Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 19, 2017

Change Is Coming To Cooperstown

The results of Hall of Fame balloting by the Baseball Writers Association of America were announced Wednesday, and the understandable focus has been on the Hall’s three new members. But beyond the addition of three retired players who will be inducted at the Hall’s annual ceremony in July, the larger story of this year’s vote is that with respect to the Great Game’s steroids era the tide has finally turned.

Topping the ballot, with 86.2% of the vote, was first baseman Jeff Bagwell, who spent his entire fifteen year career with the Houston Astros. Just a single vote behind him was left fielder Tim Raines. The consummate leadoff man’s Hall plaque will presumably show him in as a Montreal Expo, where he spent thirteen seasons of a more than two decade long life in the big leagues. While Bagwell was honored in his seventh year on the ballot, Raines was elected in his final year of eligibility, joining Jim Rice and Ralph Kiner as players voted in on their final try.

Bagwell and Raines were joined by catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, elected on his first chance after a long career that saw him crouch behind the plate for six different franchises, but mostly in Texas during two different stints with the Rangers. There is no more important position than catcher in the Great Game, yet the stalwarts in their pads have received little love from the BBWAA in voting for Cooperstown. Rodriguez is just the second catcher, after Johnny Bench, to be elected to the Hall in his first year of eligibility; and he will be just the seventh Hall of Fame backstop to have begun his career after World War II.

But the fact that Rodriguez is going into the Hall on his first chance and that Bagwell is in one year after Mike Piazza was admitted, along with the results for those who fell short of the 75% mandate that is required for election, clearly show that a new day has come to the BBWAA electorate.

Bagwell’s career, which ended in 2005, was largely before the implementation of baseball’s current testing protocols for performance enhancing drugs. But like Piazza, who retired after the 2007 season, the Astros star played during the years in which it’s widely assumed PEDs use was at its peak. Also like Piazza, Bagwell never tested positive for any banned substance. But if for no other reason than that both were strong physical specimens throughout their playing days, Bagwell and Piazza were on many writers lists of suspected users of performance enhancing drugs. In past years just such idle and unsubstantiated suspicion was enough for many voters to skip over a player when marking their Hall of Fame ballot.

While many fans and analysts would consider their career statistics worthy of a first ballot election, the drag of suspicion kept Piazza out of the Hall until his fourth year on the ballot and Bagwell waiting until his seventh. But the steady growth in support that each received while they were waiting is one sign that more and more BBWAA voters were unwilling to block someone from the Hall because of a rumor.

That’s true in part because of changes to the electorate. Where once all 10-year members of the Writers Association were eligible, voters are now required to be actively covering the Great Game. That change eliminated many older, retired members who, it is assumed, were more likely to be traditionalists who looked with scorn at the steroids era as an affront to the long history of baseball.

This year’s vote of what used to be called the Veterans Committee also caused a number of writers to rethink their positions. The 16-member committee which considers executives, umpires and players who have dropped off the regular ballot now considers nominees from one of three distinct periods each year. Early in December, before the writers’ ballot closed at the end of the month, the committee voting on candidates from “Today’s Game” gave the nod to retired commissioner Bud Selig. While much can be said about the growth and modernization of the game during his long tenure, Selig also presided over the steroids era. His election was a reminder that while it may have been players who were juicing, there were plenty of owners and executives, as well as writers and fans, who were happy to look the other way as home run records were broken and attendance rose. Several BBWAA members stated publicly that they would no longer refuse to vote for suspected PEDs users in the wake of Selig’s admission to the Hall.

Perhaps because of those very writers, Pudge Rodriguez is now a first ballot Hall of Famer. He too never failed a drug test, but he was named as a user by Jose Canseco in his book “Juiced.” Canseco is hardly the most reliable of sources – in the same book he recounts pinch hitting in Game 6 of the 2000 World Series; a neat trick since that Series ended in five games. Still being publicly accused is more than ever happened to Bagwell or Piazza, yet there is Rodriguez, going into the Hall with four votes to spare.

The voting results also showed a significant uptick in support for Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. The seven-time Cy Young Award winner and the seven-time Most Valuable Player are obvious members of the Hall of Fame, except that they are the poster children of the steroids era. Like those mentioned above, Clemens and Bonds never failed a test, but the former’s prominent place in the Mitchell Report and the latter’s role in the BALCO scandal have long been thought to doom either’s chances for enshrinement. Two candidates who might otherwise have been virtually unanimous first ballot selections debuted with the support of scarcely more than one-third of the voters.

But this year, their fifth on the ballot, for the first time both moved above fifty percent. In the history of the Hall, of players crossing that threshold by their fifth appearance, only Gil Hodges failed to ultimately earn a plaque. Twenty-two others are now in Cooperstown. To be sure, until recently a player was allowed fifteen years on the ballot, while Clemens and Bonds are now halfway through their ten-year eligibility period. But both received 54% of the just announced vote, and in the last four decades of players who reached 55% with five years of eligibility remaining only Hodges and Jim Bunning eventually fell short.

There will always be a bloc of BBWAA members who will not be swayed, and perhaps their number will always be more than 25%. But one other factor may work in favor of Clemens and Bonds. A growing number of writers are voluntarily releasing their ballots, and among that group the two have much greater support. Starting next year all ballots will be made public. Without the cloak of anonymity the intransigence of some writers may waiver; or perhaps they will simply skip voting altogether.

Only time will tell, but the door to the Baseball Hall of Fame, once thought permanently shut to Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, has been cracked open. No one should be surprised if sometime in the next five years it finally swings wide for both of them.  Should that day arrive the Hall will once again be what in truth it has always been; not some mystical shrine immortalizing perfection but a museum displaying the full history of the Great Game.

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Responses

  1. Nice.Sent from my Veriz


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