By Matt Straub
I was having an interesting conversation about the history of various sports the other night, the conclusion of which we actually agreed upon (which is rare for me and Brad Carroll). We decided that, while baseball is no longer America’s pastime, its historical value remains bigger than other sports.
In other words, while we care more in the present about who’s going to win the NFL playoff games this weekend, the history of baseball keeps a greater hold on us than that of any other sport. For example, quick, name the all-time leading receiver and his yardage total. Now, how many home runs did Babe Ruth hit? We all know the last man to hit .400, but do you know the last man to throw for 5,500 yards in a season? (It’s a trick question, no one has, but you were ready to look it up).
For this reason, the Hall of Fame debate in baseball trumps any other sport. The Football Hall of Fame is a prestigious place, this statement isn’t to knock it or the sport of football in general. But with the exception of the huge names, a lot of people don’t even know who’s already been elected to Canton and who’s still waiting. The path to Cooperstown, however, is debated ad nausea. Who should get in? Should anyone be a unanimous pick? And, as always, what do we do with the PED users?
Because the baseball Hall of Fame is so special, the extra debate is warranted. So, as we count down to tonight's announcement of this year’s inductees, allow me to throw in my two cents.
First, the caveats. I’m going to use the Hall of Fame’s rules, where I can only vote for 10. This limit is silly and is the reason for a lot of the backlog of big names. Why shouldn’t I be able to vote for as many players as I find deserving? And why do players go off the ballot after a certain number of years? If I still want to vote for Don Mattingly, I should be allowed to. I discussed why he’d be off my ballot last year, but that should be my call, not the Hall’s.
To the writers: If you leave your ballot blank as some sort of protest over the rules or the PED mess, you should lose your vote. And, while I can wrap my head around the argument at least, the idea of leaving a player off your list because you suspect he did PEDs without any actual evidence is wrong. Some voters are afraid they’ll vote in someone later found to be a user, but won’t that player’s shame be enough punishment for him, and isn’t it enough of one to counteract the risk of leaving a deserving player out because we aren’t sure?
My take on the PED issue is this: If you were a Hall of Famer before you started using, I’m putting you in. If I have no firm reason to think you did PEDs, then I’m judging your candidacy based on numbers alone. I can’t leave someone deserving out because I wonder what they might have done.
That’s why I feel comfortable leaving Jeff Bagwell off my list. I know all the speculation, but there’s no actual legitimate evidence Bagwell was a user. Still, his numbers leave him just below the threshold to me. You have to judge players within their era, and there were simply more dominant players. He missed the 500-homer level during the rise of the homer (not everyone who hit a lot of homers was a user, either).
There are other big names who don’t make my list. Larry Walker was a good player on the road, but a Hall of Famer at home. This means Coors Field got him this far, so he’s out. He hit under .300 in Montreal and .334 with the Rockies. In his career, he hit exactly 70 points higher at home. He’s a product of a climate.
Alan Trammell was very good for a long time, but never led the league in any major stat and wasn’t a dominant player at any point. I love that he played 20 years with one team, but that doesn’t get you in Cooperstown.
Billy Wagner was a good closer, but never led the league in saves, was only dominant in a couple of seasons, and was never one of those guys who you were truly scared to face. When Mariano Rivera came in, I thought the game was over. Against Wagner, I never had that feeling. Lee Smith is debatable, and I won’t mind if he gets in, but he doesn’t get my vote, nor does Tim Raines, who is an analytics poster boy who was a complier and would get in strictly for stolen bases. He’s better than a real one-trick pony like Billy Hamilton, but take away the steals and he’s nowhere near this list, and I can’t put a one-category guy in.
Speaking of one-category wonders, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa are home run specialists who got to their totals through PEDs. Sosa even got caught with a corked bat. They’re out.
Trevor Hoffman blew almost every big game he ever pitched, he’s out. Curt Schilling is one of the great big-game pitchers who ever lived, but I can’t just count the big games. The Tuesdays in June count, too. He didn’t do enough in those games to get in.
Fred McGriff was really good, but not transcendent. He’s in the Bagwell category for me. Edgar Martinez was a fun hitter to watch, but is a little overrated. He doesn’t make this list.
So who does? Here’s my ballot.
Barry Bonds: If you consider the evidence against him valid, we know when he started using, which was right after he saw McGwire and Sosa get attention for hitting home runs while he suffered in relative anonymity as the best player in baseball. Stop his career before he turned into the Incredible Hulk and he’s still a 3-time MVP and one of the most complete players ever. A wonderful defensive player, a base stealer and a great hitter. His steroid case is the biggest shame of all, since he was on the way to being Willie Mays.
Ken Griffey Jr: The guy who had the career Bonds would have had if he’d stayed clean. Do I have a lot of suspicion about him and PEDs? Absolutely. But there’s no real evidence, and I don’t keep people out on hunches. On the field, he’s in the top 20 players ever.
Mike Piazza: Speaking of people I don’t keep out on hunches, the best-hitting catcher ever should be in the Hall of Fame minus any real evidence he used steroids.
Roger Clemens: His accuser is as slimey as any of the PED users. His numbers before he bulked up late in his career make him one of the best pitchers in the history of one of the oldest franchises in the sport. His video game numbers after weren’t all boosted by whatever means he reshaped himself. There’s enough of an argument where I can see leaving him out, unlike Bonds, who was in as what people call “skinny Bonds,” but I have him in.
Gary Sheffield: He probably did something, but we don’t know what and he gets in for the same reason Jim Rice did. He was one of the most feared players of his era. When he or someone like Frank Thomas came up, I was worried. I can’t say that about guys like Jeff Kent. Sheffield made you put down the remote and watch. That’s what makes someone a Hall of Famer to me.
Mike Mussina: Each year, someone I used to give a no vote to wins me over. Those who supported Craig Biggio convinced me to the point where I got in one of the most vicious arguments of my life supporting him. This year, it’s Mussina. He was incredibly consistent, and while he never had Pedro Martinez type numbers, which is why I was a holdout, you have to consider how long he was fantastic. He wasn’t out there at 39 putting up bad numbers like most compilers. Mussina was still fantastic in his final year. In the years before, he was always a really, really good pitcher. He was outstanding in the playoffs and one of the best defensive pitchers ever. Depending on your metric, he’s in the top 20 or 30 pitchers of the modern era. I’m not going to lose my mind about him not getting in, but he gets my vote. He wasn’t just average for 20 years, he was really good for that long.