Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will get into the Hall of Fame someday, and without using the side entrance, either.
It won't be because people forget, or even forgive, but because they won't care anymore. Everybody in every sport will be on some kind of performance-enhancer by then, the way they're all on "approved" supplements already. That day hasn't arrived, but you can see it from here.
Everything is out in the open today in a way it wasn't just a decade ago, when baseball's supersized era was full-on. Back then, nobody felt sufficient heat to do anything about it. There were suspicions, and outrage, too. But they were papered over by the profits flowing into baseball's front offices, or buried on the inside pages of the sports section.
Just imagine if there had been a photo of that bottle of Androstenedione sitting on the shelf of Mark McGwire's locker back in 1998 to accompany The Associated Press story, the way there almost certainly would be these days. The story that hung over baseball like a dark cloud for a decade would have gone through the media wringer in a matter of days, and everybody would have gone off in search of the next thing to argue about. That's what's going to happen, soon enough, to the anger that stretched from the top of the Hall of Fame ballot Wednesday all the way down to the bottom.
Decide for yourself whether that's a good thing. The 24/7 environment isn't just shrinking our attention spans, it's diminishing our sense of outrage, too. The soaring popularity of the NFL in the age of social media is proof of that. Everybody who watches football knows there's a concussion problem always lurking in the background, and most of us suspect the players are a lot bigger than they should be. But we overlook those until somebody drops the photographic evidence in our lap, tsk-tsk for a while and go back to watching the games. It wasn't that long ago, remember, that former Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman got busted for steroids, sat out a four-game suspension, and still managed to finish third in balloting for Defensive Player of the Year.
There's no question that baseball has been disproportionately punished for a problem that afflicts just about every sport. Maybe that's because the game was so slow to acknowledge it, and then put in place a program credible enough to do something about it. Whatever the reason, taking another year off to assess where Bonds and Clemens and just about every other great ballplayer from a compromised era fits in the history of the game isn't that big of a deal. The only real shame in what happened Wednesday is that Craig Biggio and Jack Morris, two guys who strung together long and apparently drug-free careers, couldn't gather enough votes from a skeptical electorate to get in. Here's hoping it's sorted out in time so that the same thing doesn't happen to Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas, who will be similarly positioned at the head of next year's class.
There's plenty of confusion out there about who did what, and how much? We always knew the "clean" players — and who knows how many of them existed in any sport — were going to suffer in comparison to the rule-breakers. That hasn't changed and probably won't. We were outraged by McGwire's use of Andro — even though it was allowed under baseball rules in place at the time — and only subsequently found out about the much more sophisticated and performance-enhancing substances that players kept in refrigerators and medicine cabinets back home.
Based on the way fans have voted with their feet and remote controls in this age of (mostly) full disclosure, most quit caring sometime ago. In that sense, the people who cast ballots for the Hall of Fame are throwbacks, determined to defend a standard that applied when they began covering the game, but is hardly as unambiguous today. The truth is that rules have always been bent. Check out how many scoundrels of different stripes are in the Hall already, from Ty Cobb to Tom Yawkey. That tells you how the voters decided things in accordance with the prevailing attitude.
Now we know how performance-enhancers work, along with a growing sense of how to use them, even if the claims their being "safe" sounds more like a prediction than a guarantee. Yet you can't watch a game without taking in a host of commercials that promise some pill or other will enable you to do something better. Athletes might be the last group of people left in our society who can't bring them to the workplace. That will change in a few years, too. Then Clemens and Bonds and a few of their sidekicks from this year's class won't have to spring for a ticket to visit the game-worn jerseys, baseballs and assorted other artifacts they've already sneaked past the guardians of the moment.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/Jim Litke.