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A Trio Gets into the Hall while Bonds and Clemens Climb

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A little over two weeks ago, the Baseball Writers Association of America elected three new members to the Hall of Fame. Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell and Ivan Rodriguez will join Cooperstown’s inclusive club of baseball legends when they are inducted this summer. So, after the Hall of Fame shutout of 2013, the collective body of writers have put 12 men into the Hall.

Here are a couple of some fun fun facts about each selection along with the elite company of honored greats that they will be joining.

Tim Raines:

— Raines is the third member of the early 1980’s Montreal Expos to be enshrined in Cooperstown, joining Andre Dawson and the late Gary Carter. From 1981 to 1983, this trio all played regularly and made the All-Star team. This is actually only the second time in the divisional era (since 1969), for three future Hall of Famers to play together for three years in a row with all three making the All-Star team.

The 1970’s Cincinnati had a longtime trio of future Hall of Famers, with Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez all making the All-Star game from 1974-76. Pete Rose, of course, would have made this a Cooperstown quartet were it not for the gambling scandal that has kept him out of the Hall.

These are some other teams with multiple Hall of Famers that had several season runs of excellence but without the three-player-three-All-Star Game trifecta. The Boston Red Sox of the late 1970’s had four Hall of Famers (Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, and Dennis Eckersley) but no three-year stretch of all three making the All-Star Game. Same for the Baltimore Orioles from 1969-1971 (Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson and Jim Palmer), the Oakland Athletics from 1969-1974 (Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers) and the Atlanta Braves of the 1990’s (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz). When Chipper Jones joins this group in Cooperstown a year from now, they’ll have the 1996-98 All-Star trifecta (with Maddux, Glavine, and Jones making all three of those squads).

— Raines is just the second player of the 1996-2001 Yankees dynasty to make the Hall of Fame, joining Wade Boggs and their manager Joe Torre. Of course, they’ll be joined in the next few years by obvious first-ballot inductees Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter.

— Raines makes it into Cooperstown in his 10th and final year on the BBWAA ballot. I was surprised to discover that he is just the second player to get the Hall call on his last call, the other being Jim Rice. The Red Sox slugger made it in his 15th and final try in 2009 (remember that the Hall’s Board of Directors changed the eligibility from 15 years to ten years effective on the 2015 ballot). When the Hall made that 15-to-10-year change, there was a lot of angst that players such as Raines would fall short with the timeline shrunk to ten years.

We were reminded that Bert Blyleven made it on his 14th try, Bruce Sutter and Ralph Kiner on their 13th, Bob Lemon on his 12th and Duke Snider on his 11th. Well, Raines made it on attempt #10. Clearly the new deadline inspired a lot of writers to check his name on the ballot.

Jeff Bagwell:

— With Bagwell joining Craig Biggio in Cooperstown, the two players will hold the distinction of being the third Cooperstown duo who played together for the longest period of time (15 years) during the expansion era. Bags and Biggio played together for the Houston Astros from 1991 (Bagwell’s rookie year) until 2005 (when he retired).

The Braves’ Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were teammates from 1988-2002, although neither spent their entire career in Atlanta as Bagwell and Biggio did in Houston. Same with Paul Molitor and Robin Yount, teammates with the Milwaukee Brewers from 1978 to 1992 (with Molitor playing his last six seasons in Toronto and Minnesota).

So Bagwell and Biggio are unique in that they played together for 15 seasons and are both one-team-only players. There are only three other such combos in MLB history (although there will be a famous fifth pair in a few years):

Hall of Fame duos (at least 15 years playing together and who both only played for one MLB team)

Mel Ott & Carl Hubbell: 1928-43 (15 years)

Mickey Mantle & Whitey Ford: 1953-67 (15 years)

Roberto Clemente & Bill Mazeroski: 1956-1972 (17 years)

Jeff Bagwell & Craig Biggio: 1991-2005 (15 years)

*Derek Jeter & Mariano Rivera: 1995-2013 (19 years) (not eligible yet)

Ivan Rodriguez:

— Pudge Rodriguez, you might be surprised to discover, is just the 2nd catcher ever to attain the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, the other being Johnny Bench. You read that correctly: Yogi Berra went in on his second try, as did Carlton Fisk (the original Pudge).

