Let's get one thing straight right off the top: Harold Baines doesn't matter.
The fact that Baines is going into the Baseball Hall of Fame — clearly thanks to the prodding of his former owner (Jerry Reinsdorf) and former manager (Tony La Russa) on the Today's Game Committee — doesn't change the standards for election one bit in this view.
Baines never got more than 6 percent of the vote of the Baseball Writers Association of America before he was dropped from the ballot. You have to get 75 percent for induction and the voting bloc consists of more than 400 media members. Baines had a nice career mostly as a designated hitter, but the only way he should be walking into Cooperstown is if he buys a ticket. Once you're off the BBWAA ballot, you still need 75 percent — but only of a 16-person committee. Baines got the 12 votes he needed earlier this month at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas and will be inducted in July.
Quite a different standard indeed. A terrible back door.
The Hall of Fame should be hard to get into. And it will remain that way. It's a tough job for voters. The blank ballot has sat on a shelf in my house for nearly a month. I've pored over stat files and analytic analysis on my laptop, often on Sabres road trips, for that amount of time making my final 2-3 choices.
There won't be any "Baines got in, so this guy has to get in" here. The Eras committees have their own perspective, and we're free to disagree. That said, if Baines can get in, you would hope the eras committees would someday do right by the likes of George Steinbrenner and Dale Murphy and perhaps other stars of the recent past such as Don Mattingly, Keith Hernandez or Steve Garvey, whose statistics got overwhelmed in part by the steroid era, as well as watered-down pitching from expansion and hitter-friendly ballparks.
As for the current ballot, voting is done by BBWAA members who have been in the organization for at least 10 years. We vote only for players and not managers, owners or other contributors. Those are done by committees like the group that put Baines into the Hall and also voted for longtime closer Lee Smith, a much more palatable choice.
There are 35 names on our ballot, determined by a screening committee appointed by the Hall, and you can vote for a maximum of 10. No write-in votes are allowed. Writers have until Dec. 31 to submit their ballots, which are still done on paper and returned via mail. The results are announced Jan. 22 on MLB Network and inductions in Cooperstown will be July 21.
Here's how I broke down the ballot:
Two top arms
Mariano Rivera: The Yankees' legendary closer doesn't really need any deep discussion, does he? The numbers show 652 saves, 1,173 strikeouts against just 286 walks, a WHIP of 1.000. There has been no better postseason reliever (8-1, 0.70, 42 saves, 110 strikeouts, 42 walks). Then there's the reverence he is held in by virtually every branch of the baseball world. His 2013 farewell tour, featuring a group chat in each city with relatively anonymous ballpark employees, was yet another example of his impeccable character. Attending his session that summer in Toronto was one of the most fascinating hours this corner has ever spent in any stadium.
Roy Halladay: There are some who wonder if the first-year road for the burly right-hander is being paved by his tragic death last year at age 40. And while that might be true in the eyes of some, Halladay's peak seasons were absolutely Hall-worthy, even though he ended his career with only 203 wins and 2,117 strikeouts.
In 2002-03 and again from 2006-11, he might have been the game's best starter. He won 20 games three times, took two Cy Youngs and had seven top-five finishes in that voting, and even pitched a postseason no-hitter with the Phillies in 2011. Also, let's remember some of the Toronto teams he excelled on were not very good. One of the best-pitched games I've ever seen live was Halladay's one-hitter against the Yankees at Rogers Centre on Sept. 4, 2009, just over a month before the Bombers won a World Series. You knew you were watching greatness.
Holdovers again getting this vote
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens: My stance is unchanged. They are two of the greatest players of their generation. Their history of PED usage is widely documented, but then the Hall agreed to induct former commissioner Bud Selig, who was complicit in all this. You can submit the "character clause" to me and the reminder in response is that plenty of low-character types were long ago put in the Hall. Voting for Bonds and Clemens creates vile responses on social media. So does not voting for them. There's no winning with them, and that's just part of the deal of being a voter. Their indiscretions came before testing. From this view, you shouldn't keep them out.
