When Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot, it was a tough sell. The case for both was clouded by evidence that they used performance-enhancing drugs. Nothing was proved in legal proceedings against either, yet there was all that testimony.
For most voters, it was a lot to digest, even though it involved a seven-time MVP and the all-time home runs leader as well as a seven-time Cy Young Award winner with 354 career victories. It seemed reasonable not to vote for them right out of the gate because of what was heard.
Their vote totals reflected the skepticism. Needing 75 percent on balloting for enshrinement to the Hall of Fame, they got less than 40 percent their first three years and between 40 and 50 percent last year, their fourth time on the ballot.
The dynamics may be changing now. Many voters have posted their ballots on social media, and one man, Ryan Thibodaux (@NotMrTibbs on Twitter), is keeping track, as he does each year. As of Saturday evening, 201 of the approximately 450 ballots were public. Bonds and Clemens were both in the mid-60 percent range. It is starting to look as if they eventually will get in.
I changed my vote on Bonds and Clemens this season, something that has happened on more than 10 percent of the now-public ballots. A few things seem to be in play with this. Many of the long-time voters who felt it their duty to "protect" the Hall no longer cover the sport and cannot vote. The electorate is getting younger, and the performance-enhancing-drug use doesn't seem to matter as much to that segment.
And, based on the writings of a number of voters -- members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America -- they switched their votes on Bonds and Clemens because Bud Selig was voted, almost unanimously, into the Hall by the Eras Committee (formerly the Veterans Committee). Their reasoning, generally, is that if the commissioner who allowed performance-enhancing drugs to permeate the game is in then voting for those with that taint is fine.
That wasn't the case with this voter, though it did give me pause. I didn't vote for Bonds and Clemens initially because I wanted more information. Maybe time would change something. Maybe there would be more proven evidence that Bonds and Clemens actually did something wrong. Maybe the Hall of Fame would take a position on those who were suspected of using PEDs. Maybe a trend would develop.
And it has been years now. What changed is that Bonds' and Clemens' peers from the same era -- some with serious suspicions of PED use -- are getting into the Hall of Fame.
And for this reason, my stance on denying Bonds' and Clemens' entry into this museum that honors baseball's best performers is evolving. Voting for Mike Piazza, despite nothing but rumors, was easy. But now Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez is likely to gain entry, even though Jose Canseco gave first-person testimony in his book that he knows Rodriguez used.
So now the best players from that era -- where it is likely that PED use was widespread -- are getting into the Hall of Fame. More are to come. I don't see how the best players from this era could go to Hall of Fame while Bonds and Clemens do not. They were the very best from that era. They belong ahead of anyone else who has circumstantial evidence against them. So I felt it only right to vote for them this season and not hold two people accountable for the sins of so many.
And I did, for the first time. And I will from this point on. Unless something new, something even more damning, is introduced to the debate. They are undoubtedly among the best baseball performers of all time.
Along with Bonds and Clemens, I added newcomers Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero. They are on my eight-person ballot along with four holdovers: Jeff Bagwell, Edgar Martinez, Trevor Hoffman and Curt Schilling.
A few words about the decision-making process regarding some I chose and did not choose and the way their fortunes on Hall of Fame balloting are going:
Rodriguez -- One of the best catchers, on offense or defense, of his time. In 21 seasons, he was an All-Star 14 times, a Gold Glove winner 13 times, has great all-time numbers including a .296 batting average and played like a stud as the Marlins captured the 2003 World Series. I expect the rest of the electorate sees things the same way.
Guerrero -- One of the most feared power hitters of his time, he batted .318 with 449 homers and an OPS-plus of 140. He was a nine-time All-Star and won an MVP. And he wasn't the typical home run hitter; he had no 100-strikeout seasons. If he doesn't get in this season, I expect he will next season. Public balloting has him close on his first ballot.
Bagwell -- He was a player you would buy a ticket to see, one of the great power hitters of his era. He had a .948 OPS and his OPS-plus is 149, 12th best all time among right-handed hitters. Detractors suggest PED use from a good minor league hitter who became a behemoth. His cause is gaining momentum, and I expect him to get in on this ballot.
Schilling -- A lot of voters are putting him on the bench this season because he suggested journalists should be lynched in a post on Twitter. He later said it was a joke. I don't care about his right-wing politics and take him at his word about the tweet. He is still one of the best pitchers of his time and maybe the best postseason pitcher I've seen. He certainly won't get in this year, and it remains to be seen if some keep him on the bench.
Hoffman -- There is a prejudice against closers because, in recent years, they pitch just one inning per game and maybe 65 to 80 innings in a season. Hoffman was not only one of the very best -- he recorded 601 saves, averaged close to 40 in his full seasons as a closer and has a 2.87 career ERA -- but he was a pioneer of sorts. In an era of hard-throwers, his changeup was one of pitching's most devastating weapons. Heck, Major League Baseball named its National League closer award for him. It is going to be close this year, but he eventually should get in.
Martinez -- No disrespect to Mariners teammate Ken Griffey Jr., but opponents feared Martinez as much or more. His career slash line of .312/.418/.515 is evidence enough that he belongs, but he also had an .873 OPS in the postseason. The knock on him has always been he was primarily a designated hitter; the time is coming where voters will appreciate that DH is a position in the game. In public voting, no player is gaining more ground. His day probably won't come this year, but it will come.
Manny Ramirez -- He is the best right-handed hitter this writer ever saw, but he didn't earn the vote. His numbers -- a .996 OPS with 555 home runs and 1,831 RBI -- would make him an automatic. Plus he helped Boston win a pair of World Series and was MVP in one. But he is a proven PED user, twice disciplined by baseball; in fact we're only voting on him this season because of his second positive test. This voter can't see choosing him now. It would be no surprise as the electorate changes that he starts gaining more acceptance.
Sammy Sosa -- No vote here and probably no chance for admission ever. He hit 609 home runs, but there may be no player whose "greatness" is more a product of his performance-enhancing-drug use. He was a .273 hitter and, though he helped save baseball with his 66-homer performance in the great 1998 home run race with Mark McGwire, he was a one-trick pony.
Tim Raines -- Raines likely will get in this season, the last year he is eligible. He didn't get a vote here, but many voters have changed their tunes. I suspect it is sentimentality. To this voter, Raines was an excellent player, superior base-stealer and maybe the second-best leadoff hitter of his generation behind Rickey Henderson. However, he wasn't a player that people paid to see and had only six or seven great years in a 23-year career.
Mike Mussina -- Another great player who didn't get this vote, though I suspect he could make a climb and reach the Hall before his time on the ballot is over. Mussina was a standout for most of his 18 seasons, always pitching in the tough AL East, but his 270 wins aren't quite the 300 people look for. His 3.68 ERA would be among the highest in the Hall (though he pitched in the "steroid era"). He had one 20-win season and never won a Cy Young Award (he once finished second). He keeps gaining, but I don't see it.
Billy Wagner -- For two seasons in a row, believe it or not, this is the one that leaves me feeling as if I made a mistake by omitting him. It is possible that as the tide rises on the significant impact of relief pitchers, Wagner's boat will rise with it. There is no doubt that he was a dominating force when he came into a game. In 16 seasons -- 12 as his team's primary closer -- he recorded 422 saves and was an All-Star nine times. His 2.31 ERA is tremendous, and he struck out nearly 12 per nine innings, a big measure of relievers these days. His chances seem remote right now, but things are changing.