Well, for the most part, Hall of Fame day went as expected. Roberto Alomar didn't just go into the Hall of Fame, he received 90% of the vote, a higher percentage than Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson and Bob Gibson among most others. This seems to solidify the perception that last year (when he felt short of election) a bunch of voters (more than 100 of them) thought Alomar deserved a year's penance for the spitting incident that marked his reputation. This seems churlish to me, but it has become clear that Hall of Fame voters like to make their points.
And Bert Blyleven, finally, made it into the Hall of Fame. This should cut back my writing work load by about 10% in 2011. There has been quite a bit of discussion, it seems, about how Blyleven's Hall of Fame percentages could have risen from 17.5% his first year of eligibility down to 14.1% his second year all the way up to 79.7% and election on Wednesday. There has been talk about how big a role the Internet played, how big a role our amazing access to statistics played, how a big a role intelligent lobbyists like Rich Lederer made and so on.
Seems to me that the issue is that Blyleven was wildly unappreciated in his day and this carried over into the voting. I sometimes wonder what would happen if we could find an Elizabethan Era English theater fan. I sometimes wonder if he would say: "Shakespeare? That's who you guys chose as the best of the era? Are you kidding me? That guy was NOTHING compared to Ben Jonson and John Webster. Christopher Marlowe kicked his butt. And then you have the Spanish guys like Cervantes and Lope de Vega. Are you serious? Shakespeare?"
Point being: While it is interesting how a player was viewed in his day, and while it certainly plays a part in how we judge his career after he finished playing, I think we have to consider much more than that. You will hear people say: "Well, if you it's all just about statistics, we even have a vote? Why not just put an arbitrary line of Wins Above Replacement and be done with it?" I would agree with the premise that a Hall vote should be based on more than numbers. But I think the converse is even more absurd: "Well, if it's all just about how we viewed them when they were playing, we even have a vote? Why not just put an arbitrary line of All-Star Game appearances and MVP votes and Cy Young votes and be done with it?"
Bert Blyleven was a great pitcher. People didn't see it clearly during his era for several reasons, some of them, I suspect, may have had to do with Blyleven's attitude. Over time -- and it does take time -- people saw through the fog and realized just how good Blyleven was at striking out hitters, throwing shutouts, pitching complete games and those very real things that made him one of the best of his or any era.
Beyond those two great players getting into the Hall of Fame, there were some other interesting Hall of Fame trends and one gigantic bit of foreshadowing that was easy to miss. I'll get to the news in a minute. First, five smaller things:
1. I think Barry Larkin is now on the brink of the Hall of Fame. His vote total jumped pretty dramatically -- from 51.6% to 62.1% -- and this on a stacked ballot. Larkin was a great player, I think, one of the most well-rounded players in baseball history. But he did have numerous injury problems, and he was SO well rounded that he does not have any one dramatic Hall of Fame sell point the way Ozzie Smith (greatest defensive shortstop ever) or Tony Gwynn (best pure hitter of his generation) did.
It's like Bill James said when determining characteristics of overrated and underrated: "Specialists and players who do two or three things well are overrated; players who do several things well are underrated." Larkin did many things well.
But I think next year is his year. The only viable Hall of Fame candidate being added to the ballot next year is Bernie Williams, and while it will be interesting to see how much support he gets, you can bet it won't be that much. That will make Larkin, in the minds of voters, the premier guy on next year's ballot. I think he's well situated to be the only player elected in 2012.
2. Jack Morris made almost no movement. He went from 52.3% in 2010 to 53.5% in 2011. I think that could be bad news for his Hall of Fame candidacy on two fronts. First, Morris' time on the ballot is running out. This is his 12th year, meaning he has only three more. But even more than that, the 2013 ballot is looking absolutely stacked. That ballot will include Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling -- it is going to be a voter's nightmare is what it's going to be. And even to those who are determined not to vote for any suspected steroid users, I think Jack Morris' case iwill not look especially compelling with those players on the ballot. Add Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina and Frank Thomas to the ballot in 2014 and ... well, yes, Jack Morris really needs to make it next year.
