I voted for Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mark McGwire, Jack Morris, Rafael Palmeiro, Tim Raines, Lee Smith and Alan Trammell.
With the steroid era now beginning to fully infect the election process for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, this was one of the toughest ballots I’ve had to deal with since my first vote in 1992.
I’ve often thought that you have to take the players from that era on a case-by-case basis, but I’ve changed my opinion. The Mitchell Report revealed that great pitchers (Roger Clemens and Eric Gagne) were perhaps as guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs as great hitters (McGwire and Barry Bonds). It named utility players, bit players, lower level players and the top players. Thus, the playing field must be considered level. Otherwise, except for rare cases, no one really knows who did what.
Under those circumstances I believe as a voter that everyone should be painted with the same brush. Either you vote all the qualified candidates in or you don’t vote for anyone who is remotely suspected.
As a lifetime member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America I take this vote very seriously. I have no desire to be judge, juror or soothsayer. So I’ve decided to judge those players within the context of the era during which they played, and if they’re deserving, vote them in.
Thus, my ballot includes a player who failed a drug test (Palmeiro), a player who recently admitted that he used steroids (McGwire), and another who was tainted by the cocaine era of the 1980s (Raines). I believe all of them statistically belong in a Hall of Fame that already includes the likes of Gaylord Perry, who brashly admitted to throwing the spitter when he was active from 1962-83. That pitch was outlawed by Major League Baseball in 1920.
Palmeiro — on the ballot for the first time — may be statistically on the bubble to some, but not to me. His 569 homers and 3, 020 hits places him in rarified company as only the fourth player in Major League history to amass more than 500 homers and 3,000 base hits. The other three? Their names are Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray.
I’ve been among the 25 percent to vote for McGwire every year he’s been on the ballot. His 583 homers — 70 of them in 1998 and 65 in ’99 — are good enough. The home run race between McGwire and Sammy Sosa in ’98 put baseball back on the map after the strike that devastated the sport only a few years earlier. Since the steroid precusor Andro was found in McGwire’s locker — like many — I’ve long suspected him of using PEDs. His public apology doesn’t change anything.
I’ve never voted for Raines, but listening to Andre Dawson talk about him during his induction speech in Cooperstown this year made me take another look at Tim’s record. Certainly, he was the National League’s version of Rickey Henderson before his personal problems affected his career. He played 24 seasons, had 808 stolen bases, 2,605 hits and batted .294. Tony Perez was elected to the Hall with 2,732 hits and a .279 batting average.
Raines was an easy decision. Rafi and Big Mac weren’t. A voter can select as many as 10 players on the ballot. I checked off the first eight and left two spots open.
Alomar and Blyleven were slam dunks. I always vote for Smith and Trammell and won’t give Barry Larkin a nod until the former Detroit shortstop receives his due. Their career stats are too similar. McGriff, like Dawson and Jim Rice before him, deserves a strong look. He should not be held accountable because he finished seven short of 500 homers. Neither Rice nor Dawson even came close to 500. Both are in the Hall. Edgar deserves strong consideration even though he spent most of his career as a designated hitter. And like Rice who had a great decade as a hitter, Morris should be elected because no one touched him for 10 years as a pitcher, either.
After that, I went out and spoke to a number of writers and editors I respect about using the blank spots for McGwire and Palmeiro. With that input in mind, and in the end, I determined that voting for them was the right thing to do.
Note on Jeff Bagwell: His numbers are very similar to Steve Garvey — Bags .297 batting average to
.294 for the Garv, 2,314 hits to 2,599, 449 homers to 272, 1,529 RBIs to 1,308 . But
Garvey had two NL Championship Series MVPs, an NL MVP, an All-Star MVP, the longest
consecutive game playing streak in NL history (1,207), one of the
highest fielding percentages as a first baseman (.996) and an errorless
season (1984). Garvey also played on five NL pennant winners and a World
Series winner in ’81 with the Dodgers. Bagwell did almost none of this with
the Astros. And Garvey didn’t get a sniff from the writers for the HOF.
That’s why I didn’t vote for Bagwell.
Cancer, a horrible disease, took two more sportswriter friends during a horrible week — Phil Jasner and Jim Kelley. Phil died after an extended battle with colon cancer and Jim after a 14-month war against cancer of the pancreas.
These were both giants of the business. Phil covered the NBA out of Philadelphia and Jim the NHL out of Buffalo.
I met Phil when both of us were budding NBA beat writers in the early 1980s. Phil had just been put on the 76ers beat at the Daily News and I the Clippers for the old San Diego Tribune. We had a common thread in Tom Cushman, who had been a columnist at the Daily News and moved on to be Sports Editor of the Tribune. Tom hired me nearly 30 years ago. It was with him over drinks one night after a basketball game that I became friendly with Phil.
The Clippers were short-lived in San Diego and I was short-lived on the basketball beat. Tom put me on the Padres in 1984 and my career veered inexorably into baseball. Phil remained on the Sixers until his death. We covered Philadelphia’s sweep of the Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals, to this day the 76ers only NBA championship.
I continued to attend the NBA All-Star Game and Phil and I remained friends. He was one of those guys who’d I’d see every once in awhile and pick up right where we left off. There was a bond among people who had been on the NBA beat back then tied together by the coaches we covered. Don Casey was one of them. He coached in Philly’s competitive Big Five and moved on to the Clippers as both an assistant and the head coach. When I heard rumors of Phil’s death on Friday night, it was Casey I immediately called. He still lives in San Diego. We had two conversations that were long and philosophical.
Through Casey I’d heard of Phil’s battle with colon cancer coming at the same time I was going through a similar tussle with the same disease. I’ve been cancer-free for 18 months, having gone through four surgeries. They caught mine early. Twice. I spent a very uneasy night pondering the question of why I’ve been spared (so far) and Phil wasn’t. There’s no answer. It’s the luck of the draw — perhaps it’s no more complicated than that.
I met Jim when I spent four years at Bloomberg News from 1998-2002 as their national hockey writer, among other duties. My relationship with Jim was much more casual than it was with Phil. He was a hockey writer and columnist for the Buffalo News back then and eventually made his way into the Internet. Like Phil, he was a dogged reporter with a myriad of sources, easy going and wonderful to talk to. We were among the group that covered the Sabres loss to Dallas in the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals.
Pancreatic cancer is a death sentence. As one survivor recently told me, 80 percent of those diagnosed with it die within the first year. Like Phil, Jim fought it to the end. By one wonderfully written account, Jim filed his last column early in the morning before he died.
Even in illness, going to the rink, the ballpark, the gym, getting support from the people you know, putting your words in a laptop every day, creates a sort of normalcy to an abnormal situation. It’ll be soon enough before we all go home. That’s what I found. I’m sure Phil and Jim also took solace in doing what they loved best.
They are both gone now and sadly the list of sportswriters dying of cancer continues to know no bounds.