Ballots are out for the 2017 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame, with the results to be announced Jan. 18. I voted in that annual election for a couple of decades but was flushed last year when the Baseball Writers Association of America declared ineligible anyone who hadn’t practiced daily journalism for 10 years. It was a bitter pill but I swallowed it. Lifetime appointments are a bad idea in any sphere and sports writing should be no exception.
But while I can’t vote I still have opinions on the membership of the most-august of our nation’s sports shrines, and am glad to share them. I’m a writer, right? So putting on my handicapper’s cap I herewith produce a morning line on the current candidates for immortality, or, at least, the version that a bronze plaque in the Cooperstown, New York, museum confers.
This year’s three most-likely choices were on the ballot last year but came up just short. Interestingly, the guy I think will get the most votes got fewer than did two other players the last time around. He’s Trevor Hoffman, the relief pitcher, who was included on 67.3% of the 2016 ballots, about eight percentage points short of the 75% needed for induction.
Hoffman was outpolled by Jeff Bagwell, the former Houston Astros’ slugger who drew a 71.6% count, and by Tim Raines, who ran the bases fast for a lot of teams over a 23-year Major League career, with 69.8%. A main difference among them, however, was that Hoffman was in his first year on the ballot while Bagwell was in his 6th and Raines his 9th. While to my mind Hoffman was the best qualified of the three, for reasons I’ve never understood some voters make an extra hurdle of first-ballot election and leave off candidates on that ground alone. That factor will disappear this year for the man with the killer changeup who ranks No. 2 on the all-time “saves” list. By me he’s an odds-on choice—2-to-5-- to be elected.
I never voted for Bagwell or Raines when I had the chance; I considered both excellent players but not quite of Hall stature. Most of my colleagues shared that view initially—Bagwell was mentioned on just 41.7% of the ballots in 2011, his first year up, and Raines on but 24.3 % in his, in 2008. But while their records haven’t changed in retirement their allure has. Bagwell should make it this year, if only because no one has come as close as he and failed the next time around. Raines probably will, too, partly because this is his tenth and last year on the sports writers’ ballot (the limit was changed from 15 years last year). I make Bagwell a 3-to-5 pick and put Raines at even money, which is to say 50-50.
Among the 19 newcomers on the ballot the best candidates are Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, Vlad Guerrero and Manny Ramirez. Ramirez clearly has Half of Fame numbers (a .312 lifetime batting average over 19 seasons, 1,831 runs batted in and 555 home runs, the 15th -most ever) but he was busted twice for using performance-enhancing drugs and ended his career before he could serve out a 100-game suspension for the second violation.
PED use is an eyes-wide-open choice by players who choose to break the rules (and endanger their health) in order to improve or extend their careers and pad their pocketbooks. Most guardians of the Hall (me, too, when I was one) have agreed that users should be denied a plaque no matter what their accomplishments. Barry Bonds, the best hitter of his era, and Roger Clemens, the best pitcher, both flunked the eye and nose tests for steroids and never have topped the 50% mark in Hall voting (Bonds got 44.3% last year, Clemens 45.2%). As a convicted offender, Manny won’t poll nearly that well and probably never will.
Rodriguez also has been daubed with the PEDs brush, but less authoritatively. The source is Jose Canseco, the ex-slugger turned author, who in his 2005 book “Juiced” wrote that he injected the catcher with steroids while both were with the Texas Rangers (1992-94), at the beginning of Rodriguez’s career. I don’t know how good a witness Canseco is; I remember him as a bit of a knucklehead. I was writing at that time and Pudge never was on my personal “roids” list, which has played out to be pretty accurate. He is on my short list as one the best defensive catchers I’ve seen--along with Johnny Bench and Yavier Molina—and was a solid hitter as well. If I still were an elector I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and a vote, but I’m guessing that others won’t and he’ll fall short. I make him 3-to-1 against.
Guerrero also might make the Hall someday, but, probably, not this time. His numbers (.318 B.A., 2,590 career hits, 449 HRs, 1,492 RBIs) are cgose to those of Bagwell and Jim Rice, the former Boston Red Sox strongman who was enshrined in 2009 in his 15th year on the ballot. Both were acquired tastes and I expect that Guerrero will be one also. This year he’s a longer shot than Pudge.
If I were voting I’d include four ballot holdovers for whom I voted previously—Curt Schilling, Lee Smith, Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina. Schilling, a big-game pitcher extraordinaire, polled best among the group last year at 52%. Martinez, a scholarly batsman for whom the game’s annual designated-hitter award is named, got 43%, about the same total as Mussina, whose 270 career wins and 64% win mark deserve respect. Smith was the Major Leagues’ saves leader when he retired in 1997, and ranks third now (with 478). He’s in his last year on the ballot. None of the four figures to be elected but what the heck, electors get to vote for 10.