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Is smaller better? Maybe so for baseball’s Hall of Fame

If Cooperstown is truly for baseball’s elite, there seem to be too many members. Here is a ballot with only three names.
Hall of Fame candidate Scott Rolen had a .281 career batting average with 316 home runs and 1,287 RBIs for Philadelphia (1996-2002), St. Louis (2002-07), Toronto (2008-09) and Cincinnati (2009-12). The seven-time All-Star was a unanimous pick as the 1997 NL Rookie of the Year, hit .421 as the Cardinals won the 2006 World Series and won eight Gold Gloves.
Hall of Fame candidate Scott Rolen had a .281 career batting average with 316 home runs and 1,287 RBIs for Philadelphia (1996-2002), St. Louis (2002-07), Toronto (2008-09) and Cincinnati (2009-12). The seven-time All-Star was a unanimous pick as the 1997 NL Rookie of the Year, hit .421 as the Cardinals won the 2006 World Series and won eight Gold Gloves. [ Tribune News Service ]
Published Jan. 24|Updated Jan. 24

After scrolling through social media posts detailing baseball Hall of Fame voting by colleagues, the ballot I submitted seems stark in comparison.

I checked only three boxes, the fewest in my 20 or so years of having the privilege of having a say. And I think I know why.

I voted for Scott Rolen, the multi-talented third baseman who was the only player elected Tuesday, getting 297 votes, five more than the 292 needed, as well as Tampa-born slugger Gary Sheffield (509 homers) and reliever Billy Wagner (422 saves). Sheffield got 214 votes, Wagner 265.

Why only three?

This wasn’t anything calculated, a grandstanding move or a form of protest like a few veteran voting members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America stage by submitting an empty ballot to skew the number of votes needed to reach the hefty 75 percent benchmark for election.

It was more a reflection of the 28 candidates, including the somewhat unimpressive class of 14 newcomers to the ballot.

And my evolving opinion on what the Hall should be.

First, this year’s ballot.

Times baseball writer Marc Topkin checked only three boxes on his 2023 Hall of Fame ballot.
Times baseball writer Marc Topkin checked only three boxes on his 2023 Hall of Fame ballot. [ Times ]

Nothing changed my view on any of the 14 carryover candidates. Not for Todd Helton (Coors Field effect), Andruw Jones (short career peak, massive drop off) or Jeff Kent (one dimensional).

And definitely not for Manny Ramirez or Alex Rodriguez, who were on the wrong side of my admittedly squiggly line for PEDs users and other suspected cheaters, breaking clearly defined rules.

I voted for the same three last year, along with David Ortiz (who got in) and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who with transgressions before they were officially illegal missed out again and aged off the writers’ ballot, having exhausted their 10 years of eligibility (and were similarly dismissed by the Hall Contemporary Era committee that in December unanimously voted in Tampa native Fred McGriff).

None of the 14 players added to the ballot struck me as obvious choices. (Sorry, Hernando High product Bronson Arroyo of the career 148-137 record and 4.28 ERA.)

Of the newbies, only Carlos Beltran got serious consideration, given his impressive career accomplishments (2,725 hits, 435 homers, nine All-Star selections; eight seasons of 100-plus RBIs) and remarkable postseason performance (.307 average, 16 homers, 42 RBIs, 1.021 OPS in 65 games).

But then, there was his leading role in the Astros’ 2017 sign-stealing scandal, as the only player named in Major League Baseball’s report detailing the transgressions. Maybe I’m still worn out by the exhaustive debates over the degree of cheating by the “steroid guys.” Maybe I’ll change my view on Beltran after learning more about his role. But for now, and for more than half the other voters, he is a “no.”

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The Astros' Carlos Beltran, right, shakes hands with Evan Gattis after hitting a solo home run off the Rays' Chris Archer in 2017 in Houston.
The Astros' Carlos Beltran, right, shakes hands with Evan Gattis after hitting a solo home run off the Rays' Chris Archer in 2017 in Houston. [ ERIC CHRISTIAN SMITH | Associated Press ]

Why am I now favoring a small Hall?

There were years when I was among the BBWAA members fighting the Hall-imposed limit of voting for no more than 10 candidates. And times when I joined the push for a binary vote, where we simply said yes or no to all candidates the screening committee put on the ballot.

Not quite Oprah-like — “You get a vote, and you get a vote, and you get a vote … " — but definitely inclusive. I wanted a “big” Hall, and I was willing to open the doors wide to borderline (and maybe beyond) candidates.

A few times, I changed my opinion on a player in his final year(s) of eligibility. For example, deciding after saying no nine times that Tim Raines and Edgar Martinez indeed were good enough.

I like to think part of those decisions was being open to new thoughts and advanced data in evaluating players, and having the open-mindedness to change a once-firm stance (such as being anti-designated hitter).

But there’s also part of me that knows I caved. Not as much to public opinion, but to the idea that those guys were really good. And they have a lot of support from others. And maybe I was a wee bit tougher on them than I should have been. So, sure, add my vote and head on up to Cooperstown.

Now, not so much.

Opinions change over the years.

There’s some food you like now you couldn’t stand years ago (welcome sliced tomatoes), and vice versa (goodbye mushrooms).

Your choices in entertainment, books, cars and fashion evolve. (A recently uncovered 1999 receipt for a somewhat expensive gold neck chain now seems like quite the waste of money.)

Priorities with more important things, like investment strategies, political views and work-life balance, also change.

So too, for me, with Hall voting.

Now — though without a lawn to chase you off of as I live in a condo — I feel like we have let too many players in. And I am part of that problem.

That the Hall of Fame — in theory the ultimate honor for the true elite of the upper elite — may have become more like the Hall of Very Good. That some of the 269 enshrined players don’t really deserve to be there.

That I now favor a “small” Hall.

I’m certainly not suggesting I’m right. (Or that I won’t eventually flip back.) And I’m glad we have a broad base of around 400 voters — added after 10 years in the BBWAA, dropped 10 years after no longer covering baseball — so any such individual revelation doesn’t really mean much.

But for now, smaller seems better.

Times voters

Tampa-born slugger Gary Sheffield (509 homers) seems likely to fall short again of the votes needed to get into baseball's Hall of Fame.
Tampa-born slugger Gary Sheffield (509 homers) seems likely to fall short again of the votes needed to get into baseball's Hall of Fame.

Here are the ballots for Tampa Bay Times staffers who vote:

Eduardo A. Encina’s ballot

Todd Helton

Andruw Jones

Jeff Kent

Scott Rolen

Gary Sheffield

Billy Wagner

John Romano’s ballot

Carlos Beltran

Todd Helton

Manny Ramirez

Alex Rodriguez

Scott Rolen

Gary Sheffield

Marc Topkin’s ballot

Scott Rolen

Gary Sheffield

Billy Wagner

• • •

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