NEW YORK — Still glowing over his election to the Hall of Fame, Barry Larkin was asked about next year's sure-to-be-controversial vote: the first appearances of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa on the Cooperstown ballot.
"All I know is playing and competing against some of these guys, they're the best — period," he said.
The Steroids Era will be the focal point of next year's Hall ballot, when 550-plus members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America try to assess three of the most accomplished players in the sport's history.
For all the home runs and wins, it's a trio tainted with accusations that their statistics were boosted by performance-enhancing drugs during a period when there were no agreed-upon penalties in baseball for the use of steroids and human growth hormone.
"It's going to be agonizing," BBWAA general secretary Jack O'Connell said after Tuesday's news conference, repeating the phrase for emphasis.
The BBWAA hasn't elected three candidates in one year since 1999 and hasn't voted in four since 1955. Next year's ballot also includes first-time eligibles Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling and Craig Biggio, along with holdovers Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell, Lee Smith and Tim Raines.
As Hall President Jeff Idelson pointed out, only 207 of the approximately 18,000 players who have appeared in the major leagues have earned induction to Cooperstown. Some voters will keep the doors locked on Steroids Era sluggers and Clemens — and even players only rumored to have used PEDs.
"I'm not going to vote for any of the people that are linked to steroids. I could change down the road, but that's the real strong feeling I have now," said Hal Bodley of MLB.com, the former lead baseball writer for USA Today. "I have such a great passion for the game that anything that taints it in the least way, I have a problem with it."
Bonds is a 14-time All-Star, seven-time MVP, eight-time Gold Glove outfielder and two-time batting champion. He holds the home run records with 73 in a season and 762 in his career. He also was convicted in April of obstruction of justice for giving an evasive answer in 2003 to a grand jury investigating drug distribution.
Clemens is an 11-time All-Star, seven-time Cy Young Award winner and the 1986 AL MVP. He also is ninth on the career list with 354 wins and third with 4,672 strikeouts. He also is scheduled for a trial in April on charges he lied when he told a congressional committee he never used PEDs, facing one count of obstruction of Congress, three counts of making false statements to Congress and two counts of perjury.
Sosa, the 1998 NL MVP who is seventh with 609 homers, was accused in a media report of testing positive in baseball's 2003 survey and avoided giving direct answers when he testified before Congress.
All three have denied knowingly using PEDs. Yet, a percentage of the voters no doubt believe they did.
"I think the museum is very comfortable with the decisions that the baseball writers make," Hall chairman Jane Forbes Clark said. "I don't see it as good or bad. I see it as part of what we do. I see it as we preserve the history of baseball, and it is part of the history of baseball. And so it's not a bad debate by any means."
Mark McGwire is 10th on the career list with 583 home runs and his 70 held the season record before Bonds. But he hasn't come close to the 75 percent needed for election during his six appearances at the ballot. He was between 21.9 and 23.7 percent during his first four tries, then failed to reach 20 percent in the two votes since he admitted using steroids and HGH.
Some voters feel his statistics were as inflated as his body.
"The numbers were there. I guess you still have to determine were those totals reached fairly," O'Connell said of the Steroids Era players in general. "I think what's complicating it more now is, at one time we thought it was just a small percentage. Now it's beginning to look like the small percentage were the people that weren't dosing on something. So maybe the playing field was a lot more level than we thought."
Larkin, who will be inducted on July 22 along with the late Ron Santo, was never accused of PED use. Asked whether he was tempted, he responded: "No. No. No."
Playing through the time when steroids use peaked and testing with penalties was put in place for his final season in 2004, he noticed what was going on around him.
"Certainly there were instances where there were a couple guys that I went — what in the world is this guy doing?" he said, widening his eyes. "There were a couple instances that I know where guys came to me and talked to me about kind of the situations they were in and things they had to do in order to feed their families."
When he thinks about what he called the "Juiced Era," he considers the pitchers that were throwing to him, not the other hitters.
"How about those guys that it wasn't so obvious, that were able to hang onto that slider just that much longer and make that ball break, so instead of hitting the ball off the sweet spot, I missed the sweet spot by that much?" he said. "That's the finiteness of the difference between being successful and not being successful."
With all the focus on steroids, Jack Morris could be next year's big beneficiary. He increased his total to 67 percent from 54 percent last year and has two more tries on the ballot before reaching the maximum 15. The vote won't be all about steroids.
"He could be an alternative for people next year that might not want to vote for Clemens," O'Connell said. "I think Morris has every reason to be encouraged."