(Editor's Note: Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez were announced Jan. 18 for induction as the National Baseball Hall of Fame's Class of 2017).
Filling out a Baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the first time is an awesome yet daunting responsibility. I thought I was ready. The steroid guys would be toast. Personal feelings would not count for anything. It was going to be a snap. Reams of stories were read, analytics studied. Baseball-reference.com got more run than Google.
Then Bud Selig went and made a mess of everything. As if this were the All-Star Game again.
The Eras Committee, an outgrowth of the old Veterans Committee, announced during the Winter Meetings earlier this month that it had selected the Commish Emeritus for induction come July. Yes, Selig is the man who led the game to more than two decades of labor peace and its greatest prosperity. But he's also the guy who was involved in collusion while the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, the commissioner during the shameful 1994 strike that canceled the World Series and the man in charge when everyone in the sport – media included – looked the other way as steroids changed how we looked at its players and the numbers they produced.
The late '90s and early 2000s were baseball's Wild West era. Tubs of creatine and other substances sat openly in lockers, and that applied in the Bisons' clubhouse as well. There were no rules prohibiting their use. Those who test positive after testing emerged will be more difficult to admit. Here's looking at you, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez.
For the rest, it's hard to play judge and jury. Especially when Selig himself was elected by a 16-man panel that included some current Hall of Famers. Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, the first female president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, made news earlier this month when she tweeted, "senseless to keep steroid guys out when the enablers are in Hall of Fame. I now will hold my nose and vote for players I believe cheated."
For several years, I refused to write the name "Barry Bonds" in this newspaper. He was just "No. 25." And now to check him off on my first Hall of Fame ballot? What a dilemma.
Only active and honorary members of the BBWAA receive a ballot after covering baseball for at least 10 years. I began covering MLB periodically in 1995, and started compiling the Sunday Inside Baseball column in these parts in 2005.
I became a BBWAA member in 2007 and my 10-season waiting period for a Hall of Fame vote thus ended upon the final out of 2016, the Cubs' Game Seven victory in the World Series in Cleveland on Nov. 2. My coverage scorecard currently stands at 18 World Series and nearly 40 postseason series over the last 22 seasons.
There are 34 names on this year's ballot and one can vote for a maximum of 10. No write-in votes are allowed, so no pushing Pete Rose's case. Ballots must be returned in a pre-addressed envelope provided by the Hall and postmarked by Dec. 31.The results will be announced live on MLB Network on Jan. 18.
At least 75 percent of all votes cast are needed for induction. For example, there were 440 ballots cast last year and a player needed 330 votes to get in. Those numbers differ from year to year as the size of the voting body changes for a variety of reasons.
BBWAA members vote only for former players in their first 10 years of eligibility. Decisions on players not elected by the BBWAA, managers, GMs, owners, umpires and other contributors such as former union head Marvin Miller are the purview of the Eras Committees.
The only real direction given to the BBWAA is: "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." That's it.
So with all that as a background, here's how I attacked the ballot over the last few weeks and ultimately voted:
The Easy No-ways
This is the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Very Good. The full ballot consists of 34 players and there some pretty obvious ones who simply aren't Cooperstown material. That doesn't mean they didn't do some great things in their careers, but they're not getting this vote and my guess is almost all of them won't get the 5 percent needed to stay on the ballot.
So a quick salute to the careers of Casey Blake, Pat Burrell, Orlando Cabrera, Mike Cameron, J.D. Drew, Carlos Guillen, Derrek Lee, Melvin Mora, Magglio Ordonez, Edgar Renteria, Arthur Rhodes, Freddy Sanchez, Matt Stairs, Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield. They can say their names appeared once. That easily took the ballot down from 34 players to 19.
The key first-year eligibles
Ivan Rodriguez is one of the great catchers of all time. He played more than 2,500 games, hit 311 homers, collected more than 2,800 hits. He was a 13-time Gold Glover and a leader on many winning teams, including the 2003 World Series champion Marlins and the '06 AL champion Tigers. Yes, there are steroid whispers, much as there were with 2016 inductee Mike Piazza and as there are with current hot topic Jeff Bagwell. Jose Canseco claimed in his 2005 book he injected Rodriguez. But there were never any suspensions, so Pudge gets in.
