Greg Cote: Hall rejection of Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds appears vindictive

The National Baseball Hall of Fame revealed its latest induction vote Wednesday, and, sure as sunrise, arguably the most accomplished hitter and pitcher in the history of the sport both were denied entry — and with relish, as the saying used to go.

Turned out nobody was voted in for the first time since 1996, but the two rejected names that mattered and pulsed like neon were Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

You could imagine the delight of Hall voters and almost hear them as they arose as one to shout, “Take that, cheaters!” and slam shut the gates to hallowed Cooperstown with a theatrical thud. The electorate has been on this self-righteous tear for awhile now, the sport’s Steroids Era the cause of its self-appointed moral stand, and on Wednesday it held high the scalps of its two newest and ultimate victim-examples:

It didn’t matter to two-thirds of voters that Bonds is the all-time home run champion and only man to win seven MVP awards, or that Clemens is a 354-game winner and the only pitcher to win seven Cy Young awards.

All the voters cared to see and know was the taint and stink of steroids.

Enough! Voters need to stop leaning on that easy crutch. Wednesday was when that noble stand tipped and crashed. Turned a bit ridiculous. It suddenly seemed more than punitive; it seemed vindictive.

Baseball, it is time to reboot and rethink how the Hall and its voters deal with the PED guys. And the barring of Bonds and Clemens should be the impetus. There will never be a greater one. (Well, unless it is Alex Rodriguez’s turn to be shamed and taught a lesson sometime later this decade, should baseball continue to reenact its latter-day tarring and feathering in the public square.)

Members of the Baseball Writers Association of America need to stop acting (and voting) as if this issue is either/or with no shade of gray, with not a single hairline crack where the slightest ray of compromise might peek through. (In the name of transparency: I am a member in good standing of the BBWAA — or was, before this column. I’ll have served 10 years and have my Hall vote next year.)

It is thoroughly absurd to deny Bonds and Clemens entry to the Hall because of steroids — unless you are dead certain the use was so prolonged and influential that they would not have had Hall-worthy careers without the artificial help.

It should be simple. Remove the moral judgment. Stop saying “anyone who ever used steroids will never get my vote,” and accept the harder, fairer challenge of figuring out whether steroids caused those Hall of Fame numbers or didn’t. If they did or there is serious doubt, vote no. If they didn’t — as with Bonds and Clemens, I believe — vote yes.

None of this is to say the tainted guys should be swept into Cooperstown on a free Hall pass as if their names had not been sullied of their own doing.

I have no problem, for example, denying Bonds or Clemens the special honor of a first-ballot induction as punishment. Make ’em wait a year. Save the first ballot for those rare superhumans who are both great on the field and saintly off it.

I would also have no issue with using a steroids taint as a deciding factor against a borderline Hall candidate such as, say, Rafael Palmeiro.

But there is a larger compromise that Cooperstown and the BBWAA should consider with clearly worthy guys such as Bonds, Clemens or A-Rod, and this is it:

Let a man’s Hall of Fame plaque reflect his scarlet letter if he bears one.

Let a man’s bronzed career epitaph reflect for all time not only the gaudy accomplishments but also the shame and controversy that swirled around his election, including a timeline of admitted or verified PED use.

Bonds and Clemens should be in Cooperstown, N.Y., on undeniable merit even in the context of steroids — but only if their plaques tell the whole truth. Same with the likes of fellow PED’ers Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire or anybody else who isn’t as clear a pick but whose candidacy might at least be arguable if it could be determined the Hall-worthy numbers were there before the steroids.

(The point would be the same with Pete Rose and gambling, for that matter. Rose, the all-time hits leader, is as Hall-worthy as Bonds or Clemens, but you’re damned right his plaque, should he ever get in, ought to mention why it took him so long.)

And if an elected player didn’t agree to that warts-and-all plaque? If he boycotted the induction ceremony because of it? So be it.

This compromise I suggest would allow baseball to stop its endless punitive action against select tainted players whose greatness was far bigger than steroids, while also allowing the sport to maintain integrity by making that taint a matter of record.

As it is, the Hall and voters have heads buried, pretending like all is normal.

On Wednesday, the only allusion to the rejection of Bonds and Clemens by Hall president Jeff Idelson was: “We realize the challenges voters are faced with in this era.”

It is a challenge largely because the BBWAA includes the following sentence on its Hall ballot: “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 makes it too easy for voters to too harshly penalize a man’s fallibility and to decide, as jury and judge, that any association with steroids merits a life sentence.

MLB Players Association director Michael Weiner on Wednesday called the exclusion of Bonds and Clemens “hard to justify.” The thing is, it’s the opposite. It is too easy for voters to justify it by casting that too-wide steroids net that ensnares entire, otherwise legendary careers no matter how big or small a role steroids played.

Grow up, baseball.

Get over yourselves, voters.

This isn’t the hall of perfection or the gates of heaven.

This sport loves to boast how difficult it is by saying you’re considered a great hitter even if you fail seven of 10 times at bat.

Well, Bonds and Clemens are flawed humans who failed in at least one major choice. They also are the greatest hitter and pitcher of their generation, none of which comes in a needle or vial.

It means they aren’t saints.

It shouldn’t mean they aren’t Hall of Famers.