Slowly, improbably, the tide is turning and the Baseball Writers Association of America is seeing the valley of its illogic. This year, it’s a legitimate, substantial jump. Next year, a likely leap into a majority. And after that, perhaps the rolling snowball turns into an avalanche that sweeps Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens into their rightful place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Hall reveals the results of balloting at 6 p.m. ET Wednesday, and the only sure thing is Ken Griffey Jr. waltzing into Cooperstown. Momentum – and exit polling – are in Mike Piazza’s favor. Jeff Bagwell could sneak in past the 75 percent threshold. And Tim Raines is close enough that he should book a ticket to upstate New York for July 2017.
Amid it all are the suddenly ascendant candidacies of Bonds and Clemens, steroid pariah Nos. 1 and 2. Their first two years on the ballot were thought to have been a litmus test, and the results were more acidic than alkaline. Bonds received 34.7 percent in 2014 and 36.8 percent in 2015, Clemens 35.4 percent and 37.5 percent.
What once seemed a lost cause now can be categorized merely as a longshot. A confluence of events is breathing life into the candidacies of Bonds and Clemens, who occupied two of the nine names on my ballot, alongside Piazza, Bagwell, Raines, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling and Edgar Martinez.
As of early Tuesday evening, the Hall of Fame vote tracker kept by Ryan Thibodaux showed Bonds tracking at 49.7 percent and Clemens at 49.1 percent of the 171 ballots shared publicly by BBWAA members. That’s about 10 percent ahead of where they were on public ballots last year, and those numbers – particularly for those who used or are suspected to have used steroids – tend to end up about 5 percent higher than the entire lot of ballots.
While their gains don’t match some – Mussina is up 22 percent, Bagwell and Martinez 19 percent, Raines 15 percent and Schilling 13 percent – they are gains nevertheless, and they may not stop despite the Hall’s clear – if not publicly stated – desire to keep them away from walls dotted with cheaters already.
Certainly it’s possible that the exit polling is deceiving and Bonds and Clemens remain stagnant, though if history does hold, there are two explanations for the jump: winnowing upward of 100 voters and others beginning to rationalize why keeping Bonds and Clemens off their ballots went against logic.
Taking away votes from voters who haven’t written about baseball in decades made sense. The best electorate is the most informed, and to expect those far removed from the industry to understand the game’s shift – and the according increase in knowledge – places an unfair burden. Those new to Bonds and Clemens have their reasons, though the most compelling comes from San Francisco Chronicle national baseball writer John Shea, who wrote: “How could I in good faith not vote for Bonds when I might be voting for other PED guys?”
Shea isn’t the only national voice to add Bonds and Clemens to their ballot. Fox’s Ken Rosenthal, the most respected voice in baseball writing, checked off Bonds and Clemens for the first time this year. ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, another writer known for intelligent and measured thought, did the same. At least seven others publicly acknowledged adding Bonds and Clemens, and longtime writer Jon Heyman said he voted for Bonds for the first time.
Not only do the votes of big-name writers help this season, they could subtly nudge others to reconsider their positions in future seasons. Advancing the case even more would be the induction of Piazza. By the twisted reasoning of some, it will take a player believed to have taken steroids – though dogged by suspicion, Piazza never tested positive nor was proven to have used performance-enhancing drugs – entering the Hall before voters are comfortable allowing others in.
Treating Piazza like some sort of steroid pioneer is so twisted, so backward, so very Hall of Fame. If that’s what it takes to help voters recognize that leaving out Bonds and Clemens – the greatest hitter since Babe Ruth and one of the finest pitchers ever – is an abdication of duty, so be it. Just because the Hall of Fame refuses to wipe out its antiquated character clause, one ignored by our voting predecessors and that has no business in choosing players who best represented their era through the quality of their play, doesn’t mean that writers who vote must hem themselves to it.
No matter what any writer believes, he or she doesn’t understand what happened during the height of steroid use in baseball. Even if opinions can be rendered without a full accounting, anything but an all-or-nothing vote – either you consider all players from an era or don’t bother casting a ballot – is a cop-out. Not voting for players because of suspicion is hubristic considering how little we truly know; not voting for those who tested positive is more understandable, though it lends credence to tests that athletes employ chemists to beat.
All of these things are conspiring for a step forward from the BBWAA. The moralists won’t go away, and they may well occupy more than 25 percent of the electorate. That’s not a surprise. Nobody ever accused the middle- to late-aged white male – the vast majority of BBWAA voters – of being the most progressive group.
At the same time, as the ballot glut of recent votes clears over the next few years and more writers who don’t stigmatize steroids quite the same as others earn their votes, Bonds and Clemens adorning plaques in Cooperstown looks possible. It would be a striking moment for baseball, one that places accused cheaters alongside those who will argue the Hall would be ruined by their inclusion. Those are the words of obstructionists, of hypocrites, of a group that should welcome the game’s best and brightest.
And whatever they might’ve been – liars, cheats, abusers of the privilege that is playing baseball – Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were the best and brightest. Forget all the rest. The voters have seven years left to get it right.