CLEARWATER, Fla. - Having failed in his crusade to convince Major League Baseball to reconsider Pete Rose for Hall of Fame status, Mike Schmidt might have a better chance championing the principals of the steroid scandal to writers who vote on the honor.

Asked yesterday if he would have voted for steroid-era poster child Mark McGwire, who didn't come close to enough votes as a first-ballot candidate, Schmidt didn't hesitate.

"I would have said yes, Mark deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, if I was a writer," Schmidt said.

The Baseball Writers' Association of America annually votes on eligible candidates. While Mc-Gwire is not a slam-dunk choice even without the steroid smear, his stature in the game thanks to his home-run feats from 1996 to '99 would have garnered him Schmidt's support. The same is true of Sammy Sosa, McGwire's chief longball competition during that time.

For Schmidt, excluding them based on their alleged use of performance enhancers - never proved, and then not against baseball's rules - now smacks of hypocrisy.

"I think Mark McGwire, along with Sammy, sort of saved the game back in the late '90s," Schmidt said. "I don't see how we all could ride on the shoulders of Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa for 4 or 5 years and not write much or say much about the steroids element in the game."

Smaller ballparks, livelier baseballs, a diluted pitching pool, harder bats and a natural increase in players' size accounted more for the power surge, said Schmidt, than did chemical supplements.

Besides, Schmidt said, pretty much everybody enjoyed the ride.

How could writers "just watch the players, write about them, enjoy them, love the life and all of what's going on; and now when it comes time for these guys to be honored [for] that period, all of a sudden bring up the issue of steroids and connect them to it?" Schmidt asked.

"People have written books about these guys," he continued. "Made a lot of money [off] them. Now, given a chance to put them in the Hall of Fame, they're saying 'No.' "

Schmidt realizes that Mc-Gwire's awkward avoidance of direct questions from congressional panelists about steroid use conducted before the 2005 season severely damaged McGwire's image - but not irreparably.

America loves an admission of guilt only slightly more than a public apology.

"If I were Mark's adviser, I'd have him have a press conference tomorrow,' Schmidt said. "Assuming that he is guilty of something - if he was; I don't know what's inside his brain - there's no substitute for the truth. People forgive. I don't think he handled his opportunities in front of the public anywhere near as well as it could have been handled. Had he done it differently, in the right way, he probably would have been elected this year. I think that denial thing was the worst thing in the world."

So take that

If current Mets players were coerced into semi-offended reactions to Jimmy Rollins' contention that the Phillies are the National League East's best team, maybe Mets greats Mike Piazza or Darryl Strawberry will want to pick up the beef with Mike Schmidt.

"Quite honestly, I don't know that, on paper, there is a better team than this in all of baseball," Schmidt said. "Surely, offensively, it's one of the top three or four teams. Defensively, one of the top three or four. The starting pitching goes, what, six or seven deep? [Closer] Tom Gordon had a fantastic year last year; did a lot more than anybody would have expected of him.

"I'm looking at the names on that roster, and I'm going: Whew! How can you have a better pool of players to use than the Phillies have right now? And that's a credit to [general manager] Pat Gillick."

Phillers

Players will have a shortened workday today thanks to the annual team golf tournament . . . No pitchers expected to be on the Opening Day roster will pitch in tomorrow's exhibition against Florida State. *