— Rodriguez, joining Mike Piazza from 2016 in the Cooperstown catcher class, is just the 7th man to don the tools of ignorance since 1948 to make it into the Hall of Fame. The others are Berra, Roy Campanella, Bench, Fisk and Gary Carter. With Jorge Posada falling short of 5% and thus becoming ineligible for future ballots, there is no retired catcher coming up in the next five years who is a Cooperstown candidate.

— Rodriguez is the best player in Texas Rangers history to enter the Hall and also the best ever for the Florida Marlins (for his lone campaign of 2003, which resulted in a World Series title). What you might not have known is that he is the first alumnus of the Detroit Tigers to make it into the Hall of Fame since Al Kaline, who retired after the 1974 season. I-Rod spent 4 1/2 seasons in the Motor City, winning three of his 13 Gold Gloves in Detroit. Also, Pudge finished his career with the Washington Nationals and is the first man to wear that uniform to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

 

Now let’s look at the 2017 vote and what it portends for the years in the future. Below, thanks to Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Tracker, we can see the actual vote of 2017 along with the difference between the votes of the writers who released their ballots publicly and those who chose not to do so. The chart below also shows the difference (where applicable) between each player’s 2016 vote and their 2017 vote.

Some takeaways from the 2017 vote:

  1. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are on a potential long track to Cooperstown. As the Performance Enhancing Drug “suspected” (Rodriguez, Bagwell and Mike Piazza) get inducted into the Hall, more and more writers are taking the position that, if it’s likely that a PED user is already in the Hall, then you might as well put in two of the best players in the history of the game (more on this below).
  2. Trevor Hoffman (who fell five votes shy) and Vladimir Guerrero (15 votes short) will be elected to the Hall of Fame next year. Going back to 1989, every still-eligible player who reached 70% of the vote was inducted in the following year. The last player who fell less than 5% short and didn’t get over the finish line the next year was Jim Bunning, who got 74% of the vote in 1988 and then dropped back to 70% in 1989. Bunning had the misfortune of falling barely short one year before a stellar ballot debuted. The 1989 ballot contained no-doubt Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Carl Yastrzemski plus two clearly superior starting pitchers, Gaylord Perry and Ferguson Jenkins.
  3. Edgar Martinez, who has two years of eligibility left, made a jump from “outside looking in” to a position where he has a chance. He’s in the same position that Rock Raines was in after the 2015 vote when he was sitting at 55%. Raines spiked to 70% in 2016 and then to 86% and induction this year. Edgar, as it was with Rock, is a cause celèbre with the sabermetric community.
  4. Being a Twitter abuser is worse than using steroids. Curt Schilling had the biggest drop (by far) of any returning player on the ballot. Clearly a lot of the writers didn’t take kindly to his Tweet that seemed to advocate the lynching of journalists. Whether this was a one-year punishment by writers (something intimated by MLB Network’s Jon Heyman) or a permanent dagger into his Cooperstown candidacy remains to be seen.
  5. It looks really bad for Larry Walker. He has only three years left on the ballot and needs to have a surge unlike any we’ve seen since the 1940’s. The last player who zoomed from less than 25% of the vote to a Cooperstown plaque in just three years was longtime Red Sox and Yankees’ starting pitcher Herb Pennock, who got 18% of the vote in 1945 and then, in subsequent years, went to 20%, 53% and finally 77% in 1948, the year he passed away. (According to his bio on www.sabr.org, Pennock, then the GM of the Philadelphia Phillies, had a phone conversation with Branch Rickey in 1947 in which he indicated that the Phils would not take the field if Jackie Robinson was in uniform. It was during that Dodgers-Phillies series that Robinson endured the worse flurry of racial epithets in his young career. Herb Pennock: yet another “character clause” winner in Cooperstown). Anyway, in the modern Hall of Fame vote there’s no precedent for a player languishing under 25% winding up in the Hall just three years later.
  6. It’s over for Fred McGriff for a plaque in Cooperstown via the BBWAA. He has one year less than Walker and just as high a hill to climb. As I’ve written before, the Crime Dog is one of the real victims of the steroid era. He was widely believed to have played clean but his 493 career home runs feel inadequate to many for the era in which he played. And McGriff has also been getting squeezed by the crowded ballot and the limit of 10 players that any writer can vote for. He will have to hope that a future version of the Veterans’ Committee looks at him differently. And his career might be looked on more favorably by old-time Hall of Famers who regard the PED-tainted with disdain and also by his former Braves teammates and manager (Bobby Cox, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and, soon, Chipper Jones) if any are on a Vets’ committee that has a chance to vote for him.
  7. There are two clear trend-lines among the voters who prefer to remain anonymous. The first is that they take a dim view on the PED bunch, voting for Bonds and Clemens around 20 percentage points less than the writers who revealed their ballots publicly. The other is that this group, collectively, values “old school” statistics. This explains why McGriff (with his 493 home runs) did so well (the other being that this group had more “space” on their ballots with Bonds and Clemens not getting their votes). I’m just speculating here, but it also would explain the lack of support for Mike Mussina because of his career 3.68 ERA. The lack of love for Schilling can also be explained by his relatively low 216 win total.

