Bill Ballou has changed his mind.
Last month, the longtime Red Sox writer for Worcester’s Telegram and Gazette made the remarkable announcement that he would not be casting his Hall of Fame ballot for former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
Rivera, who was eligible for the first time this year, became the first player in baseball history unanimously voted into Hall of Fame when the inductees were announced Tuesday night. So, the previous distinction of being the lone public holdout earned Ballou national attention, particularly from the New York media. Even the Telegram’s own readers criticized the decision.
Ballou conceded that Rivera was “the greatest closer in baseball history,” but argued that saves are the “lowest-hanging fruit on the game’s statistical tree.” He noted that Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel went six for six in save opportunities this past postseason, while posting an ERA of 5.90 and permitting 19 baserunners in less than 11 innings.
Despite Rivera’s dramatically better statistics, Ballou compared the closer position to being an NFL kicker or a hockey goalie that only faces easy shots. From his Dec. 22 column:
Rivera was 82-60 with a 2.21 ERA and 652 saves, all but 10 of his 1,115 games a reliever. For most of those games, though, he was presented with “clean innings,” tools designed to make it as easy as possible for the closer. He didn’t have to face batters a third, or even a second, time around. He rarely came in with men on base. He didn’t have to conserve energy and pitches to stay in the game for as long as possible to allow the closer to get a save.
He was great in the ninth inning, agreed, but if he was that great why not bring him with the bases loaded and nobody out in the seventh or eighth? Why not use him as a starter?
Ballou added he didn’t want to deny Rivera the chance at being the first unanimous Hall of Famer. So rather than not checking the closer’s name on the ballot, Ballou said he would simply not send in a ballot at all.
Fast forward exactly one month, and Ballou says the critics persuaded him to reverse course.
“There was a lot of feedback, some of it from writers and observers whose voices are important, almost all of it saying I was wrong,” he wrote in a column Tuesday.
Among the counterarguments, Ballou said, were questions about whether it was unfair to deny other Hall of Fame candidates; whether Rivera’s performance over 19 seasons (and in the postseason) mattered; whether he would vote for Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz when he’s eligible; and whether one could reasonably tell the history without including Rivera.
“All good points, and after sorting it through, I decided to vote after all and put an “X” next to five names — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay, Manny Ramirez and Mariano Rivera,” he wrote.
Ballou went on to quibble over the distinctions in evaluating designated hitters and closers. He also noted how the changing use of MLB bullpens and general pitching strategy has meant that baseball “is evolving beyond the traditional standards of measurement.”
But in the end, Ballou concluded that a museum to baseball history would not be complete without mentioning Rivera, “even if that mention is based upon a flawed statistic.”
“With baseball, it is easy to get caught up in a logic trap, to worry too much about fairness,” he wrote. “It is, after all, a game in which a batter can reach first base safely because he swings at a pitch so bad even the catcher can’t catch it.”