This is my first Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. It’s an honor. At least, it is now.
I’ve covered baseball as a minor-league writer, a features writer, a beat writer, and a columnist. I once considered it inappropriate for my tribe to determine the legacies of their tribe. However, having gotten to know hundreds of players, I realize that me and mine are much better qualified to determine that than them and theirs.
First thing: I’m voting for the steroid guys. Why? Because there are plenty of players they played against who weren’t pegged as juicers but whom I’m sure used performance-enhancing drugs. When you see a head increase two hats sizes in four months, or when a player starts wearing braces at the age of 32, or when a 26-year-old loses his hair and gains 20 pounds of muscle over the winter, you know what’s going on. In 2002, former Astros third baseman Ken Caminiti told Sports Illustrated, “At least half the guys are using steroids.” He was making a conservative estimate — he said, “at least.” Unless you’re going to disqualify every player who played in that era, you can’t just disqualify the high-profile scapegoats.
Second thing: Character counts. Not a lot, mainly because there aren’t any saints among us electorate. But there is a line. Let’s call it the Schilling Line.
Third thing: I will gladly “waste” a vote on a player whom I know won’t receive the necessary 75% rather than spend that vote on a borderline candidate whom I consider unworthy.
Other general considerations:
I’ll vote for 10 players, the maximum number, as often as possible. I don’t care if only one player gets into the Hall every year, or if 10 get in. It’s the Hall of Fame, not heaven.
I’ll weigh defense more heavily than most voters.
No relievers. If you’re going to be immortal, you should be able to pitch more than one inning, unless you’re Mariano Rivera.
No designated hitters. If you’re going to get a plaque, you should have to play more than 20 minutes of a three-hour game.
I’ll be more likely to include players I consider worthy who are nearing the end of their 10-year candidacy on the writers’ ballot than players who have a several years left to make it.
As for transparency: I’ve always been in favor of making votes public. We’re voting to send someone to Cooperstown, N.Y., not Washington, D.C.
That’s why I won’t just list my nominees. I’ll rank them.
1. Barry Bonds: 10th year
He’s the poster child for the steroid era, but even if you subtract 10% of his career production because of his BALCO sins, Bonds still would rank first in career walks and fourth in home runs. He’d also rank fourth in wins above replacement among position players, behind Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Ty Cobb. He’d make the Hall on his pre-PED performance alone; Bonds won all eight of his Gold Gloves, led the league in on-base percentage four times, led in slugging three times, and won three of his seven National League MVP awards before the steroid scandal. Bonds is one of the five greatest baseball players in history and his exclusion is a petty travesty.
2. Alex Rodriguez: First year
A-Rod admitted he used steroids from 2001-2003. Cool. Like Bonds, for many years Rodriguez was the best all-around player of his generation at his position, and his position — shortstop — is the toughest one. He won American League Gold Glove awards as a shortstop in 2002 and 2003, the same year he led the majors in home runs. He would have won four or five more Gold Gloves if he hadn’t switched to third base in 2004 to accommodate Derek Jeter and if he hadn’t been playing in the American League with Omar Vizquel. He’s a modern-day Ernie Banks, who was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. A-Rod should be, too.
3. Roger Clemens: 10th year
In 2008, I covered Clemens’ false testimony concerning his use of steroids and human growth hormone before Congress in 2008. I consider him a mouse of a man; a bully and a liar. Frankly, these traits are not uncommon in major league clubhouses. His 1986 American League MVP, at least four of his Cy Young Awards and ERA titles, and six of his All-Star appearances are untainted by PEDs, and he was a postseason stud. Clemens was a jerk, but he was the best pitcher of his generation.
4. Manny Ramirez: Sixth year
From 1995-2008, Ramirez compiled the most RBIs (1,660), the fourth-most home runs (508), the fifth-best OPS (1.013), the sixth-best batting average (.317), and the seventh-best on-base percentage (.414). He was haunted by PED use allegations in the second half of his career, and he never won an MVP award, but he still holds the career record for most postseason home runs (29). Boston built the lineup that, in 2004, ended the Curse around Word Series MVP Manny Ramirez.
