Commentary

My (overstuffed) Hall of Fame ballot

After much debate, a 10-man Cooperstown ticket that includes Bonds and Clemens

Originally Published: January 7, 2013
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Somewhere out there, I'm sure there's somebody in our beautiful land who has this 2013 Hall of Fame ballot fiasco all figured out.

Somebody who knows exactly what to make of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. … Who knows precisely where to draw the line on Jack Morris and Curt Schilling. … Who knows, specifically, which stars of the '90s took which PEDs and which of those stars stayed as clean and pure as Bambi and Minnie Mouse.

All I can say is: That somebody isn't me.

And it isn't any other voter I know.

[+] EnlargeBarry Larkin
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesShortstop Barry Larkin got his plaque last year. The 2013 induction class will be announced on Wednesday.

Last month, on a gray December afternoon, my phone rang. On the other end was my pal, Tim Kurkjian, offering a sentiment every voter I've spoken with could relate to:

"I don't know what to do about my Hall of Fame ballot," he said.

Oh. You, too, huh?

But here's why this phone call hit me especially hard: Nobody I know on this planet cares more about his Hall of Fame ballot than Tim Kurkjian. He doesn't merely fill it out. He practically inhabits it.

There can't possibly be another voter who puts more time, more work, more conversation, more number crunching and more sincere, principled conviction and feeling into his ballot than Tim does. Yet there he was on the phone, saying:

"I don't know what to do about my Hall of Fame ballot."

Hey, join the millions. The truth is, this is a Hall of Fame ballot no one can possibly feel good about. No matter which names we checked, the set of names felt wrong. No matter which conclusions we came to, they felt like the wrong conclusions.

I could hear the voices of many of you out there, pleading with me to keep all the "cheaters" out of Cooperstown. Hey, I'd love to help. But …

Unfortunately, I continue to hear my own voice, asking: "How, exactly?" If you could all just tell me precisely who did what, maybe it might actually be possible to keep the Hall untarnished and pristine. But it isn't possible in this universe.

I could also hear the voices of everyone who ever urged me to vote for Dale Murphy, Alan Trammell, Fred McGriff, Don Mattingly and every other "borderline" name on this ballot. Well, once again, I'd love to help. But …

Unfortunately, I live in a world where the names of unelected steroid era candidates keep piling up on top of one another, like wrecks in a junk yard, clogging a ballot that has only 10 slots. So there wasn't even room, sadly, to vote for men I'd voted for in the past, let alone men who have long dangled right on my cut line.

And that created the worst ballot nightmare of all: For two decades, I've always studied the names on my ballot and looked for reasons I should vote for a player. Suddenly, this year, I was studying the names of great, deserving players and trying to figure out which of them not to vote for because I only could vote for 10.

Eventually, after holding out until nearly the last possible moment, I submitted the least satisfying Hall of Fame ballot I have ever dropped in a mailbox. Now I'll try my best to explain why I voted the way I did. All I can promise you is that I thought it all through, for way too many days, weeks and hours.

My ballot

For the record, here are the 10 names I checked: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Jack Morris, Dale Murphy. Now let's talk about how I got there.

The process

I had 15 names in play for a long time -- and five others I gave an extra lengthy look at. It's nothing new for me to spend significant time mulling over the credentials of a large group of players. But I don't remember any other year when that list grew as large as 20. That was just one more reminder of the monstrosity we're dealing with in this ballot.

I've always felt that every player, on every ballot, deserves to have a career's worth of achievements taken seriously. So I look at them all, from Jeff Cirillo and Jose Mesa to Bonds and Clemens. Then I start narrowing the list. That's never as easy as it sounds. This year, it was an Extra Strength Tylenol special.

In the end, I wound up with five names I had voted for in the past that had to go. I can't tell you how much I hated that.

[+] EnlargeEdgar Martinez
AP Photo/Donna McWilliam Edgar Martinez had a .312 career average, won two batting titles and amassed 2,247 hits, including 514 doubles. But he didn't make Jayson Stark's ballot.

I've never wanted to be one of those voters who voted for a player one year and not the next. I always thought our job as voters was simple -- to ask ourselves, "Was this player a Hall of Famer or not?" And if we thought he was, we should vote for him every year, not just when we felt like it, or when the moon shone through our window a certain way, or when we suddenly thought his "time" had arrived.

But now, it's no longer possible to vote that way. I don't understand the reasoning behind the 10-player limit. It no longer fits these complicated times. But we're stuck with it. So I had to figure out which five names to lop off my list.

First to go was Rafael Palmeiro. There is no disputing that he had a Hall of Fame career. But he tested positive after the rules changed and stiffened, and the voters, essentially, have already spoken on him. He got 12.6 percent of the vote last year. So if he quintupled his vote, he'd still be 70 votes short. A vote for him, in other words, was nothing more than an empty, wasted gesture.

