First thing I did when opening my Baseball Hall of Fame ballot was to smile at the privilege.
Well, that’s not exactly true.
The first thing I did was giggle to myself about how much Joe Morgan would hate what I was about to do.
And then I smiled at the privilege.
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Morgan, you might’ve heard, send an email to all Hall of Fame voters asking us to keep “known steroid users” out of the Hall of Fame, where “the hallowed halls honor those who played the game hard and right.”
I did appreciate him addressing the form letter personally (though, if you see him, tell him that in the Mellinger house, “Samuel” is what we call our son Sammy when he’s not listening).
It’s not that I don’t respect Morgan. He’s perhaps the best second baseman in baseball history, a key part of the Big Red Machine dynasty, and we’re all entitled to our opinion. That’s why I hope he doesn’t mind me stating my opinion:
The Hall of Fame almost certainly already includes steroid users, and as Buck O’Neil used to say, the only reason players of the past didn’t use steroids is because they weren’t available. Morgan specifically cited punishing players who used “chemistry to change how hard you hit and throw by changing what your body is made of.”
But that’s what many players of his and other eras did with greenies, so now we’re merely talking about matters of scale, and matters of availability. Willie Mays is among those who’ve admitted taking greenies, and he sure as hell should be honored in the Hall of Fame.
The Hall has never been perfect, just like anyone who’s ever visited or been honored there. But if Morgan and other Hall of Famers want to pretend the museum is somehow above recognizing an entire era of the sport, let them start by demanding commissioner Bud Selig and manager Tony LaRussa and many others be removed. The list of Hall of Famers who profited from steroids is long.
So, no disrespect to Morgan — OK, maybe a little disrespect, because the sanctimony was over the top — my vote this year comes with the same process and principles as last year.
I call and text with a handful of people I respect in the game — this year that included a manager, two scouts, two current players and a Hall of Famer — and study the numbers.
In general, I don’t believe any of us know who used steroids and who didn’t, but that Barry Bonds and Rogers Clemens were Hall of Famers with or without, and that Manny Ramirez was a Hall of Famer long before he failed a test. I understand and respect more “hardline” views on steroids, particularly when it comes to the Hall of Fame case of those three.
Let’s get to it, then — the best I know how, an explanation of why I voted for the following 10 players (the most allowed).
▪ Barry Bonds: The greatest player of my lifetime. Seven MVPs, including three before anyone thinks he took a drug. My favorite stat from Pharmacy Barry: In 2004, if you made all his hits outs and his walks hits, he still would’ve won the batting title by 29 points.
▪ Roger Clemens: Either the greatest or second-greatest right-handed pitcher of my lifetime (Greg Maddux). I just don’t know how much longer we’re all supposed to be mad about highly competitive athletes following the incentives put in place to be their most productive selves.
▪ Chipper Jones: He’ll be elected in his first year of eligibility, and deservedly so, though it’ll be with a vote total higher than it otherwise would’ve been because of his lack of connection to steroids. One of the game’s all-time greatest switch-hitters, and one of 21 players all-time with batting averages over .300, on-base over .400 and slugging over .500. You haven’t heard the last of that list.
▪ Manny Ramirez: I get it. He embarrassed himself and stained his reputation with multiple failed drug tests. But those came after one of the most productive careers of all-time. From 1999 to 2005, his worst MVP finish was ninth. In the 10 seasons between 1999 and 2008, the only players with a higher OPS were Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols. Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones and Vlad Guerrero are among those behind him.
▪ Edgar Martinez: He’s on the .300/.400/.500 list, and he was one of the most consistently productive hitters of all-time. I do believe the bar is higher for a full-time DH, but Hall of Famer Paul Molitor also started more than 1,000 games there. David Ortiz will have his case soon, and he started more than 2,000 games as a DH.
▪ Mike Mussina: This is one of the names I didn’t expect to vote for before doing research. But his career was remarkable: top-six Cy Young finish nine times, covering ages 23 to 39. A better adjusted ERA than Nolan Ryan, Tom Glavine, Steve Carlton and other Hall of Famers. His 3.58 strikeout-to-walk ratio is higher than every Hall of Famer except Pedro Martinez and Cy Young. I’m a peak-over-consistency guy by nature, but if there’s a position to reward longevity and reliability, it’s starting pitcher.
▪ Curt Schilling: I find the life he’s leading after baseball to be sad, and I’d rather he not have tweeted what was essentially a thumbs-up to killing journalists, but man, the guy could pitch. Since 1969, when baseball lowered the mound, Schilling ranks in the top 10 in strikeout-to-walk ratio, strikeouts per nine innings, WHIP, walks per nine, WAA, ERA+, strikeouts and WAR. Even if I found him to be a borderline selection, his postseason success would put him over the top.
▪ Larry Walker: This is another guy I didn’t expect to vote for before the research. Walker won an MVP and three batting titles and led the league in on-base and slugging twice in the same year. He won the modern Triple Crown in 1999: .379, .458 on-base, .710 slugging. The argument against him is always about Coors Field, but his road OPS was actually higher than home in his MVP season. Fewer than one-third of his career plate appearances came at Coors, and he hit everywhere he went: .322/.394/.587 his last year in Montreal, and an OPS over .900 after leaving the Rockies for St. Louis as a 37- and 38-year-old. Also won seven Gold Gloves, with a reputation as an excellent all-around player.
▪ Vlad Guerrero: I wanted to vote for him last year and am happy to have room on the ballot for him this year. Won an MVP and had four other top-six finishes. He was one of the game’s very best hitters for an 11-year stretch, and I don’t know how much this should matter, but he was so fun to watch.
▪ Jim Thome: Homers have been devalued, but 612 without a whiff of steroid rumor is a pretty good place to start a Hall of Fame case. His .956 OPS would rank 13th among Hall of Famers, ahead of Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza, and his 147 OPS+ would tie Mike Schmidt, Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey for 24th.
That makes 10. I also believe Scott Rolen, Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner have interesting cases. If the ballot expanded, I might consider them.
This is by definition an entirely subjective exercise. I’m proud to be a part of it, and understand most will disagree with at least part of my ballot. That’s part of the fun. Thanks for hearing me out.