December 1st, 2008

The Hall of Fame Ballot arrived

So on Saturday I opened my real-life mailbox, and my
favorite mail of the year was inside: A big manila envelope from the Baseball
Writers’ Association of America, containing the 2009 Hall of Fame Ballot and my annual
responsibility to help preserve the integrity of a wonderful institution set
inside the beautiful and important hamlet of Cooperstown, N.Y.

My friend and colleague Jack O’Connell wrote all about the ballot today on MLB.com.

First I read the cover letter from Hall president Jeff Idelson, as I always do,
with the complete set of rules on the back regarding the entire election
process. It says in rule 4B: “An elector will vote for no more than ten
(10) eligible candidates deemed worthy of election. Write-in votes are not
permitted.” There are about 550 Hall of Fame voters, self included. I
started covering baseball as the San Francisco Giants beat writer for the San
Jose Mercury News
in 1990, and after 10 years of consecutive BBWAA membership,
you receive this privilege. I have a Lifetime Honorary membership and will
always vote as long as I can watch baseball.

ballot.jpg

I notice that Rice was only 16 votes short last year, and six of those no-checks were within our MLB.com crew, myself included. It is Rice’s 15th and final year on the ballot, and I already have seen one fan comment that he is likely to get more support because of that. Nonsense. You vote for someone because you think he is a Hall of Famer. Period.

I consider it a place for the elite of the elite,
and the way to appreciate that the best is to actually take trips there and
understand what it means for fans who make pilgrimages to that beautiful
Gallery room inside the Museum on Main
Street. It is a hallowed place with plaques that
represent players who were truly about Fame, about a level of sustained
dominance over an era that precious few can attain.

Then I look at the ballot. It says: “Players listed are eligible for
election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009. They are the only
players eligible. Please check the candidates of your choice. You may vote for
up to 10 players. You are not required to vote for 10, but you may not vote for
more than 10. Ballots must be submitted by mail or FAX by Dec. 31, 2008.”
And underneath that are 23 names, each with a little box next to them.

My first reaction is to look for Rickey Henderson, as he is a first-ballot lock
and personally I can’t wait for his speech next July. I don’t think anyone else
will be there with him. Again, my overarching thought always is: “Elite of
the elite.” Too much reasoning, no way. These plaques go next to those of
Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Walter Johnson, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial. But I will
vote for more than Rickey, the all-time leader in runs and steals, and a
two-time World Series champ (’89, ’93). Beyond that, any other checks will be
noted in that annual MLB.com story that will be posted in early January.

Then I look at all the names, alphabetically: Harold Baines, Jay Bell, Bert
Blyleven, David Cone, Andre Dawson, Ron Gant, Mark Grace, Rickey Henderson,
Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Mark McGwire, Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, Jesse
Orosco, Dave Parker, Dan Plesac, Tim Raines, Jim Rice, Lee Smith, Alan
Trammell, Greg Vaughn, Mo Vaughn and Matt Williams.

At this point, one of the coolest things happens in the process. Instead of
being overly critical, I look at all the names, one by one, and the feelings
wash over you of those days in your lifetime. Maybe I’m not going to vote for
Gant, but I think about those Tomahawk Chop days, and what it was like covering
him as a baseball writer. I think of Orosco entering game after game after
game. I’m not going to vote for Bell in his first year on the ballot, but I am
reminded of his savvy play with the Pirates on a team that really should have
won at least one world championship. Grace, how he entertained fans at Wrigley.
I think of the Matt Williams who I covered every single day that first year as
an MLB beat writer in 1990, hanging around the batting cage while he hit. I
remember talking to him one Spring Training in Scottsdale, and how he told me
“I’m just trying to get the head of the bat on the ball” and how he
would use place a flat, padded board on his left hand to field grounders at
third base just to get the “touch” during drills. It’s also the 15th and
final year on the ballot for John, and I think of when I was growing
into the game and how enduring guys like him and Rice were as facts of life summer after
summer.

