Turns out, it was a short stay on Mount Olympus.
Three years and three ballots ago, I made the decision to scale back my Hall of Fame votes to a more select group — the no-brainers, so to speak — rather than work the margins to come up with the maximum 10 candidates permitted by the rules.
The philosophical shift on my part came about after the Class of 2019 election of Harold Baines by the Today’s Game Era Committee, a 16-member panel that is one of a handful designed to reconsider candidates the BBWAA previously had dismissed. No offense to Baines, a very good player, but I felt the controversial pick — engineered by his lobbying friends on the committee — only served to weaken the Cooperstown brand as a whole.
Spurred some by the Baines imbroglio, I shrunk my ballot to the players I thought were the three slam-dunk Mount Olympus candidates: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mariano Rivera. The gap that followed was significant, in my view.
I also felt comfortable sticking with Bonds and Clemens the next two years (as I’ve consistently done since their appearance on the ballot) while adding only Derek Jeter (Class of 2020) during that span. Again, these were the elite, and the bar remained high.
But this year’s ballot has created new complications and requires yet another adjustment, perhaps more radical than the Thanos finger-snap that halved my candidates for the 2019 class. The scale-tipper this time is David Ortiz, and while he qualifies under my previous methods of scrutiny, his link to MLB’s 2003 survey PED testing list as a (non-disciplinary) positive made me reconsider what has been labeled a "Small Hall" approach.
In recent years, since PED-tinged players first began popping up on the ballot, I’ve stuck to a fairly black-and-white guideline: If MLB never punished a player for a PED-related offense, such as a suspension, then neither would I. Bonds and Clemens faced charges outside of baseball’s legislation, in a courtroom, but were not kept off the field because of those claims (MLB didn’t enter the disciplinary phase of its PED program until 2004).
That penalty criteria currently is keeping Alex Rodriguez off my ballot, as the three-time MVP was twice suspended for PEDs, including the season-long ban in 2014.
Although the 2003 survey was supposed to be anonymous — and even commissioner Rob Manfred has tried to discredit the testing that put Ortiz on the list in the first place — all parties acknowledge that his name indeed was there at a time when Ortiz seemed to magically rejuvenate his career with the Red Sox.
That pulls us down into the PED rabbit hole anew, and this gray area prompted me to re-examine my process. Not only for the players polluted in some way by PEDs, but especially the other side, the ones who performed like Hall of Famers without (presumably) the boost from illegal chemicals.
So where did that lead me? After Bonds, Clemens and Ortiz, the next domino was Sammy Sosa, who like Big Papi appeared on that 2003 survey test. If I’m going with Ortiz, then Sosa’s resume (609 homers) and larger-than-life impact on the sport (also like Papi) when baseball desperately needed it now gets him through the gate. And with Sosa follows Gary Sheffield, whose Bonds-BALCO connections don’t overshadow the fact that he was among the most feared hitters of his generation (509 homers, .907 OPS).
But we’re only halfway there. If those PED-tainted five deserve to be considered Hall of Famers, I believe there’s a need for balance so the (supposedly PED-free?) players aren’t penalized for doing it by the rules — or at least avoiding the public stain of such behavior.
Fortunately, the 10-man ballot leaves room for five more, and this "clean" category — it’s important to put that in quotes — on the other side of the ballot now includes plenty of first-timers for me: Todd Helton, Andruw Jones, Scott Rolen and Billy Wagner.
As for Curt Schilling, I had him on my ballot before switching gears at the end of 2018 (for the Class of 2019), so he gets back on just in time for his last year of eligibility.
Maybe it’s naive to think these five did not benefit from PED usage in some form, but at this point in history, they don’t wear the scarlet P and will be treated as such.
Submitting a ballot with only three names (or fewer), as I had recently, didn’t make this process any easier. This year, it was especially tough, but I feel confident about the ballot as a whole. While it does again represent a major shift in how I choose to vote, this was the best way to reconcile some of the conflicts among this group and provide a fair representation for Cooperstown.
It’s also worth noting that just as Baines’ special election prompted me to rethink the Hall of Fame three years ago, to some degree, the same can be said for Gil Hodges finally getting in last month. What was the point of all those years of gate-keeping for a deserving player whose admission clearly makes Cooperstown a better place?
As a long-standing BBWAA member, ultimately we’re asked to vote players into the Hall of Fame, not keep them out. And staying on a "Small Hall" trajectory had the potential to be increasingly restrictive going forward, which would be a disservice to a number of players who possess the credentials, even if they weren’t seven-time MVPs like Bonds or a seven-time Cy Young Award winner like Clemens.
The Hall of Fame is a museum meant to celebrate players’ careers and accomplishments, and upon further review, more celebration (within reason) should overrule less.