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Off in the distance, the steroid ea apocalypse is approaching, only a year away now. Woo-hoo. I can hardly wait.
Yes, way out there, just beyond the horizon, the Hall of Fame candidacies of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and others are heading for a ballot near you. And once they arrive, Hall of Fame election time will engulf us all in a painful, never-ending conversation about how history will, and should, regard the steroid era and its biggest stars.
But just so you're officially alerted in advance, that's not where this Hall of Fame column is heading. Elsewhere on this site, my friends Jim Caple, Tim Kurkjian and Buster Olney have done a tremendous job of looking ahead to the voting debacle that awaits us in 2013 and beyond.
This column, on the other hand, is here to remind us what Hall of Fame election time has always been -- a time to slalom through the names on the ballot and place the careers of the greatest players in baseball in their proper perspective.
I don't know if that's what Hall of Fame voting will be about over the next quarter-century. But who the heck cares? For now, for one more year, we don't have to care about the mess that lies ahead. And thank heaven for that.
So here's a look at my 2012 ballot -- at the guys I voted for, at a few I didn't vote for and, especially, at Barry Larkin. When those voting results get announced on Monday, his Hall of Fame time seems all but certain to arrive, in his third go-round. And when it does, I hope it causes people to wonder: Why'd it take so long, anyhow?
My 2012 Hall of Fame ballot
Just for the record, before we move along, you should know I voted for 10 players this year -- only the third time in more than two decades as a voter that I've used up all 10 spots on my ballot. Here are the names I checked:
Most likely to get elected
Larkin's phone is going to ring Monday afternoon. On the other end of the line will be Jack O'Connell of the Baseball Writers Association. I hereby predict he'll be letting Larkin know he shouldn't book any vacations in, say, Guadeloupe in the third weekend of July -- because his attendance is going to be required in scenic Cooperstown, N.Y.
We don't know that for a fact, of course. Larkin got "only" 62.1 percent of the vote last year, leaving him 75 votes short of election. And that might seem like a pretty formidable pole vault since, as Dave Schoenfield documented last week, players don't automatically make the jump from 60 percent to the required 75 percent in one year.
But here's why Larkin doesn't fit with all of the candidates who fell short: He hasn't been stuck in Hall of Fame limbo for years and years. He got to 62 percent in just his second year on the ballot. And to find the last time any position player topped 60 percent in either his first or second election and then didn't make it the next year, you have to go all the way back to Roy Campanella, in 1966-67.
So there's that. Plus, with no compelling first-year candidates to muddle the voters' heads, the guess is that this group will want to elect somebody. And in Larkin, they've got a darned fine candidate.
A few years back, I wrote a book called (uh-oh, it's another shameless book-plug alert) "The Stark Truth -- the Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History." Well, guess who got nominated in that Pulitzer Prize-worthy volume as the most underrated shortstop of all time?
No, no, no. Not Larvell Blanks. It was Barry Louis Larkin, of course. And in that very chapter, I suggested that when Larkin's name finally showed up on the Hall of Fame ballot, it would be an excellent idea for you to pull that book off the shelf and remind yourself of why Larkin was one of the greatest shortstops of all time.
I'll take a moment for you to do that now.
But just in case you're one of the millions of Americans who forgot to purchase that distinctive work of American literature, I can pass along a few highlights:
• Larkin won nine Silver Sluggers. You know how many infielders have won more in the history of the award? Exactly one: Alex Rodriguez (who won 10).
• Larkin also made 12 All-Star teams. Want to guess how many shortstops in history ever made more than 12? That would be two luminaries named Calvin Ripken Jr. and Ozzie Smith.
• And the accolades didn't stop there. Larkin won an MVP award, three Gold Gloves in a row (while Ozzie was still active) and both major off-the-field awards that honor character and contributions to the planet beyond the ballpark -- the Roberto Clemente and Lou Gehrig awards.
• This man also brought a unique power/speed package to his position. His .815 OPS ranks sixth among all shortstops in the live-ball era who got at least 5,000 plate appearances. He was a 30-30 club member who was also the answer to the trivia question, "Name the only shortstop to steal 50 bases in any season in the '90s." And his 83.1 percent stolen-base success rate ranks fifth among all modern members of the 200 SB Club.
