Breaking down Hall of Fame ballot
Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven are the only two likely to be elected this year
Barry Larkin and Jeff Bagwell should gain enshrinement in the years to come
Players connected to steroids, like Mark McGwire, have little chance of election
On the greatest day of his baseball life last summer, Andre Dawson stepped to the rostrum in Cooperstown for his induction to the Hall of Fame and went out of his way to make clear that choosing to use steroids was choosing disrepute.
"Individuals have chosen the wrong road, and they're choosing that as their legacy," Dawson said. "Those mistakes have hurt the game and taken a toll on all of us. Others still have a chance to choose theirs. Do not be lured to the dark side. It's a stain on the game, a stain gradually being removed."
Voting for the Hall of Fame, always a difficult task that requires separating the truly great from the very good, has become even more tricky because of how steroid users corrupted the game, cutting it away not only from baseball before and after that era, but also from the baseball played in that same time by the many who chose to play clean. Some writers actually may have concocted ways to make the voting easier: a) pretend steroids never happened; b) pretend steroids don't boost performance; or c) pretend everybody was using so the playing field actually was even. None are based in reality.
Thus far, with Mark McGwire as the litmus test for steroid use (less than 25 percent support in four pre-admission cracks on the ballot), the majority of writers seem to agree with Dawson. Quoting McGwire's home run rate is like quoting Ben Johnson's time in the 100 meters at the 1988 Summer Olympics.
With Rafael Palmeiro joining McGwire on this ballot, the steroid issue gets tossed through another spin cycle when the latest Hall of Fame voting results are announced Wednesday at 2 p.m. Will Palmeiro get even as much support as McGwire managed? Will he get at least five percent to stay on the ballot?
Every sports governing body in the world has known for decades that steroids bring players to artificially higher peaks than they otherwise would ever reach. Recall what relief pitcher Matt Herges told USA Today last March about steroids: "I know what steroids did for me. It made me superhuman. It made me an android, basically. Your body shuts down, and the stuff takes over. You had guys throwing harder than 95 mph when they had barely touched 90 mph their whole life. It wasn't just that but the strength, the confidence it did for you. The confidence, the feel, the results, is mentally addictive. It's habit-forming to say the least."
He also said, "We didn't have drug testing anyways. But it was still wrong."
In 2013, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa will debut on the ballot. A Hall of Fame vote is the highest endorsement of a career. There is a difference between understanding steroid use and endorsing it. In the case of the androids, as Dawson pointed out, steroid users already chose their legacy.
Don't worry, there are plenty of players who will be voted in to the Hall, including a pair likely to be announced Wednesday and others who simply will wait a little longer. The baseball writers have voted in an average of 1.36 candidates per year since a 1967 rules modification, but the 10 ballots from 1996-2005, for example, included between five and eight eventual Hall of Famers. Here's a rundown of what you might expect from the voting this year on select players, broken down by various categories:
Roberto Alomar: One of the smartest and most graceful players ever to play second base, Alomar also was a switch-hitting offensive force. He defined the complete baseball player. In his 13-year prime (1989-2001), Alomar was a .309/.381/.461 hitter who averaged 32 steals and 97 runs per year. So why didn't he get in last year? It is really hard to get 75 baseball writers to agree on a guy in one take. Also, his career tanked when he turned 34, with three poor seasons taking some of the glow off his reputation.
Bert Blyleven: Blyleven received only 17.5 percent of the vote in his first time on the ballot. Since 1967, when current voting rules were put in place, only Duke Snider (17 percent) ever overcame a more lackluster debut to eventually gain election. On various ballots Blyleven received less support than 10 non-Hall of Famers, including five who since have fallen off the ballot (Tommy John, Steve Garvey, Jim Kaat, Minnie Minoso and Ron Santo). But on the 14th try, the weight of Blyleven's prodigious career -- 287 wins, 60 shutouts, almost 5,000 innings and 3,701 strikeouts -- should win out over the difficulty of finding an extended peak of greatness.
Blyleven's reputation has enhanced over time. He was traded four times between ages 25 and 34, and never for an impact player. In an outrageous act of selfishness at age 29, he quit the defending world champion Pirates in 1980 after just five starts and went home for almost two weeks because he didn't like how manager Chuck Tanner used him. Tanner dubbed him "Cryleven."
The Pirates dumped him after the season to lowly Cleveland in a trade for four middling players who would play 44 games combined for Pittsburgh. On May 27, 1981, leading Boston, 3-0, in the bottom of the fourth at Fenway Park, Blyleven, frustrated with the umpire's strike zone, made the execrable decision to stop trying. "If he's not going to call my curveball for strikes," he said, "then I'll just throw fastballs down the middle." One game report said, "Blyleven began throwing batting practice fastballs to the Red Sox sluggers." Blyleven gave up seven consecutive hits before finally being removed by his manager.
In 1984, Blyleven called the league office to complain that a teammate, George Vukovich, should be charged with an error on a play that was ruled a hit, hoping to get two earned runs wiped from his record. He had feuds with fans, managers and front offices.
None of those issues separately should keep Blyleven out of the Hall. The feuds and lack of professionalism, though, contributed to why Blyleven didn't acquire the aura of a prototypical Hall of Fame ace. He also posted one of the three best ERAs in his league only three times in 22 years and wasn't supported much in All-Star selections (two) and Cy Young Award balloting (receiving votes only four times). Here's what Kansas City DH Hal McRae said about Blyleven in 1985, while acknowledging that Blyleven matched up well against the Royals: "If you gave baseball people their choice among Dan Petry, Jack Morris and Blyleven, Blyleven would probably be third." Dan Petry? Really?
There is a reason Blyleven needed 14 ballots: he wasn't a classic ace. What eventually filters through for enough voters, however, is that Blyleven took the ball so many times and struck out so many batters over so many years that his enshrinement will be well earned.
Barry Larkin: Like Alomar, the previous titleholder, Larkin shouldn't have to keep the title for long. Larkin should get in next season, when Bernie Williams is the strongest newcomer on the ballot. You don't have to be his MLB Network colleague, as I am, to understand he was the best player at his position in his league for an extended period. Every year you expected he would be an All-Star and win the Silver Slugger and maybe even a Gold Glove as Ozzie Smith aged.
Such a good hitter was Larkin that he actually hit third more than any other spot in the lineup over his career, a rarity for a longtime shortstop with elite defensive and baserunning skills. And he was such a reliable hitter that there is no more than a six point variance in his career averages against righties (.293), lefties (.299), home (.297), road (.293), first half (.293), second half (.297) and runners in scoring position (.298). Of course, he did hit .338 in 17 postseason games.
Jack Morris: In 11 ballots Morris has jumped from 22 percent to 52 percent. Only one player ever reached 50 percent and didn't get into the Hall somehow: Gil Hodges, who actually reached the 50 percent mark 12 times, with a high of 63.4 percent.
Morris will have difficulty getting to the 75 percent threshold in these last four tries from the baseball writers. A big-time innings eater, he has the aura, but not the elite statistics, of a Hall of Famer. He pitched 18 seasons, and not once was he among the top four in ERA or WAR for pitchers.