And I don't think he has that kind of momentum. That's the second thing. I kind of think that Morris's support is kind of maxing out. Yes, about half of the voters will vote for Morris based on his Game 7 performance, his general grit, his excellent mustache, he remarkable durability, his most-wins-of-the-80s feat. But are there another 125 voters who are going to vote in a guy with a 3.90 career ERA, no Cy Youngs and advanced numbers that are generally inferior to Dennis Martinez and Frank Tanana and clearly inferior to Kevin Brown? I kind of doubt it.
3. Tim Raines simply cannot get any momentum going. His percentage did go up from 30.4% to 37.5% so that's not an insubstantial jump. But Raines faces the same general problem that Morris faces ... the dark cloud of steroid players is approaching. I think he will could fall entirely off the radar when that wave of players roars in.
I guess Raines' best hope is that in the steroid cloud he will become a cause celebre, an anti-steroid option, sort of the way Jim Rice did. Raines' greatness -- his amazing base stealing and his ability to get on base and create havoc -- sort of cuts against the Selig Era of baseball. I always want to remind people: Tim Raines got on base more times than Tony Gwynn in just 127 more plate appearances. Gwynn had 488 more total bases, which is a lot. But Raines had 540 more walks, which would be more. Raines also had almost 500 more stolen bases while being caught just 21 more times. He was essentially as valuable as Tony Gwynn only in different ways ... and Gwynn was a first-ballot, slam-dunk Hall of Famer. Someday, I hope, people will appreciate just how good a baseball player Tim Raines was.
4. Mark McGwire's total, as I suspected, went backward (from 23.7% to 19.8%) after he admitted using steroids but refused to concede that they made him the player he became. I understand this, and I understand those voters who have decided plainly that steroid use was cheating, and cheating makes a player unworthy of the Hall of Fame. I suspect McGwire will probably never see even 25% support again. I voted for McGwire, and I will again. But I also don't think this is any great tragedy. He knew what he was doing.
I guess my only thought is that, as far as I know, the only person on this ballot or any of the next three ballots who has actually come forth and admitted using steroids ... is Mark McGwire. We all know he isn't the only player in his era or on those ballots who used steroids. He's just the one who came forth and admitted it and said it was wrong and that he was sorry.
If the Hall of Fame voters feel like they should punish McGwire for admitting he used steroids -- even if he was evasive about the effects -- then it seems to me that we are discouraging anyone from coming clean. It's almost like the voters don't really want to know the truth. Maybe we would rather think the worst.
5. When you consider all infighting that led up to Wednesday, Jeff Bagwell did reasonably well in the voting at 41.7% -- that's exactly what Hoyt Wilhelm got his first year (it took him eight years), and better than the first year percentages of Hall of Famers Billy Williams (six years), Luis Aparicio (six years), Duke Snider (11 years), Eddie Mathews (5 years), Ralph Kiner (13 years -- Kiner got 1.1% his first year on the ballot) and Early Wynn (4 years) among others.
Bagwell's first year percentage suggest that he is on pace to get in four or five years down the line, but of course Bagwell faces the same issue as Morris and Raines, only more so: The ballot is about to get swarmed with a bunch of hitters with remarkable numbers. He's no lock to get in.*
*Brilliant reader Barry asks this question -- before Pujols, was Jeff Bagwell the best first baseman in National League history. It's kind of a trick question because the best first basemen -- Gehrig and Foxx in particular -- were American Leaguers, and so was Frank Thomas, Eddie Murray, Harmon Killebrew, Hank Greenberg and Mark McGwire for the most part. I'd say the top contenders would be Johnny Mize -- granting him the three years he lost to war -- Willie McCovey and, going way back, Cap Anson. But Bagwell has a case.
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The biggest story on Wednesday, I think, is that the opinion about steroid use seems to be hardening. Rafael Palmeiro, with 3,000 hits and 500 homers, got only 11% of the vote. Mark McGwire's numbers went down. Kevin Brown actually fell off the ballot. Juan Gonzalez, despite a campaign that featured a full-color brochure, barely stayed on the ballot. All of them have been connected with steroids.