Anyway, in the weeks that followed the Hall of Fame vote, there has been some chatter about the increased vote tallies by the infamous Bonds and Clemens. Most notably piqued was Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, one of the few players who was an outspoken critic during the PED era.

Boldface added by the author.

“They (Bonds and Clemens) should be in now, as far as I’m concerned. They’ve let a few people in already we all know. It’s uncomfortable at this point. I’m sure this year’s going to be uncomfortable because we’ve got two great players going in, but they know. It’s no secret. If they didn’t do it, they would be stomping and kicking and in interviews saying, ‘I didn’t do it.'”

“Some of these guys were great players. But they wouldn’t have been great players without drugs. … I don’t mind these guys doing what they want to do for their families and make their money. But don’t come calling to the Hall of Fame and say ‘I’m supposed to be in the Hall of Fame’ when you know you cheated.”

“Trust me, there’s a lot of internal talk going on. A lot of guys that I respect that are real, true Hall of Famers, all they have is their legacy. They didn’t make this kind of money. They’re not happy about this at all.”

— Frank Thomas (AP, Jan 30, 2017)

I’ll say it here. I watched the press conference and interviews with Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell on the day after they got the call that they were going to Cooperstown this summer. Frankly, they were both a bit cagey when answering the question about whether or not they used PED’s and speak to Thomas’ point that, if they didn’t do it, they should be stomping and kicking saying “I didn’t do it!!”

“What I did was work very very hard physically and mentally to play 21 years and I think that is the key in my career. I know there was a lot of speculation but look at what I am right now. That is the most important thing, it’s just the amount of work, put myself in, day in and day out, just to be the best at what I did which is to play baseball and that’s the sport that I love and basically I played hard and I did my best to do it and that’s the only thing I can tell you….”

(questioner follows up to ask “will you address what happened and whether you did or didn’t”)

No I didn’t... I played the game the right way and I think that’s probably the way that I can tell you.”

— Ivan Rodriguez (at Hall of Fame Press Conference, 1/18/17)

I saw this answer live and I couldn’t tell if, when Rodriguez said “No I didn’t,” whether he was referring to using PED’s or (with the language barrier) whether he wanted to directly address what happened.

“What did I do? Because I worked out? Because I looked like I was bigger? I don’t think that’s valid. I know I played the game the right way. I worked my butt off to be sitting here right now. I don’t have this burning desire to try to defend myself. I know my teammates. I know what they think of me. I know what I stand for. I just don’t think that it’s valid to defend myself over what? I’m just confused about all that.”

— Jeff Bagwell (on MLB Tonight, 1/19/17)

I saw Bagwell’s answer too and I have to admit, I was hoping for a more emphatic denial, or as Thomas said, a “stomping and kicking” saying “I didn’t do it.”

Now, to play devil’s advocate, there is one widely suspected PED user who has been kicking and screaming his denials about using steroids for years and that’s Roger Clemens. And Clemens was declared innocent about perjuring himself in front of Congress.