Next off the list was Mark McGwire. I've voted for him every year. But, as with Palmeiro, his Hall of Fame fate is sealed. If he tripled his votes, he'd still need almost 100 more to get elected. And by saying this fall that he wouldn't even vote for himself, he has all but told us not to bother. Hasn't he?

After them, this became officially impossible. I've voted for Fred McGriff and Larry Walker in the past. I could easily justify voting for them again. But could I justify voting for them instead of Raines or Bagwell? Couldn't do it. So McGriff and Walker were painful not-quites.

But not as painful as Edgar Martinez. It didn't feel right to leave a man with a 147 OPS-plus off this ballot. So at one point, I had his name ahead of Sosa's. In the end, I changed my mind. I'll explain why shortly. But I'm still not sure I got this right. Hopefully, Edgar will still be on the ballot again next year, so I can torment myself about this again.

Most likely to get elected: Craig Biggio

[+] EnlargeCraig Biggio
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesCraig Biggio had 3,060 hits, 291 homers and 414 stolen bases. He's a no-doubt Hall of Famer.

To be honest, it wouldn't shock me if nobody gets elected to the Hall of Fame this year. Not the only 3,000-hit man on the ballot (Biggio). Not a man who got 66.7 percent of the vote last year (Morris). Not anybody. So brace yourself.

Too much deep thinking out there. Too many blank ballots. Too many lightning-rod names muddling up too many already-muddled ballots.

But now that I've got that out of the way, what's the reason not to vote for Biggio?

Bet you didn't know that this man had more doubles (668) than any other right-handed hitter who ever lived. You can look that up.

Bet you didn't know that only two players in history (Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie) whose primary position was second base racked up more hits than Biggio did (3,060) -- and neither of them has played a game since the Calvin Coolidge administration.

Bet you didn't know that Biggio once had a 50-double, 50-SB season (in 1998). And who else has had one of those in the past 100 years? How about nobody!

So although Biggio might not have been as smooth as Robbie Alomar or as offensively dominating as Rogers Hornsby, we're talking about a man whose power/speed/leadoff talents at three premier positions (second base, catcher, center field) helped him craft a thoroughly unique, but undeniable, combination of Hall of Fame credentials. He ought to be the easiest choice on this ballot. Too bad that, on this ballot, nothing is easy.

The case of Jack Morris

Can he find another 48 votes? That's the number Morris missed election by last year. So that's the question this year: Are there 48 voters out there willing to change their mind about a guy who remains one of the most polarizing candidates of modern times?

Jack Morris
Morris

Just a hunch: I don't think so.

True, he jumped 71 votes last year, his largest leap ever. But I still think there's a strong undercurrent of voters who will never check the name of a pitcher with a 3.90 career ERA, a 105 ERA-plus or a 1.30 WHIP.

I understand the reservations of all of those voters. But I've voted for Morris for more than a decade because I see the other side in a way they don't.

As I've said and written over and over, it wasn't just a bunch of dopes in the media who looked at Jack Morris for all those years and thought: "Ace." It was, essentially, the entire sport that shared that perception.

There's no other plausible explanation for why three different managers picked this guy to start three All-Star Games. Or why he started on Opening Day 14 years in a row (for three teams). Or why he was always the man who got the ball in Game 1 (in six of the seven postseason series he participated in -- again, with three teams).

Maybe it's true, as his critics keep observing, that there was nobody else to pitch those openers because he never pitched with any other great pitchers (although Frank Tanana, Dave Stieb, Pat Hentgen and Dave Stewart might have other ideas). Or maybe it's possible Morris pitched in an era when even people within the sport ignored reality because they were mysteriously seduced by his ace-esque aura.

But the truth is, as Tom Verducci documented in this brilliant piece, Morris embraced the responsibilities of acehood in a way few pitchers of his generation have.

Essentially, he took the ball and wouldn't give it up. Not just in Game 7, 1991, but start after start, for 18 seasons. To quote from Verducci's exceptional research:

From 1979 to 1992, Morris logged 18 percent more innings than anybody else in baseball, earned 20 percent more wins than anybody else, and pitched eight innings or more an astounding 45 percent more often than anybody else (241 starts to the 166 of Charlie Hough).

Again, I get what many voters don't see in Jack Morris. But there was a dimension of greatness I saw in this man that his ERA doesn't adequately measure.

The first-timers

Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds is the most talented baseball player I've seen in my lifetime. He was a Hall of Famer before his BALCO days (three MVPs, seven top-five MVP finishes, eight Gold Gloves, 411 homers, 445 stolen bases, a .966 OPS before 1999). And after 1999, he towered over the game in a way I still have trouble comprehending. A .505 on-base percentage? Over an eight-year period? Seriously?

