The voting process for the Hall of Fame became far more difficult and more complicated five years ago when Mark McGwire first appeared on the ballot. It got harder last year when Rafael Palmeiro appeared on the ballot. Their names and their connections to performance-enhancing drugs changed the philosophy of voting, perhaps forever. Yet the issues of the past two years will appear simple compared to what lies ahead in 2013.
The next Hall of Fame ballot will include Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio and Curt Schilling. They all have Hall of Fame numbers, some stronger than others, but Bonds, Clemens, Sosa and Piazza certainly are not going to be elected on the first ballot -- and in the case of Bonds, Clemens and Sosa, they might not make it to Cooperstown for many, many years to come.
Next year, the Hall of Fame voting process will become more cumbersome, more awkward and more impossible than ever. And it likely will remain that way for another 25 years, until someone finds a better way to deal with this era and the hundreds of players who used performance-enhancing drugs during it.
For now, the voters have spoken. McGwire has been on the ballot for six years, he has never received as much as 30 percent of the vote, and his vote total has decreased in each of the past three years. Keep in mind that McGwire has the 10th-most home runs of all time, he made 11 All-Star teams, his slugging percentage is 98 points higher than that of Reggie Jackson and his on-base percentage is six points higher than that of Tony Gwynn. Palmeiro is one of four players with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, joining Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray -- and Palmeiro got 11 percent of the vote his first year on the ballot, and slightly more in this his second (12.6 percent).
Some voters maintain that McGwire doesn't have Hall of Fame numbers with his .263 batting average, his 1,626 hits and his average defense. Some voters say that Palmeiro wasn't the best player on his team or at his position, let alone in his league, in most of his years. But those arguments cannot be made for some of the new players to the ballot in 2013.
Bonds won seven MVPs, four more than anyone else. I recently asked a revered baseball historian to name his all-time Mount Rushmore of hitters, and without hesitation, he said, "Barry Bonds is first," then followed with Ted Williams, Babe Ruth and Albert Pujols.
"I played one year in San Francisco . I watched Barry Bonds take 500 at-bats, and every single at-bat, he either hit a home run, or hit the ball harder than anyone on earth, or walked," White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "He's the best hitter I've ever seen, and there isn't a close second, not just on this planet, but this galaxy. Righties, lefties, it didn't matter with Barry. Here's how good he was that year. The first game of the season, he hit a homer off Roy Oswalt in Houston to win the game. That gave him 659. He told us, 'I'm not going to hit any more home runs here, I want to tie Willie [Mays, at 660] at home.' The rest of that series, he got his hits, he hit singles and doubles, but no homers. When we got home, he said, 'OK, I'm going to tie Willie today.' And the first at-bat, boom, he went deep. The next day, he came to the park and said, 'Today, I'm going pass Willie.' First at-bat, he hit another homer. I've never seen anything like it."
Yet Bonds, fairly or unfairly, is seen as the face of the steroid era. He is a convicted felon. He has no chance of getting in the Hall of Fame the first year, and likely won't for many years to come. Some will vote for him using the logic that he was already a Hall of Famer before he started using performance-enhancing drugs. He already had three MVPs, 400 homers, 400 steals and seven Gold Gloves. But that logic is challenged by some people, such as Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, who contends that in golf if you shoot 31 on the front nine and you cheat on the back nine, you are disqualified for the round.
Clemens won seven Cy Young Awards, two more than anyone else. He is, by any statistical measure, the best pitcher of the past 50 years, if not the best since Walter Johnson. I asked the same revered historian for his Mount Rushmore of pitchers, and without hesitation he said, "Roger Clemens is first." But Clemens is, after Bonds, the next face of the steroid era. He has been charged with lying before Congress about his use of performance-enhancing drugs. He has no chance to make it to Cooperstown next year, or for many, many years to come.
Sosa hit the seventh-most home runs (609) of all time. There have been eight 60-homer seasons in baseball history, and he has three of them. He hit more homers (479) than anyone for any 10-year period. He is the only player in National League history to have six consecutive years of 40 home runs. In 2001, he had 94 more RBIs than anyone on his team, a record for such things. Yet due to his connection to PEDs, he likely has no chance to make it to Cooperstown in the first year he'll be eligible, and perhaps for many, many years to come.
Piazza is the greatest hitting catcher of all time. Period. His lifetime average is .308, he has 427 home runs and his .922 OPS is 125 points higher than Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk, and 149 points higher than Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter. For a five-year period with the Dodgers, Piazza hit .318, .319, .346, .336 and .362. But he won't make it to Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility because of suspicion of PED use. He acknowledged using androstenedione early in his career, and only briefly, but he never tested positive for PEDs, and wasn't named in the Mitchell report. But suspicion might be enough these days to keep a player out of the Hall of Fame.
As for Jeff Bagwell, one of the top-10 first basemen of all time and one of the three best in NL history, he increased his vote total by nearly 15 percent as he went from 41.7 percent last year to 56 percent this year.
Biggio's case is strong. He finished his career with 3,060 hits. He also has more doubles than Hank Aaron, and more extra-base hits than Al Kaline, Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell and Mickey Mantle. Biggio is one of five players with more than 250 home runs and more than 400 steals, joining Barry and Bobby Bonds, Rickey Henderson and Joe Morgan. He scored more runs than Ted Williams, and played in more winning games than Frank Robinson. And yet one must go even deeper to comprehend his value. He has been hit by a pitch more times than anyone in history. In 1997, he did not ground into a double play. He is one of only two players in history to play a full season behind the plate, and a full season at second base, and is the only player to also play a full season in center field. He won four consecutive Gold Gloves at second base. He did all this while playing for only one team.
Schilling won 216 games and had a .597 winning percentage. He also had three 20-win seasons, three 300-strikeout seasons and won World Series rings with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Boston Red Sox. His numbers are borderline for Cooperstown, but his staggering numbers in the postseason -- his WHIP is under 1.00 -- might be enough to get him in, although maybe not on the first ballot.
Those are six new candidates for the 2012 ballot. Included is the best hitter most of us have ever seen, the best pitcher most of us have ever seen, the greatest hitting catcher of all time and a 600-home run man -- and none of those four may get in on the first ballot, or perhaps for many years to come. Then, for the first time, we will have to wonder about the relevance of the Hall of Fame.
Will the 2013 ballot bring official changes to the voting process, and if so, what would those changes be? There are no easy answers, only difficult questions. And, as we look another 25 years down the road and wonder what we're going to do with Alex Rodriguez, we realize the questions are only going to get harder.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
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