• But it's when you start comparing Larkin to his peers that you truly begin to comprehend why they're about to start chiseling his plaque. That .815 career OPS was 137 points higher than the average shortstop of his era (.678). His .444 career slugging percentage was 83 points higher. His .371 OBP was 54 points higher. And his .295 lifetime average was 39 points higher. In other words, even factoring in his (gulp) 14 trips to the disabled list, Larkin towered above his fellow shortstops in a way no NL shortstop has since the days of Arky Vaughan, back in the 1930s and '40s
So there's an expression we use to describe players like that, ladies and gentlemen. And it goes like this:
Hall of Famer.
Larkin versus Alan Trammell
Have I mentioned yet that I once wrote a book on the most overrated and underrated players in baseball history? Oh, that's right. I did. Well, right behind Larkin on that most-underrated shortstop list, in the No. 5 slot, was a gentleman named Alan Trammell. So you know I love the guy.
Just not quite enough to vote for him.
And why is that, you ask? Not because I don't think Trammell is massively underappreciated. It's because I'm still not convinced that Trammell and Larkin are essentially the same player, as some of my peers have argued.
Larkin's career slugging percentage was nearly 30 points higher than Trammell's. His career on-base percentage was almost 20 points higher. But the biggest difference was this:
Larkin may have had his injury issues, but when you got him on the field, he was a consistently dominating player: 13 straight seasons with an OPS-plus greater than 100, seven Silver Slugger awards in nine years, 11 All-Star appearances in 13 years, 12 straight seasons with a wins above replacement greater than 3.0, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Trammell, on the other hand, spent his career mixing seasons of greatness with seasons in which he was just a good, solid, dependable player. He never ran off more than three straight years with an OPS-plus over 100. Larkin had nearly twice as many seasons (14) with an OBP of .350 or better as Trammell (eight). Larkin had a 14-year streak in which he never had an OPS lower than .745. In nine of Trammell's 20 seasons, his OPS dipped into the .600s or lower.
None of this is meant to imply that Trammell wasn't a tremendous player. It's just a way of explaining why he falls barely below my personal Hall of Fame threshold. As I've said many times, it's never an insult to say any player was not quite a Hall of Famer. But that's how I see Trammell, hard as I've tried to convince myself otherwise.
There were no Cal Ripkens, no Rickey Hendersons among the first-year candidates on this ballot. Heck, there weren't even any Jeff Bagwells or Edgar Martinezes. Nevertheless, I feel I owe it to every first-timer to take a long, hard look at his career. So I really did run through the credentials of Jeromy Burnitz and Bill Mueller and one of my favorite baseball people ever, Terry Mulholland.
I broke down Vinny Castilla's superhuman stats in Denver (.992 OPS) versus his not-so-superhuman performance on the rest of the planet (.713 OPS). I crunched Javy Lopez's numbers, saluted Brad Radke's fabulous career walk ratio (1.63 per 9 IP) and tipped my cap to Ruben Sierra's dazzling, near-MVP 1989 season in Texas.
To all those guys I say: Thanks for the memories. And it was great to see you pass through this ballot, and all that. But you didn't make me grind those brain cells the way Bernie Williams' candidacy did.
I didn't wind up voting for Bernie. But I sure did come to admire him, one more time.
Bet you didn't know that only six other center fielders in history beat Bernie's career slash line (.297/.381/.477). Those six were men named Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Tris Speaker and Earl Averill. Whoever they are.
Ah, if only Williams had been as good a defensive center fielder as his four Gold Gloves made him appear, he'd be joining those other guys in Cooperstown. But we know the truth about Bernie's defense. Don't we?
You can look up all the defensive metrics yourself. No need to bash this guy with them here. But the bottom line was that, because of how much his glove dragged down his overall value, his nine seasons with a WAR of 3.0 or better were as many as Chet Lemon and Brett Butler. And, with no disrespect to Chet and Brett, that's not quite Hall of Fame name-dropping.
So Bernie, for me, was yet another distinguished member of the Not Quite A Hall of Famer Club. Great player. Just not great enough to make this cut.
