For 20 years, give or take one or two, I was an elector for the Baseball Hall of Fame, by virtue of my 10-plus years as a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. It was a role I cherished, a chance to have a small part in populating the most hallowed shrine in American sports, and I took it as a serious responsibility. I looked forward to the November arrival of the next year’s ballot.
But alas, all things end and this did, too, for me, when the BWAA last year decided to remove from the voting rolls writers who had been retired from daily journalism for more than 10 years. Fact is, thanks to the MLB Extra Innings cable-TV package, I’ve watched more baseball these past several years than I did when I was a free-ranging sports columnist, but I had no serious beef with the move. Lifetime appointments to any position are a bad idea (see our Supreme Court) and the H of F election roll shouldn’t be an exception.
About 75 other old writers joined me in exclusion, meaning that the average age of the voters will drop. This has led to speculation that a younger electorate will take a softer approach to players who used performance-enhancing drugs during their careers. Maybe so, but I don’t think that the likes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, both of whom flunked the eye and smell tests for steroid use, are due for induction any time soon. Each polled about 37% in the 2015 balloting, about half the required 75%, and even a bump won’t get them over the hump.
It should be noted that Bonds and Clemens (and Pete Rose) already are well represented in the Cooperstown shrine. They live there in photos and videos, and objects they wore or used are displayed for veneration. But in my view the fact that their rule-breaking behavior forced their fellow players into a Faustian choice that put their health at risk justifies the pair’s absence from the brass-plaque part of the hall. Their records still stand, and nobody is asking for refunds on their enormous salaries, so it’s an appropriate price for them to pay.
Last year’s voting produced four inductees (Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz), the biggest class in many years. This year’s additions will be smaller. Mike Piazza, the long-time Dodgers’ and Mets’ catcher whose 427 home runs are a record for his demanding position, got about 70% of the vote last time, and should make it this time around. I make him a 2-to-5 pick in the results to be announced next Wednesday (Jan.6).
Among the 15 first-timers on the ballot, Ken Griffey Jr. is a no-brainer, a 1-to-10 shot. His 630 career home runs rank sixth on the all-time list, and he’s in the top 15 in both total bases and runs batted in. Additionally, he was an acrobat in center field whose best catches make a thrilling highlight reel. He was one of best pure athletes to play the game. He’ll lead Piazza in the voting.
After that the odds grow. First-timer Trevor Hoffman, the long-time San Diego Padres relief ace (remember how they played “Hell’s Bells” when he entered a game?), would be on my ballot if I were voting. He’s second all-time in career saves with 601, behind only Mariano Rivera, and had a lifetime 2.87 ERA over 19 seasons. He’s a seven-time All Star and twice was runnerup in the voting for the National League Cy Young Award. Still, while I’m sure he’ll poll well, his credentials don’t jump off the page the way Griffey’s do, and some writers might want to make him wait a year before induction. I make him an even-money pick.
The only others of the first-timers I would consider seriously are Jim Edmonds, the ex-St. Louis Cardinals’ centerfielder, and Billy Wagner, the skinny, left-handed relief ace with a number of teams. Edmonds’ batting numbers (.284 lifetime BA, 393 home runs) were very good but not great, but his fielding prowess was truly elite. As the example of Keith Hernandez showed, however, glove men don’t usually impress the electorate. He was the best-fielding first-baseman I’ve seen—indeed, he revolutionized the position-- but never topped 10% in Hall of Fame voting. Good as he was, Edmonds was no Hernandez, and I wouldn’t have voted for him. I expect he’ll poll in the 20% to 30% range.
Wagner might do a bit better, but still fall short. He retired in 2010 with 422 saves, now fourth on the all-time list, but Lee Smith, the guy who ranks just ahead of him (with 478), never has gained much traction in the voting and I don’t expect that Wagner will, either.
Otherwise, I’d ink in five players I’d backed before— Curt Schilling, Smith, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina and Alan Trammell—but of those only Schilling was named on more than 30% of last year’s ballots and has much chance of eventual election. Two players who came fairly close last time—Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines (each at about 55%)—might benefit from the weaker ballot and move up (writers can pick up to 10), but I doubt that either will get over the top. I make each about a 4-to-1 shot, but you never can tell.
I don’t have a vote any more, but I do have opinions. And as Maury Allen once wrote, “there’s no sport righter than a sportswriter.”