So does Vladimir Guerrero, one of the great bad-ball hitters we've ever seen. He batted .318 with 2,590 hits, finishing 24th all-time in slugging, 35th in OPS. His career never declined, with the .290 that he hit in 145 games for the 2011 Orioles being his lowest batting average for a full season. And before he became a full-time DH, remember the cannon he had from right field in Montreal from 1996-2003. One of the best ever out there. An easy choice. But playing a long-time in Montreal and never interacting in English with the media might hurt him this year. We'll see.
At this time, Manny Ramirez is a no. All the offensive numbers are obviously there, including the 44 homers and 165 RBIs for the 1999 Indians – the only 1,000-plus run team in baseball since 1950. But "Manny Being Manny" was the running joke used to describe how bad he was at times defensively and running the bases. He was suspended twice for performance-enhancers in the final years of his career and the whispers were around him for many years prior to that.
The Bonds/Clemens quandary
By the numbers, it's easy to put Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens in the Hall. We all know about Bonds' 762 home runs. Nobody since Ted Williams had a better slugging percentage or OPS figures than Bonds' marks of .607 and 1.051. His Wins Above Replacement figure of 162.4 is preposterous (active leader Albert Pujols is at just 101.1), and bested all-time by only Babe Ruth. He was the dominant player of his generation, the most feared hitter in the 2002 World Series that saw the Giants come within six outs of victory in Anaheim.
Long before the 1998 Sosa-McGwire Home Run Derby kicked Bonds into the PED age, he was putting together a Hall of Fame career with Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Don't forget the eight Gold Gloves too. And at a time when PED usage is believed to be widespread, he was still the best player in the game by a lot.
Clemens' career numbers (354 wins, 4,672 strikeouts, seven Cy Youngs) make an easy case but he's a different animal than Bonds. His career was toast after he went 10-13 with the Red Sox in 1996. His peak from 1986-1992 was it for him. From '93-96, Clemens was just 40-39. It's widely known his PED usage began in 1998 in Toronto, where he went 41-13 in two years for the Blue Jays, including a career-high 292 strikeouts in 1997. His denials aside, the view here is Clemens' career was clearly propped up by PEDs for another full decade.Clemens, however, was the top-of-the-line in his peak years and was dealing against hitters also clearly using. Like Bonds, he had already made a Hall case before the rumors and The Mitchell Report got to him. With Selig in, no way to keep him out now.
Raines overcomes '80s stigma
Longtime outfielder Tim Raines is in his 10th and final year on the ballot and should have been in a long time ago. It's hard to imagine this isn't the year for him. At his prime in Montreal, Raines was the best leadoff hitter in the game this side of Rickey Henderson.
Raines had 2,605 hits and 808 stolen bases (one of five players over 800). He was brilliant with the Expos from 1981-1990, helped the White Sox win a division title in 1993 and earned two World Series rings with the Yankees in 1996 and 1998. He was the subject of a huge Internet push this year, which was unnecessary in these eyes. I've been waiting to vote for him for a good long while.
My feeling on Raines is that, in general, the 1980s get woefully overlooked in Hall voting. Names like Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly, Dave Parker, Keith Hernandez, Will Clark and George Bell all failed. Lee Smith is in his final year on the ballot with little chance.
The numbers often don't stack up but there are good reasons. The '80s came before the four-team expansion of the '90s further diluted pitching. It was the era of the stolen base and the big multi-purpose ballparks.
Players career totals just don't stack up. It's reminiscent of what Andre Reed went through to finally get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Once his career ended, outside factors changed the way statistics are measured and hurt his resume (in Reed's case, it was the far greater use of the passing game and the liberalization of defensive rules to more greatly favor receivers).
Others who got the magic checkmark
Jeff Bagwell – He should already be in but there were unfounded steroid whispers. Still had 449 home runs even though he played his first nine years in the cavernous Astrodome. One-team, face-of-the-franchise guy along with Craig Biggio. Rookie of the Year, MVP. An easy choice who seems like he's going to finally breeze in this year, his seventh on the ballot.
