The Baseball Hall of Fame voting becomes a more chaotic proposition each year, but this winter's ballot has added an off-the-charts array of noise and wrinkles to an already complicated process.
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens continue to make strides as the electorate takes a more forgiving stance on players with PED baggage. Some voters have cited former commissioner Bud Selig's recent election as impetus for the change. At the same time, writers must decide whether to apply a different standard to Manny Ramirez, whose numbers would clearly be Cooperstown caliber if he hadn't flunked two drug tests late in his career.
Over on the non-PED wing of the ballot, Curt Schilling is suffering a marked drop-off in support 10 years after throwing his final big-league pitch. Several voters have said it's less a question of Schilling's right-wing politics than a controversial tweet in which he appeared to cheer the lynching of journalists.
As David Ortiz begins his five-year wait to appear on the ballot, Edgar Martinez tries to carry the mantle for designated hitters. And Trevor Hoffman, his 601 career saves notwithstanding, will try to reach the 75 percent threshold without support from writers who refuse to vote for any closer not named Mariano Rivera.
As some writers lament the constraints of a 10-man limit, one veteran scribe just went the alternate route and submitted a blank ballot. And voters across the spectrum continue to debate the merits of traditional stats vs. new age analytical measures.
Everyone knows where writers stand, because they devote so much time publicly hand-wringing before submitting their votes. But what do the Hall of Famers think about the salient issues driving the Cooperstown debate?
ESPN.com contacted five Hall of Famers -- Jim Palmer, Bert Blyleven, Barry Larkin, Tom Glavine and Craig Biggio -- and asked them for their opinions on the hot topics this winter. Here's how they responded:
How much do you think the 'character clause' should affect a player's Hall of Fame chances?
Glavine: "When I hear that, it sounds like the fallback position for a writer when he really doesn't want to vote for somebody. Maybe you think a guy used PEDs, or maybe he didn't. Or you think, 'He's a guy I never really liked or got along with.' If you're looking for a reason to justify not voting for somebody when their numbers are on the cusp, you can say, 'Let's go with the character clause.'
"It's funny. There's a lot of discussion you can have on the merits of Curt Schilling. But I don't think his political views should play into that. That had nothing to do with his baseball career.
"Obviously the Hall of Fame is select company, and you want it to be good guys who represent the game well. But if you're going to use it to keep guys out, that should be the biggest reason why Dale Murphy is in the Hall of Fame. He's right on the cusp with his numbers. But if you're going to point to the character clause, there's not a nicer guy that's ever played the game than Murph."
Palmer: "Gaylord Perry won over 300 games, I pitched against him and there were fingerprints all over the ball and the umpires looked the other way. Does that make him a bad guy? Does it make him 'wily'? Does it make him have 'guile'? Don Sutton erased (league president) Lee MacPhail's (signature) from the ball on the last game of '82, and the umpire kind of scoffed. That doesn't make Don Sutton a bad guy.
"There were a lot of guys who scuffed the ball. Mike Scott won a Cy Young in Houston and the bottom was dropping out. Is that part of your craft? There's not a clear-cut answer. Does it mean Gaylord Perry was a bad guy because he had fly-line stuff on his uniform, or whatever he used? It's a tough call.''
Blyleven: "If you talk to Jane Forbes Clark or Jeff Idelson (at the Hall of Fame), that's always brought up: 'What makes a Hall of Famer?' It's part of their formula and what they expect out of their inductees. I think the writers have to look at character and the history of the player. Are the numbers clean or were they shaded by the PED situation?
"A lot was brought up with Bud Selig being elected. There were articles saying, 'If he went in, they should allow guys in who are sitting on the fence, and they should receive more votes.' But if they let in those guys, then why not Pete Rose? As a player, Pete had more hits than anybody in the game of baseball. He was banned by baseball because of the gambling situation, but he didn't tarnish the game the way some of these guys have.''
How has your stance on PED users and the Hall of Fame evolved in recent years?
Palmer: "If you're going to vote for guys in the steroid era, you have look at guys who dominated that era. You have to look at guys like Bonds and Clemens, who would have dominated (regardless). I don't really know what happened with Barry or Roger, but they were probably getting in anyway. Before Barry got jealous and envious of (Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa) for what transpired in 1998, he had already won three Most Valuable Player awards. He could beat you with his home runs, his speed, his glove and his arm. At the end of the day, he was a Hall of Fame player.
"Mark McGwire is one of the great guys, but I don't know if he's a Hall of Famer if you subtract some of the home runs so that he doesn't hit 500. You've got to start looking at the whole package.''
Blyleven: "I'm against guys who used illegal drugs to enhance their career. I'm fully against that. There were guys who took advantage of the situation to better themselves. But it's hard to say when you have no proof. Did Barry Bonds take PEDs? I don't believe it's ever been proved that he did.