Fred McGriff and Dale Murphy
I've been voting for the Hall of Fame for a long time now. Only once, in all those years, did I have to leave players I wanted to vote for off my ballot, just because the rules say I could only check off 10 names.
It happened to me last year, when an overstuffed ballot left me with no choice but to lop off the names of Fred McGriff and Dale Murphy. And I guess I'll be facing this same mess again, as long as we live in an age when anyone who used PEDs, was suspected of using PEDs or even showed signs of suspicious back hair has no shot of getting elected.
Once, players with the credentials of Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro would have breezed into Cooperstown. Now, all they're doing is clogging up the ballots of voters like me, who don't see how it's even possible, given how little information we're working with, to keep all the PED users out of the Hall of Fame.
But more on that later. The good news (for me, anyhow) is that this year I was able to carve out room to vote for McGriff and Murphy. They're two men whose greatest years occurred before the steroid era erupted. Yet they're still being overlooked by voters whose perspective on their numbers has been warped by the PED generation.
That's particularly true of McGriff, who fell a mere seven homers shy of 500, just missed finishing with 2,500 hits (2,490) and a .900 career OPS (.887), and still got only 104 votes last year.
It was 1993 when the steroid era really kicked in. So how come nobody seems to notice that, in the five seasons before that, McGriff won two home run titles, and was the only player in baseball who finished in the top four in his league in homers, home run ratio and OPS in all five seasons?
Over the decade that followed, McGriff's numbers (290/.373/.506) looked remarkably similar to his numbers from 1988-92 (.283/.393/.531). And that's as clear a sign he was clean as any voter could ask for. His problem was that pre-1993, those stats made him league-leader material -- but afterward, they relegated him to being just another name on the lineup card. So was that his fault? Really?
Consider this question very seriously before you dismiss him: How many players in history have appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot with as many home runs as McGriff, as many hits and that high an OPS and NOT gotten elected? That answer is none. Ever.
Murphy, I understand, is a tougher case. If you want to argue his period of dominance didn't last long enough, I get where you're coming from. But when I look at Murphy, I see a guy who spent at least five years in the who's-the-best-player-in-the-whole-darned-National-League conversation.
I also see a player who led all National Leaguers in runs and hits in the '80s, tied Mike Schmidt for the most RBIs and finished second to Schmidt in homers. Murphy was a back-to-back MVP. He won five straight Gold Gloves. He was a 30-homer, 30-steal man. He once led the continent in All-Star votes. And if there was a way to factor character and integrity points into WAR, he might be the all-time leader.
So he got my vote. And I felt great about casting it.
Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro
I'm not going to claim it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy to vote for a man who admits to using PEDs and another man who tested positive. But let me try to explain one more time why I did it.
I've heard my fellow voters' vow to keep every darned "cheater" out of the Hall of Fame. Great idea. I only have one question: How?
They have no idea which players of that generation were chemically enhanced and which weren't. Oh, they know which names showed up in the Mitchell report. And they know which names got dropped in Jose Canseco's contributions to The New York Times best sellers list.
But what else do they know? What do any of us really know about who did what back then? We know hundreds and hundreds of players were using something or other. Unfortunately, we know the identity of just a fraction of them.
So we'd better be prepared for what's coming as the stars of the steroid era begin to flood this ballot.
We'd better come to grips with the idea that, sooner or later, we're going to elect a player who has never been linked to any kind of PED, who has never even been in that conversation, and then find out that he, too, was guilty. We should probably be asking ourselves if it's possible we've already elected somebody like that. That wouldn't shock me one bit.
So the challenge is to figure out a way to handle the candidacies of that entire generation and do it with any semblance of fairness or balance or consistency.
Is the solution to play some sort of half-baked guessing game -- a game that could very well end in a heap of massive embarrassment? Or is the solution to either vote for all the great players of that era or none?
It's not fair to the "clean" players -- whoever they were -- to vote for none. So I'm convinced that the only reasonable answer is to judge every one of these men based on what they did on the field.
If that means electing Barry Bonds or McGwire, I have no trouble with trumpeting their PED connections right there on their plaques. And if the folks in Cooperstown who run the Hall of Fame have a problem with that, let them take a stand and tell the voters how to deal with this mess.
