By Mike Harrington
Hall of Fame voters have had 2013 on their list for a few years. They knew the big philosophical crush date was coming and it finally arrived last week. The first referendum of the Steroids Era is in full force, now that the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa are on the ballot for the first time.
(First, a brief disclaimer: I am a member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America but do not have a Hall vote. You have to be a member for 10 years to get a ballot and that comes for me in 2016. There are more than 600 eligible voters in this year's election and results are announced Jan. 9).
It's been widely assumed that anyone from the steroid days had no shot of getting the 75 percent of the vote needed to make the Hall. Mark McGwire got only 19.5 percent last year and Rafael Palmeiro was at just 12.6. Both have no chance. Most people seem to think Sosa just had a juice-influenced four-year run and will do poorly as well.
The same does not appear to be the case for Bonds and Clemens.
I do not expect to see them make the Hall this year – writers are notoriously tough on first-year candidates – but I think their time will come surprisingly fast. There have been a flurry of blogs and columns in recent days, started notably by Boston Globe Red Sox beat reporter Pete Abraham, that pointed out how the writers can't be the keeper of morality on this issue. Abraham, in fact, admitted he was a complete no on steroid-era players when he first got a ballot in 2011 but has changed his mind.
Long-time San Francisco-area columnist Ray Ratto penned an often-hysterical column on the issue last week, screaming his beliefs with capital letters in spots. We'll spare you those but here was one of his main points he had capitalized: “The Hall of Fame is not church. It is the history of baseball, for good and ill. If it isn't, then why are the men who defended the color line in the Hall? Why is Ty Cobb in the Hall? Why is Kenesaw Mountain Landis in the Hall? They are part of the history, too. Remember?”
A skeptic might sneer that Ratto is just making a case for Bonds' inclusion because he covered him for all those years in San Francisco. The fact is that Ratto is right. I would have classified myself as a no-steroid guy as well. But lots of salient points have been made in the last few days and my mind is definitely different. I think many others feel the same way toward Bonds and Clemens.
You get my vote based on your accomplishments and that's especially true, in the cases of Bonds and Clemens. Yes, they juiced. Hard to argue that. Also hard to argue Bonds' all-time records in home runs and walks and the fact he's the only seven-time MVP. Or Clemens having 354 wins, more than 4,600 strikeouts and being the only man with seven Cy Young Awards.
So if I had a ballot, Bonds and Clemens are in. And I never thought I'd say that a couple years ago – or maybe even a couple months ago. Among the other first-time candidates, Sosa is a definite no.
Craig Biggio takes his 3,000 hits and gets in on my watch. The other big first-timers are Mike Piazza and Curt Schilling and I say they both get in but not right away. Piazza has steroid suspicion around him (but nothing more than the suspicion of writers seeing acne on his back) and certainly ranks as perhaps the top offensive catcher of all time. Schilling is the greatest postseason pitcher of recent times (11 wins, including four in decisive games, plus his bloody sock) and has the best strikeout to walk ratio in history. But only 216 regular-season wins, he'll have to wait a bit.
What about returnees?
Among players remaining on the ballot from previous years, I would be voting for Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Alan Trammell. Morris is in his 14th year on the ballot, largely because of a bloated 3.90 career ERA. But he had the most wins of the 1980s, was a great postseason pitcher (think Game Seven, 1991) and, as SI.com pointed out this week, is the American League leader in starts of at least eight innings in the DH era with 248 (Nolan Ryan and Bert Blyleven, both in the Hall, had 272).
I think Raines is widely underappreciated because he played mostly in Montreal and should not be penalized for a long career that piled up numbers (he was also part of the '80s cocaine culture but not getting the same negatives attached to it that the steroid guys do). Trammell was the best-hitting shortstop in the '80s and formed the longest-running double-play tandem in history with Lou Whitaker. His vote total is increasing every year too.
Bagwell has a tougher road. There are plenty of people who think he was a steroid user because he only hit four homers in 1990 at Double-A New Britain, causing the Red Sox to deal him to Houston. He blossomed, of course, with the Astros and his peak years were 1997-2003 (steroid wink). One of his close friends and ex-teammates was the late Ken Caminiti, whose steroid use was widely documented. Bagwell developed a physical upper body, too.
The suspicions are high but there's no evidence. None. No admissions. No positive tests. No mentions in the Mitchell Report. The numbers are the numbers, absent anything along the lines of what we've seen from McGwire, Sosa and Palmeiro. Bagwell got 56 percent of the vote last year. I don't think he gets 75 this time but I think he's 2-3 years away from making the cut.
Think this ballot was tough?Just wait. Next year's list will include the likes of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina and Jeff Kent. In 2015, names that become eligible include Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz. In 2016, my rookie ballot has only one new automatic (Ken Griffey Jr.).
But something tells me I'll have plenty of holdovers to make hard choices on. You can vote for a maximum of 10 players each year. I think more and more writers will be pushing that total in future years.
Grand Ole meetings
Baseball's annual Winter Meetings open Monday at the sprawling Opryland Hotel in Nashville and the two main free agents in play are Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton and Angels pitcher Zack Greinke.
I still say Hamilton eventually stays in Texas but he's looking for more than the three-year offer the Rangers currently have for him. Potential suitors are wary of his age and his history of substance abuse, both factors that make a longterm deal a big risk. Teams such as the Dodgers, Brewers, Red Sox and Phillies should be among the interested. Greinke will likely get big-money offers from both the Angels and Dodgers, as well as the Nationals.
Another big story will be what the Mets decide to do with R.A. Dickey, who is a Nashville native. The Cy Young winner is next in line after David Wright agreed to an eight-year, $138-million deal early Friday morning. But Dickey is 38 and the Mets aren't likely to go past three years with him, and maybe only two. The defending champion Giants also are looking to make new deals with Marco Scutaro and Angel Pagan.
The Yankees got plenty done before the meetings by re-signing Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Hiroki Kuroda and the Nationals' trade with the Twins for Denard Span on Thursday is also a significant offseason move. He will fill out the outfield with Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper.
Buehrle a WNYer?
New Blue Jays pitcher Mark Buehrle is a dog lover and has a a 2-year-old American Staffordshire Terrier named Slater. The problem? Pit bulls are banned in Ontario. They were banned in Dade County, Florida as well but Buehrle simply lived in neighboring Broward County last year.
Buehrle and his wife are likely to work with animal rights groups in an effort to loosen Ontario pit bull regulations but in the interim may have to live elsewhere while playing with the Jays next season.
“That could happen,” Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos told Toronto reporters last week. “It could be Niagara Falls, I'm not sure. There could be some changes to the laws in April. I'm not well-versed in that. They're looking at their options, but they're going to work through it.”
If I'm Buehrle and there's no way Ontario will accommodate the dog, I would set up my family's residence just across the bridge in Lewiston. Former Niagara basketball coach Jack Armstrong has lived there while working in radio and television in Toronto for many years.