Raines, Walker long overdue for spot in Hall of Fame

Tim Raines stole 808 bases at the MLB level. (AP)

TORONTO — The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., will announce its Class of 2016 Wednesday afternoon, and regardless of what one might think of the Hall and its importance it’s going to be a big moment for baseball.

I don’t get a vote, and I never will unless the rules change dramatically. In order to get a ballot one has to be a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America with at least 10 years’ service time (colleagues Jeff Blair, Stephen Brunt and Shi Davidi all qualify), but that doesn’t stop me from writing an annual “If I Had A Ballot” column to share with you who would get my vote if the balloting process were opened up.

The Hall of Fame provides the ballot and voters may choose up to 10 candidates. In order to be elected to the Hall, a player must be named on at least 75 per cent of all ballots cast, including ones that are sent in empty.

Because of the overwhelming amount of talent and greatness on this year’s slate, my virtual ballot has 10 names on it, and I wish there was room for more.

My list of 10 is as follows: Jeff Bagwell, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Ken Griffey Jr., Jeff Kent, Edgar Martinez, Mark McGwire, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines and Larry Walker.

It leans (very) heavily towards offensive players, no question, but there's no Pedro Martinez this year and the era from which the ballot draws was -- justly or unjustly -- extremely bat-driven.

Bonds, Clemens and McGwire may generate some eyebrow-raising, but the fact is that, as unseemly as it is to us now, they were pretty much on a level playing field with hundreds of other illegal performance-enhancing drug users of their era, and they were the best of the best. They deserve to be enshrined and to have a notation on their Hall of Fame plaques that they were part of baseball's "Steroid Era" and, in one way or another, implicated in the scandal.

There can be no argument about the careers that Bonds and Clemens had, other than were they the best position player and pitcher, respectively, of all time. The only question is whether their PED use should keep them out of the Hall of Fame. About McGwire, though, there seems to be some revisionist history at work, with some putting forth the idea that he was a one-dimensional player who hit home runs and did nothing else, as though he was a latter-day version of Dave Kingman. But the truth is that not only did McGwire hit home runs in rather large bunches, he was also a quality defensive first baseman (he won a Gold Glove, for whatever that's worth) who was very difficult to get out. He posted a career on-base percentage of .394, and his OPS ranks ninth all-time.

Piazza was arguably the greatest offensive catcher in history, Martinez the best DH ever and Kent a top-three all-time second baseman, so they all deserve to be in in my books. Positional dominance is kind of a big thing for me.

Bagwell gets my vote for a couple of reasons. First, he deserves enshrinement for posting a silly career mark of .297/.408/.540 even though he had over a thousand more career plate appearances in the vast offensive wasteland that was the AstroDome than anywhere else. He was also durable, missing a grand total of just 14 games over a six-season period from 1999 to 2004 while playing all 162 games in three prior seasons, and walked (1,401 times) almost as often as he struck out (1,558) over his 15-year career.

Bagwell was never implicated in the steroid scandals, but he hasn't yet been voted into the Hall because he "just doesn't look right" in the eyes of some voters, many of whom have (hopefully) been weeded out by the new criterion that states any voter must have been active in covering baseball in the last 10 years. That rule change may also open the door to the eventual inclusion of Bonds and Clemens, and it might also bring us the first-ever Hall of Famer to be elected unanimously.

There has always been a contingent of Hall of Fame voters from the "get off my lawn" school of voting. "Babe Ruth wasn't a unanimous selection," they'd say, "Joe DiMaggio didn't get in his first time on the ballot. So I'm never voting for anyone his first time through."

Many, if not all of those voters are gone, so it will be very interesting to see if Griffey might become that first player to be named on every ballot cast. It's difficult to imagine anyone not voting for Griffey, who put up video game numbers in the mid-to-late '90s. He led the American League in home runs three straight years and four times in six, and was an all-star in every single year of his 20s. In the shadow of McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Bonds doing their best impressions of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, Griffey managed to avoid even the slightest whisper that his performance might be somehow tainted. With Derek Jeter not eligible for another four years, Griffey has the best shot anyone ever has to be the first 100-percenter.

The only defensible way to leave Griffey off one's ballot would be for strategic voting purposes. With so many players to vote for, if you have 11 names on your list maybe you leave off the one who is the most sure to be voted in.

That leaves the two players with ties to the Expos, and I wouldn't vote for either Raines or Walker simply because they were great players who made a large part of their mark on this side of the border. The fact is they were both among the game's greatest.

It's a travesty that Raines is not yet an honoured member of the Hall of Fame. He should have been elected in his first year on the ballot and yet he goes into his eighth still on the outside looking in, with only two shots remaining.

Rickey Henderson was the greatest lead-off hitter of all-time. Raines was next. They played at the same time, which obscured a lot of what Raines was doing, and while Henderson was doing his thing in The Bronx, Raines was in Montreal.

Raines may not have won seven batting titles like the late, great Tony Gwynn did, but he was just as tough an out, with a career on-base percentage of .385 to Gwynn's .388. Henderson may have stolen more bases than Raines, who is fifth on the all-time list, but Henderson would have to come out of retirement and steal 450 more without getting caught in order to match Raines' stolen-base efficiency of 84.7 per cent.

With Raines having been the greatest lead-off man in National League history with a .294/.385/.410 mark over a 23-year career, one really has to wonder just exactly what a large portion of the electorate is looking at in order to deny him a place on their ballots.

Walker is being punished for playing a large part of his career in the hitters' haven that is Coors Field in the thin air of Denver, Colo. His overall career numbers are just silly, hitting .313/.400/.565 over a 17-year career that started in Montreal and ended in St. Louis. Walker won three batting titles, including leading the major leagues in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage in 1999.

He was an elite-level defender with arguably the game's best throwing arm and a brilliant baserunner who made up for a lack of Hendersonian footspeed with his smarts on the base paths. Walker stole bases in the double-digits 11 times and was caught stealing five times or fewer 12 times, with career highs of 33 steals (in '97) and nine times caught (in '91).

Walker was the total package and if he'd played his prime years somewhere other than Colorado, he too would probably be in the Hall by now. It's really not fair to punish someone for where he played, but that's what's happening to Walker.

With this level of talent, 10 votes really isn't enough. Had there been an unlimited number (the BBWAA tried to get the Hall to increase the voting limit to 12, but was rebuffed), I would also have cast votes for Trevor Hoffman, Fred McGriff, Curt Schilling and Alan Trammell and would have thought really, really hard about Billy Wagner, but there can only be 10.

When the dust settles and the official announcement is made, I expect that only Griffey and Piazza will garner the requisite 75 per cent, though with the electorate having changed so drastically (apparently, the Hall mailed out only 475 ballots this year as opposed to 600 last year), there exists the possibility of major change. If all 475 eligible voters returned their ballots this time around, only 357 votes would be required for election. Last year, that number was 412 with 549 ballots cast.

Of the three players who finished highest on last year's ballot without getting to 75 per cent, Piazza was named on 384 ballots, Bagwell 306 and Raines 302.