Baseball Hall is the litmus test

Former pitcher Roger Clemens leaves Federal Court in

Former pitcher Roger Clemens leaves Federal Court in Washington. (June 12, 2012) (Credit: AP)

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.

This is a charming, quiet weekend in a charming, bucolic town. As one Hall of Famer put it, the streets and stoplights are the same as they were when he played American Legion ball here in the mid-1960s.

Just don't let that fool you. The Baseball Hall of Fame is not a quaint little vestige, like pregame infield practice (when was the last time you saw a big-league club do that?) or ballpark organ music. Baseball's Hall is one of the weightiest and most relevant institutions in sports, as we will see next year, and probably years after that, when it has the final word on the steroid era.

Actually, the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America will decide on first-year eligible icons Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa -- standard bearers for the controversy over performance enhancing drugs -- as well as other players who never have been named in court papers or official testing documents, but have been suspected nonetheless. Mike Piazza is on the ballot, too, along with holdover Jeff Bagwell.

But it is the Hall of Fame itself that has the stature. The Hall is baseball's version of what the Supreme Court is supposed to be: The last resort, the ultimate authority. Let's face it, Hall of Fame status will determine the legacies of Bonds and Clemens more than any courthouse judge's ruling will.

The public has made it that way. The Baseball Hall of Fame simply matters to people, for whatever reason. Newspapers, websites and radio stations see marked spikes -- to use an old school baseball word -- whenever they report on who is going in, who is out and who should or shouldn't get in.

No question, the American public would rather watch pro football than major league baseball. But it is just as clear that people don't argue over who merits a bust in Canton the way they haggle over who deserves a Cooperstown plaque.

"It's really exclusive," said Bob Elliott, the baseball writer who yesterday was given the J.G. Taylor Spink Award. He grew up, lives and works in Toronto, home of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and he sees the difference. "With the Hockey Hall of Fame, it's more a case of 'That guy shouldn't be in,' where here, it's more a case of 'Why isn't that guy in?'

"I think this is a much more exclusive place for a player to make it," Elliott said.

Tim McCarver, who was presented the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting (and whose solid career as a player wasn't Hall of Fame caliber), said, "I equate the Hall of Fame with the All-Star Game. I think baseball's All-Star Game is the best of all the sports, and I've always thought that about the Hall of Fame, too."

Basketball Hall of Famer John Havlicek was a wide-eyed fan when he came here to see Phil Niekro, his old Ohio high school buddy, get inducted in 1997.

Hall of Fame player George Brett said yesterday, "I've never been to any of the other Hall of Fames' ceremonies but this one is special. And I think part of it is the location." He acknowledged Cooperstown is out of the way, but added that in the not-too-distant future, today's current wealthy players will be arriving in private jets.

What voters will decide, and fans will debate, is how much many of those players' statistics were inflated by chemicals -- and whether that matters. "It's going to be interesting to see who you guys vote for," Pete Rose told a member of the BBWAA Friday.

Rose, who is banned from baseball for betting on games, would dearly love to get in the Hall of Fame. So would everyone.

That is the place's greatest charm.