TORONTO – Every year is a struggle with the Hall of Fame ballot. This was my fourth time voting after reaching 10 years of active membership within the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, and while it wasn’t as complicated as 2013 – when Barry Bonds, Rogers Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza debuted – the issues from that time hang over each new class.
That first year I voted for Bonds and Clemens while reserving judgment on others with proven, alleged or suspected ties to performance-enhancing drugs, waiting to see whether a consensus builds one way or the other around the so-called Steroids Era. Without any meaningful guidance from the Hall of Fame – which seems happy to have writers largely bear the burden of judging a murky period of the game’s history – voters must make their own judgments.
My argument then as now is that the game revolved around Bonds and Clemens to such a point that keeping them from the Hall does a poor job of accounting for that time frame. They were historically dominant. You can’t say that for the others, although Sosa and Mark McGwire rejuvenated baseball in the summer of 1998, and the sport isn’t as healthy as it is right now without them.
All of which brings us to this year’s ballot. I had four of 10 spots open because my policy is once someone is on my ballot they stay on until either election or their eligibility expires. The new class included one no-brainer, in Ken Griffey Jr., so that put me at seven, adding The Kid to Bonds, Clemens, Jeff Kent, Tim Raines, Larry Walker and Alan Trammell.
My initial inclination was to include Trevor Hoffman and after some deliberations, he became my eighth pick. The way the usage of pitchers has evolved over the past 30 years has made a strong closer absolutely crucial and Hoffman, with 601 saves in 677 chances complemented by a tidy career WHIP of 1.058, is among the best ever. The value of relievers like him isn’t properly reflected in advanced metrics including WAR because of how corrosive blown late-game leads are to teams. And it’s a role that eats up many in it, making longevity closing out games remarkably rare.
That left me with two spots open and I strongly considered Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, neither of whom has ever faced governmental investigation for PED use the way Bonds and Clemens have, or ever failed a drug test, at least to public knowledge. But in the end I opted to continue deferring on them, and went with Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling instead, two other deserving players, at least in my estimation. I’m placing more and more value on pitchers with longevity because of the way arms get shredded these days. To do so over two decades with mid-three ERAs in an offensive era is worthy.
The challenge for all voters is in trying to assess who was clean and who wasn’t, and that’s a dangerous game. My growing feeling is that we’re better off just voting on the numbers since we’ll never have a full picture of who did what, and since to some degree players who used PEDs competed against others doing the same thing. And if I’m honest, I can understand why a player who faces a 162-game schedule with brutal travel and constant pressure would look for a boost, especially given the potential reward.
At the same time, I’m conflicted, too, because I don’t want youth players to grow up thinking they need to take PEDs in order to reach the next level, or to make it seem like it’s no biggie if you do as long as you put up huge stats. That’s a bad message. PEDs cheat the sport, cheat opponents and cheat history. But they’re also not going away, as much as we’d like them to.
For now that’s my ballot, and the start of a year of wondering what to do with Manny Ramirez, who’s first-time eligible in 2017.