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AT LARGE: ON BASEBALL

Goold: As Bonds, Clemens drop from Hall of Fame ballot, voters still face steroid conundrums, sharp criticism

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As a fan of nostalgia — I say romantic, you say sap — I’ve fallen into the habit, when possible, of mailing a Cooperstown-bound Hall of Fame ballot during a visit to my childhood home outside of Boulder, Colorado. A few times the ballot slid into the same mailbox where I sent baseball cards in hopes they’d return autographed, and once, the year Larry Walker was elected the Rockies’ first Hall of Famer, the ballot with his name checked went into a mailbox beside Coors Field.

Last week, I handed the ballot over at Boulder’s historic post office a few blocks from where I once bought so many baseball cards. The envelope fluttered into a bin, unceremoniously.

And thus ended the rigor of voting on a steroid era.

And now begins the next one.

This year’s vote, the results of which will be announced Jan. 25, is the 10th and final year Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will appear on the writers’ ballot.

The most-decorated hitter and pitcher of their generation have failed so far to reach the required 75% threshold for induction and have become emblems for a bloated, tainted era, like Gatsbys of baseball’s gilded age. As their names and the friction from their candidacies drop from the ballot, new names and challenges debut. This is the first year David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez have been eligible for the writers’ vote, sliding the testing era under the microscope. Ortiz was linked to an anonymous positive test in 2003 but played the remainder of his career with testing policies and punishments, such as the suspension Rodriguez received for performance-enhancing drugs.

After a decade of Hall discussions being sharpened and agitated by the steroid question, the ballot emerged this winter to see another shadow — and maybe 10 more years of PED debate.

As of Thursday afternoon, Ryan Thibodaux, who annually collects ballots writers make public on his BBHOF Tracker site, had tabulated 139, a little more than a third of the nearly 400 total. Ortiz trended toward induction with support on 82.7% of the known ballots. Bonds and Clemens hovered around 80% — high enough for induction, but both need to pick up 50 new votes from the unknown ballots. Those have traditionally skewed against them. Former Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen is named on 71.9% of the public ballots, striding toward eventual induction, if not this year. The 75% line is demanding. It should be.

Those are four of the 10 players who appear on my maxed-out ballot.

How I decided what names to check is rooted in research, of course, that relies on comparisons and strives for consistency, year-to-year consistency. This winter, I faced a challenge to that approach. Each year, it seems there is increasing vitriol toward voters but also important questions about the voting body and process. I saw the ballot as an opportunity to cast a vote toward the induction of a player like Rolen, an all-around force with eight Gold Gloves and superb offense at an underrepresented position, and recognized the responsibility of facing the inevitable criticism that chomps into all ballots.

The Hall of Fame has trusted the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to vote on players when they become eligible five years after retiring. There are other avenues to the Hall, but the BBWAA ballot is the first for players. To receive a ballot, a writer must be a member of the BBWAA for at least 10 consecutive years. A player who receives at least 5% remains on the ballot for, at most, 10 years.

Ten is also the maximum number of players a writer can support each year. The limitation shapes voting strategy. The Hall uses that cap, in part, to meter the flow of inductees and avoid a dry spell after a deluge. By doing so the Hall is subtly changing the fundamental question asked of voters. It’s no longer, “Is this player a Hall of Famer, period?” It is: Is this player one of the 10 most worthy on this year’s ballot? The BBWAA has formally proposed expanding the ballot to 12, and for several years, I’ve written and lobbied about a shift to a yes-no ballot — or “binary ballot.” That allows the ballot to ask truly: Hall or not.

The Hall does give writers some guidance: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s).”

The “sportsmanship clause” has been utilized by voters who don’t support players connected to PEDs. I use it as a tool when there are more than 10 worthy candidates and I must edit my list to the limit.

There were years when I trimmed players connected to PEDs through positive tests, their own admission or substantiated investigative journalism to reach 10. Bonds and Clemens have never admitted use. Gary Sheffield said he unknowingly used a steroid. By any measure, seven-time MVP Bonds and seven-time Cy Young Award winner Clemens had careers fit for Cooperstown. A feared hitter with 509 homers and a .907 OPS, Sheffield also is deserving, in my view. In an attempt at consistency, when I had room for all three I no longer had to whittle for worthiness. I checked their names.

Last year, I did not reach the max, voting for eight. All eight returned to this year’s ballot: Bonds, Clemens, Sheffield, Rolen, Bobby Abreu, Andruw Jones, Curt Schilling and Todd Helton. His lofty stats, Gold Gloves and top-20 OPS rise above any Coors adjustment. Adding Ortiz would make nine and leave one spot open. Like Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez has the statistics of a Hall of Famer and a PED suspension after testing began.

Reliever Billy Wagner has a compelling candidacy with a dominant strikeout rate, but as I mined his metrics, Joe Nathan’s statistics shined, too. Neither pitched 1,000 career innings. Both were exceptional with the innings they did throw.

Comparisons are helpful. Jones won 10 Gold Glove Awards and was a premier center fielder who also hit for power. I voted for Jim Edmonds when I had the chance, and that informed how I considered Jones’ career performance. Reviewing Sheffield’s career led to a deeper appreciation for the sum of Abreu’s and reasons he should remain in the conversation. There are 21 Hall of Famers with at least 51% of their games in right field, and Abreu’s .395 OBP would rank sixth, his 400 steals second, his 574 doubles third and .870 OPS 10th.

Abreu’s offensive wins above replacement (oWAR) is 61.6, ahead of Ortiz’s 56.7 as a dominant designated hitter. Between them on this ballot is Jeff Kent, at 60.1. Kent, the leader in homers at second base (351) among other offensive superlatives, did not get my vote last year despite two openings — so I questioned my consistency and acknowledged a miss.

Kent gets the 10th spot.

After finishing 16 votes shy of induction a year ago, Schilling asked to be removed from the ballot for this year, his final year. He claimed the media “lined up to destroy my character.” He has written some repugnant things on social media, including once expressing glee at a T-shirt that described violence toward journalists. His personal opinions and personal wishes were not considered as this journalist voted for Schilling’s baseball career. It’s professional, not personal.

The Hall of Fame is first and foremost a museum — a repository for the game’s treasures, a celebration of its place in our culture, and lessons on its history, warts and all. It’s Cooperstown, not canonization. There are scoundrels honored beside gentlemen, and players who starred before integration and inductees who played a role in resisting integration. The Hall presents that history, bronzed but some unvarnished too, so that we can learn from it and how media, players, and fans can avoid repeating past failures.

It is impossible to submit a ballot that pleases everyone.

It is important to explain my ballot to anyone.

And I welcome the challenge to do it again next year.

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