Edgar Martinez – The greatest DH of all-time. In his peak years of 1995-2001, his WAR of 40.6 was behind only Bonds, Bagwell, A-Rod and Ken Griffey Jr. A career .312 hitter with 2,247 hits. A franchise icon , owner of the 10th-inning double that won the epochal Game Five of the 1995 division series over the Yankees that is widely considered the over-the-top catalyst to get Safeco Field built.
Mike Mussina – He had 270 wins and 2,813 strikeouts and becomes a shoo-in if he got to 300 wins or 3,000 Ks. But he retired at age 39 – after a 20-9 season over 34 starts with the 2008 Yankees. Yes, the ERA is high (3.68), but pitching from 1991-2008 wasn't easy given the new ballparks and PEDs. He had a great arsenal on the mound and a great mind for the game. Especially early in his career, he rubbed reporters the wrong way. But he was a statesman during his years with the Yankees. His day is coming.
Fred McGriff – He will get this vote for the three years he has left on the ballot but at just under 21 percent last year, I doubt he gets in through. He finished with 493 home runs and 2,490 hits and played on great teams in both Toronto and Atlanta, including the Braves' 1995 World champions. Never a hint of steroids. But I get it: No MVPs and average defense are the knocks. It's almost like he's one of those '80s guys overlooked. In this case, he got swallowed by the numbers of the '90s.
Larry Walker – Surprise choice No. 2. His numbers might have been bloated by Coors Field – a .381 batting average at home for the Rockies with a .710 slugging and 1.172 OPS. But you're also talking 2,160 career hits and 383 home runs for a seven-time Gold Glove winner. A terrific player in Montreal for his first five seasons as well. Doubt he ever gets in either but he'll keep getting the nod here.
The Schilling Question
Curt Schilling was going to be a very interesting Hall case before he became a polarizing figure after his career. The sense is Schilling belongs. Having only 216 wins and no Cy Young awards hurts his candidacy but that's overcome by perhaps being the greatest postseason starter of the last 45 years.
Schilling went 11-2 in the postseason, pitching a shutout for the Phillies in Game Five of the 1993 World Series against Toronto, going into the eighth inning of Game Seven of the 2001 series for Arizona against the Yankees and, of course, by persevering to win the "Bloody Sock Game" during the 2004 ALCS in Yankee Stadium.
But since his career ended, Schilling has run afoul on social media numerous times, ultimately losing his analyst job at ESPN, and laid off the entire 400-member work force of his Rhode Island video game company that declared bankruptcy. He's admitted to being a collector of Nazi memorabilia.
He can wait a year to get this vote. Maybe more.
Other 'No' votes
It was a struggle to not vote for Trevor Hoffman and his 601 saves this time. After making 67.3 percent last year, he could easily hit 75 this time but I will always struggle voting for closers, non-Mariano Rivera division. You're just not on the field enough compared to starters or positional players. Hoffman also was mediocre in the postseason (1-2, 4 saves, 3.46 ERA in 12 games).
Gary Sheffield (2,689 hits, 509 home runs), doesn't get nearly as much love as he probably should for the Hall, but didn't get my vote either. Same for Billy Wagner (1,196 strikeouts in 903 innings, career 2.31 ERA). Some year soon, they might. Jorge Posada was a great leader who won a ton of World Series rings but is he on the radar only because he played for the Yankees? Requires more study and thought. Jeff Kent is the all-time leader in home runs by a second baseman (351) but was average defensively.
Sammy Sosa's career seems like a PED special. He did not have the pure talent of Bonds, Clemens or Ramirez. After hitting 40 home runs one time in his first eight full seasons, we're supposed to believe his average of 58.4 homers from 1998-2002? Not buying it.
Apologies to Lee Smith, who is going to fall off the ballot after being grandfathered in for years 11-15 when rules changed to shorten your time on the ballot to the max 10 years. He had 478 saves and many went more than one inning. Just too crowded a ballot.
The Final Ballot
So to review alphabetically, I voted for Jeff Bagwell, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Vladimir Guerrero, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mike Mussina, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez and Larry Walker.