Like many baseball writers, C. Trent Rosecrans viewed the Hall of Fame vote as a labor of love. The ballot would arrive around the end of November, and it would keep him occupied for much of December. He’d write down his research on players in a notebook and feel butterflies when putting his ballot in the mail.
Then it was time for his most recent vote, and the whole process felt quite different.
“That ballot sat out unopened until after Christmas, because I knew what was in it,” Rosecrans said. “And it wasn’t something I enjoyed.”
The results of the 2021 vote will be announced Tuesday, and Rosecrans wasn’t alone in finding the task particularly agonizing this time around. With Curt Schilling’s candidacy now front and center — and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens still on the ballot as well — voters have had to consider how much a player’s off-field behavior should affect his Hall of Fame chances.
For years, suspicions of performance-enhancing drug use have played a significant role in the voting. Now, some writers are reassessing other concerns about some of the game’s biggest stars — from Schilling’s incendiary social media presence to domestic violence allegations against Bonds and others.
Ken Rosenthal, Rosecrans’ colleague with The Athletic, began a recent column this way: “I hate my Hall of Fame ballot. It might be my last.”
The top returning vote-getter on this year’s ballot is Schilling, who a year ago came within 20 votes of being elected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. His support now seems to have stalled.
As of early Saturday, Schilling had received 75.3% approval on ballots tallied at Ryan Thibodaux’s tracker, but that pace probably isn’t good enough. A player needs 75% for induction — and in the past, Schilling has fared far worse on private, unreleased ballots that aren’t part of Thibodaux’s tracker.
Schilling has turned off voters with his post-career behavior. ESPN suspended him from the Little League World Series a few years ago over a tweet in which he compared Muslim extremists to Nazi-era Germans. He was later fired by the network for Facebook comments about transgender people.
On Jan. 6, the day of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, he said the following in a message on his Twitter account:
“You cowards sat on your hands, did nothing while liberal trash looted rioted and burned for air Jordan’s and big screens, sit back …. and watch folks start a confrontation for (expletive) that matters like rights, democracy and the end of govt corruption.”
That tweet was a few days after Hall of Fame ballots were due, but Rosecrans had already decided not to support Schilling — even though he’d voted for him in the past.
“It would have been much easier for me to stick where I was and to check that box, like I have every other time I’ve voted, but I just don’t know if I would have been true to myself,” said Rosecrans, the BBWAA’s president. “Had I done that, I may have felt better where I put it on that day. I don’t know if I would have felt better on January 6th.”
Bonds and Clemens are polling just behind Schilling on Thibodaux’s tracker, but their candidacies now face scrutiny that goes beyond longstanding suspicion of PED use. Multiple players on this year’s ballot have been accused of domestic violence, and Bonds is one of them. In 1995, his ex-wife testified during divorce proceedings that he beat and kicked her. Bonds said he never physically abused her but once kicked her after she kicked him.
In 2008, the New York Daily News reported that Clemens had a decade-long relationship with country singer Mindy McCready that began when she was 15 and he was a star for the Boston Red Sox. Clemens apologized for unspecified mistakes in his personal life and denied having an affair with a 15-year-old. McCready later told “Inside Edition” she met Clemens when she was 16 and that the relationship didn’t turn sexual until several years later.
Rosenthal acknowledged the domestic abuse allegations that have been made against Bonds, Andruw Jones and Omar Vizquel, as well as the questions about Clemens and McCready. He ended up voting for those four players along with Schilling, and his 10-man ballot also included Todd Helton, who in recent years pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and served 48 hours in jail.
Rosenthal called it his “sick-to-my-stomach ballot” and said he’s reevaluating whether he wants to vote at all in the future.
Last January, ESPN’s Christina Kahrl said she’d looked at the questions surrounding Clemens and McCready. “Should he ultimately get elected, it will have to be without my support,” she wrote then.
Rosecrans acknowledges he could be accused of inconsistency after voting against Schilling but in favor of people like Bonds and Jones. His main concern is the platform a Hall inductee receives — the ceremony and the speech, for example.
“We have seen what Curt Schilling does with a platform, and it has been chilling,” Rosecrans said.
At a time when social justice movements are pushing for a broader reckoning on sexual misconduct and racial inequality, the BBWAA recently voted overwhelmingly to remove the name and imprint of former Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis from MVP plaques. Landis became commissioner in 1920, and there were no Black players in the majors during his more than two decades in charge.
The Hall of Fame, meanwhile, has sought to clarify the role of its plaque gallery and its museum. The plaques recognize members’ baseball accomplishments, while the rest of the museum might address other aspects of their careers.
For example, Cap Anson’s plaque describes him as the greatest hitter and greatest National League player-manager of the 19th century, but language exploring his role in baseball’s segregation has been installed in the museum’s “Ideals and Injustices” exhibit.
“Given the importance of racial issues in the summer of 2020, our board decided we needed to tell a fuller story and explore issues surrounding race that involved several of our members,” Hall spokesman Jon Shestakofsky said. “With our baseball-focused mission, we are cautious about getting into other issues, given the fact that once you go down that path, reasonable people will disagree about what is and is not relevant and worthy of display in a baseball museum.”
So it remains up to the voters to decide how they’ll weigh off-field issues when evaluating Hall of Fame candidates. The Hall instructs voters to take into account “the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
Clearly, there’s room to consider a player’s off-field conduct.
But the Hall is still primarily a baseball honor. Right now, the sport’s career leaders in home runs (Bonds) and hits (Pete Rose) are not enshrined. Neither is Clemens, with his seven Cy Young Awards, or Schilling, with his dazzling postseason resume.
If too many of the top players are left out — particularly if it’s for non-baseball reasons — could the Hall lose credibility as a baseball shrine?
Lynn Henning, a former columnist for the Detroit News, understands what makes some of these candidates objectionable — but he doesn’t think the Hall of Fame vote is the right forum for holding them accountable.
“I believe there is a separate realm in which we can and must discuss all of those points, but I don’t think it should be adjudicated on a Hall of Fame ballot,” Henning said.
Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister
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