The envelope arrived in the mail in early December. I immediately knew what was inside. The return address (Baseball Writers' Association of America) gave it away.
I was more than a little surprised and underwhelmed, though, when I tore the thing open and for the first time in my life held a Hall of Fame ballot in my hands. Wait, this is it? A photocopied, 8½ x 11-inch sheet of paper with 33 names and boxes next to each one to be checked? If you saw it from a distance, you might have mistaken it for a fourth grade math quiz.
The form itself may have been underwhelming; the task of filling it out was anything but. As I scanned through the names of the retired players eligible for election to Cooperstown, two thoughts came to mind:
1) This is the coolest thing ever.
2) This is the most terrifying thing ever.
Since joining the BBWAA a decade ago, I'd anticipated this moment — you must be a member for 10 consecutive years before becoming a Hall of Fame voter — but I didn't fully appreciate just how daunting the responsibility is until it was finally thrust upon me. Seriously, who am I to judge how these ballplayers will be remembered for all eternity?
And that's how I'd feel if I was judging them strictly on their performance between the lines. That, of course, isn't the case. Voters are instructed to consider six criteria when evaluating a player's candidacy: his playing record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which he played.
It's the "integrity, sportsmanship and character" clause that really makes this task so daunting. We're being asked to judge these people not as ballplayers but as human beings, a slippery slope at any point in baseball history but even more so in the wake of the steroids era. Each voter must determine how to handle this delicate matter, whether to eliminate all players suspected of using performance enhancing drugs, only those who were caught or none at all.
There's no right answer to this question, and there's no wrong answer. This isn't a black-and-white issue. It comes in billions of shades of gray.
There is, however, no group on earth more qualified to make these decisions than the 581 tenured members of the BBWAA who voted this year. I've spoken to dozens of them seeking advice on how best to fill out a ballot, and I can say without hesitation not one of them takes this responsibility lightly. They agonize over their selections, wavering back and forth over certain bubble candidates, until they finally make a decision and return the ballot in a sealed envelope.
I will admit I'm not entirely comfortable judging some players whose major-league careers began before I was born and who retired long before I ever set foot in a press box. But only a handful of candidates fit that description. The vast majority of them played during my baseball-watching life, and plenty of them were still playing when I began covering the sport for a living.
Besides, I've talked to enough sportswriters, players, former players and even Hall of Famers over the years about these candidates, enough to get a sense of how each one was regarded both during and after his career. All that information, plus my own statistical research and soul-searching, played a role in my eventual decisions.
The results of those decisions were revealed this afternoon, and two outstanding and deserving men received what must have been emotional phone calls from longtime BBWAA secretary-treasurer Jack O'Connell, who had the honor of informing Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven they had been elected to the Hall of Fame.
Before I reveal my votes, a quick primer on how this all works...
-- The 33-man ballot is created by a screening committee, which is required to include anyone who received at least 5 percent of last year's vote and hasn't been on the ballot more than 15 years.
-- First-time candidates must have played at least 10 seasons in the major leagues and have been retired at least five years (exceptions are made for a player who dies before the five-year waiting period ends).
-- Any player on MLB's ineligible list (ie. Pete Rose) is also ineligible to appear on the ballot.
-- Voters may select as many as 10 players in a given year, though we're not required to select any. No write-in candidates are allowed.
-- Any player who receives at least 75 percent of the vote is enshrined in Cooperstown.
OK, here's how I voted on each of the 33 eligible players...
ROBERTO ALOMAR -- YES
This was an easy decision for me (one of the only easy decisions, I might add). Alomar, quite simply, was the best second baseman of his generation, and without question is in the conversation for best second baseman of all-time. He was selected to 12 straight All-Star Games, won 10 Gold Gloves and four Silver Sluggers. He was a career .300 hitter who finished in the top 10 of MVP voting five times. He won two World Series rings (hitting a cool .347 in those games, by the way). Only Eddie Collins and Joe Morgan ever played more games at second base. How my colleagues failed to vote Robbie in last year when he first appeared on the ballot is beyond me — probably some lingering resentment over Alomar's umpire spitting incident — but I'm proud to have helped vote him in this year.
