Posted January 8, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Nations: Hall of Fame shrine made of baseball cards

Jeff Nations

I kept my own Hall of Fame shrine for years and years, tucked away in albums filled with plastic sheets of baseball cards.

The idea was never a college fund, although for many of the kids growing up in the 1980s (and more than a few adults), those flimsy slips of cardboard represented a sure-fire wealth-building portfolio. It was all speculation then, rookie cards the equivalent of first-edition comic books -- fabulous riches assured, given enough time and maintaining that required "mint" condition.

I was done with it by the 1990s, as the sports card industry continued to churn out ever more product and the new crazes became things like inserts, game-used promo cards -- think, slivers of bats or a hunk of Gary Sheffield's pants (this stuff was priceless, I was assured). The idea of shredding up baseball history for the sake of collectibles was the final turn-off for me.

But I still have those albums, patiently gathering dust and taking up much-needed closet space. In them, if I dared to drag them out from underneath the unused basketballs, outdated computer components and orphaned shoes, I think I would find my own version of a Hall of Fame ballot. My goal as a kid was to identify and collect those mythical Hall of Famers, those who were already in and, more importantly, those who would someday get there.

I haven't looked in a decade or so, but I remember reams and reams of Nolan Ryan cards (circa 1980s -- alas, near-worthless like the rest of that decade's overproduced cards). Ozzie Smith -- tons of them. Ryne Sandberg, Cal Ripken, Jr., Rickey Henderson -- nailed them all. Not that all my bets were right, though, as the Dwight Gooden/Eric Davis stash can attest.

The fact is, I've always been a baseball fan. I've always admired the great players, appreciated them during their peak years and speculated on who would someday end up in Cooperstown, N.Y.

And I've been envious, too. For years, I've jealously read the columns of the select few -- members the Baseball Writers' Association of America -- discuss their ballots leading up to the annual Hall of Fame induction.

I'm 10 years short of covering Major League Baseball, that's true, but I've followed the game with as much passion as many a voting scribe.

I've always wanted to vote -- until now.

This year's Hall of Fame ballot is baseball's version of a chicken coop, and the roosting is enough to demoralize the most ardent baseball fan. The age of PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs) is inescapably upon the BBWAA and the Hall of Fame now. It's been one thing for the writers to shun admitted steroid user Mark McGwire for six years and confirmed cheat Rafael Palmeiro for three -- neither has come close to the required 75 percent of votes to gain admittance, and probably never will.

Here comes the big test, though -- Barry Bonds. And another -- Roger Clemens. That's baseball's all-time home run leader, and unquestionably one of the top starting pitchers in baseball history. Both are in their first year of eligibility, and both come with the taint of PEDs touching at least some portion of their careers. There are others, notably Mitchell Report-implicated slugger Sammy Sosa, who fall under heavy suspicion in regards to PEDs. Others, like slugging catcher Mike Piazza (a first-timer on the ballot) and Jeff Bagwell (a third-time candidate) have never been connected but remain the subject of speculation and rumor regarding PED use.

Then there are those first-timers on the ballot who haven't been connected to PEDs and have the resumes to at least be seriously considered for the Hall, players like pitcher Curt Schilling and longtime Houston Astros standout Craig Biggio. Merely having played in that era of widespread PED use is a taint, sadly, and trying to separate who used and who didn't with any degree of certainty seems doomed to failure.

And yet, that's what many members of the BBWAA seem to be attempting with their ballots. More than a few are on record as having no intention to vote for any suspected PED user -- bad news for Bonds and Clemens. That's noble, in the sense of refusing to reward cheaters with enshrinement. And although there is evidence, in some cases ample, of PED use among numerous candidates on this year's ballot, rarely is steroid use as cut-and-dried as McGwire's admission.

Then there's the question -- how much did they help? Was Barry Bonds a sure-fire Hall of Famer without his alleged PED use? How about Clemens? How about Sosa? Hall of Famer, but not first-ballot? Does that even matter?

Today's the day we find out how the BBWAA's voting members sorted all this out. The 2013 Hall of Fame class will be revealed, and the debate will continue. That's one vote I don't envy.

Sports editor Jeff Nations can be reached at (540) 465-5137 or at jnations@nvdaily.com

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