The first year I qualified to vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame, way back in 1996, I was giddy with excitement, and determined to fully respect the gravity of the responsibility.
I remember having a long, passionate debate with my sports editor about the worthiness of Don Sutton as a candidate. I was in the Sutton camp, he was not, but it was a fun baseball argument. Sutton would indeed go into the Hall of Fame two years later — and, sadly, died last week, one of a staggering array of Hall of Famers to pass in the past year or so.
Tuesday would have been a day to replenish the ranks of Cooperstown. But for the first time since 2013, no one received the necessary 75% of votes from 10-year members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America necessary for election.
This was my 24th vote, and I still have total respect for the responsibility. You can rip the Hall of Fame voting process, but the fact that people get so emotional about it shows how deeply they care. And two years ago, when I had the extreme privilege of being with Edgar Martinez and his family in New York when he finally got the Cooperstown call, I saw firsthand how much it means to the players.
With all that in mind, I approach my annual vote with the utmost care. There have been a lot of articles lately lamenting how hopelessly convoluted the task of voting has become. Many prominent writers have chosen not to vote. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic said this week that this year’s ballot might be his last.
“I’m just frustrated — frustrated with the inconsistencies we cannot avoid, the false equivalencies we create, the rationalizations that require leaps in logic,” Rosenthal wrote.
I’m frustrated, too, but I’ll keep plowing ahead, as long as the Hall of Fame entrusts the BBWAA with the task, as it has from the very beginning.
That said, it’s not nearly as fun as it used to be. The dynamic began to change when Mark McGwire entered the ballot in 2007, and voters had to confront the steroids question — a debate that has continued unabated. Now Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are the new symbols of that conundrum.
I made the choice long ago that it was impossible to ferret out who was and wasn’t juicing, especially in the pretesting era when MLB turned a blind eye to obvious steroids usage. They allowed all the tainted statistics to count. That stance was further cemented to me when commissioner Bud Selig, who presided over the steroids era, was enshrined in Cooperstown in 2017
So I have voted every year for Bonds and Clemens, whose statistics are unassailable. And this year I again voted for Gary Sheffield, who had 509 career home runs but was linked to steroids through the Mitchell Report.
So far, I haven’t voted for Manny Ramirez, who has a Hall-worthy resume but was busted twice for steroids by MLB after strict rules were put in place — maybe one of those false equivalencies I referred to.
But the steroids debate is practically quaint compared with the other issues facing voters this year. The two most troubling involve the increasingly reckless views espoused by pitcher Curt Schilling, and the recently disclosed domestic-violence allegations against shortstop Omar Vizquel.
The only guidance given to voters is vague: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
That is a subjective standard, especially considering that the Hall is filled with people of dubious character. I wrestled for hours over whether to keep voting for Schilling, whose name I have checked all but two of the nine years he has been on the ballot (the omissions because of the rule limiting voters to 10 names), and for Vizquel, whom I voted for last year for the first time.
As abhorrent as I find Schilling’s actions — which include a tweet in support of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection attempt, as well as one referring to a T-shirt that called for the lynching of journalists as “awesome,” plus many others equally as objectionable — I ultimately decided I needed to separate his pitching qualifications from his increasingly divisive political views.
I have no hesitation that Schilling, as a pitcher, is a Hall of Famer. He is one of six pitchers with at least three 300-strikeout seasons, ranking 15th on the career list with 3,116 whiffs. His career strikeouts-to-walk ratio of 4.38-to-1 is the best of any starter since 1900 — and all that is on top of his unparalleled postseason numbers.
If Schilling were running for president, I’d campaign hard against him. But he’s on a ballot to join a baseball museum, so as of now I’ll hold my nose and vote for him.
That’s assuming he’s even on the ballot for his last year of eligibility. Despite being closer to election entering his final year (71.1%) than Martinez (70.4%), Schilling said after Tuesday’s vote that he will ask the Hall of Fame to remove him from the ballot. I doubt if it will comply, but the mere gesture will no doubt further damage his chances of getting the 16 additional votes he needs.
I made the opposite decision with Vizquel, which may be one of those unavoidable inconsistencies to which Rosenthal alluded. He was a player whose credentials I wrestled with anyway. Vizquel’s stellar glove work, if you dig deep inside the numbers, don’t measure up to those of Ozzie Smith, the player with whom he is most often compared. And when you adjust for eras, Vizquel’s offense falls short of Smith’s as well.
However, last year I concluded that Vizquel’s defense was still exemplary enough, along with 2,877 career hits, to warrant a vote. But then The Athletic published a story Dec. 16 — just a few days before I sent in my ballot — detailing domestic-abuse allegations (denied by Vizquel) during a 2016 incident.
Until we learn more, I simply couldn’t bring myself to vote for Vizquel, already a borderline case. And apparently I wasn’t alone, as Vizquel’s vote dropped from 52.6% to 49.1%.
The rest of my 10-man ballot was determined by baseball decisions:
- Scott Rolen, whose defense ranks among the best third basemen of all time and whose 70.1 career WAR (wins above replacement) isn’t far behind the legendary Brooks Robinson (78.4).
- Todd Helton, whose body of work (a .316/.414/.539 slash line, three Gold Gloves) shines even when you adjust for playing half his career at hitter-friendly Coors Field.
- Billy Wagner, who has the highest strikeout rate (over 900 innings) in baseball history (11.92 per nine innings).
- Andruw Jones, who had 434 career homers and 10 Gold Gloves as the premier defensive center fielder of his era.
- Jeff Kent, who had more homers (351) than any second baseman in history.
- Bobby Abreu, who, as baseball analyst Ryan Spaeder points out, reached base safely 24 more times than Tony Gwynn in his career despite 151 fewer plate appearances.
I suspect that many of those picks will irk, annoy or even infuriate you, which doesn’t bother me. It’s part of the gig.