And I think they are the canaries in the coal mine, the ones that are telling us what is coming in two and three and four years. I guess I have believed that, in time, the steroid fury would settle down and that while it might hurt borderline cases, all-time greats like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens would still get in. I'm not sure I think that anymore. I think there was a powerful statement made on Wednesday. I'm not sure a strongly-suspected steroid user can get to 75%, no matter how good he was.
I've said plenty on the subject, and I'll undoubtedly babble about it more over time so I don't have anything else from a personal perspective to add here. But from a news perspective, well, before the announcement, I talked a bit with Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson. I was curious how the Hall of Fame views the voting and how they view the future. And I have to say the answers surprised me. Jeff said a few things that reiterated that surprising thought in my mind: Right now, from the way everything is pointing, I don't think Barry Bonds is going into the Hall of Fame. I don't think Roger Clemens is going to the Hall of Fame. I don't think Sammy Sosa is going to the Hall of Fame. Not for for a long time.
Here's what makes me say that: Jeff made it clear that the Hall of Fame, at least for now, is extremely pleased with the way the voting is going. He thinks -- and I would agree -- that the Baseball Writers of America take the task seriously and are doing their best to follow the longstanding voting directive, which is as follows:
"Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played."
There seems no question that any voting directive that has "integrity" AND "sportsmanship" AND "character" on there will encourage voters to become moral arbiters. Idelson is comfortable with that. More than that: He and the Hall of Fame want sportswriters to think hard and be firm when it comes to a player's on-the-field character.
"Baseball has historically been held to a very high standard, right or wrong," he says. "There's a certain integrity required when it comes to baseball's highest honor, which is being inducted into the Hall of Fame. The character clause exists as it relates to the game on the field. The character clause isn't there to evaluate and judge players socially. It's there to relate to the game on the field. ... The voters should have the freedom to measure that however they see fit."
I told him that this was fine to say now ... but that there could come a time in the near future when the All-Time home run king (Barry Bonds), a man with a case as the greatest pitcher in baseball history (Roger Clemens), and several other players who seem to have slam-dunk Hall of Fame credentials but are shadowed by indistinct and blurry steroid rumors could be denied the Hall of Fame. And the Hall of Fame could be denied them as well. How comfortable is he with some of the greatest players in baseball history not being elected to the Hall of Fame?
Answer: Very comfortable. It seems clear to me from what he says here that the Hall of Fame has no problem with the exclusion of known steroid users or even strongly suspected steroid users.
"When you look at the Hall of Fame elections," he said. "you see that those who are elected are representative of that era. The Hall of Fame election is a continuum. And the standards have upheld the test of time. We believe they work. We believe the voters have exercised a great understanding about the candidates in the Hall of Fame. I think when you look at who the writers have voted into the Hall of Fame, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't belong there."
Well, um ... no, don't get me started here. Back to Jeff Idelson:
"There's always going to be arguments about who's in," he says. "Only 1% of all players are making it to Cooperstown. Am I worried that this era will be under-represented? No. I mean, you have a set of guidelines and rules in place. ... I think we are happy with the way the voting has gone, we're happy with the diligence of the voters who have participated, and the chips will fall as they fall."
Well ... I think that's pretty clear. The Hall of Fame, Jeff is plainly saying, will be just fine if the voters do not vote in Bonds or Clemens or anyone else because of steroid use. I have always been uncomfortable with sportswriters as judges of sports morality -- seems to me we have a hard enough time agreeing on fairly obvious baseball points.
After talking with Jeff, though, I think judges of sports morality is PRECISELY what the Hall of Fame wants.
"You know this ... as you walk through Cooperstown, you have the history museum where every facet of the game represented," he said. "That will not change. That's the celebratory nature of the Cooperstown experience. But when it comes to players inducted, we feel strongly that the rules for election need to be where they are. ... There's no question that in many ways, this is an odd time. But at the end of the day, we want to maintain the high standards of the Hall."