CARLOS BAERGA -- NO
The first former Nationals player to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot actually was putting together a Hall of Fame career in the early '90s. Through his first six seasons, Baerga was a .305 hitter with three All-Star appearances and two Silver Sluggers on his mantel. But he never sustained that level of play and spent his later years as a pinch-hitting specialist.
JEFF BAGWELL -- YES
I didn't enter this exercise thinking I'd vote for Bagwell, but the more I analyzed his career, the more I appreciated just how great a player he was. Start with his 449 homers, 1,529 RBI, .297 career batting average, .408 career on-base percentage and .948 career OPS (the 21st-highest mark ever). Throw in his 1994 NL MVP award, plus five other top-10 finishes. Yes, he played during the most offensively friendly era in the game's history, but it's not like he was a run-of-the-mill player during his time. Among all first basemen who played during his career, Bagwell ranked first in runs, doubles and stolen bases, second in homers, hits and RBI, third in OBP and fourth in slugging and OPS. Oh, did I mention he was one of the most underrated defensive first basemen in history, ranking second all-time in assists at his position? I hope in the coming years more of my colleagues come to appreciate Bagwell's greatness. (He received a strong 41.7 percent of the vote in his first crack.)
HAROLD BAINES -- NO
Baines is a better player than you probably remember. He was a six-time All-Star, hit 384 homers and drove in 1,628 runs (29th all-time). But his was a career of longevity, with no sustained run of dominance, and he spent much of it as a designated hitter (almost 60 percent of his plate appearances came as a DH).
BERT BLYLEVEN -- NO
Let me start by saying I am supremely happy for Blyleven that his 14-year wait is over and he has finally gotten the call. He is deserving of this honor, and I take issue with no one who voted him in. Nearly 80 percent of the electorate voted for the guy; obviously he had a legitimate case for induction. I agonized over this one, more than any other name on the ballot. I went back and forth for days, thinking I'd made a sound decision and then convincing myself I hadn't. In the end, I just couldn't pull the trigger for Bert, and here's why: If you have to agonize over a player this much, he's probably not a Hall of Famer. Only 109 players had ever been elected by the BBWAA prior to today (others have been voted in by the veterans committee). That's beyond the cream of the crop. That's the tiniest sliver of bubbles on top of the cream. For me, Blyleven just barely missed reaching that status.
Yes, he won 287 games (27th all-time), recorded 3,701 strikeouts (fifth all-time) and tossed an incredible 60 shutouts (ninth all-time). But he amassed those impressive numbers over a 22-year pitching career that was among the longest in baseball history. When you look at his career as a series of 22 individual seasons, it becomes less impressive. Yes, Blyleven is fifth all-time in strikeouts, but he led his league only once. Yes, he's 27th all-time in wins, but he never led his league in that category, and he only won 20 games once.
I believe you can only judge a player against those who also played in his time. As much as we want to believe baseball is the same game today as it was in 1901, it's simply not true. The game has changed countless times over the decades, and stats from the early 20th century simply can't be compared to stats from the early 21st century. So, was Blyleven one of the best very best of his time? No. His 3.31 career ERA (which looks fantastic by today's standards) actually ranked 15th among all starters with at least 2,000 innings pitched during the years he played. John Candelaria, Bob Welch and Jon Matlack all had better ERAs during that time. Blyleven wasn't even one of the very best strikeout pitchers of his generation. He ranked seventh in strikeouts per nine innings, behind Mark Langston. Blyleven was an All-Star only twice in his career. He never won a Cy Young Award and finished in the top four only three times.