Until then, my position is that the Hall of Fame is a history museum. And what do history museums do? They tell the story of what happened in various periods in human time. So I say: Let the Hall tell this story -- all of it. There's no other sane way to go.
The rest of my ballot ...
• Tim Raines: Still the most criminally undersupported name on this ballot. Raines took a big 54-vote leap last year, but at 37.5 percent he'd still have to double his vote total to get elected. That's not happening anytime soon. But hopefully, one of these years, this electorate will understand that Raines is arguably the greatest leadoff hitter of all time who isn't named Rickey Henderson. My favorite Raines nugget: He reached base more times (3,977) than Tony Gwynn, Honus Wagner or Lou Brock. And there isn't a single eligible player who reached base as many times as Raines did and had as high an on-base percentage as he had (.385) who is not in the Hall of Fame.
• Jeff Bagwell: The best assessment of Bagwell's HOF credentials I've ever read just appeared on this site, from the ever-eloquent Schoenfield. But let me add: What we have here is a guy who has vehemently denied he used any illegal PED, and who didn't appear in the Mitchell report even though star witness Brian McNamee worked for the Astros. What we also have here is a player whose Hall of Fame qualifications couldn't possibly be more clear-cut. How many first basemen are in the 400-homer, 200-steal club? Just one: Jeff Bagwell. How many first basemen have ever ripped off at least 12 straight seasons with an OPS-plus of 130 or better? Only two: Bagwell and Gehrig. Not to mention this fellow was a rookie of the year, an MVP, a Gold Glove winner and the Simba-esque leader on a team that went to the postseason six times. So why are so many people NOT voting for him again?
• Edgar Martinez: I'm not sure we'll ever elect a pure DH to the Hall of Fame. But if we do, we need to start with the greatest DH of all time. Forgive me for again dredging up my most cherished Edgar tidbit: His career OPS-plus was 147. Meanwhile, the second-greatest DH in history, a Hall of Famer named Paul Molitor, only had an OPS-plus that reached 147 in two seasons -- and he played for 21 years. And how 'bout this: Edgar had nine different seasons with an OPS-plus of 150 or better. So how come he spent all that time in the shadows of A-Rod and Ken Griffey Jr., considering those two have had only 11 seasons like that combined?
• Larry Walker: There's only one plausible explanation for why Walker collected only 118 votes last year. You know it. I know it. John Elway knows it. You can sum it up in one word: Colorado. Based on his career achievements -- his three batting titles, his seven Gold Gloves, his MVP award and his .965 career OPS -- Walker was a Hall of Famer. On Bill James' Hall of Fame monitor, an average Hall of Famer gets a score of 100. You know what Walker's score was? How about 147. So obviously, hundreds of voters are devaluing all of that based almost solely on the Coors Field factor. But the beauty of a stat like OPS-plus is that it compensates for both ballparks and the era a guy played in. And Walker's career OPS-plus wound up at 140. So what's that mean? Well, there are 64 outfielders currently in the Hall of Fame. Walker had a better OPS-plus than 45 of them (a group that includes Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield and Roberto Clemente). So here's what I have to say about the Coors factor: Get over it.
• Jack Morris: It's Morris' 13th year on the ballot. He was still 125 votes short of getting elected last year. So it's hard to believe at this point he'll ever make up that ground. I understand the reasons people don't vote for Morris. Maybe, as Schoenfield has written, he was never really The Ace on three World Series winners. But I need to keep making this point about him: It wasn't just misguided sportswriters who thought he had that ace aura. The whole sport thought he had it. There's no other explanation for why this man was chosen to start three All-Star Games, or why he started on Opening Day 14 years in a row, or why his manager handed him the ball in Game 1 of six of the seven postseason series he participated in -- with three different teams. The Morris detractors have every right to look at the facts they want to look at. But so do those of us who vote for him. That's what makes the annual Hall of Fame debate the greatest talk-show topic on Earth. Right? And we should all make it our goal to never, ever allow that conversation to get swallowed whole by the Great Steroid Era Debate that will be arriving on our doorsteps way too soon.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst