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Hall of Fame now a heck of a dilemma

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 5, 2011 08:13 AM

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bagwell.jpgIn this Hall of Fame election, Jeff Bagwell always has been the man to watch. On paper, Bagwell should be a lock. But thanks to the steroid era, he may now be nothing more than a guinea pig, a test case for whether baseball needs reform in a voting process that was controversial to begin with.

So let me get this out there: I did not vote for Bagwell, opting to exercise my right to wait for more information.

And if you called that a copout, you’d be right.

For the sake of clarity, let’s start at the beginning. To obtain the privilege to vote for the Hall of Fame, one must have covered Major League Baseball for at least 10 consecutive seasons. Once that happens, you keep the vote for life. Players appear on the ballot for the first time five years after playing their last game. Assuming that a player receives an approval rating (or yes vote) of at least five percent, he remains on the ballot for a period of no more than 15 years. If and when a player gets 75 percent (or more) of the vote or more, he gets in.

As for the voting guidelines, they are generally as follows: voters are asked to consider a player’s on-field accomplishments as well as his "character." (More on that later.) And on any given ballot, a voter may vote for as few as zero candidates but no more than 10.

Before we get to Bagwell, let me give you some background on my voting history and general philosophies with regard to this process, all in the interest of full disclosure. If you see inconsistencies here, you would certainly be entitled (and encouraged) to point them out. I long ago accepted the reality that my voting history would likely be imperfect.

I started covering baseball full-time in 1994 and, thus, have been voting since December 2003 (for the Class of 2004). Generally speaking, I have tried to rate players relative only to their era. I have tried to place more emphasis on on-field performance than the dreaded "character" clause, largely for the fact that the museum in Cooperstown is a baseball Hall of Fame and not a shrine dedicated to the memory of Mother Teresa. The reason I have a vote is because I watched a lot of baseball, not because I attended clubhouse chapel meetings on Sundays or because I have some great sense of morality.

On the whole, I have operated with the belief that less is more. I have never once used all 10 of my eligible votes in any given year, believing that to do otherwise would dilute the Hall of Fame. I started voting in 2004 and have voted every year since, and I believe that all ballots should be public.

So here you go:

2004: Andre Dawson, Dennis Eckersley (enshrined), Paul Molitor (enshrined), Jim Rice, Ryne Sandberg, Bruce Sutter. (Eckersley and Molitor were on the ballot for the first time.)

2005: Wade Boggs (enshrined), Dawson, Rice, Sandberg (enshrined), Sutter. (Boggs was on the ballot for the first time.)

2006: Dawson, Rice, Sutter (enshrined).

2007: Dawson, Tony Gwynn (enshrined), Rice, Cal Ripken (enshrined). (Gwynn and Ripken were on the ballot for the first time.)

2008: Dawson, Rich Gossage (enshrined), Rice.

2009: Dawson, Rickey Henderson (enshrined), Rice (enshrined). (Henderson was on the ballot for the first time.)

2010: Roberto Alomar, Dawson (enshrined), Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez. (Alomar, Larkin and Martinez were on the ballot for the first time.)

2011: Alomar, Larkin, Martinez.

Let me save you some of the trouble of second-guessing by pointing out the one most obvious inconsistency: Gossage. When I started voting in 2004, Gossage was on the ballot and I bypassed him, something I continued to do through 2007. In 2008, my fifth year of voting, I added him. By that point, the support for Gossage had grown, so I went back to look at his record again. I came to the conclusion that, along with Sutter, he was the most dominating reliever of his era. Gossage’s 310 saves initially failed to convince me, but as a product of the late '80s and '90s, I put too much emphasis on saves.

So I changed my vote.

Beyond Gossage, I’ve tried to remain consistent in my voting methods. In comparing players to their peers, I’ve tried to put great emphasis on things like the Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award balloting, as well as the Silver Slugger Award and Gold Glove Award. All of these, in some capacity, reflect a level of excellence at a given position. (The Gold Glove certainly comes with its share of politicking, but we generally know who the legitimate fielders are.) In the case of Barry Larkin, for example, he won nine Silver Sluggers and three Gold Gloves as well as an MVP, making him (in my opinion) the best National League shortstop of his era. So I voted for him.

Roberto Alomar was a no-brainer and should have gotten in last year. Shame on us as voters for blowing that one. As for Edgar Martinez, he stands out in my mind as the greatest designated hitter of all-time. Unfortunately, there continues to be a bias against the DH in voting of any kind, from the MVP to the Hall of Fame. The DH position has been in existence for nearly 40 years now, but many baseball people still thumb their noses at the DH because, you know, DHs don’t play the field. Somehow, that makes them lesser players, even in age when some teams (like the Red Sox) build their rosters around people like David Ortiz.

Using that logic, no reliever should ever get in based on workload alone.

All of this now brings us to Bagwell, one of the great first baseman of his era and someone who had very few (if any) holes in his resume. And yet, partly because Bagwell hit six homers in his minor league career before reaching the major leagues, many wonder about the legitimacy of his power numbers. Physically, Bagwell exploded during his major league career, all of which was effectively played during the steroid era. His name has never turned up in a drug investigation and he has never failed a steroid test of any kind (as far as we know). But the steroid era has now cast suspicion on players of every kind, and there is no right answer with how to treat people like him.

Please understand that Bagwell is now a barrier-breaker of sorts. Guys like Rickey Henderson, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken played a significant chunk of their careers in the '80s. (They’re in.) Mark McGwire played in the '90s, but has admitted to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. (He’s out.) Bagwell now falls in to the grayest of gray areas in between, someone who might have been comparable to, say, Kevin Youkilis had Bagwell's power numbers not become what they are.

And in this discussion, the difference between Kevin Youkilis and Jeff Bagwell makes all the difference in the world.

If you think Bagwell is being treated unfairly here, you’d be right again. Unfortunately, in the absence of drug testing, Major League Baseball and the players union opened the entire game up to great skepticism. Maybe Bagwell deserves to go in now, maybe he doesn’t. But people like me have never been more grateful for the existence of a voting window that could last as long as 15 years because, in this case, it might allow us the time to learn something that will clarify the place of people like Jeff Bagwell in a grossly tainted era.

And so, with regard to Bagwell, I’m going to wait.

And get used to it.

There are lots of other players coming soon who will get the same approach.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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