Finally, there's this: On the day Bert Blyleven retired, how many people said, "THAT guy is a Hall of Famer"? Only 17.5 percent of the voting BBWAA members felt that way five years later when he first appeared on the ballot. That number steadily rose and finally took off in the last three years as various internet campaigns popped up arguing case Blyleven's statistical case for induction.
As I said, I'm supremely happy for him today. I have no qualms with his election, and I respect anyone who supported him. But I just didn't think he made the cut.
BRET BOONE -- NO
A three-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove winner and two-time Silver Slugger winner, Boone put up some big numbers late in his career. But his run of dominance lasted only three seasons and came too late for him to make a serious case for a spot in Cooperstown.
KEVIN BROWN -- NO
You tend to forget how great a pitcher Brown was at times: six All-Star appearances, two ERA titles. But his dominance came in brief, scattered spurts spread out over an otherwise good, but not great, career.
JOHN FRANCO -- NO
He was a very good closer for a long time. But if you're going to make it into the Hall of Fame as a reliever, you have to have been more than very good. You have to have been great, and Franco doesn't quite make the cut.
JUAN GONZALEZ -- NO
Won two MVPs and six Silver Sluggers, which certainly puts him in the discussion, as do his 434 homers and .561 slugging percentage. But Juan Gone is a perfect example of a player whose numbers look strong against the backdrop of baseball history but not as strong against the backdrop of his own offensively fueled era. Yes, that .561 slugging percentage ranks 18th all-time, but did you know it ranks only 12th among those who played during his career? There were also steroid accusations directed at Gonzalez (mostly from Jose Canseco) and while those alone didn't keep me from voting for him, they didn't help tip the scales in his favor.
MARQUIS GRISSOM -- NO
Grissom was a two-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner who put together six pretty impressive seasons over a nice career. He also served as the Nationals' first base coach in 2009 and is one of the genuinely good guys in baseball. Sadly, that's not enough to make him a Hall of Famer.
LENNY HARRIS -- NO
Another former Nats coach, Harris is baseball's all-time leader in pinch-hits. That's a nice accomplishment. But that's not getting him into Cooperstown without a ticket.
BOBBY HIGGINSON -- NO
OK, the former Tigers outfielder had three great seasons. But he had zero All-Star selections, zero Gold Gloves, zero Silver Sluggers and never finished in the top-10 in any offensive category.
CHARLES JOHNSON -- NO
One of the best defensive catchers of his time, Johnson won four Gold Gloves and was a two-time All-Star. With a career .245 batting average.
BARRY LARKIN -- YES
Had he played in a bigger market than Cincinnati, or had his career not overlapped with Ozzie Smith's so much, Larkin might well have been a first-ballot selection last year. He's still got strong support (62.1 percent this year) and I think he will get elected in the near future as more voters come to appreciate his fabulous career. Larkin was as complete a shortstop as there has ever been in the game. He hit for average (.295), he hit for power (198 homers, ninth all-time among shortstops), he ran the bases well (379, eighth all-time among shortstops) and he fielded his position flawlessly (three Gold Gloves, but he would have won more if not for Ozzie). Here's hoping Barry (another very nice man who previously worked for the Nationals) gets the call next year.
AL LEITER -- NO
He was a two-time All-Star who finished in the top-10 of Cy Young voting twice, thanks to two fantastic seasons. His average season, however, included a 12-10 record and 3.74 ERA.
EDGAR MARTINEZ -- NO
Edgar certainly has a strong case for induction, and it's quite possible I'll change my mind about him down the road. He was, simply, the best designated hitter of his time and probably the best pure DH ever (not that there have been many). He won two batting titles, an RBI title and five Silver Sluggers, and was an All-Star seven times. I was, however, troubled by the fact this obviously outstanding batter never recorded more than 182 hits in a season. And his career totals (2,247 hits, 1,261 RBI) are just a smidge too low for me. If he only had some defensive accomplishments to go along with the borderline offensive numbers, it would probably push him over the hump. But if you're going to make it to Cooperstown strictly on your merits as a DH, your offensive numbers are going to have to knock my socks off. And Edgar's don't quite do that.