"When they did the Mitchell report, I wish they could have come out with the 90 or 100 names or whatever and said, 'These guys are involved in PEDs.' That way, if Jeff Bagwell's name isn't on the list, then the writers know, 'This is a guy who did it right.'''
Larkin: "Whispers are just like rumors. If there's smoke today, will there be fire tomorrow?
"If a guy flunked a PED test -- flat-out flunked it -- and we had the results and they were quantifiable. I personally would not vote for him for the Hall of Fame. Because he cheated. If a guy did not flunk a test and he's a Hall of Fame-caliber player, then he should be in the Hall of Fame. If you don't know and you can't prove he did it, then how can you keep him out?''
Glavine: "When you go to the Hall of Fame, the older players have a stronger opinion than my generation does. I don't know how to say this without sounding a little bit bad. But it was such a part of what was going on, we didn't really worry about it. We knew guys were doing it. But it wasn't like Greg Maddux and I were on the mound saying, 'This guy is cheating -- he did steroids.' We were just on the mound trying to figure out how to get guys out.
"It's probably easy for people to look at A-Rod and say, 'I'm not voting for him.' Now, is it because he did steroids or he's just one of those guys that people really didn't like?'
"If you look at Barry Bonds, you can probably say, 'The year he hit 73 home runs, he was doing steroids.' Well, before that, he was a Hall of Famer. He was the best player of our generation. That's the thing I always struggled with about Barry. I looked at him and thought, 'If you did do this, my god, why? You were already a Hall of Fame player. What more were you looking for?' The same with Roger. With those guys, there's a little grayer argument versus somebody like an A-Rod. There's really no telling how long he was doing it and what kind of player he was without it.''
What is your opinion on relief pitchers as Hall of Famers?
Biggio: "I talked to Joe Torre last year and I said, 'Who was your MVP in all those years with the Yankees?' I told him. 'Listen, Mariano Rivera would take the ball in the seventh, eighth or ninth.' When you're on a team and you have a Rivera or a Hoffman or a Billy Wagner, the game is over. And the other team knows it, too.
"Good gosh, a good closer is so valuable. If I'm building a team, that's one of the guys I want first. Because if we're bad, I want to win those games. And if we're good, I want to win those games. And if we're in between, I want to win those games. There's nothing worse than going out and busting your butt for 3 1/2 hours, and then you look at the back end of your bullpen and you're like, 'Oh god, here we go.' A closer should get the same amount of attention as anybody else on that ballot, because you're not going to win without one.''
Larkin: "The game has changed. It's not a nine-inning game anymore. It's a sprint to the other team's bullpen once you have that lead. You're not facing Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson or Pedro [Martinez] four or five times in a game now. It's a sprint to the sixth inning, and you turn it over to the specific righty-lefty matchups. The strategy of the game has changed, and it should be looked at in a different sense because of the way the game is played. I would have no hesitancy whatsoever [in voting for a closer].''
Palmer: "I keep reading where the sabermetricians say, 'Well, anybody could close.' We all know that's not the case. Physically it may seem very easy to get three guys outs in the ninth inning, but how about the mental aspect of the game?
"Even though closing is a less difficult job than when I started playing back in the '60s, it's still hard to do for as long as Hoffman or Rivera did. I saw Lee Smith with the Orioles toward the end of his career, and it was unbelievable. He was at 96 mph. He looked like Paul Bunyan throwing the ball knee high on the outside part of the plate He had a marvelous career. If you're looking at the DHs as Hall of Famers, you have to look at the closers.''
Glavine: "Rollie Fingers got saves over three innings, and it wasn't as specialized as it is now. But I think across the board, the criteria to get into the Hall of Fame are constantly being adjusted, yet there are no adjustments made for the closer.
"You mean to tell me that every middle infielder that gets in the Hall of Fame stacks up across the board to Joe Morgan, or every starting pitcher now should stack up to Warren Spahn or Steve Carlton? Of course not. So if that thought process is being adjusted, why the unwillingness to at least take a look at closers and what they mean?
"I see guys like Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner and I know what they did and what their reliability meant to their team. I think we need to stop being so close-minded and understand the importance of that position and the guys who do it really, really well. You're not going to diminish any other position on the field, right? You recognize and appreciate when you have a guy playing a position that's worthy of Hall of Fame discussion. These closers play the game at that level, but we've been less willing to have them in the discussion, and I think they need to be.''
Would you vote for a designated hitter? Why or why not?
Glavine: "I don't view it as half a position. It would be interesting to have a discussion with Paul Molitor. Ask him if it was harder to hit later in his career, when he was a DH, or when he was playing a position every day. A lot of guys will tell you it's really hard to sit on the bench and then go hit once every three innings. I've heard a lot of guys say it's easier to hit when you're in the rhythm and the flow of the game and you're playing a position on the field.
