Upon learning that I would cast a Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year, my 78-year-old dad sat down and wrote me a letter. It included his theories about steroids, a familiar rant about the injustice done to Pete Rose, and his ranking, from 1 (Barry Bonds) to 34 (Freddy Sanchez) of every player on the ballot.
So there’s no shortage of advice.
That’s one thing you learn right away when that surprisingly low-tech ballot arrives in the mailbox — everybody has an opinion about the Hall of Fame, which will announce its newest members Wednesday. Everybody has their own standards, their own expectations and their own favorites, and because it’s baseball, they’re willing to share. I always had, too, but learned something valuable as I studied my first ballot: Having the responsibility of actual voting makes you come to realizations you hadn’t expected.
For instance, the first question everyone asks is, ‘‘Where do you stand on the steroid guys?’’ When I was just a fan, or new to the job of covering baseball, it was easy to take black-and-white positions. Keep the cheaters out. Zero tolerance policy. I know a lot of players feel this way, and those opinions carry considerable weight.
But once you start putting check marks next to names, you realize how futile, unfair and ultimately pointless that position is. How do I know who was using and who wasn’t? Is it fair to enforce that prohibition based on rumors or skepticism — or worse, penalize players just for hitting home runs that I deem suspicious?
I watched Brian Dozier, roughly the 20th-biggest player in the Twins’ clubhouse, only marginally bigger than me, club 42 home runs last season, most ever by an AL second baseman. Having been around him for four years, he is the last player I would suspect of any subterfuge, of taking any shortcuts to success. But how can I know that for sure, about anybody? And if there are a lot of factors that went into his power surge, why couldn’t the same be true of anyone under suspicion?
Then there is the remarkable swirl of arguments, debates and campaigns, both for and against certain players. Many are statistically based, some are convincing narratives, and nearly all share a certitude about their absolute truth that I never can.
I wrestled with all of it, spent time researching the candidates but even more time considering not who to vote for, but how to choose. Eventually, though, I was struck by a revelation that I believe will guide me for as long as I’m a voter: It’s a museum.
Having visited Cooperstown several times, I know what a treasure and a treat the Hall of Fame is for a baseball fan, how you can lose track of time watching home movies of Babe Ruth, examining Ted Williams’ bat and critiquing the bizarre uniforms of the 1970s. And I believe that the Plaque Gallery — rather than present itself as some awkward and flawed bastion of righteousness — should reflect baseball’s history, however scruffy. The best players should be in there.
The truth we can’t hide from is, the steroid era happened. Barry Bonds hit those home runs, Roger Clemens struck out those hitters, and the games still count. Acknowledge the strangeness of the era if you must, just as we do the dead-ball era or the artificial-turf era, but let’s not pretend it was all make-believe.
That notion informs my voting on the players, too. The Hall leaves it up to voters to form their own approach, and I can tell already that I won’t have any trouble deciding who to vote for; my problem will be in leaving candidates off my ballot. I want the Hall to reflect the times we’re living through, and for me, there is no shortage of worthy candidates. Yet the Hall limits voters to 10 checkmarks, and I cannot imagine voting for fewer than that for the foreseeable future.
Yes, I’m a so-called “Big Hall” voter, and the distinction seems odd to me. Does adding more great players “dilute” the Hall? Well, there are nearly twice as many teams now as when it was created, yet the percentage of inductees from the 1970s and 1980s has lagged.
On this ballot, I was willing to vote ‘yes’ on roughly half the field, and don’t feel that any of them would diminish the Hall of Fame at all, but in fact would energize even more fans. That’s why I needed nearly all of December to finally choose who to leave off, a decision far more difficult than I imagined.
My only regret is that I didn’t get to vote for Pete Rose. Sorry, Dad.