When I sat down to fill out my annual Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, I knew one thing for certain:
The 10th box I checked next to an ex-ballplayer's name would be merely a symbolic choice.
Each Baseball Writers Association of America voter can make only 10 selections in a given year ... and I have a better chance of shooting a 72 at Pebble Beach than any player I considered for that final choice has of getting into the Hall.
So it came down to this:
Do I vote for a guy who had a very good career and was considered a credit to the game, or do I vote for a guy who I'm pretty sure cheated? Or do I just stop at 9? (Voters don't have to vote for 10. Heck, we don't have to choose anybody, and several of my peers turn in blank ballots every year.)
Why do I know my vote won't really matter? Because after the top few candidates, none will come close to getting support from 75% of the BBWAA electorate. It's kind of like voting for the Libertarian or Green Party candidate -- you know he or she has no chance of winning, so you do it because it feels good or to make a statement.
My choices came down to Barry Bonds, who was convicted of obstruction of justice in connection with his long-time steroid use; Roger Clemens, who was named as a steroid cheat in the Mitchell Report but was found innocent of lying to Congress about his juicing; and Alan Trammell, a good guy and good player who helped usher in the modern era of offensive-minded shortstops.
Unlike some of my colleagues, I will consider Bonds and Clemens because I firmly believe they were Hall of Fame players even before they allegedly began juicing. However, in the absence of firm Steroid Era guidance from the Hall or the BBWAA, I recently established my own policy:
++ If a player is the subject of completely unsubstantiated rumors (think Frank Thomas, who some thought "must be on steroids because he's so big"), I will tune out the noise and consider him as early as his first year on the ballot.
++ If a player is the subject of steroid whispers that conceivably might have merit (think Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza), I will not consider him as a first-ballot candidate to see if any new information gets fleshed out. If, after a year of additional scrutiny no new information is presented, I will consider him beginning in his second year on the ballot.
++ If a player likely was a steroid cheat but all available evidence showed that he had a Hall-worthy body of work before the juicing began (think Bonds and Clemens), I will consider him but only beginning with his fifth year on the ballot. I want to allow plenty of time before checking that box.
++ If I am convinced that a player could not have compiled the stats that made him seem Hall-worthy without him having been a rampant juicer (think Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa), I will not vote for him.
So, under my steroid policy, Bonds and Clemens are ineligible for my serious consideration until I fill out my ballot two years from now.
That left me to decide between Trammell or no 10th choice at all.
I decided to go with Trammell. I know him, I like him and I respect the way he went to work day after day, month after month, season after season. He was a fine fielder whose bat had some pop, kind of a poor man's Cal Ripken Jr. He was the face of the Tigers franchise for 20 years. And he was the 1984 World Series MVP.
Let the record show that I have not voted for him in the past, and I'll say right now that I might not vote for him again next year, which will be his final turn on the ballot. I also will say that I could have voted for any number of other fine ex-ballplayers here, including Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Lee Smith, Jermaine Dye and Larry Walker. Like Trammell, none of them ever will get to 75%, either.
And so, here are the 10 players who received my check marks:
Bagwell, Biggio, Mussina, Piazza, Raines and Schilling were holdovers from last year. Details about why I chose them can be found in my post from Dec. 24, 2013.
As for the three newbies -- Big Unit, Pedro and Smoltz -- I consider them to be such no-brainers that I don't feel it's necessary to justify selecting them. I can't imagine why any voter would leave any of them off his/her ballot.
In a related subject ...
One of my best friends in the business -- actually, like me, he is now out of the business -- decided not to cast a vote this year because he no longer felt he was qualified. I'm not going to name him because he didn't give me permission to do so. His reasoning, and I'm paraphrasing here, is that back when he was an active member of the media, he thought some voters who had become ex-sportswriters grew out of touch, and now he feared he would be that voter.
My response to him was that he would be that voter only if he let himself be that voter.
Speaking for myself, I still follow baseball closely and I still care about who gets into the Hall of Fame. In some ways, I can follow the game better now because I'm not almost exclusively watching Cubs and White Sox games.
Moreover, the guys who are coming up for vote now are the very players I witnessed first-hand during the prime of my career. I was there when John Smoltz dueled Jack Morris in the Game 7 of the the best World Series I've ever seen. I admired the brilliance of Pedro Martinez and the consistency of Craig Biggio. I didn't need to see the Big Unit in person to know he was a Hall of Famer ... but it didn't hurt.
Maybe, one day, I will feel I am too removed from the game to be an effective voter, but that day is a long way away.
I enjoy being part of what I consider a very effective process for choosing Hall of Famers. I take it seriously. And, frankly, I do a pretty darn good job.