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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: January 25, 2021 5:53 pm PDT
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Christmas comes but once a year.

Same for my Baseball Writers’ Association of America Hall of Fame ballot.

Time to fill it out and mail it in. I always wait until Christmas week to finish off my ballot and send it back to the BBWAA, my little Christmas card. All ballots must be postmarked by December 31. Election results will be announced January 26 at 6 pm.

I’ve been contemplating the candidates, oh, for about the last 32 years. We are in the era where I have seen all these players play live and in person many times, including the postseason and the World Series. I know, WAR is the be all, end all, but watching these players play in the biggest of games figures into my vote as well.

Experience counts. The eye test matters. If you don’t like that perspective, too bad.

It’s a privilege to be able to vote and I do not take it lightly.

Being given a vote signifies you have covered thousands of baseball games. You have put in the time and effort. You have put in the work. My votes are usually pretty solid, the players I choose often find their way into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, although I am disappointed at times when some candidates I deem worthy don’t make the cut.

I still can’t believe Fred McGriff never got elected by the writers. I will smile the day McGriff goes in via a committee of Hall of Famers.

I never get upset at the BBWAA Class of Hall of Famers, though. No matter who makes it, that means they received 75 percent of the writers’ votes. That is a Hall of Fame accomplishment in itself to have that many baseball writers agree on anything.

Colorado Rockies Todd Helton is watching 3 run home run ball from Los Angels Dodgers pitcher Chad Billingsley in the 3rd inning of the game at Coors Field on Wednesday. April 6, 2011. (Photo: Hyoung Chang - Denver Post)

That is also the beauty of the vote. We have 10 years to get it right. Sometimes we don’t get it right but at least there is 10 years of weighing the situation and the impact, positive or negative, the players had on the game and on generations of fans.

Let’s get right to it.

Once again I did not vote for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. The reason? It’s my vote and that’s what I decided to do. Writers are always being criticized for not doing enough to raise the alarm on the Steroid Era when it was happening.

That’s a fair criticism.

But that also is part of the reason why I will not vote for Bonds/Clemens. Both men have been smack in the middle of the PED puzzle since the Mitchell Report and when skinny Barry suddenly became Big Barry. Heads grow sometimes. It happens. Especially after watching the Great Home Run Chase and seeing the adulation that was given Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Here is another thought that no one ever mentions but it hit me again with the recent Robinson Cano PED suspension # 2 and how steroids are still in the game.

Cleveland Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel stretches but can't get to the ball hit by Boston Red Sox's Pokey Reese in the fifth inning Monday May 3, 2004 in Ceveland. Reese was safe at first base. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

If baseball had taken a harder stance when steroids first popped up maybe baseball would not still be dealing with the same issues today, decades later. Maybe players like Cano would not have become just the latest generation of chemical cheaters.

Maybe the playing field would have been leveled.

That wasn’t the case. The fans loved the home runs. The writers loved the home runs. Bud Selig loved the home runs. We were all digging the long ball no matter the long-time repercussions to the game. We all loved batting practice because guys like McGwire were launching baseballs into Big Mac Land. Batting practice became an event.

The beauty of batting practice, when I first started covering baseball, was to stand by the cage, talk to players about what they were trying to accomplish and admire their handiwork. For example, Tony Gwynn would discuss his approach with me at Jack Murphy Stadium, why he was trying to shoot the ball between the five and six hole; when he would turn on a fastball and why he hated to face knuckleballers.

“I just swing from my ass three times and take a seat,’’ Gwynn said with a laugh. “Otherwise I’d mess up my swing for two weeks.’’

Then we’d both laugh.

The point is players would work on things, they would try to counter-act what the pitcher/defense was trying to do to them. Batting practice had a game-on purpose. Get ‘em on. Get ‘em over. Get ‘em home. Back then the purpose of hitting was to get on base and score a run.

Yep a wild concept, I know.

“Let them stand up if they don’t want those two in Cooperstown. If they open the doors and welcome Bonds/Clemens, so be it. They have a standard to uphold.’’

One other quick batting practice story, simply for the fun of it.

