There are two caveats that must be mentioned before I reveal my Hall of Fame ballot, in advance of Monday’s announcement of the Class of 2012. First, this is only a hypothetical ballot, since my bosses do not allow me to cast a vote, even though I am an eligible voter. (Yeah, that policy stinks for me, but I can appreciate the underlying reason — that, as a journalist, it is my job to report the news, not to influence it.)

Secondly, I am an avowed, unabashed elitist when it comes to the Hall of Fame. As you’ve probably heard me say before, if it were up to me I’d kick about 50 players out of Cooperstown before I put one more player in. I mean no offense to the players in question, nor to the many voters who listed them on their ballots, but I believe there is an appreciable difference — one that frequently gets obscured — between a true Hall-of-Famer and a merely great player who had a great career. There is a place to celebrate those in the latter group; it just isn’t Cooperstown.

I would not have voted for Bert Blyleven, Andre Dawson, Jim Rice or Bruce Sutter — to name four greats voted into Cooperstown in the previous five elections. Again, no slight intended to those men. I can acknowledge and appreciate the greatness of their careers. I just don’t see them as belonging in the same realm as Ruth, Aaron, Mays, Gehrig, Mathewson and Feller — or Ripken, Ryan, Brett and Henderson, for that matter. Those are transcendent players.

Obviously, by definition, at least 75 percent of my voting brethren disagreed with me about Blyleven, Dawson, Rice and Sutter, and I don’t have a problem with that. Seventy-five percent is a high threshold to reach. It requires you to have the support of a cross-section of voters, not just one voting bloc. Despite the snark from the many cynics and smarter-than-thou types who believe that there is only one correct answer for each candidate — theirs — and that anyone who disagrees must be an idiot, it is the sheer intensity and the variety of opinions within the Cooperstown debate that makes the voting so compelling. I’m perfectly fine with the notion that the vast majority of voters disagrees with my viewpoint.

My basic definition of what constitutes a Hall-of-Famer — “basic,” in that I leave a little room for exceptions — has two components: A player had to have been the best player (or very close to it) at his position during his era, and he had to have been considered one of the dozen or so best players in the game overall during that era.

With that in mind, my (hypothetical) ballot contains only one name: Mark McGwire.

It is at this point that I must make my annual addressing of the steroids issue. My personal belief is that, since we don’t know (and never will know) the full accounting of who used what and for how long during the so-called steroids era, it is impossible to successfully weed out the users from the non-users when it comes to their Cooperstown cases. By trying to do so, you are left with an untenable problem: What is your threshold for proof? To leave someone off your ballot because of steroids, do you need to be 100 percent certain the player used? Or only 90 percent certain? Fifty percent? Or do you merely need to have a suspicion – let’s say a 20 percent level of certainty?

It’s better, in my opinion, to leave steroids more or less out of the equation entirely. I don’t feel great about that stance. For that matter, it makes me queasy in the first place that the baseball writers are left, with no real guidance from the Hall of Fame itself, to make the moral judgment as to how to reconcile the steroids issue within the question of Cooperstown eligibility. But that’s the way it is, and it simply makes more sense to treat all players from that era equally than to start trying to weed out the clean from the dirty. Steroids were a fact of life during that era, just as segregation was a fact of life during the pre-World War II era. But in each case, the best players from that era were still the best players from that era.

(You’ll be hearing plenty more about this issue in the next 12 months, with next year’s ballot set to include, for the first time, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa.)

And so . . . McGwire. The premier slugger of his era. Four home run titles, including seasons of 70 and 65. Four times leading the league in OPS+. Nine seasons with an OPS higher than 1.000. A total of 583 homers, which ranks 10th all-time.

Obviously, my (hypothetical) vote for McGwire leaves me in a small minority, as McGwire’s percentages have slipped from 23.5 percent in his first year on the ballot (2007) to 19.8 percent last year. He’s not getting in – not this year, and probably not ever.

As for the rest of my ballot, five other players come very close to meeting my standards: Jeff Bagwell, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Dale Murphy and Tim Raines. All were great players. Larkin, and possibly Bagwell, might even get in this year – in which case I’ll be happy for them.

Bagwell suffers from having played at the same time as McGwire, who outhomered and out-OPS’ed him on an almost annual basis. (McGwire ranks 12th all-time with an OPS+ of 162; Bagwell ranks tied for 34th at 147.) Larkin was similarly overshadowed by Cal Ripken, Raines by Rickey Henderson. Martinez was quite clearly the best DH of his era – satisfying my primary criterion – but for me, a DH has to rise to an even loftier threshold, since he doesn’t contribute on defense. (Murphy, meantime, is criminally underappreciated. He gets almost no HOF support, clocking in annually at just 10 to 12 percent. But he was the best center fielder of his era, a two-time MVP and a five-time Gold Glove winner. The only knock against him was that his prime was too short.)

There are worse players than all of them already in the Hall of Fame, to be sure. But that’s not my fault. And until someone gives me the power to start kicking guys out of Cooperstown, I’m drawing my line way up in the stars.