By Budd Bailey
Remember when it was easy to figure out who should be in the Baseball Hall of Famer in Cooperstown?
It was the equivalent of a smell test. You’d look over a candidate’s career and say, “I always thought of him as a future Hall of Famer.” Then it would be simply a matter of waiting for his induction.
Derek Jeter? Mariano Rivera? Chipper Jones? Pudge Rodriguez? Ken Griffey Jr.? Mike Piazza? Randy Johnson? Greg Maddux? Tom Glavine? They all were pretty clear yes votes in the last several years.
But hanging over the voting in that time period has been the steroid boys. Those are the players who are, at the least, accused of using performance-enhancing drugs. In some cases, they have admitted such usage. To many voters, such actions are considered “cheating,” and therefore disqualified from a ballot – even if some of them did nothing that was – strictly speaking – against the rules. Many of them have hung around the ballot for years, delaying their ultimate fate. Interestingly, Mark McGwire, one of the first to “come clean,” fell off the ballot rather quickly even though his numbers were Hall-worthy.
Meanwhile, society’s standards have changed as well. Good citizenship has risen in importance in consideration for Hall voters, and that has penalized a couple of players who let’s say haven’t quite met the ideal.
Now, with 2022’s arrival and another election’s results to be announced soon, the voting baseball writers face an odd situation. With the obvious eligible candidates in at the moment, they have to decide whether to cast ballots for those with steroid stigmas, etc., or if they will be tempted to vote for some players who might not meet the usual high standards if only because they are the best available candidates.
Ryan Thibodaux of California has made it his winter project to compile the results as individuals release their ballots to the public. As of this writing, we know how 31.4 percent of the vote has gone. It’s a good indicator of how the final results turn out – except for the fact that the steroid boys tend to suffer from those who keep their ballot anonymous. Let’s look at the top candidates in order as of now; all have at least 40 percent of the voting:
David Ortiz – He might be the best designated hitter in history, and he’s certainly one of the great clutch hitters in his era. The issue comes is that a flunked drug test result was leaked to the media, although he has been cleared by Commissioner Rob Manfred. That’s put a small cloud over him, but he seems likely to win.
Barry Bonds – On statistics alone, Bonds ranks with one of the top five players in major league history. He was clearly a Hall of Fame player throughout the early stages of his career. Then “something” happened, and his numbers defied the effects of age and went through the stratosphere. Bonds won four straight MVP awards in his late 30s. He has remained defiant on the steroid issue.
Roger Clemens – It’s a similar story to Bonds, as Clemens won three Cy Young Awards before the age of 34 … and four more after that. We knew he was a Hall of Famer candidate by the age of 28, yet his career path still leaves some questions. Clemens and Bonds are in their 10th and last year of eligibility, and thus their candidacy will be passed on to others if they don’t make it this year. And it seems likely that the pair will just miss induction this time.
Scott Rolen – The third baseman had a very nice 17-year career with the Phillies, Cardinals, Blue Jays and Reds, and was a rookie of the year. By all accounts, he was a model citizen. But, ever think of him as a Hall of Famer? He was only higher than 14th once in MVP voting (a fourth in 2004). On the other hand, some of the advances stats rank him quite highly among all-time third basemen, an underrated spot among Hall of Famers. Rolen isn’t an easy decision even without any external factors.
Curt Schilling – The right-handed pitcher won 216 games over 20 years and established himself as one of the greatest postseason pitchers in baseball history. Schilling led the voting last year, but didn’t reach the needed 75 percent threshold for induction. That prompted him to ask to be removed from the ballot, a request that was turned down – even though he probably would have been elected this year had Curt remained silent. It was the latest in a series of post-baseball statements that have generated some controversy. Schilling never was a slam-dunk, and now it looks like he’ll get his way to be judged by someone other than baseball writers. This is his last year on the ballot.
Todd Helton – The first baseman was a Colorado Rockie all his life, and he had a great stretch in the early 2000s in which he piled up the stats. Indeed, Helton hit .300 or better for 10 straight years, and drove in 90+ runs eight straight times. Oh, he could field too – superbly. His big problem might be his home park. In the thin air of Denver, Todd went .345/.441/.607 (1.048 OPS) at home. Elsewhere, he was .287/.386/.469 (.855 OPS). Helton was still good in other parks, but not great.
Andrew Jones – The center fielder reached the majors at age 19, and took little time to make an impact. Not only was he a consistent offensive threat, but he probably was the best fielder at his position in his generation. But Jones was never a particularly effective player after leaving Atlanta at the age of 30, and he was done at 35. Did he do enough in his prime to clear the bar?
Alex Rodriguez – You may have heard of this guy. I can argue that he was the greatest shortstop in the history of baseball during the first 10 or so years of his career. Then A-Rod arrived in New York and moved to third base, so Honus Wagner’s or Cal Ripken’s spot as the greatest all-time shortstop (pick one) became secure. Alex was still very good for several yeas with the Yankees. However … Rodriguez was caught using PEDs a couple of times along the way. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice …”
Billy Wagner – Relievers (like DHs) face a high bar for induction, in that their jobs are more specialized than most. Only a handful of them have reached Cooperstown. Wagner was really good during a 16-year career, finishing with 422 saves (six on the all-time list) and appearing in seven All-Star Games.
Omar Vizquel – The shortstop was as flashy and good a defensive shortstop as there was in baseball, and was something of an accumulator in terms of offensive statistics (2,877 hits in 24 years). But he was hit with charges involving domestic violence and sexual harassment recently. His vote total looks like it will crater in historic fashion this year.
Manny Ramirez – He finished with a career OPS of .998, which is close to superstar territory, over the course of 19 years. Manny won championships and was a regular in MVP voting and All-Star Games. But he had some problems passing PED tests over the course of his career, which has been enough to keep him off several writers’ ballots.
So out of 11 of the top vote-getters right now, five are dealing with PED questions and two more are cited for poor personal behavior. And that doesn’t include some players who are far down the voting list but could be good candidates with a clean record, such as Gary Sheffield and Sammy Sosa. Every case of with issues away from the playing field is different, and trying to come up with a consistent viewpoint for judging such players is almost impossible. The baseball writers have to make decisions about players well outside of their usual comfort zone of home runs and strikeouts, and that sounds like an ridiculous assignment.
The voting will be announced in about three weeks. We’ll see then how all of the writers sorted out their feelings on all of this.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)