Edgar Martinez: Forget about Baines. Until David Ortiz becomes eligible, Martinez is the greatest DH who is Hall-eligible with 2,247 hits and a .312 average. Rivera said during his employee chat in Toronto that Edgar was the toughest hitter he ever faced. This is Martinez's final year on the writers' ballot. More than any other team, the Seattle Mariners have pushed their candidate hard. I expect them to be rewarded.
Mike Mussina: He's going to get in either this year or next. He had 270 wins and 2,813 strikeouts, pitching mostly in the Steroid Era and in the AL East. His numbers look better and better with each passing year, and don't forget he retired after a 20-win season in 2008. He could have easily kept going.
Curt Schilling: He served a one-year penalty in these eyes in 2016, largely for tweeting approval of that infamous T-shirt that endorsed lynching journalists. I voted for him last year and will keep doing so until he's inducted. He's become an abhorrent personality in his post-baseball life, but he's also the greatest postseason starting pitcher of the modern era with an 11-2 mark, victories in four different World Series and the "Bloody Sock" win against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.
Fred McGriff and Larry Walker: Neither is getting in, but I don't vote based on what I expect the results to be. McGriff is in his last year on the ballot, Walker his second-last. Both deserve to get in and it's a shame they won't. At least until the committees take up their cases. McGriff had 493 home runs and only the '94 strike prevented the 500 that probably heightens his candidacy. Walker has 2,160 career hits, 383 home runs and seven Gold Gloves. He was terrific in Montreal and those who insist his career was made by Denver's Coors Field seem to forget he played half his games on the road those years too.
The new addition
Omar Vizquel: He got 37 percent of the vote last year, his first on the ballot. That's a good number that will only go up as we're now on a run of thinner groups of players under consideration. But there are those who say he's a compiler, that his 2,877 hits and 404 stolen bases are a product of playing parts of 24 seasons. Plausible argument. But there's no denying Vizquel's 11 Gold Gloves at a position that's still a heavy defensive slot in the lineup.
Vizquel was a wizard for the powerful Cleveland teams of the '90s and was easily the best defensive shortstop I've seen live in the 20-plus years I've covered the big leagues. Those Cleveland teams were full of stars, with Vizquel and Jim Thome serving key clubhouse roles through lots of chaotic times. Thome took his rightful place in Cooperstown last summer. Vizquel deserves to join him some day.
Billy Wagner, Todd Helton, Andy Pettitte, Gary Sheffield, Jeff Kent, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones and Lance Berkman. All are worthy of staying on the ballot for now. None is getting in this year, and the road might be too long for any of them to ever get inducted.
Of this group, my two favorites would be Wagner (424 saves, .184 opponents batting average) and Rolen (2,077 hits, eight Gold Gloves at third base). Frankly, I think Wagner would be a better Hall choice than Trevor Hoffman, who was inducted last year and didn't get my vote.
Thanks for playing
Manny Ramirez and Sammy Sosa: Ramirez was nailed for PEDs after testing began, which is why he's a no and Bonds and Clemens are not. Same will apply to Alex Rodriguez when he becomes eligible. Sosa's PED whispers are too strong for these tastes, as are the bloating of his numbers during his peak from 1998 to 2002, when he averaged more than 58 homers per season.
The following players didn't come that close to making my final 10. From this view, most of them won't get the 5 percent required to stay on the ballot. So congrats for making one ballot to: Roy Oswalt, Miguel Tejada, Placido Polanco, Kevin Youkilis, Derek Lowe, Freddy Garcia, Vernon Wells, Ted Lilly, Travis Hafner, Jason Bay, Michael Young, Jon Garland, Darren Oliver, Juan Pierre and Rick Ankiel.
Recapping the final ballot
So listed alphabetically, this year's votes went to Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, Curt Schilling, Omar Vizquel and Larry Walker.
See you in 2020, Derek Jeter.