5. Scott Rolen: Fifth year
Remember, defense carries more weight for me than for most, which is why Rolen ranks so high. He is, by most measures, the third or fourth best defensive third baseman in history. His arm and range, especially to his left, made his shortstops better, which in turn made his second basemen better. He won eight Gold Gloves, was a seven-time All-Star, and he won a World Series. His 70.1 career WAR mark ranks ninth all-time among full-time third basemen, all of whom are in the Hall except Adrian Beltre, who is a sure-fire HOFer. I was mystified by Rolen only getting 10.2% of the vote in 2018 and 17.2% in 2019, his first years of eligibility. But I was heartened to see it rise to 35.3% and 52.9% the past two years. This year, or next, surely should see Rolen make it, just before Beltre becomes eligible for the 2024 class.
6. Jimmy Rollins: First year
There was no player like J-Roll in his generation. A fast, switch-hitting leadoff hitter with superb power for his size and position, Rollins had excellent range, sure hands, a strong arm, and a genius feel for the game. Among full-time shortstops he’s the only one in history with at least 500 doubles, 200 home runs and 400 stolen bases. He won the National League MVP in 2007 and led the Phillies to the World Series in 2008 and 2009 because he was even better in the field than at the plate. He won four Gold Glove awards, and probably should have won a fifth, in 2011. Rollins’ career .9834 fielding percentage ranks second among shortstops with at least 11,000 innings played. In the Golden Era of Shortstops, Rollins stands behind only A-Rod and Jeter.
7. Jeff Kent: Ninth year
A brutal defender and a flawed person — he fought with Bonds in the dugout, and he once donated $15,000 hoping to ban same-sex marriage in California — Kent has some baggage. He also has an MVP award from 2000 and 351 homers, which not only ranks first among second basemen but is 14% more than the man in second place, Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby.
8. Sammy Sosa: 10th year
Tainted by steroids and a corked-bat controversy and plagued by strikeouts — he ranks fourth all-time — Sosa and Mark McGwire resuscitated a dying sport with their home run race in 1998. Some will dispute that, but if you covered baseball back then, you know it’s true. Their reward? Baseball turned its back on them. Sosa’s 17% result last year was his best, incredibly, so he’s unlikely to reach anything close to 75% in his final chance with the writers, but that doesn’t diminish Sosa’s performance or his profile. Sosa ranks ninth on the all-time home run list, was the 1998 NL MVP, went to seven All-Star games, stole 234 bases, possessed one of the best right-field arms of the era, and played the game with a contagious joy.
9. Todd Helton: Fourth year
All 21 players with a career OPS greater than Helton’s .953 are either in the Hall of Fame, active, or blackballed by the steroid controversy. If you discount Helton’s numbers because he played at Coors Field, where he logged a 1.048 OPS, understand that he had an excellent .855 OPS on the road, and that his OPS was actually higher at five other ballparks, including Veterans Stadium. Helton also played a terrific first base.
10. Bobby Abreu: Third year
Bobby Abreu: Consistent excellence. Per the Hall of Fame website, only Abreu and Bonds compiled at least 1,400 runs scored, 1,400 walks, 1,300 RBIs and 400 stolen bases. Abreu is one of only eight players with at least eight seasons with 100 runs scored, 100 RBIs and 100 walks; all but Bonds are in the Hall. He averaged 156 games from 1998-2010, and in those 13 seasons he hit .298, averaged 21 home runs, 95 RBIs, 101 walks, and 28 stolen bases.
Curt Schilling’s career numbers and his postseason performances make him a viable candidate, which, at one point, swayed me to consider him. But Schilling’s recent, accelerated descent into all manner of loathsome behaviors now preclude him from my consideration. Schill shills, take heart: He somehow managed to hit 71.1% last year, his ninth chance with the writers. The 10th time could be his charm. Dirty little secret: Plenty of the writers don’t disagree with all he stands for.
As for the others: Ryan Howard, a first-year candidate, was the most feared left-handed hitter in baseball from 2006-12, when he averaged 44 home runs, but that’s not long enough. Billy Wagner, who was a fearsome reliever, and David Ortiz, the most clutch DH of all time, are still part-time players. (For the record, I wouldn’t have voted for DHs Edgar Martínez and Harold Baines, either, though Frank Thomas, Paul Molitor, and Don Baylor would have been tougher decisions; probably yes for the Big Hurt, no for Molitor and Baylor.)
Vizquel, the second-best defensive shortstop in history behind Ozzie Smith, had my vote. Then allegations surfaced accusing Vizquel of both of domestic abuse of his estranged wife and of sexual abuse of a reportedly autistic batboy. It’s only VIzquel’s fifth year on the ballot. If the allegations prove unsubstantiated, he’s back on my list, but it doesn’t look good.
Andruw Jones and Gary Sheffield? They never had a chance.