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Bob Ryan

Hall of Fame choices will get difficult

Steroids-tainted players such as Clemens, Bonds on ballot next year

Every baseball Hall of Fame voter gets this question at least once annually.

“Explain something to me. How do some candidates get so much better from one year to the next when they haven’t played a game in Fill-In-The-Blank years?’’

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In other words, how does Barry Larkin go from 62.1 percent of the vote last year to a smashing 86.4 percent of the vote this year?

People change their minds all the time. I know. I didn’t always vote for a lot of guys, Jim Rice, Bert Blyleven among them. But a combination of private research, persuasion on the part of a particular player advocate (as I have been for many over the years) and perhaps just a different way of looking at the matter means you now decide it’s time to vote for someone you have previously passed over.

I won’t mention the unmentionables, the weird dissidents in my business who pompously refuse to vote for anyone on the first ballot. That, of course, did not come into play this year, when the best new candidate was Bernie Williams.

But what Barry Larkin has done is historic. He has just gone from 62.1 percent of the vote to a very impressive 86.4 percent, the greatest one-season leap in voter approval since lefthanded pitcher Herb Pennock went from 53.4 percent in 1947 to 77.7 percent in 1948.

And I have no idea why. It just is, I guess.

I’m happy for Barry Larkin, who has meant far more to the game of baseball than simply being another great player. If there happened to be a separate wing in Cooperstown known as The Hall of Class Guys, he would be a charter member.

Again rejected, but left with some hope of future election, was Jack Morris, who came away with 66.7 percent of the vote in his 13th year on the ballot. The others who can still dream the dream include Jeff Bagwell (56 percent), Lee Smith (50.6 percent), Tim Raines (48.7 percent), Alan Trammell (36.8 percent), and Edgar Martinez (36.5 percent).

In the Fuhgeddaboudit category, I would say, are the PED-stained Mark McGwire (19.5 percent) and the finger-wagging Rafael Palmeiro (12.6 percent). For those of you scoring at home, McGwire has been on the ballot for six years, with a percentage total ranging from a 23.7 in 2010 to this year’s low of 19.5. The message is quite clear.

It’s equally clear the voting body is less troubled by the eye-test innuendo labeling Bagwell as a PED guy. And that’s all it is: eye-test innuendo. He was never officially accused of anything. But there has been a whole lot of smirking and winking. Do I know what Jeff Bagwell did or didn’t do? No, I don’t. Meanwhile, you’d have to be terminally naive not to think McGwire and Palmeiro were naughty boys, and that bothers me. So I voted for Bagwell and continued not to vote for the other two.

The PED issue will flare anew next year when Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, and even Mike Piazza all appear on the ballot for the first time. The first three have been directly linked with PEDs, while Piazza is in the Bagwell category. Barring the drug issue, these four sail in on the first ballot. Now? Let’s see.

This PED business has drastically altered the experience for the voters. It was always tough, sure, but in the end it was fun. Now we are being asked to be a judge and jury on a very murky bill of particulars, and it is far from fun.

Let’s go back to pure baseball for a moment. I voted for Larkin, Morris, Bagwell, Raines, and Martinez, but I can understand why someone didn’t in each case (Well, kinda, sorta in the case of Martinez, the first full-time DH to be up for the honor). We all know there are distinct tiers in the Hall. Players such as Ruth, Cobb, Wagner, Mathewson, Williams, Johnson, Spahn, Aaron, Musial, and Carlton are a notch or two above Hafey, Lindstrom, Yount, Sutton, Rice, Niekro, Maranville, Bunning, Wilson, and Kiner. Larkin was a great player, to me a no-brainer. Everyone else we are discussing this year is a clear borderline candidate.

That is a significant matter, because in the next few years the ballot will be stuffed with A-list sorts deserving of first-ballot inclusion.

You start with the Bonds-Clemens-Sosa-Piazza class next year. Each will get votes from someone. Oh, and Craig (3,000-hit) Biggio is there, too. Oops, almost forgot video game magnate and would-be political candidate Curt Schilling.

The 2014 ballot will include Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Frank Thomas, as well as borderlines Mike Mussina and the oft-overlooked (and not very well-liked) Jeff Kent, one of the most productive second basemen ever.

In 2015 first name only candidates Randy and Pedro will be there, backed up by Gary Sheffield, John Smoltz, and Nomah. The year after that we find Ken Griffey Jr., Trevor Hoffman, Andy Pettitte, and Billy Wagner.

You’re allowed to vote for 10 people maximum. Few voters ever do. Many voters have self-imposed limits on how many people he or she will vote for. With so many primo candidates on the horizon, some voters might cease voting for some of this year’s borderline candidates. Over the next three years there are at least 10 potential first-ballot candidates, Biggio, Schilling, Glavine, Maddux, Thomas, Randy, Pedro, Smoltz, Griffey, and Hoffman. That’s not good news for the borderlines.

The PED thing will rage on, muddying up the waters. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, and there is no easy solution aside from throwing open the doors and letting them all in on the basis that juiced pitchers were throwing to juiced batters, and how do we know for sure who was clean and who was dirty?

We may all succumb to that line of thinking one day, but I’m not there yet.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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