It sat on my desk for several days just before Christmas. In the envelope. Unsealed. Stamp affixed. Questions nagging.
Finally, into the mail it went.
Last-minute Christmas card? No.
My Hall of Fame ballot.
The process is nearly the same every year. Spend most of December wrestling with it, thinking about it, researching it, second-guessing myself about it. Reach a point where I think I've got it…but then I don't mail it back until the absolute last minute, leaving every opportunity to change something if a roaring doubt here or there isn't quelled.
This was my 17th ballot, and there are few greater responsibilities, work-wise, in my year than this. As I remind everyone annually in this column, I've always viewed my vote akin to that of a congressman or representative: The Hall of Fame is a public house, belonging to the baseball fans, and each year when I vote, I'm mindful that I'm casting that vote on behalf of constituents. Not everybody is going to agree, but you do your best to represent.
So for this week's Starting 9, and in advance of the 2016 Hall of Fame election results' being announced Wednesday, here is what my ballot looked like (in alphabetical order), with a couple of other thoughts tagged on at the end.
Every now and again, a no-brainer, slam-dunk candidate comes onto the ballot, and that's what Griffey is. The finest all-around center fielder in history, from his backward cap to his grin to his highlight-reel plays, is what you see when you close your eyes and envision what baseball should look like.
Easily, the biggest intrigue here is whether he can challenge Tom Seaver's record 98.84 percent of the vote. What you might ask, and it absolutely is a fair question, is why wouldn't Junior's election be unanimous?
Here's why: Believe it or not, nobody has ever been elected unanimously to the Hall of Fame. Somehow, 11 voters in 1936 did not see fit to vote for Babe Ruth. In 1962, 36 writers did not vote for Jackie Robinson. In 1966, 20 voters did not cast a ballot for Ted Williams.
I'm not sure who could look at Griffey's career and conclude, "Nah, I'm not going to check the box next to his name." History tells us it will be somebody, though. But after posting all-time numbers and making it through the Steroid Era considered squeaky clean, if Griffey doesn't check in Wednesday with roughly 99 percent of the vote, some in the electorate need to look themselves in the mirror.
2. Trevor Hoffman
Given his 601 career saves rank second only to Mariano Rivera on the all-time list, some will be surprised to learn that not only is Hoffman not a surefire bet to be elected, but that chances are strong he will have to wait until at least his second or third year of eligibility.
Here's a secret: Nobody who pitched exclusively as a reliever throughout his entire career has ever been elected in his first year of eligibility. Both Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz worked part of their careers as starters. Rollie Fingers (second year of eligibility), Goose Gossage (ninth year) and Bruce Sutter (13th year) all had to wait.
My sabermetric friends continually point out how overvalued the closer's position is, and I lean toward agreeing with them. I have not, for example, voted for Lee Smith, who for a time was baseball's all-time saves leader with 478 saves.
But sometimes the body of work is so staggering that it should be obvious that, from whatever angle you view it, you are looking at a Hall of Famer. And I believe Hoffman's 601 saves over 18 years clears whatever hurdles a Hall of Famer should clear in both dominance and longevity.
3. Jeff Kent
I'm still not sure about Kent, but in the end, I acquiesced to the fact that he hit more home runs as a second baseman than any man ever, 351. The doubts, though, continue to nag: Kent played in an offensively friendly era of juiced balls and ballparks that favored hitters. And I'm not sure the rest of his game screams "Hall of Famer."
This isn't to knock him. Obviously, he was a very, very good player. But good enough to be ranked among the greatest 1 percent ever (which, essentially, is what being a Hall of Famer means)? I wonder if I allowed myself to be seduced by that one gaudy home run number.
4. Fred McGriff
The Crime Dog is in his seventh year on the ballot, and I only began to vote for him two years ago based on this: I do not vote for players tainted by steroids (see explanation below). And as more and more of those came onto the ballot, it began to feel like I was spending more time penalizing players than anything else.
So why, then, shouldn't I do the opposite of that in certain cases? Especially for players who by all appearances played clean, only to be completely pushed into the shadows by the cheaters?
With 493 career homers, McGriff ranks 28th all-time. Remove some of the steroid frauds from that all-time list and he comes close to cracking the top 20. With only 12.9 percent of last year's vote, McGriff won't get in. But he sure is worth looking at.
5. Mike Mussina
I know, I know: Wins are passe. They're not a meaningful stat for starting pitchers anymore in this modern age of bullpen usage, yadda, yadda, yadda. But I look at Mussina's pitching his entire career in the beastly AL East in an age of fierce sluggers, steroids and bloated payrolls producing All-Star lineups and see his 270 wins, and it resonates. The guy produced 11 seasons of 15 or more victories.
There are plenty of other numbers to back his cause, too. But I'll leave it to my sabermetric friends to fill you in with all of those (wink, wink).
6. Tim Raines
After checking in with 55 percent of the vote last year, where will Raines, now in his ninth year on the ballot (and with just one year of eligibility remaining), land this time? There absolutely should be a place in Cooperstown for a man with a staggering .385 career on-base percentage and whose 84.7 success rate on steal attempts (among those with 300 or more attempts) ranks second all-time.
