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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Veil of suspicion keeping Mike Piazza in Hall of Fame voters' penalty box

Mets catcher Mike Piazza reacts after striking out

Mets catcher Mike Piazza reacts after striking out in the seventh inning of a game against the Montreal Expos. Photo Credit: Newsday/Paul J. Bereswill, 2002

There's no point arguing that Mike Piazza belongs in the Hall of Fame. It's not even a worthwhile debate. By any statistical measure, Piazza should be a lock for Cooperstown, just as he was two years ago when his name first appeared on the ballot.

And yet, here we are, back in the same place as 2013, with Piazza -- the most intimidating run-producer to ever put on a chest protector -- left wondering when his time in baseball purgatory will eventually be up.

Because that's what we're talking about, right? Some arbitrary sentence handed down by a faction of the BBWAA electorate that believes Piazza used performance-enhancing drugs?

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As unfair as it may be to link him to such a shadow campaign, we can't ignore those whispered allegations, either. Not when that suspicion -- absent of any concrete proof -- has to be the only reason Piazza won't be sharing a stage this July with Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio.

Those four are Piazza's contemporaries, with each playing during the so-called Steroid Era and performing at a Hall of Fame level for nearly two decades. But we're led to believe those four are "clean" and Piazza, in part because of a pimply back -- along with freakish power -- maybe, possibly, was dirty.

We're not saying he wasn't because we don't know for sure. After covering the sport for almost 20 years, I can't tell you with 100 percent certainty who did PEDs unless they actually failed a drug test or copped to it. Even then, would we be able to determine when they began using and for how long?

Short of a player mapping out the timeline for us, and showing us a syringe, the answer is no. But we're not trying to be Piazza's defense lawyer -- nor should he need one. It's not like he was ever suspended or disciplined for PEDs, and his name didn't appear in the Mitchell Report.

Piazza, however, is being punished anyway by a few dozen BBWAA members who don't think he's a Hall of Famer -- or at least not yet, like he still has a toll to pay for access to Cooperstown. I respect those differing opinions, and again, we're not proclaiming innocence or guilt here.

But if you're keeping Piazza out because of the specter of steroids, what's going to change in the next year or two?

We may never know. It appears the passage of time will eventually work in Piazza's favor after he earned 69.9 percent of the BBWAA's balloting this year, his third try. That left him only 28 votes short of the 75 percent required for induction and he's been trending in the right direction. Piazza started at 57.8 percent in 2013, then gained 26 more votes to get to 62.2 percent last year.

On this go-round, Piazza picked up 29 more, and with Ken Griffey Jr. the only slam-dunk addition to the 2016 ballot, there will be plenty of room among those 10 slots if the remaining hard-liners decide to soften their stance.

History suggests they will. But for the past three years, the BBWAA also has been thrust into uncharted territory, attempting to navigate the murky PED waters without much guidance from the Hall of Fame. While most voters -- not me -- once again penalized Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens for their publicized links to PEDs, they appear inclined to ultimately bend on Piazza. At least that's what everyone seems to be banking on.

"We are confident that in the not too distant future, Mike Piazza, the top offensive catcher in the history of baseball, will take his rightful place in the halls of Cooperstown," Mets COO Jeff Wilpon said in a statement. "We look forward to celebrating that day with him, his family, and our fans, when it happens."

In 2013, the BBWAA chose to put no one in the Hall rather than Piazza. Next year, we're supposed to expect these same gates to swing open, just because the clock in baseball's penalty box finally expired?

At that point, Piazza probably won't care how he got to Cooperstown. But the rest of us should.

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