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuThere's no ignoring the many mind-blowing achievements of Barry Lamar Bonds.

Hundreds of players took PEDs. There was only one Barry Bonds.

So if you prefer to paint a picture of the baseball world that pretends the 1990s, and the first few seasons of this century, didn't happen, you can erase Bonds from that portrait and not vote for him.

Or you can say this man was convicted of a federal felony (obstruction of justice) directly related to PED use and not vote for him for that.

Or you can say that no one of his generation was more responsible for obliterating the meaning of the history and the records that once made baseball special and not vote for him for that reason.

If you want to take any of those stances, I get it. But to me, the thought of having the ultimate baseball museum try to make us believe that a player this great was invisible is absurd. Absurd. So I beat myself up over this vote far less than I expected to.

Roger Clemens

Six months ago, I was honored to appear on Bob Schieffer's "Face the Nation" to discuss the state of modern baseball. Guess what topic came up? Yup.

Roger Clemens
Clemens

One of my distinguished fellow panelists, the great Frank Deford, suggested that day that it was the job of voters to keep any player who'd been proven to use PEDs out of the Hall of Fame. So let me ask you: Is Roger Clemens a "proven" user?

The Department of Justice couldn't "prove" that he used HGH, or that he committed perjury when he claimed he hadn't. Right? So you tell me: Is Clemens innocent or guilty?

Again, I understand the argument for both sides. But no one sums up how difficult it is to answer these questions better than the Rocket does. Guilty or innocent? Clean or dirty? Pick your own standard. Decide for yourself. There's no right answer.

What I know is that there hasn't been another pitcher like Clemens since I've been covering baseball. Seven Cy Youngs. … 10 top-three Cy Young finishes. … Greatest winning percentage (354-184, .658) of any right-handed starter in the 300 Win Club. … Fourth-best ERA-plus (143) of the live-ball era. … Four Cy Youngs, five ERA titles and four strikeout titles before Brian McNamee ever came into his life.

C'mon, friends. We can't have a Hall of Fame without Roger Clemens in it. Can we? What kind of Hall of Fame is that?

Mike Piazza

What am I missing here? Mike Piazza was the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history. Period.

Mike Piazza
Piazza

Highest OPS (.922). Best slugging percentage (.545). Most homers (427). Best adjusted OPS-plus (143). Tied with the great Yogi Berra in wins above replacement. No one even close in offensive WAR.

So what's the reason not to vote for Piazza again? Because he couldn't throw? Because he was a 62nd-round pick who rose to greatness? Because some people kind of think he must have done something fishy sometime, even though a Mets clubhouse guy was one of the Mitchell report's biggest sources and never accused him?

Sorry. I'm not conspiratorial enough, I guess. But it makes no sense to have a Hall of Fame that doesn't include the greatest-hitting catcher who ever played baseball. Not to me.

Sammy Sosa

As I mentioned earlier, Sammy almost didn't make this cut. It came down to him or Edgar Martinez for my final vote. And it wasn't that difficult to make a case that Edgar had the greater career, was a more dangerous hitter for more years and deserved that vote.

But if I could argue that, and even feel that, yet vote for Sosa instead, that just epitomized what a screwed-up process modern Hall of Fame voting has become.

Sammy Sosa
Sosa

This is supposed to be a baseball debate, not a what-to-do-about-the-steroid-era debate. But it can't be. Not anymore.

For those of us who have decided we believe the Hall of Fame is a museum that should reflect the times, the ballot and the rules that govern it have become unworkable. How? Why? Because we vote for the best players of their generation. But they never get elected.

So they never disappear off the ballot. Their fate never gets resolved. And we're caught in the same stinking debate, year after year, until there isn't enough room left on our ballots to vote for all the players we believe, according to our voting philosophies, deserve to get elected.

It's become the pit you can never climb out of. And now, in years like this, it forces us to make choices we don't want to make -- such as picking between Sosa and Martinez for a vote they both deserve.

So why, in the end, did I check Sosa's name? Because he had as many 60-homer seasons (three) as Roger Maris, Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth combined (and the most ever). Because only eight men who ever played are in the 600-Homer Club. Because this was too significant a figure in the modern history of baseball to leave off the ballot.

And because he needs to be part of this debate for a long time, so I had to do my part to make sure a guy with 609 home runs didn't fall off the ballot after one year.

I see all the negatives on Sosa, believe me. I can't promise I'll even find room on my ballot for him next year. But I felt it was important enough to find room for him this year that there he is. I'll be fascinated to see his vote total.

Curt Schilling

How is Schilling not a Hall of Famer? If your standard, like my standard, is a long period of domination, how is Schilling not a Hall of Famer?

[+] EnlargeCurt Schilling
AP Photo/Kathy WillensCurt Schilling saved his very best for baseball's biggest stage, going 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 19 career postseason starts.

