance for disagreement, we have one of the greatest classes in the history of sports' most demanding Hall of Fame.

Greg Maddux, who has an overlooked case as the best pitcher of all time, earned 97.2 percent of the vote — the eighth-highest mark in a voting history that dates to 1936, and about what you'd get if you asked people whether traffic jams are frustrating.

He is joined by his friend and longtime teammate Tom Glavine, a 305-game winner and now one of only 29 men to get more than 90 percent of the vote.

Frank Thomas, one of the great hitters of his generation or any other, was also elected on his first chance, the image of him waiting on a curveball and drilling it over a wall somewhere now inducted into baseball foreverness.

It is the best class since at least 2007, when Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn went in together, and perhaps the best since 1999 — Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount.

And this is the point in the column where we cut away from Bob Costas and kill the soft strings playing in the background.

The MLB-approved narrative about the Hall of Fame is now halfway through what can be looked at as a two-year free ride from having to deal with a reality most everyone within and around the game helped create.

With how the system is structured — only 10-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America allowed to vote, 75 percent of the writers' support is required for election, and a maximum of 10 players can appear on each ballot — the voting is set up to honor only the very best.

But here's the brutal truth: Because a portion of the electorate long ago took up the cause of moral judge and keeper of The Great Game, the best Hall of Fame in sports is deservedly absorbing bullets for being too slow to adapt to the real and modern world.

Now, as with many points of contention, some of the criticism reaches too far and is based on either misperceptions or ignorance. Like, for instance, if you dismiss the relevance of baseball's Hall of Fame, you don't understand that the sport's history is in many ways more important than its future.

But even many within the game — full disclosure: I'm three years from having a vote — understand the need to adapt.

Specifically, delete the character clause from the voting guidelines.

It is outdated and now being misused by voters, creating confusion and guessing — and, in some cases, baseless accusations — in a process that's complicated enough already.

The problem is in trying to clean up a past that can't be cleaned.

Baseball put itself into this mess, with a system that leaves seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens and seven-time MVP Barry Bonds well short of election again — not to mention Mike Piazza, the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history; Mark McGwire, who broke Roger Maris' single-season home-run mark; and Sammy Sosa, who hit 609 home runs. And that's just for starters.

Basically, the system is covering its ears and closing its eyes and screaming I can't hear you! I can't hear you! rather than deal with the reality of 10 to 20 years of baseball history.

Rather than heal one, this creates another black eye for baseball, leaving the same writers who (sort of) covered the so-called Steroids Era as the judges of those who slipped or may have slipped through the revisionist investigations.

Most of all, it leaves dedicated and thoughtful professionals who don't work for Major League Baseball in a position of protecting MLB's most flattering self-image.

Football, for all of its problems, got this one right. That sport's Hall of Fame is for the best players, period, and nobody claims the innocence of children is ruined because O.J. Simpson and Lawrence Taylor are enshrined in Canton.

Right now, baseball voters are keeping some of the greatest players in history from a Hall of Fame that already includes racists, cheaters and men who played in eras where the drugs were different (greenies instead of steroids) or many of the best players weren't allowed (pre-segregation).

In other words, we already have Hall of Famers with pasts and personal choices we may judge as ugly but can rationalize as being the product of their own eras, but the system is keeping out a new generation of all-time greats who made personal choices we may judge as ugly but can rationalize as being the product of their own eras.

The system fails with logic but is terrific for the Hall of Fame and especially MLB (which doesn't operate the Hall, technically, but provides funding the Hall couldn't go without).

MLB gets cover for profiting from and passively approving a widespread drug culture that the public caught onto too late, leaving the voting writers to take the arrows in a system without much guidance.

Clemens and Bonds each lost about 2 percentage points of the vote this year, which some will view as a statement of continued retroactive steroids policing but could just as logically be blamed on a loaded ballot.

MLB's cover will last at least one more year, because Maddux, Glavine and Thomas will be replaced on the ballot by three more deserving first-year candidates: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz.

There will also be the backlog of Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, and Piazza to deal with next year, as well as first-year eligibles Gary Sheffield and Nomar Garciaparra.

Even so, comparing the votes for Clemens and Bonds from this year and next year will be much more instructive than comparing this year and last year.

That gives MLB and the Hall one more year to do the right thing and help confront a brutal reality by providing some guidance.

Delete the character clause. Honor the best players. Face reality, whether it's comfortable or not.