NEW YORK —
The most polarizing Hall of Fame debate since Pete Rose will now be decided by the baseball shrine's voters: Do Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa belong in Cooperstown despite drug allegations that tainted their huge numbers?
In a monthlong election sure to become a referendum on the Steroids Era, the Hall ballot was released Wednesday, and Bonds, Clemens and Sosa are on it for the first time.
Bonds is the all-time home run champion with 762 and won a record seven MVP awards. Clemens took home a record seven Cy Young trophies and is ninth with 354 victories. Sosa ranks eighth on the homer chart with 609.
Yet for all their HRs, RBIs and Ws, the shadow of PEDs looms large.
"You could see for years that this particular ballot was going to be controversial and divisive to an unprecedented extent,'' Larry Stone of The Seattle Times wrote in an email. "My hope is that some clarity begins to emerge over the Hall of Fame status of those linked to performance-enhancing drugs. But I doubt it.''
More than 600 longtime members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America will vote on the 37-player ballot. Candidates require 75 percent for induction, and the results will be announced Jan. 9.
Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza and Curt Schilling also are among the 24 first-time eligibles. Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines are the top holdover candidates.
If recent history is any indication, the odds are solidly stacked against Bonds, Clemens and Sosa. Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro both posted Cooperstown-caliber stats, too, but drug clouds doomed them in Hall voting.
Some who favor Bonds and Clemens claim the bulk of their accomplishments came before baseball got wrapped up in drug scandals. They add that PED use was so prevalent in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s that it's unfair to exclude anyone because so many who-did-and-who-didn't questions remain.
Many fans on the other side say drug cheats - suspected or otherwise - should never be afforded the game's highest individual honor.
Either way, this election is baseball's newest hot button, generating the most fervent Hall arguments since Rose. The discussion about Rose was moot, however - the game's career hits leader agreed to a lifetime ban in 1989 after an investigation concluded he bet on games while managing the Cincinnati Reds, and that barred him from the BBWAA ballot.
The BBWAA election rules allow voters to pick up to 10 candidates. As for criteria, this is the only instruction: "Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.''
That leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
Bonds, Clemens and Sosa won't get a vote from Mike Klis of The Denver Post.
"Nay on all three. I think in all three cases, their performances were artificially enhanced. Especially in the cases of Bonds and Clemens, their production went up abnormally late in their careers,'' he wrote in an email.
They'll do better with Bob Dutton of The Kansas City Star.
"I plan to vote for all three. I understand the steroid/PED questions surrounding each one, and I've wrestled with the implications,'' he wrote in an email.
"My view is these guys played and posted Hall of Fame-type numbers against the competition of their time. That will be my sole yardstick. If Major League Baseball took no action against a player during his career for alleged or suspected steroid/PED use, I'm not going to do so in assessing their career for the Hall of Fame,'' he said.
San Jose Mercury News columnist Mark Purdy will reserve judgment.
"At the beginning of all this, I made up my mind I had to adopt a consistent policy on the steroid social club. So, my policy has been, with the brilliance in the way they set up the Hall of Fame vote where these guys have a 15-year window, I'm not going to vote for any of those guys until I get the best picture possible of what was happening then,'' he wrote in an email.
"We learn a little bit more each year. We learned a lot during the Bonds trial. We learned a lot during the Clemens trial. I don't want to say I'm never going to vote for any of them. I want to wait until the end of their eligibility window and have my best idea of what was really going on,'' he said.
Clemens was acquitted this summer in federal court on six counts that he lied and obstructed Congress when he denied using performance-enhancing drugs.
Bonds was found guilty in 2011 by a federal court jury on one count of obstruction of justice, ruling he gave an evasive answer in 2003 to a grand jury looking into the distribution of illegal steroids. Bonds is appealing the verdict.
McGwire is 10th on the career home run list with 583, but has never received even 24 percent in his six Hall tries. Big Mac has admitted to using steroids and human growth hormone.
Palmeiro is among only four players with 500 homers and 3,000 hits, yet has gotten a high of just 12.6 percent in his two years on the ballot. He drew a 10-day suspension in 2005 after a positive test for PEDs, and said the result was due to a vitamin vial given to him by teammate Miguel Tejada.
Biggio topped the 3,000-hit mark - which always has been considered an automatic credential for Cooperstown - and spent his entire career with the Houston Astros.
"Hopefully, the writers feel strongly that they liked what they saw, and we'll see what happens,'' Biggio said last week.
Schilling was 216-146 and won three World Series championships, including his "bloody sock'' performance for the Boston Red Sox in 2004.