He wasn't just a good pitcher in every healthy season of his career. He was great. This man was a dominator. For a long time.

He piled up nine seasons with an ERA-plus of 130 or above. The only pitchers with more seasons that great in the expansion era (1961 to present) are Clemens (15), Randy Johnson (10) and Greg Maddux (10). But hang on. There's more.

Schilling finished in the top five in his league in wins above replacement eight times. He owns the best strikeout-walk ratio (4.38 to 1) of any starting pitcher since 1900. It took two historic seasons by the Big Unit (in 2001-02) and another by Johan Santana (in 2004) to keep him from being a three-time Cy Young winner.

And, without debate, he was one of the greatest October pitchers ever: an amazing 11-2, 2.23 October record, with a career postseason WHIP under 1.00 (0.97). Nineeteen postseason starts. Two or fewer earned runs in 16 of them. Five starts in elimination games. His teams went 5-0.

Who was better in his day, when the games meant the most, than Curt Schilling? Correct answer: Nobody. So how is this man not a Hall Famer?

The last-timer: Dale Murphy

I'll be honest. If I were ranking the 15 players I wanted to include on this ballot, Dale Murphy wouldn't have made the top 10. But I've been voting for the guy for a decade and a half. Couldn't stop now, when he's in his 15th and final lap around the track.

Dale Murphy
Murphy

I can't ever remember a player who has had a stranger voting history than Dale Murphy. In his first three elections, when nearly everyone voting on him had seen him play, he averaged 101 votes. In his next six, he averaged 55.

In 2000, he got more votes (116) than Bert Blyleven or Jack Morris. By 2004, he was down to 43 and almost dropped off the ballot. Bizarre.

By last year, Murphy was back up to 83 votes -- his most in 11 years, for some reason. And this winter, as Jerry Crasnick wrote last week, his entire family has mounted a heart-warming campaign for him that raises one truly meaningful question:

Why is the character-and-integrity clause being applied only as a negative, to justify votes against the Mark McGwires of the earth? Why can't it be a reason to vote for a man such as Murphy, one of the great baseball citizens who ever occupied any clubhouse?

Like many Murphy supporters, I would like to have seen a longer period of dominance. But I still see an eight-year stretch (1980-87) when this man ranked first, second or third in the entire sport in runs scored, home runs, extra-base hits, intentional walks and total bases. He got MVP votes in seven of those eight seasons and won twice. In that eight-year span, he and Andre Dawson were the only two players in the 200-Homer, 100-Steal Club and the only NL outfielders who won five straight Gold Gloves.

That's an awfully long time for any player to hang around the who's-the-best-player-in-his-league conversation. Long enough, at least, to justify casting one final vote for a player whose stature still exceeds the total accumulation of his numbers.

Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell

It's still hard to believe that, once I'd finished voting for all those first-timers and long-timers, I had only two slots left on my ballot. But once that tremor registered, there was no doubt which two players I needed to vote for.

I kicked around the credentials of four other first-time candidates  David Wells, Steve Finley, Julio Franco and underrated Kenny Lofton. I took another look at Alan Trammell. I did my due diligence one more time on Lee Smith.

Jeff Bagwell
Bagwell

Tim Raines
Raines

But there are no two more criminally undersupported names on this ballot than Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell. So let's hope this is the year it becomes impossible to say that anymore.

Raines actually has seen his vote total explode by 157 more votes over the past three elections. So I'd bet this is the year he'll finally top 50 percent for the first time. 'Bout time. It took him three elections just to crack 25 percent.

For those still waffling, let me remind them of this: Raines reached base more times (3,977) than Tony Gwynn, Honus Wagner, Lou Brock, Roberto Clemente or Richie Ashburn. And not one eligible player who reached base as many times as Raines did, and had as high an on-base percentage as he had (.385), is not in the Hall of Fame.

And Bagwell was, in a nutshell, one of the four greatest first basemen of the live-ball era. How many first basemen have strung together a dozen consecutive seasons with an OPS-plus of 130 or better? That answer is two: Bagwell and Lou Gehrig. What other first basemen will you find in the 400-homer, 200-steal club? None. Just him.

And if you need your Hall of Famers to be men who took trips to the hardware store, remember Bagwell owns practically a complete set of baseball hardware: MVP, rookie of the year, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, Sporting News player of the year. Somehow, he missed the Nobel Peace Prize. Must have been an oversight.

So the only reason not to vote for him is -- guess what? -- the usual: Some vague suspicion of something or other, based on no firm evidence, and vehemently denied.

But what the heck. What encapsulates the nightmarish Hall of Fame age we live in better than that -- almost 600 voters, trying to separate what they know from what they think they know from what they know they don't know?

That's no way to run an election. But it has never stopped the Baseball Writers' Association of America before. So here we go again. One. More. Time.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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