The day of reckoning has come.
Ballots arrived earlier this month in mailboxes of veteran members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. It's a day most voters look forward to like Christmas: voting for the Hall of Fame.
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This year is different, and writers must make their choices. Do they vote for the most famous (or infamous) players associated with the so-called "Steroid Era?"
On the ballot for the first time are former Cubs right fielder Sammy Sosa, all-time home run king Barry Bonds and pitcher Roger Clemens, who won a record seven Cy Young Awards.
Each has been linked, to one degree or another, to the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Sosa and Bonds saw dramatic spikes in their offensive production, not to mention changes in their physical appearances. Clemens enjoyed a late-career renaissance.
Complicating matters, in many voters' minds, is that Bonds and Clemens were Hall of Fame-caliber players before suspicions of PED use came to the fore.
So what will voters do? The early indications are that none of the three will gain entrance to Cooperstown on this ballot.
Former sluggers Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, both of whom have been linked to PED use, have come nowhere near getting the 75 percent of the votes required to gain election to the Hall of Fame.
Various media surveys taken recently point to the gates being locked for Sosa, Bonds and Clemens.
The Daily Herald has four members of the BBWAA who have Hall of Fame votes: Cubs writer Bruce Miles, White Sox writer Scot Gregor and columnists Mike Imrem and Barry Rozner.
Voters may select up to 10 for the Hall of Fame or leave their ballot blank.
The instructions for voters are amazingly brief and simple: "Voting shall be based on the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."
Here is what our baseball writers have to say about this year's problematic Hall of Fame ballot:
Mike Imrem's ballot:
Imrem: During more than two decades as a voting member, this is the first time I voted for the maximum 10 candidates.
At least 12 candidates were worthy of consideration. The toughest decision came down to separating three great leadoff hitters -- Craig Biggio, Kenny Lofton and Tim Raines. I went with Lofton because for a period of time I considered him one of the top five players in baseball.
Surely you're thinking that the tough decision would have been whether to vote for steroid users, or suspected steroid users. Then again, maybe you think it shouldn't be a tough decision and they shouldn't even be considered.
Here's the deal: I avoid the integrity issue because so many players already in Cooperstown were baseball cheaters or bad characters away from the field. My votes are based on baseball performance.
I can't ignore that Roger Clemens won all those games and Barry Bonds hit all those home runs. The performing-enhancing culture of the game at the time was such that they were as much normal as abnormal. It would be fine with me if they were disqualified from the ballot. As long as they're eligible, they get my vote.
It doesn't matter anyway, of course, because their use of steroids will prevent them from receiving the 75 percent of votes for election.
Barry Rozner's ballot:
Rozner: The steroid era has made voting for the Hall of Fame complicated, and continues to become more so with each passing year.
The rules insist that "integrity'' and "character'' are part of the consideration, so that makes it difficult to overlook those who juiced. The vote is subjective and it's why there's such a variance.
Personally, the notion that steroids were great for the game seems so absurd it's laughable.
Following the guidelines of the vote, I've left off the steroids guys.
This is not a perfect ballot and in some cases perhaps even unfair, but by promoting the use of PEDs for a long period of time, MLB has put us in this position.
Forgive the obvious contradiction, but I've always said Bonds was a 400-400 guy before he got on the stuff, so he gets my vote. He was the best player in baseball, but everyone forgot him during the 1998 Home Run Derby.
It's too bad he felt like he had to join the steroid-freak parade.
His 1,455 runs scored his first 14 years would be good for 78th all time, his 445 home runs 37th, 460 stolen bases 49th and 1,299 RBI would be 110th.
He was MVP three times and won eight Gold Gloves the first 14 years of his career.
Biggio is 21st all time with 3,060 hits. Enough said.
Raines was the second-best leadoff hitter of his generation behind Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson and one of the best baserunners/basestealers in the history of the game.
He swiped 808 bases (fifth all time) and was caught only 146 times, good for an amazing 84.7 percent success rate.
That's better than the four men ahead of him on the stolen base career list (Henderson, Lou Brock, Billy Hamilton and Ty Cobb), all of whom are in the Hall of Fame.
Raines reached base more times than Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn and scored 188 more runs. Raines is 51st all time in runs (1,571). Raines is 46th all time in times on base (3,977), also more than Gwynn.
Smith retired as the all-time leader in saves (478) and still ranks third all time in that category behind Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, both of whom are locks for the Hall.
He also retired as the all-time leader in games finished (802) and is third behind Rivera and Hoffman.
Morris is a tough case but ultimately his status as the best pitcher for a decade is one I frequently use and therefore he gets my vote.
Morris collected 162 victories in the '80s and no other starter was close. He threw a no-hitter and his extra-inning shutout for Minnesota in the last game of the 1991 World Series is the only such performance in baseball history.
He also had 2 complete-game victories in the '84 World Series and he was the Game 1 starter for three teams that won World Series. He won four World Series rings. He finished top five in Cy Young voting five times.
Schilling's 216-146 record may not be as impressive as records of previous eras, but he was one of the top pitchers of his era.
He was second in Cy Young voting three times, top 14 MVP voting four times, top eight WAR for pitchers 11 times (top four eight times), top 10 ERA nine times, top six in WHIP 11 times, top 10 in strikeouts per 9 innings 10 times, top 10 strikeouts-to-walks ratio 11 times (first five times), and he is one of four pitchers with 3,000 strikeouts and fewer than 1,000 walks (Greg Maddux, Fergie Jenkins, Pedro Martinez). He's 95th all time in innings pitched.
Schilling's postseason record is spectacular, going 11-2 with 2.23 ERA in 19 starts and 133 innings. He won three World Series rings and his "bloody sock'' start in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS was no myth.
Bruce Miles' ballot:
Miles: I voted for nine players for the Hall of Fame on this ballot, but none of those players is named Sosa, Bonds or Clemens.
That may look "liberal" to some, but my philosophy is this: I vote for players I believe worthy of the Hall. If in any given year, that is no player, then no player will get my vote. If I believe 10 players are worthy, then 10 will get my vote.
With Sosa, Bonds and McGwire, I'm troubled by the "integrity, sportsmanship character" qualities. And although it may sound like a cop-out, I want more time, and more information.
On the positive side, I weigh statistics heavily but also value intangibles. After all, it's called the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Stats.
For that reason, Morris has had my vote every year I've had a ballot even though many of my friends in the sabermetrics community argue vociferously against his qualifications.
Biggio and Bagwell, in addition to having the numbers, were the face of the Astros as they played side by side.
Like Bagwell, Piazza has come under suspicion for PED use, but mostly through whispers. Next to Sosa, Piazza was the best right-handed opposite-field power hitter I saw up close a lot.
Schilling had great intangibles, and his numbers in many categories are eye-popping.
And for the rest, I believe they meet the tests.
Scot Gregor's ballot:
Gregor: With suspected PED usage making this assignment more difficult by the year, I've employed a strategy called BOTD.
Benefit of the doubt.
I'm assuming Biggio was clean when he piled up 3,060 hits in 20 seasons, all spent with the Houston Astros.
I'm also assuming two other players on the HOF ballot for the first time -- Piazza and Schilling -- competed within the rules.
As for Bagwell, I left him off my ballot the past two years primarily because of suspected PED use.
After hearing from his supporters and doing some additional research, Bagwell gets the BOTD. His career numbers (.297/.408/.540 hitting line and 449 home runs) certainly warrant induction.
As for Raines, a player I covered for two seasons, he's on my ballot now because I reconsidered the skill it takes to steal 808 career bases. He also won two World Series rings with the Yankees.
As for Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, there is still way too much doubt.