I can’t remember the last time a Hall of Fame election caused so much angst among baseball writers, myself included. There’s a reason why I waited until Dec. 31 — the last possible day — to cast my ballot. I was hoping for an epiphany, which of course, did not occur.
There’s no such thing as a perfect ballot, especially in Cooperstown. Everyone interprets the qualifications differently, especially the Hall’s instructions that address “character, integrity and sportsmanship.” No one, for instance, has resolved the steroid and performance-enhancing drugs issue, turning the selection process into a philosophical free-for-all.
Complicating matters was the overcrowded ballot itself, with 19 new candidates, 36 overall. Good luck to anyone trying to craft a top-10 that was fair — it was impossible. There were several deserving candidates who I had to leave behind. Unfortunately, the Hall’s outdated rules don’t allow for more than 10 inductees in any one year. Maybe in the future a better, more just system will be in place.
In the meantime, here were my choices for Cooperstown and the subsequent breakdown of slam-dunk picks, the gray-area candidates and the ones who made me procrastinate right until New Year’s Eve.
Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Tim Raines, Mike Mussina.
SLAM DUNK: Maddux, Glavine, Thomas, Biggio.
There’s no possible reason to leave Maddux off the ballot, so we’ll just leave it that — the legendary right-hander deserves to be the first unanimous first-round inductee in Cooperstown history. Maddux’s 355 wins were the most by any right-hander since World War II, and he flourished at a time when, as SI.com noted, scoring was at its highest since the 1920s and 30s.
I felt almost as strongly about Glavine, who won 20 games five times, and two Cy Young Awards — all with essentially one weapon, his change-up. Maybe because he didn’t throw very hard and therefore didn’t tax his arm, but Glavine was a machine, managing to stay off the disabled list until his age-42 season. The left-hander won’t be a unanimous pick, but he’ll be elected by an overwhelming majority.
Thomas was just as much a beast, hitting 40 home runs five times and finishing with 521 for his career. Just as importantly, Thomas gave voice to what was then an unpopular opinion back in the late 90s and mid-2000s. Thomas may have been more outspoken that anyone in baseball about the need to police steroids, willing to take on his own union during a time when it was obsessing over player-privacy instead of the game’s integrity.
Biggio, didn’t get my vote last year because it was his first time on the ballot. I do believe there’s an important distinction between getting in right away (like Maddux will) and having to wait until the 15th and final year, like Jim Rice. Not all Hall of Famers are alike.
But there’s no denying Biggio’s body of work, even if he did hang around two to three years too long. During his prime between 1993-1998, he missed a total of 12 games, won four Silver Slugger awards and three Gold Gloves. With 3,060 hits, Biggio was an easy choice.
NO MAN’S LAND: Bonds, Clemens, Piazza, Bagwell
In no way does this vote condone or accept the use of performance-enhancing drugs. To the contrary, I believe those who succumbed to temptation had an unfair advantage over those who played by the rules. The cheaters knew they were crossing a line — this wasn’t like taking amphetamines in the 50s and 60s. PEDs are game-changers and created a futuristic leap in the early 2000s. More HRs, better radar-gun readings and a faster, almost cartoon-like game. It was all a con.
However, it’s not my job to investigate or prosecute suspected criminals. If Bud Selig isn’t going to act against Bonds or Clemens, or anyone else tied to the steroid era, then don’t expect the baseball writers to do so, either. No fair or reasonable voter should be forced to parse the circumstantial evidence, whether it be a late-career spike in production, heresy from other players or back acne.
If the federal government couldn’t prove Bonds or Clemens were using steroids, then the matter is, legally, settled. Until I have information to the contrary — proof — the two will get my vote, as will Piazza, the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history, and Bagwell, a career .297 hitter who finished with 449 HRs.
To be clear, I will never vote for players who were clearly cheating, outed either by their own admission or a positive test. That’s why Alex Rodriguez and Mark McGwire won’t get to Cooperstown if I can help it. Same goes for Manny Ramirez. It was their bad luck to have been caught.
THE FINAL CUT: Raines, Mussina.
First things first about Raines. Here’s a player who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, having been eclipsed throughout his career by Ricky Henderson. But Raines was the No. 2 leadoff hitter of his time, finishing with a career .294 average and 808 stolen bases.
As for Mussina, his spot on the ballot could’ve easily been taken by Curt Schilling, or as some believe, Jack Morris. But I was worried that the former Yankee right-hander wouldn’t collect the necessary five percent of the votes to remain on next year’s ballot. Hence, I picked him over Schilling, who I believe deserves to be in Cooperstown and Morris, who after much deliberation, does not.
Mussina never captured a Cy Young, true, but he did win 270 games in an era when American League hitters were artificially pumped up by pharmaceuticals. Only 11 pitchers in the Hall of Fame have a higher winning percentage (.638).
LEFT IN THE DUST: Morris, Jeff Kent, Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammel.
Ultimately, I couldn’t make peace with Morris’ 3.90 ERA in a pitching-dominant era. The right-hander was big and tough and anyone’s definition of a warrior, no doubt, but he simply fell a notch below what I considered Cooperstown’s threshold.
As for Martinez and his career .993 OPS and Trammel, who had a much better career than anyone gave him credit for (overshadowed by Cal Ripken), they were unfortunate casualties of this restricted ballot. Same goes for Jeff Kent, a terrific, power-hitting second baseman who merits another look. Maybe next year.