This Game’s Fun, Okay? Baseball’s Hall of Fame Conundrum

BBWAA Hall of Fame Voting

The letter from the National Baseball Hall of Fame that comes with the ballot.

I was fortunate enough to see Barry Bonds play in person in a handful of games during my tenure as a baseball writer. The first was in October 2003, when his San Francisco Giants lost a National League division playoff series to the eventual World Series champion Marlins in Miami. Bonds was two years removed from hitting 73 home runs, and nearly three years short of catching Henry Aaron. He was also two months away from giving what would turn out to be deceptive grand jury testimony in the BALCO case.

That first night in Miami, I stopped typing during batting practice to watch Bonds take his swings. I was absolutely certain I was watching one of the greatest hitters of all time, clear and cream or no clear and cream. The BP home runs he hit into the empty right-field stands at Joe Robbie Stadium were big. Big and breath-taking, like the Grand Canyon. Big and loud, like the Pacific Ocean.

Big like the stain left on baseball by performance-enhancing drugs.

I saw Roger Clemens pitch in person dozens of times. I saw him in a Blue Jays uniform, a New York Yankees uniform, an Astros uniform, a Tampa Yankees uniform (at a May 2007 rehab outing at Legends Field, live-blogged by yours truly) and a New York Yankees uniform again. He was no longer the Rocket by the time I picked up his career. Not really. But he was still Roger, and he was still a winner on the field, and I was absolutely certain I was watching one of the top five right-handed pitchers of all time whenever I saw him pitch.

Their respective perjury trials have begun to recede from memory (or, anyway, I had to look up the details). Bonds was convicted of obstruction of justice – but not perjury, and served no jail time. Clemens, who was mentioned in the Mitchell Report, was charged with six felony counts of lying to Congress. After an initial mistrial, he was found not guilty on all six counts this past June.

So. Here we are, December 2012, the time of Hall of Fame reckoning for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

I am about to vote for the fifth time. On previous ballots, I already have left off the names of Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire because they used performance-enhancing drugs. They posted Hall of Fame numbers (particularly Palmeiro), but it’s not only about the numbers when it comes to voting for baseball’s Hall of Fame.

The reason I didn’t vote for them – the reason I am inclined, at the moment, not to vote for Bonds, Clemens or fellow first-year candidate Sammy Sosa – is the existence of rule No. 5 in the BBWAA Rules for Election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I’ve cited it before, and here it is again, in its entirety:

  • Voting – 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.

If those three words – “integrity, sportsmanship, character” – were not there, Hall of Fame voting would be a much simpler matter of selecting my subjective criteria (and remember, it is a highly subjective process) and voting for the players who matched or exceeded those criteria.

No matter if I or the other 500-plus voters from the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) like it, the way a player conducted himself off the field matters. So does the way he treated the game when he played. There are those who would argue that even if the character issues are taken into account, the weight of on-the-field accomplishments might still warrant induction. I’m not sure that argument holds water, any more than the argument that it’s OK to base your selection only on the numbers and behavior before the perceived PED abuse took place. Look, how do we know when (or even if) these guys began to shoot up? When is the cutoff for Bonds? Before San Francisco? For Clemens? Before Toronto? That’s a slippery slope and it is a poor way to choose a Hall of Famer.

On what, then, are we to base our decisions?

Several players, including recent Hall inductees Andre Dawson and Barry Larkin, have come right out and said neither Bonds nor Clemens deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. They consider Bonds and Clemens (and, by extension, anyone who used PED) unworthy because they betrayed the game. It is particularly heinous because it was Bonds and Clemens, two of the game’s most gifted players, who succumbed to temptation for the sake of … what? A few more playing years (and many more millions of dollars)? A chance to break hallowed all-time records? An opportunity to burnish numbers that already might have warranted induction into the Hall of Fame?

But wait. Clemens has denied he ever used steroids or human growth hormone. Bonds has denied that he knowingly used BALCO’s infamous steroid compounds, the clear and the cream. Sammy Sosa has also denied using.* The question is, how do we, as voters, as journalists, know beyond a shadow of a doubt that these players are not telling the truth? Without evidence to the contrary (or a McGwire-like admission or test-related suspension), is it fair for us to indict these players by withholding a Hall of Fame vote that their raw numbers certainly deserve?

