This year’s Hall of Fame ballot is significant because it marks the final year of eligibility for both Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. While those two should unquestionably be elected for their on-field accomplishments, the cloud of performance-enhancing drug suspicions has, to this point, put up an impenetrable barrier between them and Cooperstown.
But even as Bonds and Clemens prepare to leave the ballot, the issue isn’t going away any time soon with first-year candidates Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz rekindling debate over just where to draw the line on PEDs.
As I fill out my ballot for the Class of 2022, there’s a clear distinction to be made.
Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens
There are players who may have used using illegal substances when Major League Baseball and its clubs not only looked the other way, they all but encouraged it. And there are others who, after MLB decided to address the problem by implementing a league-wide testing program in 2004, tested positive and were suspended.
As I filled out a Hall of Fame ballot for the first time last year, that’s the rationale I had in checking the boxes for Bonds and Clemens. They never tested positive for PEDs – and they had already put up Hall of Fame numbers before 2004. On the other hand, Manny Ramirez and A-Rod were both suspended for violating baseball’s drug policy.
Which brings us to this year’s most interesting candidate …
Big Papi allegedly turned up positive in what was supposed to be anonymous survey testing in 2003. But those results were leaked before they were to be destroyed and any potential false positives went unconfirmed. Meanwhile, Ortiz went on to hit 541 career home runs and become one of the greatest postseason hitters of all time, winning three championship rings and World Series MVP honors in 2013. He’s absolutely a first-ballot selection in my mind.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Rolen when he played. But looking back, his career was much better than I remembered. Rookie of the Year, seven-time All-Star, eight Gold Gloves and a .281/.364/.490 slash line over 17 seasons. Say what you will about WAR, but Rolen’s 70.2 is pretty darn close to Derek Jeter’s 72.4.
Sheffield was a nine-time All-Star. He won a batting title and finished his career with 509 home runs and a .292/.393/.514 slash line over 22 seasons. Perhaps even more impressive, he had more career walks than strikeouts.
His ties to the Mitchell Report and the BALCO scandal taint his reputation, but those came relatively late in his career (albeit, when one might expect PED use would be a more enticing option). Also, his defense was horrible – yet his managers were willing to live with that to have his bat in the lineup.
The ultimate defensive center fielder over that 12-year span, Jones ranks first all-time among outfielders (and second overall to Brooks Robinson) in Total Zone Runs above average. He won 10 Gold Gloves and was a five-time All-Star. At the plate, he hit 434 homers, won the 2005 Hank Aaron award and accumulated 61 bWAR in his 12 seasons with Atlanta, but career declined rapidly after age 30 (1.7 WAR over last five seasons). Even with only 1,933 hits, his defense puts him in for me.
Yes, he played his entire 17-year career with the Rockies and half his games at Coors Field. But he won a batting title, was a five-time All-Star, earned three Gold Gloves and was a .316/.414/.539 hitter for his career. Helton also had more than 400 total bases in 2000 and 2001. Incredible.
Although he’s never gotten much support (last year’s 17% was his best showing ever), Sosa’s candidacy is worth a closer look considering my stance on Bonds and Clemens. To be consistent, Sosa never failed a drug test either. He has a distinct role in baseball history in his 1998 duel with Mark McGwire for the single-season home run record. And don’t forget, Sosa — not McGwire — was the NL MVP that season.
He had an incredibly high peak with the Cubs. He had over 400 total bases twice; he and Helton were the only ones to do that in the past 60 years. A seven-time All-Star, Sosa had three 60-homer seasons and 609 in his career (ninth all-time), along with 234 stolen bases. He’s a yes for me.
How much credit should we give relief specialists? Wagner compares favorably with Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman on rate stats, though Hoffman had 153 more appearances. Wagner made seven All-Star teams and racked up 422 saves with a 2.31 career ERA. Twice he finished in the top six in the NL Cy Young voting.
But this year, Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon are on the ballot for the first time. Both of them failed initially as starters before moving to the bullpen and putting up numbers almost as good as Wagner’s. Would voting for Wagner open the door even further for other relievers down the road? I’m not sure how comfortable I am with that, even though I voted for Wagner a year ago and am doing so again.
I also voted for Curt Schilling last year. It wasn’t an easy decision. He won 216 regular-season games with a .597 winning percentage in 20 MLB seasons. He led the NL in strikeouts in 1997 and 1998, finishing with 3,116 – 15th all-time. But even more impressive, he combined swing-and-miss stuff with outstanding control. He was also one of the greatest pitchers in postseason history with an 11-2 record, 2.23 ERA, three World Series rings and one bloody sock.
The Hall’s character clause gets a lot of attention as a reason to disqualify Schilling. The most visible character questions have surfaced since he retired as a player – and he hasn’t been shy about fanning the flames, even seeking to remove his name from HOF consideration after he just missed being elected last year. Although I can’t quite put my finger on it, something about voting for Schilling has continued to gnaw at me over the past 12 months. If there’s another worthy candidate, I’m giving him the final spot on my ballot.
That’s why Rollins, a first-time candidate, gets the nod.
The undersized (5-7, 175) Rollins was an extremely well-rounded and durable player throughout his 17-year career, winning four Gold Gloves and one Silver Slugger. He was the NL MVP in 2007 and he won a World Series ring in 2008. And although he made just three All-Star teams, he was the leadoff man and everyday shortstop on the Phillies teams that won five consecutive NL East titles from 2002-2011.
A speedy switch-hitter, Rollins stole 470 bases with a success rate of 81.7%. He also had four seasons of at least 20 homers and he led the league in triples four times.
While Rollins is unlikely to come anywhere close to being elected in his first year, he’s a player I don’t want to fall below the 5% minimum to stay on the ballot.
Because I can only vote for 10, a number of worthwhile candidates didn’t make the cut. With more open spots, I might even have included Schilling again. In the end, it’s possible to poke holes in anyone’s ballot. For that reason, the BBWAA gets criticized nearly every year for gets in and who doesn’t. But I think it’s the fairest process in any sport.
Getting to 75% with more than 400 total voters is hard. That’s exactly how it should be.
Follow and debate the Hall of Fame ballot with Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Baseball Hall of Fame: Voter breaks down 2022 ballot