"For a long period of time, guys like David Ortiz and Edgar Martinez put up really good numbers in the middle of the lineup. But they also affected how the opposing manager went about the game and how the opposing pitcher went about his game plan. When guys have an effect on the game like that, they're special.''
Larkin: "I think the regular season and postseason [together] weigh more heavily for DHs and closers. It's different than an everyday player. I could care less what Ken Griffey or Reggie Jackson or Rickey Henderson did in the postseason. They're out there grinding every single day. It's not about their postseason numbers. With a DH, I would look at more of how he impacts the biggest games of the season as opposed to how he impacts the games throughout the season. In my opinion, that really helps David Ortiz. If I were voting, that would be a tipping point for me.''
Biggio: "There are some amazing guys who were DHs, like Papi and Edgar. Edgar might have had one of the prettiest right-handed swings I've ever seen. Those guys are great players, and a lot of them could play a position, but you might have another guy who's a little better defensively and they becomes a DH. That's not the player's fault.
"You know how hard it is to put up the numbers those guys put up? I liked playing every day. When my at-bat was over, I loved to go play defense. It's hard to sit there and wait for every 30 minutes to roll around and go hit again, because you have to figure out ways to stay loose and keep your mind sharp. Physically it's harder when you play two ways. But walking up there every 30 minutes isn't easy to do.''
Blyleven: "Back in 1973, they put in the DH. Did it prolong some guys' careers? Sure. But that was a position baseball created, so they should have the right to the same votes as someone who played third base or the outfield.''
How do you feel about the increased role of sabermetrics and analytics in evaluating Hall of Fame candidates?
Biggio: "Sabermetrics has been great for guys like me, because it really shows the value we bring. I wasn't a 40 home-run guy, but I might hit 20 homers or score 100 runs or do a lot of little things to help the team win -- like getting hit by pitches or not grounding into double plays. If you have numbers that are useful like that, absolutely, you should use them.
"Bill James one time rated me higher than Barry Bonds. I remember when he said it, and I was like, 'All right, somebody appreciates the little guy.'"
Palmer: "To me, they're just tools to see where you rate. Two or three summers ago, my wife, Susan, was reading on her iPad, and somebody from SB Nation wrote that I was the most overrated pitcher ever because my batting average on balls in play was [.251] for my whole career. They said I was really lucky and had good defense and I didn't strike a lot of guys out.
"I asked a writer I know, 'You're into sabermetrics. Can you look up, with a runner on third and less than two outs, did my strikeouts go up?' And he said, 'Yeah, they went up 17 percent.' Well, why do you think that is? Because I didn't want to give up a run.
"You've got to take all the tools available, but they're not written in stone. They're important tools to allow you to come to the conclusion you want to come to. But I don't think they tell you the whole story.''
Blyleven: "I'm from the old school, so I don't really get into the sabermetrics or analytics. I try to see what's in a guy's heart. I'll look at his hustle and desire and leadership and character. I don't care what the numbers say. Sometimes they don't show what a guy really means to a ballclub.''
Larkin: "Those numbers are created from what the players do on the field. They've always been there. The problem is when you try to predict what's gonna happen in the game based off the numbers. You can't quantify how a guy is feeling, or how his home life is, or whether he's sick or not. Those numbers don't take into account if he's going through something off the field.
"Hall of Famers are special. They impact the game offensively and defensively. It's a calculable thing. But when I won the MVP [in 1995], Dante Bichette hit .340 with  RBIs. My question was, 'How the heck do I win MVP when I hit [.319] with  HRs and  RBIs?'
"A few voters told me, 'We knew of the meetings that you held. We heard how you got in guys' faces and the team responded and you willed your team to win.' The intangible stuff is not reflected in the numbers. I think there's a place for sabermetrics, but it's not the be-all and end-all.''
What do you care more about -- how good a Hall of Fame candidate was at his peak, or the longevity of his career?
Glavine: "A lot of people had a hard time voting for Don Sutton because he didn't have any of these phenomenal years. I look at it and say, 'Hey, wait a minute. If you're able to pitch at a consistent level for 23 years, that in and of itself is remarkable. Hats off to that guy.'
"In starting pitching terms, people talk about 300 wins. But nobody is going to argue that Sandy Koufax and Pedro Martinez aren't Hall of Famers. Sandy's five-year run was probably the greatest in the history of the game, and Pedro's was really close and some might argue better. That matters, even if they don't have the longevity.
"We're all trying to come up with a formula that makes a guy a Hall of Famer, and you can't. It's getting harder and harder to identify guys by their numbers and compare them to past eras, because the game has changed so much.''