Slugger Jack Clark, whose bat whipped through the zone and made a different sound, did not think much of pitcher Eric Show, who happened to be his teammate with the Padres. Back then pitchers were expected to shag fly balls in the outfield or at least act like they were being a team player. It was okay to stand around and BS with your fellow pitchers.

One day Show wandered off to the rightfield corner at Dodger Stadium to talk to some fans of his while Clark was hitting. Jack noticed. I noticed. All of a sudden Clark told the BP pitcher to put the next round of pitches on the outside corner…  and low. Clark immediately sent screaming line drives right at Show and it was suddenly a game of MLB dodgeball, rockets fired at Show who danced to avoid getting hit.

Mr. Show got the message and went back to shagging fly balls.

You know who else loves home runs?

The Nerds love home runs. The managers, some who are now in the Hall of Fame, love home runs. Nothing else mattered in the game. As a result of all those home runs, you know what else happened? PEDs popped up in high school and college play in addition to the majors and minors.

Suddenly players were putting on massive amounts of muscle. It was the Wild West. Then something else happened. The game changed.

Gary Sheffield with the Florida Marlins (Photo courtesy of SI)

The game I loved in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s changed. The game became much too muscular. Putting the ball in play didn’t really matter anymore. If you struck out, no big deal. No shame in a K. Batting averages were sacred when I grew up. To this day I am upset Mickey Mantle hung around the last two years of his mighty career and hit a combined .241 those two seasons because the Yankees needed to sell tickets, and as a result Mantle missed being a .300 lifetime hitter, finishing at .298.

Ballgames stopped being about getting ‘em on, getting ‘em over and getting ‘em in, smart baserunning, the hit and run, the run and hit, taking advantage of the defensive setup, games became all about hitting the long ball.

We are still there today, but only worse.

I call Hall of Famer Goose Gossage the most honest man in the game. Ask him a question and he will give you an answer. One day up in Cooperstown I asked Goose when did this all change. When did he first start to notice the bigger bodies, the cartoonishly big hitters?

“In Oakland in the early 90s,’’ Goose said. “Eck and I were in the outfield during batting practice and some guys were just launching bombs again and again. Eck and I looked at each other and said, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ’’

That would be Dennis Eckersley. Jose Canseco was on that team. That’s what was going on and soon baseball would have a massive PED problem.

And now, nine years into the candidacies of Bonds/Clemens we are still asking what the hell is going on?

I’m back on the wall. Bonds/Clemens have the numbers but they don’t have my vote. One year, I admit it, I voted for both Bonds/Clemens. I was frustrated by MLB not really doing what it should be doing to clean up the game. I got off the wall.

Closing pitcher Billy Wagner #13 of the Houston Astros delivers a pitch against the Texas Rangers during the MLB interleague game at Minute Maid Park on June 28, 2003 in Houston, Texas. The Astros won 2-0. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

So the following spring training I show up at a major league camp – I had been visiting other camps – and this was my first day at this particular one.

As soon as I walk into this clubhouse I ran into a Hall of Famer (not Goose) who immediately read me the riot act: “Kevin, how could you vote for Bonds and Clemens?’’

Those were the first words out of his mouth. He was keeping close tabs. Hall of Famers are keeping close tabs. Then I thought of the words of Hank Aaron who has said of PEDs in the game, “The game has no place for cheaters.’’

So I went back up on the wall the next year and will stay there. You may not like it, and give me the same old arguments like “Everybody was doing it.’’ Or ramble on about no failed drug tests. Or Gaylord Perry scuffed the baseball. Save it.

This is way bigger than one man’s vote. If Bonds/Clemens make the Hall of Fame with 75 percent of the voters voting them in, that’s fine. That is how real elections work. No funny business. There is too much cheating going on in this world today.

Just this week 73 cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point were accused of cheating on a calculus exam in May, the largest cheating scandal there since 1976.

I’ve been to West Point a number of times and have written stories on courageous athletes and inspiring coaches like the late women’s basketball coach Maggie Dixon. You would hope that the cadets don’t cheat.

You would also hope that your tax money would go to help millions of Americans that have lost their jobs instead of insane gobs of that money being sent overseas to countries for boondoggle think-tank causes. Gee, I wonder where all that money really goes?

But, I digress.

