NEW YORK — Just when we thought we’d said goodbye to Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens for a while thanks to the Baseball Writers Association last January, they’re coming around again as two of the eight candidates on the Contemporary Era Hall of Fame ballot which will be voted on Sunday as the kickoff to the winter meetings in San Diego.
When Bonds, Clemens and Curt Schilling all fell off the writers’ ballot after failing to achieve the necessary 75% for election in their 10th and final year of eligibility, they automatically were consigned to the Hall of Fame’s veterans committee “court of second resort” — and as fate would have it, their Contemporary Era’s cycle just happened to be this year.
There had been discussion among the Hall’s board of directors that players falling off the writers’ ballot should have to wait through at least one cycle (or three years) to be eligible again. That may eventually be the case but for this year the Hall was apparently sensitive to the appearance of prejudice against steroid cheats if they didn’t allow Bonds and Clemens to go right onto the Contemporary Era ballot.
What has resulted is one of the most diverse ballots one could ever imagine — with five acknowledged scoundrels of variation — Bonds, Clemens, Curt Schilling, Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Belle — on one side, and three genuine class acts — Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff and Dale Murphy — on the other.
The deliberations of the 16-member voting committee in the room Sunday figure to be fascinating. Which way will they go? Based on the committee makeup, I would think McGriff, perhaps the most notable victim of the steroid era who played the game clean, only to watch Bonds, Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, et al., fly by his one-time Hall of Fame worthy 493 career homers, has the best chance of being elected. Two of his former Braves teammates, Chipper Jones and Greg Maddux, along with Paul Beeston, the president of the Blue Jays when he played there, are all on the committee to speak on his behalf.
Also, based solely on comments and sentiments they’ve expressed in the past about steroid cheats, unless they’ve had a change of heart, I can count at least five committee no votes on Bonds, Clemens and Palmeiro, which would knock them out. Belle had three to four Hall of Fame-caliber seasons, hit .295 lifetime with 381 homers, but was otherwise a horrible human being. In 1996, he was hit with a record $50,000 fine by Commissioner Bud Selig for his abusive behavior toward NBC reporter Hannah Storm during the 1995 World Series, and he has since had two or three rather egregious off-the-field indiscretions, so I can’t see anyone voting for him.
Which brings us to Schilling, a polarizing figure if there ever was one, who probably would already be in the Hall of Fame if he had only kept his extreme right-wing politics and his disdain for the baseball writers to himself. But like his idol, Donald Trump, Schilling just could not resist the propensity to shoot himself in the foot, the final straw for a lot of writers (myself included) was when, after just missing election with 71% in 2021, he wrote a letter to the Hall of Fame asking to be removed from the ballot.
With an 11-2 record, a 2.23 ERA, Schilling is unquestionably one of the greatest postseason pitchers ever. Will that be enough for the seven Hall of Fame players on the committee to look past his political rantings and welcome him to the fraternity anyway? He’ll need all of their votes.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the committee is how to assess the careers of Mattingly and Murphy, both of which were cut short by injuries. Both hold the distinction of being acclaimed “best player in the game” — Murphy twice for his back-to-back MVP seasons in 1982-83 and Mattingly for four seasons, from 1984-87, during which he won one MVP and was second, fifth and seventh in voting, led the league in hits twice, doubles three times, RBIs once, won a batting title and four Gold Gloves at first base. A debilitating back injury ended his career prematurely but his last hurrah — .417 with six RBIs in the 1995 division series against the Mariners (his only postseason) — cemented his legacy as one of the greatest Yankees in history.
One other interesting Hall of Fame factoid about Mattingly, who hit a lifetime .307 to Murphy’s .265: In 2015, when the board of directors reduced the years of eligibility on the writers’ ballot from 15 to 10, three players on the ballot were grandfathered in and wound up staying on all 15 years — Mattingly, Alan Trammell and Lee Smith. Trammell and Smith were later elected by the veterans committee and are on this committee. I don’t know if the voting committee is conscious of this, but they have a chance to make a real statement for character here by voting in McGriff along with either Mattingly, Murphy or both.