Blyleven: "To me, there are two guys a lot of people forget: Tommy John and Jim Kaat. Some writers will say, 'They pitched too long.' Well, I'm sorry. If I worked for AT&T, I'd want to be with AT&T as long as I can. I don't want to get fired or let go. These guys had the fire and the burning desire to play for 25-26 years and compete at the highest level with young kids. Phil Niekro, same thing. I think he's 104 years old now.
"That's part of the game: You put that uniform on with a lot of pride. To me, Tommy John and Jim Kaat should be in the Hall of Fame. They were workhorses. They did everything. They relieved, they started, they did whatever it took. And they played a long time. That should come into play as a positive -- not a negative.''
As baseball changes, what statistics and milestones do you think are most important on a Hall of Fame resume?
Palmer: "We used to look at 3,000 hits and 500 homers. But if you played in the steroid era and you were suspected of doing it, those numbers might not be as significant.
"With Alex Rodriguez, there's the character stuff. His numbers are Hall of Fame numbers, but can you separate the lies and deceit? 'I'm gonna be clean,' or, 'I'm not clean,' or whatever. If it comes down to making $275 million or getting into the Hall of Fame, what are you gonna choose?''
Larkin: "There are benchmarks. I'm not a hard-line Hall of Famer because there were a lot of intangible things that led to my induction. My captaincy. My leadership. Hitting second in the order. The way I played the game.
"Could I have gone out and hit more homers, doubles and triples, or stolen more bases? No doubt about it. But I did what my team needed me to do. I think my longevity, my style of play and my selflessness were taken into consideration by some of the voters. I've always said, I was a supplemental player. I was always a complementary guy to the No. 1 guy on the team.''
Glavine: "I hesitate to say, 'Never,' but I'm pretty confident you're not going to see another 300-game winner. OK. Does that mean that no starting pitchers in the game today are Hall of Famers? As the game changes, it's tougher and tougher to stack players of the current era up against players from previous eras.
"On a different level, it's like the argument of, 'Who is the greatest quarterback to ever play in the NFL?' A lot of guys will point to today's quarterbacks -- Tom Brady or whoever -- because they throw so many touchdowns or have so many passing yards. Well, hell, Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath played in a different era. I always cringe a little bit when people start to compare players from one era to players from a different era, because there's a really good chance the game is played a lot differently and you can't always use the same criteria.''
Is there a player who isn't in the Hall of Fame now that you would like to see in Cooperstown?
Blyleven: "Jim Kaat and Tommy John, obviously. Tony Oliva. And I think of Ted Simmons. He had almost 2,500 hits with the Cardinals and the Brewers and he didn't get 5 percent of the vote.
"That amazes me -- a switch-hitting catcher with power from both sides of the plate. You respected Ted Simmons because he played hard and he played the game the right way. I remember when I was in Pittsburgh and John Candelaria was facing him against the Cardinals. The scouting report said, 'Throw him breaking balls,' and Candy thought he would try to sneak a fastball by him and -- boom -- Simmons hit a home run. Candy tried to outsmart Ted Simmons, and Simmons beat him there. And Chuck Tanner went nuts.''
Biggio: "Fred McGriff. He was part of those great Atlanta Braves teams. Where would Freddy be if he had hit seven more homers and reached 500? That used to be the key to Cooperstown, right? He was just an overall great player.''
Larkin: "Fred McGriff. I remember at the height of his career, how he dominated the game and how much we had to game plan against him. I think guys like Freddy and Lee Smith and Alan Trammell got caught in the wave. Tram was a beast, man. I had a chance to play with Tram early in my career on a trip to Japan. Him and Lou Whitaker. I tried to emulate what they did.
"I look at a guy like Lenny Harris, my former teammate. He has the most pinch hits in the history of baseball. Maybe he's not a Hall of Fame player. But I scratch my head and say, "Why isn't there some at least acknowledgement in the Hall of Fame for that?''
Glavine: "I always point to Dale Murphy and Tim Raines. He's been on the cusp, and I don't quite understand that. Look at Freddy McGriff, and his numbers are pretty darned good when you compare him to some other guys who are in the Hall of Fame. Off the top of my head, those three guys jump out to me.''
Palmer: "Jim Kaat. He won 16 Gold Gloves in a row, and I never won one until he got traded to the National League. That's how good he was. I won four Gold Gloves and I couldn't hold a candle to Jim Kaat. If you look at the body of his work, those are Hall of Fame numbers. Tony Oliva was another one. He was in a class with Roberto Clemente with his ability to hit any pitch you ever threw. I once asked Milt Pappas, 'How do you pitch to Oliva?' And he said, 'Throw it down the middle, because he hits everything else.'"