The Baseball Hall of Fame careers of Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax left an indelible impression and standard for what enshrinement in Cooperstown demands: unarguable greatness.
It was simple for me as a first-time voter in 1989 when Carl Yastrzemski and Johnny Bench appeared on the ballot. It did not require a deep dive into their statistics to know they were worthy of the Hall.
Ballots submitted by voting members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America contain an average of eight players each year. The maximum is 10. “Small Hall” voters rarely pick more than two or three players, and that is upsetting to fans who may view the Hall as a given for their favorite players.
Using the legends as a baseline, there were no votes in the past for Don Mattingly, Keith Hernandez or Thurman Munson, whose career was shortened by his death at 32. Borderline players do not belong in the Hall. This isn’t an isolated belief.
“The Hall of Fame should be something that is very, very special, and only special people deserve to go in,’’ Hank Aaron, class of 1982, said earlier this month from Atlanta. “I think that in some cases, we have let the bar slide a little bit.’’
The basic criteria for nearly automatic admission to the Hall used to be 3,000 hits or 500 home runs for a position player and 300 victories for a pitcher. That has become problematic, particularly with respect to home run totals in the era of performance-enhancing drugs. It is the most polarizing issue among the more than 400 voters in the BBWAA.
Initially, the idea that some players were Hall of Famers before their alleged PED use made sense, and they appeared on my ballot. Grade them on a curve and they still had great statistics. But on second thought, the Hall of Fame plaque commemorates an entire body of work. If any part of it was chemically assisted, why validate it with a plaque in Cooperstown?
Some voters believe the steroid era included many more players than just the prominent names under suspicion. Given that many were involved, they reason, why selectively penalize anyone?
Of course, it’s impossible to determine how widespread PED use was at its height, but the notable ones stand out. The most prolific home run hitters before steroids never produced aberrational single-season totals of 73, 70, 66, 65, 64 or 63.
The 2019 ballot highlighted Mariano Rivera. He should be a unanimous selection. “If he isn’t, there ought to be a congressional review,’’ former commissioner — and Hall of Famer — Bud Selig said from Milwaukee on Wednesday. “How does one vote against Mariano Rivera?’’
Also likely going in is designated hitter Edgar Martinez, who was denied the previous nine years mainly because he was a one-way player. That would be like denying light-hitting but superb defensive shortstop Luis Aparicio his rightful spot in the Hall. With David Ortiz (and the suspicions surrounding him) on the way, Martinez deserves to be the first DH elected by the writers.
Harold Baines is the first player who primarily was a DH to gain admission after his recent election by the 16-member Today’s Game committee.
I passed on Roy Halladay and Mike Mussina because, adhering to a higher standard, they did not have the careers of contemporaries Randy Johnson or Greg Maddux. Curt Schilling? No vote for a player wearing a shirt that advocates hanging journalists or insensitive remarks on a law supporting equal access rights for transgender individuals. There is a character clause for voters to consider and it seems appropriate to invoke it in Schilling’s case.
The Hall always has space for more players, but it should be reserved for the best.
Looking ahead to the 2020 candidates, it’s likely only one will garner my vote: Derek Jeter.