MY PICKS FOR COOPERSTOWN
As the sun was setting on Lake Otsego the evening of July 30, the greatest collection of baseball players that would gather in one place in all of 2017 hustled into position for their annual team photo in the garden behind the Otesaga Resort Hotel in Cooperstown, New York.
Johnny Bench was running late. Or just wanted to be the last to arrive. So he commandeered a golf cart and raced toward the assembled group. Yet rather than park and join the photo, he zigzagged the cart, swerving around them and made a giant U-turn. A prankster’s victory lap. The stunt drew hoots and hollers. (Bench was even better the night before when he delivered a monologue he’s been honing for years, only this time his small audience included me and my traveling partner during this glorious weekend, my oldest son, Zac. … Sorry for the personal digression. Back to the photo.)
Bench’s gag and the response to it was a classic case of boys being boys. It’s certainly not original to say the Baseball Hall of Fame is the great game’s ultimate fraternity, but it’s still true.
Membership in that fraternity is special in more ways than most fans realize. There’s a camaraderie that goes beyond having their plaques all hang in the same room. Only those guys understand everything it took to get there – from becoming great to sustaining greatness. Whether they did it in the ‘50s and ‘60s like Whitey Ford and Sandy Koufax, or like Ken Griffey Jr. and Pudge Rodriguez they played into the 2010s, a magical thread weaves them all together in a way only they can understand and appreciate.
This vibe is likely what Joe Morgan was trying to protect when he emailed a plea for us HOF voters to omit steroid users. I considered his note inappropriate; it’s our decision, not his. He’s entitled to his stance, but he could’ve held a news conference or posted something on social media – not used a Hall of Fame email account. Still, given the background I just described, I got where he was coming from: He didn’t want Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens crashing the club.
(Another tangent: Your most recent memory of Morgan is likely as an awful announcer. It was mine, too, until seeing him hobble around Cooperstown on two canes because of a variety of severe issues, and seeing his fellow HOFers react to him with love and admiration. I asked several guys to compare him to Jose Altuve. “Better,” they all said. Bench’s jokey tone turned quite serious as he described his awe at Joe even being alive, much less in Cooperstown.)
OK, OK, back to the task at hand – my votes for the Cooperstown Class of 2018, the people I consider worthy of being in next year’s team photo.
Here’s my list, with those in bold appearing on my ballot for the first time:
As longtime recipients of this email may recall, I bring a set of parameters to this process.
The first is that once I choose you, you remain on my ballot until getting in (congrats Pudge, Bagwell and Raines) or fall off (condolences, Lee Smith). Hoffman, Martinez, Mussina and Schilling are my holdovers. [And congrats to Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, two guys I voted for annually until they fell off the ballot who will be inducted in July courtesy of the modern-era committee.]
Second, I hold the “first ballot” in high esteem. Everyone in the Hall is among the greatest of all time; you further designate the greatest among those by choosing them the first chance you get. (“The real Hall of Fame,” as first-ballot honoree Reggie Jackson likes to say in the most Reggie-esque of ways.) That’s why I didn’t vote for Vlad last year. Before checking the boxes for Chipper and Thome, I ran their candidacy through my usual filter: If I was considering an all-time team, would he be on the ballot? Both would definitely represent their era on such a faux form, thus earning my support.
Step three is looking over the rest of the candidates for people who deserve further review.
While Vlad failed to meet my first-ballot threshold last year, he was an easy add this year. That left up to three spots.
I considered voting for Bonds and Clemens. A few years ago, I wrote that my stance against them was weakening to the point that I expected to eventually support them. I just haven’t gotten over that hump yet. And, no, Joe Morgan had nothing to do with it.
Only one other player earned my vote. Why was it Larry Walker?
I’ve always considered him an interesting candidate. Like many, I probably was too dismissive of his numbers as being Colorado inflated and perhaps his early years being overlooked at the time because he played in Montreal. Seeing support for him from others I respect made me take a deeper dive and reconsider my stance. Among the things that swayed me: He earned MVP votes for eight seasons in an 11-year span (including a win in ’97). I consider that a great litmus test of how he was viewed during his career – certainly better than Gold Gloves and All-Star selections, although he had plenty of each. Other intangibles [defense (five times led the league in DPs from RF), baserunning (averaged 19 steals per 162 games) … compared to Bagwell, he struck out less often and got plunked more] won me over.
So there you have it, what I believe is my fifth-to-last ballot. Being out of daily journalism, the clock is ticking on my tenure as a Hall of Fame voter. It’s an immense honor, one I take great pride in.
Thanks for reading all the way to the end of this year’s note. As always, feel free to reply with your thoughts. Happy holidays and best wishes for 2018.
PS: If you look closely at the ballot, you'll see I left unchecked the box on making this public. Alas, I didn't look closely enough until the ballot was well on its way to New York. I have since alerted the Hall of Fame and BBWAA that I wish to be fully transparent with my choices ... quite obviously, seeing as it's published here.