7. Alan Trammell
It is going to be sad to see Trammell drop off the ballot after this season (and he will, because he only received 25.1 percent of the vote last year, nowhere near the 75 percent needed). I've voted for him every year and maintain that the mid-1980s Detroit Tigers are egregiously overlooked by the Hall electorate (yes, it is a gross injustice that Jack Morris is out in the cold, too).
Trammell came in with Cal Ripken Jr. and Robin Yount (both Hall of Famers), and his offensive numbers clobber those of Ozzie Smith (yes, a Hall of Famer). I've yet to talk with a manager of that time who would have picked Ozzie over Trammell if given the choice. Plus, Barry Larkin was enshrined, and Trammell's numbers and career run in close parallel to Larkin.
Trammell has been criminally undersupported, and it's a shame.
8. The Steroid Stance
OK, I intentionally left this until after I revealed my ballot because those who are not on my ballot should not overshadow those who are on it. And year after year, that's what Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens do.
I do not vote for those who have admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs, who have tested positive for it or who are obscured by a mountain of circumstantial evidence. Period. I never have, and while reserving the right to change my mind in future years, I do not plan on doing so.
For those like Manny Ramirez (and, eventually, Ryan Braun), who blatantly broke the rules after PED regulations were instituted in 2004, they made their choice. It's pretty black and white.
For those who came just before, like Bonds, Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, they knew they were cheating the game and their peers. Otherwise, they wouldn't have been dipping into PEDs away from the clubhouses and ballparks. There is a reason why players were doing these things in private and attempting to hide their activities.
Just look at what Mark McGwire said in 2012 while apologizing for his actions before coming back to the game as a coach, per Petros & Money, via USA Today: "It's a mistake I have to live with for the rest of my life. I have to deal with never, ever getting into the Hall of Fame. I totally understand and totally respect their opinion and I will never, ever push it."
And, per the Associated Press via the Huffington Post: "I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake."
What sometimes gets lost amid the social media shouting at this time of year is that the Baseball Writers' Association of America is not on some sort of organized, evangelical mission to keep the PED guys out. I am not standing on street corners, on a soapbox, shouting to the masses.
I am one man with one ballot who is voting my conscience. I wish the players' union, or the owners, or MLB Commissioner Bud Selig would have stood up back in the day and corralled this issue long before it got out of hand. They didn't. Now, the issue has come to the Hall of Fame voters, and on behalf of many fans who think along the lines that I do, if I can in some small way make a stand now for what I believe in, then that is my obligation. I welcome the opportunity to do so.
Some of my best friends in the business always have voted for those who used PEDs. A couple of other close friends who once held out changed their minds this year and now vote for them. I predict you will see the vote totals for Bonds rise this year.
That's fine. I respect that. Clearly, there is no wrong and right here, only deeper and confusing shades of gray. But in the end, in whatever aspect of life we are facing, we each must stand up for what we believe in. There is no higher individual honor in this game than the Hall of Fame. And for that precious place, I cannot—and will not—knowingly endorse the career of a man who cheated.
And for those who say Bonds had a Hall of Fame career before 1999, when it is generally believed he started using, my Hall of Fame vote is not for a partial career. It is for a full career.
9. The Near-Misses
Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell
These are the two guys who continue to keep me up late into the night wondering what to do. I have not yet voted for either because of steroid concerns, yes. Yet neither's name was found in the Mitchell Report or anywhere else. The evidence is purely circumstantial (both men's bodies got a whole lot smaller after retirement).
I've had each in a sort of holding pattern, wanting to allow a few years to elapse before ultimately deciding to cast a vote in his favor, to see if anything PED-related comes to light. So far, it hasn't. Bagwell is in his sixth year on the ballot, while Piazza is in his fourth. So each has a few years left (they can stay on the ballot for 10 years).
I want to vote for both men. Piazza may well earn election this year (he was at 69.9 percent last year); Bagwell (55.7 percent) is getting closer. If they both are elected this year, I'll be happy for them.
Yes, I know he was one of the greatest postseason pitchers of our time, and I know his strikeout totals are staggering. I also know he had a whole lot of mediocre years surrounding all of this. Many voters raged against Jack Morris' 3.90 ERA; Schilling managed just 216 wins during his career. Forget 300—he barely had 200. Sorry, if there's no place in Cooperstown for Morris, I sure don't see a path for Schilling. Head-to-head, in their prime, I'd take Morris.
I have not voted for him because, to me, if you're going to be a one-dimensional player as a designated hitter, your numbers had better be staggering (see my Hoffman vote explanation above). And with 309 career homers and 2,247 career hits, Martinez's are not. Except...his .418 on-base percentage is. Had he played the field like Raines did, I'd vote for him in a heartbeat. But strictly as a DH...he's in his seventh year on the ballot, and I'll reconsider again next year. But I wish some of those other numbers were higher.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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