By Ernie Palladino
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By now, the writers who vote for baseball’s Hall of Fame should have their 2012 ballots firmly in hand, and certainly their opinions on their selection process firmly in mind.

That’s important every year, but this year especially because this is a year where four of the biggest names you’ll ever see on one ballot come up for election — Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, and Mike Piazza.

All appear for the first time.

All, in one way or another, have been connected — Piazza in the form of persistent rumors — with steroid use.

So, the question. As someone who has observed their greatness, and also chronicled their real or alleged cheating, do any of them deserve induction as first-ballot honorees?

For many, the answer will, or should, go something like this.

Nope. Nope. Nope. Eh-h-h-h-h-h!

It’s the last one that catches the eye. Mike Piazza, the Dodgers and Mets catcher who shattered the positional hitting records with 427 homers, not to mention .308/.377/.545 BA/On-Base/Slugging percentages, while never having failed a drug test.

This is where things get sticky. Bonds, Sosa and Clemens will be automatic eliminations in the minds of many who believe steroid cheats should be excluded in Cooperstown. We know Bonds and Sosa used. And suspicions are strong enough that, even with Clemens’ acquital on charges of lying to a congressional subcommittee on his alleged steroids use, many will keep him off their final list.

No way will those guys go into the Hall, at least the first time around.

Piazza, though, is a different story entirely. He’s a borderline first-ballot guy. Probably is worthy of a spot this year. But there are whispers, and in this day and age, that’s probably enough to keep somebody out for a long, long time.

That’s a shame. It always is when we get into witch-hunt territory.

Right now, all anyone has on Piazza is case of bad back-acne and part of a chapter in Jeff Pearlman’s recently-published book on Roger Clemens, entitled “The Rocket That Fell To Earth.” In those paragraphs, unnamed sources claimed Piazza told several trusted reporters “off the record” that he indeed did, in limited doses, indulge in PEDs. First baseman Reggie Jefferson, who played against Piazza for years, opined that Piazza clearly used, and everybody in the game knew it.”

That’s a lot different than having conclusive proof.

Baseball writers don’t need concrete evidence, however. The Hall of Fame is not a court of law. So if a few paragraphs in a book about someone who originally was outed by training partner and co-cheat Andy Pettitte is enough to keep Piazza out, then that’s how it will go.

Perhaps some will deem Piazza’s numbers unworthy of first-ballot selection. Some simply won’t vote for anyone, PEDs or not, on the first ballot because in their minds, nobody deserves entrance his first year of eligibility. That’s fair, even if that second rationale is a bit twisted.

A bad case of acne — even one that disappeared once baseball started testing for steroids — and a bunch of whispers should not trigger Piazza’s automatic elimination, however. He never failed a test. There are no preserved gauze pads or needles. No mention in the Mitchell Report.

Enough players have been ruined by hard evidence of steroids usage. Bonds, Sosa, Clemens; they all deserve what they get.

Piazza, not so much. If the writers want to keep him out of Cooperstown, let it be because they don’t feel his statistics merit inclusion, not because of unproven steroids accusations.

Where do you stand on Piazza? What about Bonds, Sosa and Clemens? Make your case for or against Cooperstown immortality in the comments below…