TINO MARTINEZ -- NO
He had some very nice seasons and some very clutch hits for some very good Yankees teams. But you have to be more than "very nice" for "very good" teams to make it.
DON MATTINGLY -- NO
Seven years into his career, Donnie Baseball might well have been the best player in the game. During that span, he hit .327 with an average of 27 homers, 114 RBI and 43 doubles, all while playing superb defense. And then the wheels came off and his career fell apart. Had he only sustained even a quality career for a few more years, Mattingly would make it in. Unfortunately, his reign didn't last quite long enough.
FRED McGRIFF -- NO
There may not be another player in history who suffers more than McGriff for simply playing during a time when a lot of people put up big offensive numbers. While the Crime Dog's 493 homers and 1,550 RBI would have guaranteed him election a generation earlier, he falls short when compared to the other sluggers of his time. Among all qualifying hitters who played during his career, McGriff ranks 35th in OBP, 32nd in slugging and 29th in OPS (behind Mo Vaughn, Tim Salmon and Ryan Klesko).
MARK McGWIRE -- NO
There's no need to rehash McGwire's career accomplishments. His numbers and his contributions to the game make him a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. His admission to using steroids keep him out. I've spent an incredible amount of time trying to figure out how to handle these cases, and here's what I've come up with: I'm not going to vote for anyone who either admitted to or was caught using performance enhancing drugs. For now. I'm going to re-evaluate these candidates every year as long as they remain on the ballot. My hope is that over time we will learn much more about who did what, how many players did it and what effect it had on the game. We've already learned a lot more in the last couple of years than we knew in the preceding decade. I just don't feel comfortable making these decisions right now. You can always put a guy in the Hall later (as long as he maintains the 5 percent threshhold, which McGwire should). You can't, however, take him out once he's already in.
RAUL MONDESI -- NO
He had two great seasons, which isn't enough. And his career lasted a total of only 10 years, which also isn't enough.
JACK MORRIS -- NO
I get the case for Morris, I really do. He was the winningest pitcher of the 1980s. He was the ace of three different World Series teams and pitched probably the greatest game in Series history. But I just can't get over his career 3.90 ERA, which would be far and away the worst in Cooperstown. And it's not like a 3.90 ERA was considering strong during Morris' era. In fact, his ERA was better than the league average in only nine of his 17 full seasons. Among all qualifying pitchers during his career, Morris ranked 39th in ERA, behind Kevin Gross, Doyle Alexander and Charlie Hough. There are all sorts of new-fangled ways to quantify and evaluate players. I think we can all agree, however, that ERA remains the best tool to evaluate pitchers. And the fact is, Morris' ERA was not Hall-of-Fame worthy.
DALE MURPHY -- NO
I know plenty of people who are strongly in Murphy's corner, and I respect their argument. He was absolutely one of the best players of the 1980s and won two MVPs. The problem is that he just didn't sustain that level of play long enough.
JOHN OLERUD -- NO
A two-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner and one-time batting champ, Olerud was simply a very good hitter and smooth first baseman for a long time who never ascended to greatness. No shame in that.
RAFAEL PALMEIRO -- NO
My voting criteria with Mark McGwire also applies here, so I won't rehash it, except to point out that despite some who believe Raffy would have been a borderline candidate even without the failed steroids test, there's no question his numbers are Hall-worthy. You combine 3,000 hits and 500 homers, you get in as long as you pass the integrity, sportsmanship and character tests. And I'm certainly open to voting Palmeiro in down the road once I have a better understanding of what really happened with him and how that fits in with the rest of the steroids era.
DAVE PARKER -- NO
The Cobra was a pretty feared player in the late-70s, and he won an MVP, a batting title and three Gold Gloves. But his peak didn't cover enough years to earn my vote.
