I am in possession of the toxic ballot.
It is the Hall of Fame ballot voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) have dreaded for the last five years. Our feet are finally being held to the bonfire. How will we as a body judge the candidacy of the all-time home run leader, the only man to win seven Cy Young Awards, and a man with 609 career home runs who is the only person to homer 60 times or more in three seasons?
Absent, shall we say, a complicating factor, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa would be ultra-mortal locks. Based on the numbers, there wouldn’t be the slightest hesitation in checking the box next to their names.
But what sports fan doesn’t know there is a complicating factor?
For years I have been saying, publicly and privately, that some day I may wake up and decide that all this agonizing over how to judge admitted or strongly suspected PED users is fruitless, that there was a period of time in baseball’s recent history when juiced pitchers threw to juiced batters and we will never know how many PED-aided home runs would have landed on the warning track or how many fewer strikeouts someone would have had if the people in question had been clean. I might acknowledge that it is an impossible task to act as judge and jury, that I should simply let them all in and not worry about the ethical question posed by the use of PEDs in athletic competition.
It’s easy for a few voters. They believe Bonds, Clemens, and Sosa are innocent of all charges. I know they are few in number, however. Most people who plan to vote for Bonds, Clemens, and Sosa are doing so because they have made their peace with the basic issue. They know very well that these three did what they are accused of, but they are not comfortable in the roles of judge and jury. They have surrendered. I bear them no ill will. We are all unhappy.
You think we all don’t know that there may very well be some already in the Hall who got away with drug cheating? A task that has always been challenging has been hopelessly affected in a negative way by the PED issue. There can’t be more than a handful of people voting for the Toxic Trio who aren’t doing so while holding his or her nose.
I, for one, just can’t do it. Some day, maybe. Or maybe not. I’ve got 15 years to decide what to do with the Toxic Trio.
I know this much: They’re not getting in, at least not this year. Steroid-tinged Mark McGwire has had six chances and he’s actually going backward, peaking with 23.7 percent of the vote (75 percent is needed for election) in 2010. Last year, he slipped to 19.5. Admitted user Rafael Palmeiro, he of the 3,020 hits and 569 home runs, got 11 percent of the vote two years ago and 12.6 last year. There will be no need for either to prepare an acceptance speech.
But we’re all curious to see what the vote will be. I’m betting that Bonds and Clemens will come up with something between 40 and 50 percent of the vote, while Sosa will be lucky to crack double figures.
There is, I believe, a very real chance that no one will be elected this year. I find this fascinating because of the 37 names on the 2013 ballot, I consider 21 to be quite legitimate candidates (Woody Williams? Ah, I don’t think so). What the ballot lacks is a drop-dead newcomer, although there should be one were it not for the fact that he, too, is under suspicion.
I am speaking, of course, of Mike Piazza, who may very well be the greatest hitting catcher of all time, but who, despite the lack of any concrete evidence, is regarded as a cheater by some because he flunked the Eyeball Test. See? This is why the drug issue is so insidious. Unless a McGwire or Palmeiro ’fesses up, we’re all guessing, however well-educated those guesses are. There is no reason to avoid voting for Piazza — whose overwhelming credentials include 427 homers, 1,335 RBIs, .922 OBP, 12 All-Star Games) — other than the fact that he looked like a steroid guy.
Jeff Bagwell’s résumé is similarly persuasive (449 homers, 1,529 RBIs, .948 OBP), but, he, too, failed to pass the Eyeball Test. He went from 41.7 percent of the vote two years ago to 56 last year. Obviously, a few voters revised their opinion of his candidacy upward. Understand that going from 56 percent to the needed 75 in one year is not likely.
There are two other intriguing rookies on the ballot. Each man is getting my vote, but I predict neither makes it this year. They are Craig Biggio and Curt Schilling.
Some people are downplaying Biggio because he hung around a bit too long in his quest to get 3,000 hits, a figure that pre-Palmeiro was a stamped passport into Cooperstown. I’m looking at a guy who had 11 different league-leading seasons in such categories as runs, stolen bases, doubles, and hit by pitches (yes, it’s a skill and he happens to be the all-time leader), and who won four Gold Gloves as a second baseman after switching from catcher, where he was a 1991 All-Star. To me, he’s a no-brainer.
As for Schill, I can sum it all up by saying this: Any time he was healthy, he was not just a good pitcher or a very good pitcher. He was a great one. You can go look up all the appropriate numbers if you like, but I’ll leave you with this one. No pitcher in the 20th (or 21st) century had a better strikeout/walk balance (4.38 to 1). But I just don’t feel the love for Schill among my writing brethren. (I’m guessing archenemy Shaughnessy votes yes, however.)
I said there were 21 people worthy of legitimate scrutiny. In addition to Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro, Piazza, Bagwell, Biggio, and Schilling, they are Kenny Lofton, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, Tim Raines, Lee Smith, Alan Trammell, Larry Walker, David Wells, and Bernie Williams.
This is it for Murphy, Year 15. His son, Chad, has created a petition and has bombarded voters with e-mails. Murphy is a rare back-to-back MVP (1982-83) with 398 career homers. He made an admirable transition from catcher to five-time Gold Glove center fielder. But he has never passed the Hall of Fame I-know-one-when-I-see-one Smell Test, his vote percentage ranging from a low of 8.5 in Year 6 to last year’s high of 14.5. It’s not going to happen.
The Morris candidacy has become extremely controversial, his advocates being old-line baseball sorts who view him as the quintessential gun-slinging Ace of the Staff (14 Opening Day starts) and his detractors being Sabermetric zealots who decry a 3.90 career ERA that would be the highest ever to be so enshrined, and who discredit the notion that he pitched to the score, thus accounting for an inflated ERA. I wasn’t always a yes man. But I became one several years ago and I hope he gets in.
There are a few other hot-button candidates: Martinez, Raines, Smith, Mattingly, Trammell, McGriff, Walker, etc. I’m voting for some and I could make a devil’s advocate argument for the rest. But the salient point to be made is that these are all pure baseball discussions, not moral judgments. I like it better that way.
Summing it up: Yes to Bagwell, Biggio, Martinez, Morris, Piazza, Raines, and Schilling. Sorry to anyone else not named Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, McGwire, and Palmeiro.
I’m kind of hoping I could take a nap and wake up only when their names are off the ballot. Their very presence has taken a lot of the fun out of Hall of Fame voting for all of us.Bob Ryan's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.