COMMENTARY

What to do with polarizing names on baseball Hall of Fame ballot?

Posted Dec. 24, 2012, at 5:23 p.m.

The mother of all Hall of Fame ballots arrived in the mail earlier this month and I immediately set aside the manila envelope and continued to ponder how to handle the polarizing players who showed up on the ballot for the first time this year.

You know the names.

Barry Bonds.

Roger Clemens.

Sammy Sosa.

Superstars who stained the game by using performance-enhancing steroids.

After this year’s ballot arrived, I started reading columns from some of my fellow members in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Other opinions are important, especially when you’re looking for a solution on how to approach something that has caused you so much confusion.

Unfortunately, I mostly disagreed with much of what I was reading. One voter described the process of filling out the ballot as a fun privilege. In truth, it is a service provided by the BBWAA for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Some have argued that it’s a service that should be provided by an organization other than the BBWAA for the very reason many in the organization believe baseball writers are the best people for the job.

Our objectivity makes us good voters, but we do risk losing it when voting on something that provides great financial reward for the chosen ones. Just ask your local sports memorabilia guy how much more valuable an autograph becomes when it has the initials HOF attached to it.

I’m conflicted by that part of the voting, but since I’m a member of the BBWAA I feel obliged to perform the service our organization has been providing since 1936, the year that the racist Ty Cobb and the boozing Babe Ruth were among the first players inducted.

The truly difficult part of the job is to determine how to deal with the PED issue that has never been more at the forefront than now. One writer I have respected and admired for a long time screamed in capital letters that it is not the right or responsibility of voters to keep the game “pure of miscreants.” He argued that the Hall of Fame is not church. He argued that a lot of people who did bad things are already in the Hall of Fame. I’d be surprised if some of the players already in the Hall of Fame didn’t use some sort of performance- enhancing drugs, including steroids.

Here’s the problem: Rule No. 5 on the ballot.

It states that “voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

Integrity: (n) adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.

Sportsmanship: (n) conduct considered fitting for a sportsperson, including observance of the rules of fair play, respect for others, and graciousness in losing.

Character: (n) qualities of honesty and courage.

The Hall of Fame, with an overwhelming majority of support from Hall of Famers, insists those words must be included in the rules for election. Remarkably, there has never been a sustained movement by BBWAA voters to remove them. I’m saying there should be, and it should start now.

Remove those words and the ballot will fill up quickly. In a world without integrity, sportsmanship and character as part of the deal, I could easily fill out a ballot with 10 players, the limit allowed by the Hall of Fame balloting rules.

Bonds, Clemens and Sosa all go in on my ballot. So do Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Fred McGriff, Mark McGwire, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, and Rafael Palmeiro. I’d be leaving off Lee Smith and Alan Trammell just because I ran out of room, but I have voted for both men in the past.

I’ve read columns by voters who say they will support a player as long as the player was never caught cheating, and I’ve been questioned in the past about not voting for Bagwell, who has openly denied ever using steroids and whose name cannot be found anywhere in the 2007 Mitchell report.

I’m just not sure I believe him, and the reason is because I’ve watched players lie in front of Congress. If they can lie there, they can lie anywhere about anything. Schilling, one of the more outspoken players in his contempt for steroid users, once was asked if he was still dipping smokeless tobacco during his playing days with the Phillies. He assured the questioners he was not. It was a lie that was revealed by his wife, Shonda, just a few days later.

That’s questionable integrity and character. Many of Schilling’s teammates would tell you he displayed a lack of character, sportsmanship and integrity more than a few times during his career. I still think he belongs in the Hall of Fame, but the rules on the ballot would argue against his case.

The biggest dilemma I have from a numbers standpoint is that if some players’ numbers are artificially inflated and others are not, aren’t the honest ones paying a huge price for showing outstanding integrity, sportsmanship, and character?

Remove those three words and the Hall of Fame becomes a museum with the game’s greatest players and nothing more, which is exactly what it should be. The baseball writers should push for that change and the Hall of Fame and Hall of Famers should agree to it.

Jack O’Connell, the longtime treasurer of the BBWAA and the man who prepares the ballot for the Hall of Fame, said a group of writers from Chicago once raised the issue of getting a clearer definition of how voters should interpret Rule No. 5. The motion was voted down, O’Connell said.

It’s time to raise the issue again, and I will at the next BBWAA meeting.

For this year, however, I will cast one vote for Dale Murphy, who is on the ballot for the 15th and final time. He gets my vote because I believe he was a terrific player who showed great integrity, sportsmanship, and character.

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