But nobody believes him.

Still, with Bagwell and Rodriguez going in and Piazza already enshrined, there is widespread belief that the Hall of Fame has already recognized steroid users. As the slippery slope gets more slick, the rationale for not voting for Bonds and Clemens (the greatest players of their generation) grows less compelling.

The Bonds-Clemens debate in particular and the debate about what to do with PED-linked or PED-suspected players will remain as a cloud over the Hall of Fame voting process for many more years to come. One new wrinkle to the drama will reveal its impact a year from now. Starting with the 2018 vote, the BBWAA will reveal the votes for every one of its members so there will not be a single writer who will be able to keep their votes anonymous.

In this most recent vote, 308 writers voluntarily chose to release their ballots, 134 writers did not. The great unknown question is how many of the voters who have preferred to keep their votes private will decide not to vote at all next year because of the required transparency. The online world in which we live can be fairly brutal and some writers may decide that they don’t want to deal with the aggravation of people taking pot shots at their votes. As you can see with the difference in public vs private votes on the chart above, if there’s any drop-off of voters, it may boost the fortunes of a great many players, including Bonds and Clemens.

Remember also that the rules require that the writers have been actively covering the support no more than ten years prior to the vote. So, for instance, if a writer retired in 2007, they still could have voted in 2017 but will be ineligible in 2018. At the same, new writers become eligible once they’ve covered the game for at least 10 years. In the 2017 vote, fifteen first-time voters revealed their ballots publicly. 13 of those 15 first-timers voted for Bonds and Clemens. While that’s a small and not statistically valid sample size, it’s still an indicator that the newer, younger voters are more likely in general to vote for Bonds and Clemens than older writers.

Notable long-time writers such as Hall of Famer Bill Madden (with the New York Daily News for 37 years) and Tom Verducci (of New York Newsday from 1983-1992 and Sports Illustrated since then) have argued that the younger writers are voting for the steroid users because they didn’t cover the game during the PED era and don’t fully comprehend the level to which PEDs damaged the game.

“Most of these new voters, who are voting for the first time, didn’t cover the steroids era… If you cheated you cheated and it’s not fair to all the players who played the game without cheating… I go to the Hall of Fame every year, I go to the inductions every year. I talk to these guys, I’m not friends but I know these guys. I know them very well, and I don’t think I could ever look Hank Aaron in the face if I voted for Barry Bonds, I don’t think I could look Frank Robinson in the face if I voted for Barry Bonds.”

— Bill Madden (on “MLB Now” – 1/16/17)

“A jarring thought occurred to me recently: Many people who never covered a day of the Steroid Era are voting for the Hall of Fame.

What is jarring is that the Steroid Era stands apart from any era in the game’s history. You have to understand the unique context of that era. As time passes and as veteran writers prefer the path of least resistance, which is to just pretend it didn’t exist or lazily decide “everybody was doing it,” the disgrace of the era ebbs. Newer writers didn’t cover it.”

— Tom Verducci (www.si.com – 1/10/17)

Verducci, certainly a future Spink Award winner in my mind, makes a compelling case against the PED users (you can link to the full piece here). The bottom line, Verducci argues, is that the players who used steroids were cheating and they knew they were cheating. He also writes about the collateral damage of non-star players who lost jobs and their careers in competition to non-All-star users. It’s a persuasive case.

But ultimately the cases made by long-time scribes like Madden and Verducci are losing ground to the opinions of not just the younger “didn’t cover the game” writers but also to fellow veteran writers who have started voting for Bonds and Clemens. Hall of Famer writer Peter Gammons voted for Bonds and Clemens for the first time. Other notable writers who flipped from “no” to “yes” include the New York Post’s Kevin Kernan, MLB.com’s Richard Justice, the Dallas Morning News’ Evan Grant, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser (who is now the president of the BBWAA).

Gammons publicly wrestled with his choice during MLB Network’s coverage of this year’s vote. Take a look at some of the debate between Gammons, Verducci and the three other panelists (Jon Heyman, Joel Sherman and Ken Rosenthal).

