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The Baseball Hall of Fame is a tourist attraction, not a papal conclave. And the people who cast votes for the Hall are sportswriters, not the College of Cardinals.
But there was something momentous this week when the Baseball Writers Association elected no one to the Hall of Fame. Not Roger Clemens, who won a record seven Cy Young Awards. Not Barry Bonds, who hit a record 762 home runs. Not Sammy Sosa, who hit 60 or more home runs in a season three times.
But those glorious stats were amassed under suspicion of what's now known as the "Steroid Era" in baseball and possibly all sports. The New York Times headlined Thursday's sports section, "And the winner is ..." then left three-quarters of the page blank.
No doubt there can seem something smug about sportswriters, who often rhapsodized about those All-Stars when they set records, now finding them unworthy. The Baseball Players Association pointed out that most of the players accused of using prohibited performance-enhancing drugs have never been convicted in a court. Clemens was found not guilty by a jury last year of lying to a congressional committee when he denied using steroids.
And many of the players enshrined — and that's the ostentatious word that's often used — in the Hall of Fame have been drunkards, bigots and cons.
As Bill Veeck, who owned the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, once wrote, "Wake up the echoes at the Hall of Fame and you will find that baseball's immortals were a rowdy and raucous group of men who would climb down off their plaques and go rampaging."
Baseball historian John Thorn points out that before players were rich men with nonprofit foundations, "they were not considered fit for polite company. And now, today, here they are heroes and role models."
But even if a lot of great players — Ruth, Mantle, Paige, Wade Boggs and scores of other Hall of Famers — ran wild in their private lives, when they put on their uniforms they respected the game in simple ways that gave it integrity. They ran out pop flies. The played through injuries. They sacrificed their batting average to advance runners. They gave fans their best, not scams.
Smart arguments can be made that baseball's drug policies may seem absurd in a time when shoulder surgery can make pitchers stronger. The players shut out of the Hall of Fame this year will be on the ballot for 14 more years, and in time, sportswriters and fans may feel forgiving or even just forgetful. But this week's Hall of Fame shutout might be a classic reminder that cheating sometimes brings quick riches — but it can't buy respect.
Correction: January 14, 2013 12:00 am — In the audio version of this story, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say that Sammy Sosa hit 60 or more home runs in three consecutive seasons. He actually accomplished that over four seasons.