When even the most adherent fan scans over the list of this year's National Baseball Hall of Fame candidates, they will see the usual big names: Roberto Alomar, a surefire candidate who missed induction by a handful of votes last year; Bert Blyleven, fifth all-time in strikeouts, who finished five votes away from Cooperstown last year; Jeff Bagwell, a surefire eventual Hall of Famer trying to get in on his first year on the ballot.
Yet no name on the ballot may have more significance or wonder connected to it than Rafael Palmeiro.
On the surface, Palmeiro, with 569 homers, 1,839 runs batted in, and 3,020 hits, is the type of player who should coast into the Hall.
But this year, with the addition of Palmeiro to the ballot, what has been speculated and debated for nearly six years will finally bubble to the surface, and baseball will finally stare its demons in the face.
For those who do not know, on March 17, 2005, an adamant Palmeiro famously appeared in front of Congress, stabbed his finger in the air, and defiantly stated, with the trademark confidence that he showed at the plate throughout his career, "Let me start by telling you this: I have never used steroids, period. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never."
Less than three months later, Palmeiro was handed a ten-game suspension for testing positive for what the Washington Post called a "serious" performance-enhancing drug. To this day, Palmeiro remains dumbfounded as to how he became the highest-profile player ever to be suspended for PEDs.
Now, Palmeiro will again be the dubious groundbreaker, as he becomes the first steroid user to take the ballot with what are viewed as sure-fire numbers.
Now, many will say that the voters have expressed their views towards steroids by keeping Mark McGwire, the Cardinals hitting coach and former slugger who hit over 500 long balls and once held the single-season record, far from induction to baseball's most hallowed hall.
Since being admitted to the ballot in 2005, McGwire has fallen well short of the 75 percent needed for induction, with 23.5, 23.6, 21.9 and 23.7 percent.
However, there's no guarantee that McGwire has the numbers for induction anyway. His 1,626 hits would be the third fewest among Hall of Famers.
Palmeiro, on the other hand, is a member of the elusive 500-3,000 club, whose other three members, Willie Mays (94.7), Hank Aaron (97.8), and Eddie Murray (85.3), all soared over the competition in their first year on the ballot.
Interestingly, Palmeiro never really held the characteristics of steroid user. He was consistent, piling up 11 seasons with 37-plus homers, 10 seasons with 100-plus RBI, and 11 seasons with 30-plus doubles. He showed a characteristic level-headedness, on and off the field, and he never had the ballooned physique associated with steroids.
So when he, perhaps the least juicer-like juicer ever, stands in front of the Hall of Fame selection committee, he will be poked, prodded, and poked again. His candidacy will be viewed and reviewed more times than any other in history, because it will not only decide whether or not Palmeiro gets in, but also the fates of several other men.
Because if Palmeiro gets in, how can we keep Barry Bonds out? How can we keep out Roger Clemens? Manny Ramirez?
Or, conversely, if we keep Palmeiro out, who has all the statistics of an all-time great, how can we let these other convicted rule-breakers in?
With Rafael Palmeiro, the problems that baseball has pushed aside will finally reach the surface. Here and now, the floodgates to the Hall of Fame may either be opened wide for a rush of players in the future, or locked for good, shut tight.
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