PETER GAMMONS “Baseball didn’t have rules about it, the union would not allow anyone to touch it. It was such a strange wasteland… I just don’t see where baseball did anything about it… When I filled out my ballot, I thought about it, am I violating something as a baseball writer that I shouldn’t do. There were so many people who did steroids from 1985 to 2005, nobody played as well, even close, to Bonds and Clemens.”

TOM VERDUCCI: “I don’t think it’s a rule to know that it’s the wrong thing to do, that’s why players never talked about it and, even to this day, never talk about it. To blame the environment is a total cop-out and it’s an insult to the hundreds of players who played this game clean. You have to be accountable to your own choices.”

JON HEYMAN who voted for Bonds but not Clemens): “I don’t really feel great about the whole thing, I’d feel better if I was Tom right now.”

JOEL SHERMAN: “The question now is should we confer a further honor upon people who probably have soiled their sport in a way that had never been done before and I’m saying it as someone who DOES vote for Bonds and Clemens, voted for Bagwell, I do it uncomfortably.”

KEN ROSENTHAL: “It’s a really difficult decision and for so many years I was firmly on Tom’s side here but the whole equation breaks down for me when we have suspected users in the Hall of Fame… I understand what my vote means and if they ever get to make their speeches, I will be cringing.”

— MLB Network coverage of the Hall of Fame vote

And then there’s this from Tim Kurkjian on ESPN:

TIM KURKJIAN: “I vote for Bonds and Clemens and I have every year that they’ve been on the ballot. It’s not a comfortable vote and it’s not an easy vote and I don’t feel real good about myself when I do it but I feel better than if I didn’t vote for them but it just speaks to how difficult this process is…. They did all this during a time when there was no testing and there was a tacit agreement ‘go ahead and do it, no one will catch you.”

Peter Gammons covered the steroid era (two years of it with me in his ear as the producer for Baseball Tonight). Jon Heyman covered the steroid era. So did Joel Sherman, Ken Rosenthal and Tim Kurkjian (another former colleague of mine at ESPN). They all publicly wring their hands about their choices to support Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, but they choose to support them anyway.

It’s obvious to me (from the pro and con arguments) that it is easier for a baseball writer to publicly take a stance against the PED users than to argue in favor.

The argument in favor goes something like this: “it was a permissive era, there was no testing, tons of players were doing it, nobody said anything and (with Bonds and Clemens specifically), they were already Hall of Famers before they started using.” The argument against essentially boils down to this: “the PED users were cheating the game and their fellow players. Even if baseball wasn’t testing for them, steroids were illegal in the U.S.”

The “against” argument is much easier to defend because you’re making a stand and taking the moral high ground. The “yes” voters often do so apologetically, the “no” voters are emphatic in their positions and intractable. Intuitively, now that the BBWAA is going to require all ballots to be made public, I would think that the Bonds-Clemens voters who have previously chosen to keep their votes private might the ones who choose not to vote or maybe even switch back to “no” to avoid the online public vitriol from the fans who are intractably against the induction of PED users.

 

Ultimately, I think that the BBWAA’s decision to require all ballots to be made public in 2018 will work to Bonds’ and Clemens’ benefit, but there’s nothing certain in such a politically charged issue.

One other thing to consider: generally, when a player gets close to the Hall of Fame (over 70%), they see a big spike in the following year. This happened with Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines getting over 30 new votes this year compared to 2016. A great many writers take the position that “I’m not going to be the one person who keeps this player out of the Hall of Fame.” When Bonds and Clemens get close, that dynamic might very well change and writers will take the position that “I’m not going to be the one person who lets Bonds or Clemens get into the Hall of Fame.”

Anyway, whether Bonds and Clemens eventually get that call remains an open question but they will almost certainly not make it next year. Despite that, with Trevor Hoffman Hoffman and Vladimir Guerrero virtual locks to get the call for the Hall next year, the 2018 Cooperstown class will almost certainly feature at least three players, and probably four, with the others being first-year candidates Chipper Jones (a lock) and Jim Thome (who has a good chance).

More on the 2018 first-time eligible players in an upcoming piece.

Thanks for reading.

Chris Bodig

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Updated: May 15, 2017 — 10:37 pm

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