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Bob Ryan

Few easy answers on ballot questions

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 29, 2010

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Voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame was always hard. ’Twas a privilege, but hard. It’s a very serious responsibility.

And now it’s 10 times harder.

The drug guys, you know? Or should I say “the suspected drug guys’’? What a mess.

I haven’t voted for Mark McGwire in the first four years he’s been on the ballot. I need to hear some serious contrition, but it has not been forthcoming. You call that stuff he was saying during last spring training a meaningful apology and/or explanation? I don’t. “It didn’t enhance performance’’? Stop it.

I didn’t vote for Juan Gonzalez, either, but I wasn’t going to vote for him, anyway. Nor, some may be surprised to hear, was I ever planning on voting for Rafael Palmeiro, even before the infamous finger wag and subsequent outing as a certified druggie. He has all these boxcar numbers — 3,020 hits and 569 home runs — but at no point in his career did I ever regard him as a future Hall of Famer.

Of course, the real trouble looms when Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens come a-callin’.

I know how I feel about these guys now. It’s no. But the thing I like about the system is that a name sits there for 15 years. That allows for lots of things to happen, including the simple expedient of changing one’s mind, just because. I like to think I’m a fair-minded person, open to persuasion, and thus I have voted yes on any number of people for whom I originally voted no, including two on this year’s ballot. I’m speaking of Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris.

People often ask how a voter can operate this way. Did someone’s stats change? Of course the stats won’t change. So either you’re a Hall of Famer or you’re not a Hall of Famer.

Well, no. First of all, we are now in possession of data that wasn’t available in years past. Some people have benefited greatly from what we shall call the Bill James New Math. Secondly, some things just look better over time. In addition to the other valid reasons to vote for Blyleven, the man had 60 shutouts!

As for Morris, the biggest “yeah, but’’ on him is his career 3.90 ERA, which would be the highest among Hall of Fame pitchers. Well, either you buy into the notion that Morris pitched to win the game and not to protect his stats, or you don’t. Either you buy into the notion that he would win 7-5 or 6-4 complete games because he’d give up the solo homer in the eighth or ninth before he’d walk a man, or you don’t.

I do.

Let’s get back to Messrs. McGwire, Bonds, and Clemens for a moment. There is no unanimity of opinion about what to do with these guys. Some voters are of the opinion that if juiced pitchers were throwing to juiced batters, there’s nothing we can do about it now. The numbers are the numbers. Let ’em all in. As time goes on, more and more voters will think that way. And one day in the late teens, I may wake up and say, “You know what? Those guys are right.’’ I’m not ruling out that possibility.

Every voter has his (not sure if there are any hers, to tell you the truth) own general Hall of Fame guidelines. For me, it’s a combination of numbers, era dominance, and what I would call the Smell Test. There’s a lot of gray area.

On the current ballot, I have identified 17 players for whom I could easily mount a devil’s advocate or closing statement argument. I have chosen to vote for six of them: Roberto Alomar, Jeff Bagwell, Bert Blyleven, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, and Jack Morris. I have chosen not to vote for Harold Baines, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Mark McGwire, Dale Murphy, Rafael Palmeiro, Dave Parker, Tim Raines, Lee Smith, Alan Trammell, and Larry Walker, and that’s without mentioning Bret Boone, Kevin Brown, Juan Gonzalez, and Marquis Grissom, all of whom have some voter support.

I would not consider you an idiot or impugn your integrity if you said you’d voted for any of the 15 above-named men whom I have bypassed. I don’t feel good at all about passing up Raines and Trammell, in particular, and I wish Mattingly had tacked on at least two or three more good Mattingly years to enhance his résumé.

But there is one thing I can’t tolerate. Tell me you don’t feel so-and-so doesn’t fit your Hall of Fame criteria, and that’s fine. You have that right. But do not tell me you did not vote for so-and-so, whom you recognize as a Hall of Famer, because you have a policy of not voting for anyone the first year.

I used to think only, shall we say, certified old school voters operated in that manner, but I recently encountered a younger voter (whom I shall call Mr. X) who did not vote for Alomar last year because he has a very narrow vision of first-ballot guys, and that’s that. So Mr. X was partly responsible for Alomar falling short of his deserved first-ballot election last year by eight votes. Make no mistake: Robby Alomar is one of the five greatest second basemen of all time, right there with Rogers Hornsby, Nap Lajoie, Eddie Collins, and Joe Morgan.

Mr. X assures me that he believes Alomar is a Hall of Famer. If so, Mr. X does not have the right to withhold his vote. Does he realize that if everyone acted in that manner, even a drop-dead first-ballot Hall of Famer such as Ted Williams or Willie Mays would not have the necessary 5 percent of the vote needed to remain on the ballot? It’s not merely a foolish policy. It’s conceivably a counterproductive one, as well.

But voting will always remain capricious. I consider it an embarrassment to the Baseball Writers Association of America members, past and present, that no one has ever been a unanimous pick. There should have been 50, minimum. There’s no room for debate with some names.

Unless, of course, a drug cloud hovers over them.

And we haven’t even discussed the DH or closers with phony-baloney padded save stats. I told you this wasn’t easy.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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