No sport relies on or cherishes its history more than baseball. Yes, we remember the great players in football, basketball and hockey, but baseball is built on its connection to previous generations. Whether it’s becoming a fan because your dad took you to your first game when you were a kid or appreciating the history of the cathedrals of the sport and knowing your favorite player is standing where a Hall of Famer once did, baseball his about historic connections.
I’ve been to Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and the old Yankee Stadium, and those places feel different than anywhere else. With the exception of a couple football stadiums in the Midwest, no place in sports makes you feel like you’re in a museum like a great old ballpark can.
That’s why baseball’s actual museum in Cooperstown, where the Hall of Fame sits, matters more than any other sport’s hall. It’s why you often have to think if a player has been elected to other halls, but a player’s candidacy in baseball sparks weeks of debate leading up to the annual announcement of the new class, which this year comes Tuesday morning.
And so allow me to add my two cents to the discussion. I’m going to do it using the actual ballot for this year, and using the BBWAA rules, meaning I can only vote for up to 10 and I can’t vote for anyone who isn’t on the ballot (we’ll save the Pete Rose debate for another day).
As for my personal rules, I believe the PED argument should be settled this way: If someone was a hall of famer without PEDs, I won’t take them out for a late-career mistake. I also won’t use suspicion as a good reason to leave someone out. If you want to leave Barry Bonds out because there’s a mountain of evidence against him, I can respect the argument. If you leave everyone off because you can’t be sure who did it or you leave a particular person off because you just assume he did, I believe that to be wrong and a great injustice.
Finally, the people who refuse to vote for obvious candidates because the first group had some mistakes which caused Babe Ruth to be left off some ballots and you think therefore no one should be unanimous, well, take your ballot and throw it away.
Finally, while the limit of 10 votes is silly, leaving off a sure-fire Hall of Famer to give someone else a vote to help keep him on future ballots by getting him over the minimum needed to return next year is a total abuse of the system. There’s a writer I respect who didn’t vote for Randy Johnson because Alan Trammell needed votes. He put thought into it, but his thought process made me cringe.
Before we get to my yes votes, I wanted to talk about a few players I left off who were worthy of consideration.
First, the name which will get the most attention on this website. Don Mattingly was a wonderful baseball player. He was a leader, a star in a huge market, and consistent. He’s everything you’d want in a Hall of Famer. For six years, he was one of the best in baseball. But his back prevented him from a long career which would have made him a lock. If he had put together one more year, I would have considered him. But once he got hurt, he was never the same. Mattingly should have been a Hall of Famer, but isn’t one based on what his health allowed him to actually do.
The aforementioned Trammell was a good player for a long time, but never a dominant one in his era. He could help his team win, yes, but he only had one extraordinary year. And despite hanging around forever, he didn’t amass the kind of career totals which would get a compiler in for longevity.
Jeff Bagwell gets a lot of support in my home state of Connecticut, but not from me. He put up incredible stats for longer than Mattingly, but did so in an era when everyone did. He also didn’t reach 500 homers, a number which makes it hard to leave a player off the ballot. I don’t exclude him for the rumors, since there’s no proof he was a PED cheat, but he just didn’t stand out enough within his era for me to put him in.
There are some others I could have added. Lee Smith was a great closer, but not someone like Mariano Rivera. Larry Walker hit 70 points higher at home than on the road (hello, Coors Field), Fred McGriff was really good for a long time but never incredible, and Tim Raines is Rickey Henderson without the power or impact. All good players, but not the special type of superstar I want in my favorite museum.
If I had one game to win with my life on the line, I’d take Curt Schilling to throw it. He was one of the great big-game pitchers who ever lived, and willed the Red Sox to their first title in 86 years. He’ll always have a special place in my heart. But your career is about more than October. While Schilling had some incredible regular seasons, he didn’t have enough of them for me to put him on my final list. I pushed hard for Jack Morris, making it even harder to leave Schilling out, but Morris got over 250 wins, Schilling had 216.
I don’t care that Edgar Martinez was a DH. I plan to support David Ortiz someday. But while he was a terrific hitter, his typical season of high-20s in home runs just doesn’t quite get there for me. I know it’s arbitrary, but if a couple more of those 28-homer years said 30, he’d be a yes for me. A really good hitter for a long time, but never a great hitter.
While I don’t like using comparisons between players too often, I must for Mike Mussina. If I leave Schilling out, then I have to exclude Moose as well. I won’t complain if either guy gets in, and by next year someone will probably talk me into both. But Schilling had better numbers in everything but wins, which can be arbitrary. I’ll say this, however, if Mussina had stuck around a couple more seasons and got to 300 wins, he’d be a lock. The rest of his numbers are that good.
I darn near voted for four of the people I left out: Schilling, Mussina, Martinez and McGriff. You’ll have a year to talk me into them next year. I also didn’t vote for Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa because they were one-dimensional players who either were aided by PEDs (McGwire) or didn’t do enough else (Sosa, who might have also been aided).
For now, however, here’s the eight I voted for.
Roger Clemens: He was one of the best pitchers of my lifetime before he ever got bigger. His “bad last four years” as the media always brings up in Boston, were actually much better than the writers who hate him want you to believe. His accuser in his PED case is not exactly trustworthy. There’s not enough to leave out one of the five best pitchers who ever lived.
Barry Bonds: If he never took a drug, he’d have been Willie Mays. His combination of speed, power, defense and baseball IQ were beautiful to watch. He had a wonderful eye before he ever had big arms. “Skinny Barry” gets in on his own, never mind the video game numbers he put up in his later years.
Craig Biggio: He had 3,060 hits, was a good baserunner and excelled at numerous positions. He wasn’t flashy, but he was great.
Mike Piazza: I can’t live on rumors. People think Piazza did steroids, but don’t have anything but the era he played in to back up those claims. He was the best offensive catcher of all time. Show me he had help doing it and I’ll change my mind, since that’s all he did, hit. Until then, he has to be in.
Pedro Martinez: In the height of the steroid era, this little man put up some of the best numbers ever produced by a pitcher. At times he was three full runs ahead of the league average in ERA.
Randy Johnson: He wasn’t nearly as little, but everything else I said about Pedro applies to Randy.
John Smoltz: A great starter who became a great reliever, he was also 15-4 in the postseason.
Gary Sheffield: We don’t know what he bought at BALCO, though we can assume it wasn’t good. Still, Sheffield’s talent was much more than just whatever came in that package. He gets in because of my “feared player” rule. When he was up against the Red Sox, I was terrified. There are just some players who stand out, which is exactly what a Hall of Fame should be. This guy was a solid average hitter who struck balls harder than I’ve ever seen. His swing was violent and on-target. In his prime he was also athletic.
He was great, which is what the Hall should be about.