*Although, the fact that Sosa used a corked bat – against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, of all teams – and that corked bat shattered all over the Wrigley Field infield in 2003, and Devil Rays catcher Toby Hall pointed out the cork in the broken bat’s shards to the home plate umpire … to have witnessed that circus-like spectacle of cheating might make me think twice about voting for Sosa, anyway.

Always, I go back to the fifth rule for voting. Integrity. Sportsmanship. Character. I’m not trying to sound all sanctimonious here. I know that these are nebulous qualities. We all define them in our own way, and they mean more to some than to others when it comes to voting. I’ve thought a lot about these concepts since I became a voter five years ago. And how have they guided me in my selections? Here are my four previous ballots:

  • 2008: Bert Blyleven, Rickey Henderson, Tommy John, Dale Murphy, Jim Rice, Lee Smith.
  • 2009: Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Dale Murphy, Fred McGriff, Lee Smith.
  • 2010: Roberto Alomar, Jeff Bagwell, Bert Blyleven, Fred McGriff, Dale Murphy, Lee Smith.
  • 2011: Jeff Bagwell, Fred McGriff, Dale Murphy, Lee Smith.

We are allowed to vote for as many as 10 nominees. As you might have noticed, I did not vote for two players who made it in: Andre Dawson and Barry Larkin. I’ve written before, I loved both players when they were active, and admired them for their career excellence and off-the-field activities. I just did not feel like they quite crossed that threshold from superb to Hall of Fame. Yet, I don’t deny that they are Hall of Fame worthy now. Nor am I naïve enough to think that all of the players I vote for will get in. Murphy won’t, and this is his last year of eligibility. I think if Dawson and Jim Rice are Hall of Famers, Murphy certainly should be, too. And I’ll probably vote for him one last time. But I don’t expect him to make it.

As you can probably tell, the subjectivity of this process is a deep, winding rabbit hole. Why Fred McGriff, but not Larry Walker? Why Jeff Bagwell, but not Edgar Martinez? I could explain those decisions now, but I’ll save that for when I actually decide on my ballot for this year.

Because I have decided that in my fifth year as a voter, the advent of Bonds and Clemens on the ballot means it’s time for me to re-evaluate how I make my selections.

Did they cheat? I don’t know. Probably. But I don’t know.

Here’s a question I need to consider, and I hope all voters do, too: If Clemens, Bonds, McGwire and even Palmeiro were not Hall of Fame worthy in the eyes of Major League Baseball or the National Baseball Hall of Fame, why are they allowed to appear on the writers’ ballot? Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, two obvious Hall of Famers based on numbers alone, are banned for gambling ties. Yet, Bonds is officially the all-time home run king. Not Henry Aaron. And Roger Maris is consigned to long-ago history by all those apparently drug-aided 60- and 70-home run seasons by Bonds, McGwire and Sosa.

The question now is, if these players are still eligible, what right do I have* to keep them out of the Hall of Fame? I have to balance that with an equally important question: If we, the voting writers, don’t deny perceived cheaters the ultimate honor in baseball, who will?

I’ll be wrestling with that for the next couple of weeks. The deadline to file my ballot with the BBWAA is New Year’s Eve. Until then, I welcome any and all advice/comments. Just … please relax. Have a ball out here. This game’s fun, okay? Fun, God damn it.

Here are this year’s candidates: Sandy Alomar Jr., Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Jeff Cirillo, Royce Clayton, Roger Clemens, Jeff Conine, Steve Finley, Julio Franco, Shawn Green, Roberto Hernandez, Ryan Klesko, Kenny Lofton, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Mark McGwire, Jose Mesa, Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, Rafael Palmeiro, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Reggie Sanders, Curt Schilling, Aaron Sele, Lee Smith, Sammy Sosa, Mike Stanton, Alan Trammell, Larry Walker, Todd Walker, David Wells, Rondell White, Bernie Williams, Woody Williams.

*BBWAA members become voters after 10 consecutive years of membership. That’s like, 347 years in SEO Writer age. I was an active member as a sportswriter for the Tampa Tribune and as a freelance journalist from 1999-2009, and became an honorary member for life in 2010. Voting for the Hall of Fame is the last meaningful vestige of my career as a baseball writer, and I take the honor seriously. But it’s definitely fun, too.