In filling out a Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, the agonizing is as much about the names you leave off as the ones you choose.

I’ve been anticipating this year’s fresh dilemma for years, with a growing sense of dread. Once Alex Rodriguez retired after the 2016 season and began his clock for the mandatory five-year waiting period, you could see it coming: Another twist to the steroids question that has confronted (and confounded) voters since 2007, Mark McGwire’s initial appearance on the ballot.

A-Rod’s first-time appearance on the ballot this year, along with that of David Ortiz, is the latest conundrum to anguish over. This is my 25th Hall of Fame ballot, an honor that comes when you reach your 10th year as a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as I celebrate this Silver Anniversary, it’s that the slam-dunk, no-second-thought Hall of Famers are exceedingly rare.

Ken Griffey Jr.

Derek Jeter.

Mariano Rivera.

Cal Ripken Jr.

Greg Maddux.

You get the picture. Players of that ilk get an immediate and fervent “X” on my ballot (and just about everyone else’s). But far more fall in a grayer area, whether by virtue of their body of work (which sometimes require deep dives to reveal the majesty that was always there) or some sort of PED or off-field issue that clouds their candidacy. Those are the ones you fret and fuss over.

Which brings us back to A-Rod and Big Papi, who were briefly teammates in the Mariners organization.

Spoiler alert: I voted for Ortiz, the only new name on my ballot. The other nine (you’re allowed to vote for 10 maximum) were holdovers from last year’s election, in which no one reached the required 75% of votes.

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And I didn’t vote for A-Rod.

This gets right to the crux of the steroids question — which I will be the first to say is a nearly impossible one to navigate. At some point, you’re going to come to a crossroads where there are no easy answers.

For instance: Why did I vote for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens (for the 10th and final time, as they will either be elected or go off the ballot next year) and Ortiz, but not Rodriguez, or for that matter, Manny Ramirez?

All have indisputable Hall of Fame credentials — statistically, aesthetically, whatever criteria you care to choose. And all have some degree of linkage to PEDs. So what is the distinction?

I’ve explained my vote for Bonds and Clemens many, many times, so I’ll reduce it to a series of bullet points:

  • They played in an era that was the Wild Wild West of unregulated PED use. No sanctions had been established by MLB and the Players Association.
  • They were never suspended, and all their statistics are in the record books.
  • Bud Selig, the commissioner during this era, is in the Hall of Fame. So are many players with steroids suspicions. As Hall of Fame analyst Jay Jaffe has written, “The PED problem was the result of a complete institutional failure that implicated the commissioner, the owners, the players’ union, and even reporters. … If baseball couldn’t punish users during that (era), then voters shouldn’t apply a retroactive morality.”
  • It is virtually impossible to distinguish who was and wasn’t a PED user during this time period, so I’ve chosen (along with the majority of my voting peers) to stop trying. In the case of Bonds and Clemens, they are all-time players who almost certainly were headed for the Hall of Fame without steroids.

The distinction with A-Rod (and Manny and Rafael Palmeiro, a member of the 500-homer, 3,000-hit club who never received more than 12% of the votes before falling off the ballot) is that their steroids transgressions occurred after the sport formalized its drug policy in 2004 in collective bargaining between ownership and the union.

Rodriguez was caught up in the investigation into the Biogenesis Anti-Aging Clinic in Miami and suspended for the entire 2014 season for what MLB said was Rodriguez’s “use and possession of numerous forms of prohibited performance-enhancing substances, including Testosterone and human Growth Hormone, over the course of multiple years” and “for attempting to cover-up his violations of the Program by engaging in a course of conduct intended to obstruct and frustrate the Office of the Commissioner’s investigation.”

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Ortiz’s public link to steroids came via a 2009 New York Times article that named him as one of 104 major-league players who tested positive during a 2003 drug survey. This survey was agreed upon by MLB players to monitor the need for a firm drug policy. If more than 5% of the tests came back positive (which they did), then mandatory drug testing, with penalties for violations, would begin in 2004.

It is vital to know that players were promised anonymity by MLB, and no penalties for positive tests. The only reason some of the results were made public is that they were seized in a government raid as part of the BALCO investigation. Commissioner Rob Manfred said in 2016 that Ortiz’s positive test in 2003 wasn’t scientifically proven to be reliable and shouldn’t be used against him in Hall of Fame consideration.

So there it is. That’s my distinction between Bonds, Clemens and Ortiz on the one hand, and Rodriguez and Ramirez (who was suspended in 2009 and 2011 for violating MLB’s drug policy) on the other. At some point, I will reconsider that stand — annually, in fact. For now, it’s the standard I have chosen. It’s not one I feel great about, but the problem with voting in the 2000s is that there is no ironclad method of reconciling the candidacy of players linked to PEDs. We are all left to fend as best we can.

Another voting dilemma was Curt Schilling, who asked to be taken off the ballot last year after falling just short because he doesn’t think the BBWAA is a qualified electorate. The Hall of Fame declined. Schilling’s divisive political views have caused considerable controversy, but I decided to vote purely on the merits of his career — and to me, he’s always been a Hall of Fame pitcher.

An omission that hurt was Jeff Kent, who has more homers (351) than any other second baseman in history. Once Ortiz went on, however, someone had to come off, and I painfully settled on Kent. I hope to add him back next year.

I also omitted, for the second year in a row, Omar Vizquel. He was the victim of a crowded ballot, a reexamination of his credentials, and a series of troubling allegations against him. Judging by the BBHOF Tracker, Vizquel’s support is plummeting.

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I regretfully didn’t vote for local product Tim Lincecum, who appeared on the ballot for the first time. Lincecum had a brilliant career peak, but simply didn’t sustain it long enough for Cooperstown.

The rest of my ballot, with the same comments I had last year:

  • Scott Rolen, whose defense ranks among the best third basemen of all time and whose 70.1 career WAR (wins above replacement) isn’t far behind the legendary Brooks Robinson (78.4).
  • Todd Helton, whose body of work (a .316/.414/.539 slash line, three Gold Gloves) shines even when you adjust for playing half his career at hitter-friendly Coors Field.
  • Billy Wagner, who has the highest strikeout rate (over 900 innings) in baseball history (11.92 per nine innings).
  • Andruw Jones, who had 434 career homers and 10 Gold Gloves as the premier defensive center fielder of his era.
  • Bobby Abreu, who, as baseball analyst Ryan Spaeder points out, reached base safely 24 more times than Tony Gwynn in his career despite 151 fewer plate appearances.
  • Gary Sheffield, who hit 509 homers and put up a .907 career OPS, higher than numerous Hall of Famers. Sheffield’s links to steroids, which included entanglement with Bonds in the BALCO investigation, predated the testing era.

Frankly, the election I can’t wait for is 2024. That’s when Ichiro enters the ballot for the first time (delayed a full year by his two-game farewell stint in Japan in 2019).

No anguish or dilemma there. He gets an immediate and fervent “X.”