Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Mike Piazza’s Hall nod indicates steroid stigma is softening

Mike Piazza acknowledges fans’ applause following a tribute to Piazza’s seven-year career with the Mets during the seventh inning of an 11-3 loss to the Rockies on Oct. 2, 2005, at Shea Stadium in New York.
Mike Piazza acknowledges fans’ applause following a tribute to Piazza’s seven-year career with the Mets during the seventh inning of an 11-3 loss to the Rockies on Oct. 2, 2005, at Shea Stadium in New York. AP

Cooperstown opened its hallowed doors just a crack Wednesday evening, letting only two former players slip into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and immortality.

Ken Griffey Jr. we all expected, and he enters with a record 99.3 percent of the vote, named on 437 of 440 ballots. (I’d like to meet those three dissenters, to either slap them or demand they undergo a Breathalyzer test).

The only other 2016 inductee, Mike Piazza, a Miami resident and former Marlin — well, technically! — was less expected because he’d fallen short the previous three years, lumped on the murky periphery of “Steroids Era Guy,” never convicted of using PEDs but dogged by speculation and innuendo.

Before we go on I’ll tell you mine was one of those 440 ballots as a longtime member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, and that I voted for both Griffey and Piazza. I also voted for six others who fell short: Jeff Bagwell, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Trevor Hoffman, Curt Schilling and Gary Sheffield.

The clear trend in voting that swept in Piazza is, to me, just as notable as the no-brainer selection of Griffey.

The baseball cold war is thawing, gradually, though it hasn’t entirely. Not yet. That wall separating the sport’s Steroids Era ballplayers from the Hall of Fame still stands, but it is disintegrating, by degrees.

We see that as players linked directly to PEDs, like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, and those simply rumored to have been, like Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, fight the annual fight to reach that magic 75 percent vote requirement.

This year Piazza successfully bloomed to 83.0 percent from last year 69.9.

Bagwell fell only 15 votes short at 71.6 percent, but that was up from 55.7.

Even the two faces of taint might be encouraged by spikes in support.

Clemens was up to 45.2 percent, from 37.5.

Bonds now is at 44.3 percent, up from 36.8.

There is some hope for the outcasts as time passes, animus wanes and voters’ attitudes (like mine did) evolve. Alex Rodriguez, for one, might be encouraged by Wednesday’s results.

For me, I won’t exclude players like Piazza and Bagwell based on unproven speculation or assumption. (Or based on the fact Piazza admitted using androstenedione before it went on MLB’s banned-substances list).

I’ll also try to judge fairly the Steroids Era convicts. Would they be Hall-worthy even if you took away the artificial enhancement? I look at the prolific careers of Bonds, Clemens and A-Rod and can think yes with an unbothered conscience.

This is not a Hall of Perfection. I have said for years that players like Bonds and Clemens should have the reason they took so long to get in stated on their bronze plaque, for eternity. I still feel that way. But it isn’t necessary because the taint on their reputations is there regardless. They’d carry it to Cooperstown. I feel the same about Pete Rose. His crime was not that heinous. He’s done his time. Let him in.

How can you have a baseball Hall of Fame without the sport’s all-time leader in MVPs (Bonds), Cy Youngs (Clemens) and hits (Rose)?

Let deserving players in, warts and all.

And don’t exclude deserving players based on unproven assumptions.

Baseball can feel good about Piazza getting in. And Piazza need not mention the rumors that delayed him when he is inducted July 24.

Piazza had 427 home runs including a record 396 as a catcher. He had 1,335 RBI and is a 12-time all-star – this from the 1,390th pick in the 62nd round of the draft.

Miami can claim a pretty big piece of Piazza. And I don’t just mean that he was a Marlin for about a minute and a half in 1998, traded for and then quickly traded away, appearing in five games. (The ‘roids rumors were around even then. I recall him shirtless in the clubhouse and reporters gossiping about the acne all over his back).

Piazza’s Miami ties go back further, and are current. He played at Miami-Dade College in the late ’80s. He was married in Miami and resides here now. Heck, in 2013, he even had a small part in the Miami City Ballet production of “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”

And now he’s pirouetting into Cooperstown!

Now the 62nd-round draft has prevailed over the innuendo and will enter what still is the best, most important hall of fame in sports and one of the things baseball still does better than football. (Sorry,Canton).

There was a possibility of three Marlins-related former players all being elected Wednesday – each a footnote, granted, a curiosity, in Miami’s MLB history.

There was Piazza, the one-week Marlin, who got it.

There was Tim Raines, who some may recall finished his 23-year career in Miami, getting 89 final at-bats at age 43, in 2002. He fell short with 69.8 percent.

And there was Bonds, of course. He’s the Marlins’ new hitting coach … at least until he decides it isn’t for him and quietly slips outta town.

I think Raines has a great shot to get in next year.

Wednesday, for the first time, I also began to believe even Bonds will get in eventually. And, like the sound of Piazza’s name being called, that didn’t feel wrong to me. It felt right.

Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at MiamiHerald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.

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