Shadows cast on Palmeiro's Hall campaign
Career numbers vs. controversy in slugger's bid for enshrinement
Rafael Palmeiro is a candidate on the National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the second year. The Class of 2012 will be announced on Jan. 9. You can watch the announcement live at 2 p.m. ET on an MLB Network simulcast on MLB.com.The first three men to conclude their baseball careers with more than 500 homers and 3,000 hits were first-ballot shoo-ins into the Hall of Fame with an average of 93 percent support. They were Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Eddie Murray. The fourth received a mere 11 percent of the votes last year. He is Rafael Palmeiro, whose candidacy shrouded in conviction for the use of performance-enhancing drugs was put to the test of voters in his first year on the ballot. His concerns and dreads confirmed by that first vote, Palmeiro is back on the ballot for a second time, and there still is no gray area concerning the Cuba-born first baseman with the sweet left-handed swing.
It is all white: Palmeiro's 20-season career ended with 569 home runs and 3,020 hits.Or all black: Palmeiro's career also ended during that 2005 season with a 10-day suspension for violating MLB's Drug Policy, giving him the blemish of being the first star of the sport's so-called steroids era to be suspended. In a sport in which you otherwise get three strikes, the 2010 vote left Palmeiro feeling as though he only got one. "I thought I would get more votes," Palmeiro said in an SI.com interview. "But I'm grateful for what I received, and that keeps me on the ballot for another year. Voters are putting too much weight on the one incident. "I wish they would look at my whole career. If they want, why don't they just throw out the last season of my career? I would still have Hall of Fame numbers. I've put up my numbers, and they aren't going to change." Will his vote totals? Mark McGwire, the other incumbent candidate with a self-admitted PED past, has received more support during his four years on the ballot -- but significantly, his votes have wavered little, between 19.8 percent and 23.5 percent every year. A candidate must receive 75 percent of the vote from Baseball Writers' Association of America members to gain election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Second baseman Roberto Alomar (90 percent) and pitcher Bert Blyleven (79.7 percent) earned their ticket to Cooperstown on the 2011 ballot. Former Reds shortstop Barry Larkin (62.1 percent) and starting pitcher Jack Morris (53.5 percent) are the top returning vote-getters from last year's ballot. Results of the 2012 election will be announced on Monday, Jan. 9. Palmeiro is considered a more valid test case for the durability of a PED smudge because, in the view of some, McGwire was a marginal Cooperstown candidate to start with. The World Series champion Cardinals' current batting coach did briefly hold the single-season record of 70 homers and retired with a total of 583 -- but had only 1,043 other hits as a lifetime .263 hitter. Only two players with fewer than McGwire's 1,626 career hits have gained Cooperstown entrance through the front gate of BBWAA election (as opposed to via Old Timers or Veterans Committees): Jackie Robinson and Ralph Kiner. So evaluating McGwire's ballot scores -- percentages of 23.5, 23.6, 21.9 and 23.7 -- becomes murky. Performance puts Palmeiro in an obviously more elite company. Where does the PED issue leave him going forward? When his suspension came down on Aug. 1, 2005 -- months after the alleged violation, after the test results were appealed and the case went through an arbitration process, and two weeks after he'd collected his 3,000th hit -- Palmeiro knew his legacy was in danger. Conceding the test results but claiming not to know how the incriminating stuff entered his system, Palmeiro said at the time, "Why would I do this in a season when I was going to get to 3,000 hits? It makes no sense. I would not put my career on the line. I would not put my reputation on the line and everything that I've accomplished throughout my career. ... I'm not a crazy person. I'm not stupid. This is something that's an unfortunate thing. It was an accident. I'm paying the price." Whether the Hall of Fame vote will continue to bring him sticker shock is up to the hundreds of tenured (10-plus years) BBWAA members who do the voting. Plenty of those voters could be conflicted. While recognizing the hazards of profiling, they continue to think of Palmeiro as someone who never exhibited any of the physical and character traits typically associated with PED use: He was even-tempered with a soft -- even borderline pudgy -- physique. Palmeiro's career timeline was devoid of spikes. Consistency was one of his key attributes: He had 10 seasons of 37-plus homers, 10 seasons of 100-plus RBIs, 11 seasons with 30-plus doubles. "Era domination" is viewed as one of the crucial elements of Hall of Fame worthiness, and few players ever stood out as Palmeiro did from 1993 through 2003. In that 11-season span, he hit 433 homers and drove in 1,266 runs, with a .555 slugging average that was supported by 364 other extra-base hits. And despite the impressive power, Palmeiro had the plate discipline of a slap hitter: Only once did he strike out more than 96 times, and his walks exceeded his strikeouts in eight of his 20 seasons. The credentials are flawless. The swan song was flawed. Hall of Fame juries can deliberate for 15 years, and the one hearing Palmeiro's case is still in its early stages.