Second baseman Jeff Kent #21 of the San Francisco Giants puts the ball in play during Game three of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2002 World Series at Pacific Bell Park on October 12, 2002 in San Francisco, California. Cardinals defeated the Giants 5-4 (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

At this point, in their ninth year on the ballot, Bonds/Clemens may sneak into the Hall through the front door that leads right to the oak walls of the Plaque Gallery, a sacred baseball place. If that happens, so be it.

After this year, Bonds/Clemens will have one more year on the ballot, if they don’t make it through the front door. Then the Hall will appoint a 16-person committee to decide their fate in the future.

That would be interesting and I think that is the biggest reason I am on the wall. Baseball created this mess. Let baseball rule on it. Let Hall of Famers decide on the Hall of Fame fate of Bonds/Clemens.

Let them stand up if they don’t want those two in Cooperstown. If they open the doors and welcome Bonds/Clemens, so be it. They have a standard to uphold. Will they uphold it or will the HOF numbers of Bonds/Clemens speak louder than the standards?

That will make it put up or shut up time for the Hall of Famers to allow Bonds/Clemens into the club. My stance will be the same next year on Bonds/Clemens. They will not get my vote if they don’t make it this year.

The 2022 class ballot will also include David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez. Just think of the Cooperstown party if somehow Bonds, Clemens, Ortiz and A-Rod all wind up in the sleepy little town come that summer. Don’t bet on it. Ortiz has his own PED skeletons in his closet, but I expect him to easily make the Hall of Fame with those 541 home runs, three World Championships with the Red Sox and his postseason numbers: a slash line of .289/.404/.543.

When this July rolls around it’s my bet Curt Schilling will share the stage with the 2020 class of Derek Jeter, Larry Walker, Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller. Yes, I voted for Schilling. I look at him much the same as I looked at Jack Morris. Schilling owned an .846 winning percentage in the postseason, back in the day when pitchers who were throwing shutouts in World Series games weren’t taken out by the Nerd Class now running and ruining baseball. He’s got 3,116 Ks too, one behind Bob Gibson.

Also did any of those Nerds see the bloody sock?

Curt Schilling delivers a pitch in Game Two of the 2004 World Series with both the bloody sock and “K ALS” mark visible near his right ankle. (Photo: Brad Mangin / MLB)

Like I said, this is my vote, so Schilling gets my vote as does Gary Sheffield, Omar Vizquel, Billy Wagner, Jeff Kent and Todd Helton. You are not going to have to suffer through long explanations from me on every player I voted for on this ballot, just a brief comment. I will leave that to the other experts who want to explain in detail.

Quickly, this is the way I look at it. I probably voted for too many players this year, but they all have special talents… and it’s Christmas.

Gary Sheffield: In that hitter’s generation he was one of the most menacing hitters. Pitchers hated facing Sheffield. He averaged only 74 Ks per year and still managed to hit 509 home runs. I covered him on a daily basis in 1992 when he hit .330 to win the NL batting title with the Padres.

Omar Vizquel: A defensive wizard a shortstop with an okay batting average at .272, one point below The Scooter, Phil Rizzuto, Hall of Fame shortstop.

Billy Wagner: Well, I’ll take 11.9 K’s per nine innings, a .187 batting average against, 422 saves, a 2.31 ERA. This closer needs to join the closer’s HOF club.

Jeff Kent: I’m a sucker for most home runs at a position and that is 377 home runs for Kent, the leader in the all-time clubhouse at second base. NL MVP in 2000.

Todd Helton: The guy hit .316 over his career, wasn’t his fault he happened to play in Colorado. Yankee Stadium helped Babe Ruth, too. A three-time Gold Glove winner as well.

What makes this voting year completely different than the last few years of voting is that no one is a guaranteed selection. I certainly don’t expect all five of my picks to make the HOF cut. Maybe one, maybe two.

In 2018 we had Chipper Jones and Jim Thome. In 2019 there was the great Mariano Rivera, who broke the unanimous glass ceiling. Last year there was Derek Jeter.

It’s the ebb and flow of the game and the history of baseball, which I love. Tides come and go. Baseball is not easy. Voting for the Hall of Fame has its difficulties as well, but it’s my Christmas pleasure.

44+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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