How can I not vote for Mattingly? I played against him in high school in
Evansville, Ind., he for Memorial and me for Central. If only he could have
lasted longer as a Major Leaguer. He was a Hall of Famer through and through,
the autograph everyone wanted. Fortunately, Donnie Baseball is not defined by how
he does on this ballot; he is still beloved.

SupplementaryMaterial.jpg

I don’t think the overall focus on these baseball memories should be lost in
this check-box process. We can all share in that whether we all vote or not.
Baseball is about building memories and tradition. I love how it feels to
reflect back on Blyleven, who came up with the Triple-A Evansville Triplets
when I was first going to American Association games there and learning to
score as a boy. I know how many Royals and Mets and Yankees fans will feel when
they think now about the Cone they remember as a player. He may not have been
Nolan Ryan, but he made good memories; he was a winner and he threw a perfect game.

To the right is another part of the Ballot envelope’s contents. It is a stapled, six-page packet of “supplementary material” that “reflects longevity, awards, records held, league leadership, 20-victory and .300-BA seasons, no-hitters, home run/RBI achievements and championship series/World Series accomplishments.” And so on. The career stats are provided by Elias. This is an easy reference for us, in case anyone can’t immediately know in his/her heart that a player is a Hall of Famer. On this page you can see Rickey’s justification paragraph at the bottom. I looked at it just for fun. I look at all of them just to relive what I saw, and in some cases to help cement a decision.

One thing I feel good about is that I voted for Mark McGwire in both of his
first two years of eligibility, refusing to “make him wait” as some
kind of moralistic punishment. You will see more writers now come around to the fact
that you can’t know what all went down in this era, and his vote total will spike significantly in the next month. Rickey was in the same
locker room as Big Mac on that 1989 world championship team in Oakland. How do
you know he was immune from PEDs? Are you going to keep him out by association because Jose Canseco didn’t write about him? Rickey was powerful and was effective late in his career. I have
said it before and I’ll say it again: BBWAA members are not commissioners. Pete
Rose is not on the ballot because the commissioner wishes it that way. It’s his call. If Rose
ever shows up on my ballot, he’s automatically checked. Charlie Hustle’s artifacts are some of my favorite stuff to see already in the Museum, so when you visit Cooperstown you already appreciate and adore him, anyway; the plaque is a formality, albeit a big one. Anyway, I remember the Big Mac
I took my son Matt to see on the night of No. 62 at old Busch Stadium, and the
joy he brought to our lives. Same with Sammy Sosa: 600+.

There is going to be a caravan of candidates in four or five years with sick numbers. Barry Bonds. Roger Clemens. Sammy. 300-game winners galore. I don’t see me getting in their way at this point, unless someone is banished for something. I think it will be a motherlode of Hall of Famers within a two- or three-year span, their stats prevailing. I predict that the Mother of all Inductions will be when an entire Yankee Universe descends on nearby Cooperstown for Derek Jeter’s speech. I think it will even dwarf what Ripken/Gwynn brought in 2007. If I’m Jeter, I don’t think of playing anywhere other than in pinstripes the rest of my career.

MLBloggers will be stating their own cases for different candidates this
winter, and as usual it will become an impassioned debate for who belongs. You
might not agree with my votes (just look at how we differed amongst MLB.com
voters last year), but I respect that we all have different feelings about
which players were most important in our lives and who had the biggest
collective impact. I look forward to reading your blog entries about the
candidates, and as usual I am going to hold onto my ballot as long as possible, and then check next to Rickey and up to nine others based on who simply belongs.

Then I will mail it back in the self-addressed, stamped envelope that also was included in the larger manila envelope. It has a 42-cent stamp on it. In 1936, when the first Hall of Fame class was inducted, the price of that stamp was three cents. But baseball goes on, and so does this process of baseball writers determining the Hall of Famers as their eligibility arrives.

You’re a Hall of Famer or you’re not. If you’re borderline and require tomes of reasoning and comparisons, you’re not a Hall of Famer. Make sure you get to Cooperstown if you haven’t lately, because that’s what this is all about. See the Gallery room with other baseball fans from all over, and let it guide your thinking.

Mark/MLB.com

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