COOPERSTOWN, N.Y., July 29 -- They play golf and drink cocktails and tell old stories and sign autographs for the thousands of pilgrims who come to worship them, the living Hall of Famers who converge here for one weekend every summer at the place that represents baseball in its purest incarnation. On Sunday afternoon, in a public ceremony on the outskirts of town, the ranks of their exclusive fraternity will be joined by former relief pitcher Bruce Sutter and, posthumously, 17 former players and executives from the Negro leagues.

And when the ceremony ends, so will the Baseball Hall of Fame's era of innocence. Once the last speech is given, the giant stage is disassembled and the tens of thousands of fans go home, the focus shifts to the next election, in December.

And with the next election, everything changes.

The first wave of players tainted by baseball's steroids scandal hits the ballot this winter, when admitted users Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti, and more significantly, legendary slugger Mark McGwire -- whose ties to the scandal are less defined -- become eligible following the requisite five years of retirement.

And so, the controversy that has dominated the discourse around virtually every other aspect of professional baseball for the past few years will finally reach the hallowed halls of Cooperstown -- a realization that lurks in the backs of minds here, even as the current Hall of Famers and the fans enjoy the last induction weekend untainted by the steroids debate.

"Everybody knows it's coming," said Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, a 1962 inductee. "Some people would be upset [if McGwire is elected]. I obviously wouldn't like it. That would be very damaging to the Hall of Fame."

Caminiti and Canseco likely do not have the body of work to gain serious consideration by voters, but McGwire, the owner of 583 career homers, almost certainly will be the first litmus test of the so-called "Steroids Era" for Hall of Fame voters -- 10-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America -- who, in later years, will also have to consider players such as Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro.

"Next year's ballot will be a pretty good bellwether about how writers feel about this issue," said Dale Petrosky, president of the Hall of Fame. "A lot of people believe we are going to know a lot more information [about steroids] in a few years. But until anything is proven, the baseball writers are going to have to look into their souls and ask, 'Does this guy belong in the Hall or not?' and, 'How did he get there?' "

Said Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who was inducted last year: "I'm interested to see how the writers will vote. They have a chance to make a point that needs to be made about what [the Hall] represents. They are supposed to consider integrity and character [as criteria for judging a player's worthiness]. I hope they do that."

McGwire has never been proven to be a steroids user. However, circumstantial evidence has linked him to the scandal, and his testimony in March 2005 before the House Government Reform Committee -- during which McGwire repeatedly deflected questions by saying, "I'm not here to talk about the past" -- was damaging to his reputation.

"I don't recall Mark McGwire ever testing positive," said Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs (class of 2005). "In America, you're not guilty until proven innocent -- it's the other way around."

However, Feller, when asked about the lack of hard evidence against McGwire, said, "I know a bum when I see one."

If only there were no steroids controversy, next year's induction weekend might be anticipated as one of the most memorable and idyllic in recent memory. Among the first-time candidates on the next ballot are Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, considered two of the game's most respected ambassadors during their careers. Both are expected to be overwhelmingly elected on their first ballot.

McGwire's presence on the same ballot, sandwiched alphabetically between Gwynn and Ripken, only calls further attention to the unsavory aspects of McGwire's candidacy.

"You have Cal and Tony, the all-American guys," Sandberg said. "Do you put [a guy under] the suspicion of steroids in that same group? I don't think so."

Some Hall of Famers have spoken privately to each other about staging some sort of protest or boycott if McGwire gets voted in, according to one Hall of Famer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the conversations were private and sensitive.

Asked about such a scenario, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer (class of 1990) said: "That could happen, I suppose. Everybody has a right to react however they think is proper."

Other Hall of Famers said they would still attend the induction weekend, but might view the whole thing differently.

"I'm going to come to honor Ripken and Gwynn," Hall of Fame pitcher Rollie Fingers (1992) said. "If [the writers] vote McGwire in, they vote him in. I'm still going to show up."

"I'd still come, for sure. I wouldn't miss this for the world," Bill Mazeroski (class of 2001) said. "Honestly, I still haven't figured out exactly how I feel about [the steroids issue] -- and I get the feeling you writers haven't, either."

Indeed, Mazeroski is correct: No true consensus has emerged among voters as to how to regard McGwire's candidacy. (Washington Post writers do not participate in voting for the Hall or for postseason awards.) McGwire's statistical credentials -- including the 70 homers he hit in 1998, breaking the all-time single-season record (since eclipsed by Barry Bonds) -- make an impressive, though not overwhelming, case. But an election of McGwire would set a precedent that some voters clearly are not comfortable with.

"I was very fond and respectful of Mark McGwire as a player," said voter Gordon Edes of the Boston Globe. "But when he stood there in front of Congress and said, 'I don't want to talk about the past,' it left me thinking, 'Okay, Mark, then I don't want to consider your past, either.'

"My inclination at this point is probably not to vote for him. But I clearly want to reserve the right to change my mind between now and Dec. 31," the date ballots must be submitted.

Rick Hummel, who covered McGwire for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when McGwire played for the Cardinals, said he is "inclined to vote for him, based on what we know about him, and also what we don't know" -- meaning the lack of any firm evidence about McGwire, one way or another.

"How do we know how many homers to subtract [from his totals]?" Hummel said. "He was always a home run hitter, even as a rookie."

Hummel, having discussed the steroids issue extensively with peers, said he believes McGwire will fall well short this year of the 75 percent threshold required for election to the Hall.

Voters have never been previously forced to consider such a controversial figure. Pete Rose, whom Major League Baseball banned from the game in 1989 for gambling on baseball, has never appeared on a ballot because of the ban. The same holds true for "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and other members of the 1919 "Black Sox."

"If anybody from this 'steroids era' gets in," Palmer said, "it seems to me you'd have to go back and take a hard look at Pete."

MLB has not taken any similar permanent action against steroids users. In March, Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig launched an investigation, headed by former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, into steroid use in baseball, although Selig has not said what he would do with information gleaned from the investigation.

To date, the Hall of Fame itself has not entered the steroids debate, but a policy could be forthcoming. Its board of directors met Saturday afternoon, but neither Petrosky nor Joe Morgan, a Hall of Fame second baseman (1990) and vice chairman of the board, would comment about the possibility of formulating a policy to deal with steroids users in future years.

"We do not have a policy right now," Petrosky said.

Barring anything unforeseen, then, McGwire's candidacy places the responsibility for judging the effects of steroids on the highest level of the game -- and the underlying question of morality -- firmly in the hands of the writers.

"It's an uncomfortable position for baseball writers to be in -- being essentially the judge and jury," said the Globe's Edes. "I dread these next few years and having to make those kinds of calls."