TIM RAINES -- YES
I went into this exercise thinking I would vote for Raines, and my ensuing research only made me feel stronger about voting for one of the most-under-appreciated players of all-time. Plain and simple, Raines was the best leadoff hitter in history not named Rickey Henderson. Rickey, of course, is the unquestioned king of that unofficial position. But Raines is firmly entrenched as the No. 2 man. He was a seven-time All-Star who won a battle title, a Silver Slugger and four consecutive stolen base titles. Among all those who played during his career, he's second in steals, third in runs, fourth in hits, third in triples, third in walks, eighth in OBP and even 39th in OPS (which isn't bad for a leadoff guy). Here's what really pushed Raines over the top for me: He's fifth all-time with 808 stolen bases. But he's second all-time with an 85 percent success rate on stolen base attempts. How good is 85 percent? Henderson's career rate was 81 percent. Same for Ty Cobb and Vince Coleman. Lou Brock's was 75 percent.
KIRK RUETER -- NO
I'm sure someone can make a case for Rueter, owner of a career 4.27 ERA, no major awards or All-Star selections. But I can't.
BENITO SANTIAGO -- NO
He was a five-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner and four-time Silver Slugger winner. But he never really ascended into that echelon of great catchers like many thought he would early in his career.
LEE SMITH -- NO
Smith gets lots of support from those who look at his 478 career saves and say he was one of the greatest closers ever. I, however, look at his 77 percent success rate in save situations (11th among the 21 relievers with at least 300 career saves, behind Armando Benitez) and say that doesn't make the cut.
B.J. SURHOFF -- NO
He had a nice career, but by no stretch of the imagination a Hall-of-Fame career.
ALAN TRAMMELL -- NO
I thought long and hard about this one, I really did. I've always respected Trammell as a player and believe he doesn't get the credit he deserves. He's a six-time All-Star, a four-time Gold Glove winner and a three-time Silver Slugger winner. And when you compare his stats to the other shortstops of his time, he's clearly third-best to Cal Ripken and Barry Larkin. The sticking point for me was that he didn't compile enough "great" seasons (six, by my count) and he's a clear step below Larkin. That doesn't mean he wasn't a fantastic player and one of the best of his time (or any time). But he's not quite in the class of the very best of all-time.
LARRY WALKER -- YES
Walker's credentials are fantastic. He was a five-time All-Star, a seven-time Gold Glove winner, a three-time Silver Slugger winner. He won an MVP. He won three batting titles. He won a home run title. His career batting average was .313 to go along with a .400 OBP, .565 slugging percentage (14th all-time) and .965 OPS (16th all-time). Why didn't more writers vote for him (he only got 20.3 percent)? I suppose it's the Coors Field factor. Roughly one-third of his career plate appearances came at probably the best hitters' park the game has ever known. But should Walker's entire Cooperstown case be based on that alone? I don't think so. Yes, he benefited some from playing in a great hitters' park. So did dozens of great Red Sox players over the years who took advantage of Fenway Park's cozy dimensions. So did plenty of left-handed Yankees sluggers who who took advantage of the short porch in right field at each incarnation of the Stadium. And it's not like Walker was a complete slouch everywhere else he played. He was a pretty darn-good player in the early portion of his career in Montreal, not exactly the smallest ballpark ever constructed. If Walker's case was built entirely on his offensive numbers, I might have hesitated to vote for him. But he was a complete player, a fantastic hitter, fielder and baserunner (230 career stolen bases). That he played one-third of his career at Coors Field doesn't bother me.
So there you have it. That's my first Hall of Fame ballot. I certainly don't claim to have a perfect method for selecting players, and I certainly don't expect everyone (or anyone, for that matter) to agree 100 percent with me.
I do hope, however, you respect my decision-making process and the effort I put into it. As easy as it may seem to fill one of these ballots out, I suspect you'd realize it's an incredibly difficult task if you actually were holding one in your hand that counted.
I sure know I felt that way as soon as I opened that hallowed envelope last month.