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Voting for baseball’s Hall of Fame brings Steroid Era debate, Twitter wrath

Barry Bonds #25 of the San Francisco Giants looks on during the game

Mike Zarrilli via Getty Images

“You’re an idiot.”

“You should lose your vote.”

“Worst ballot ever.”

Ah yes, welcome to the rough-and-tumble world of voting for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where every check mark on every ballot that is made public is scrutinized, often criticized, and sometimes praised by baseball fans around the nation.

Voting for the Hall of Fame has been the exclusive privilege of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) since 1936, when Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Honus Wagner were elected to Cooperstown.

There have been various tweaks to the process over the decades.

Nothing, though, has blown the voting into the public consciousness like the debate over the Steroid Era candidates, and of course, Twitter.

Voting for the class of 2020 closed on Tuesday when ballots had to be postmarked. 

Well before the Dec. 31 deadline, voters were sharing their ballots with Ryan Thibodaux of Oakland, who started an online vote tracker in 2013. It has become extremely popular and his Twitter feed is a lively place every time he posts a ballot. He tracks details such as which candidates have been added or dropped from each ballot, which in turn fuels more debate. 

No one is ever 100% satisfied with a ballot. Everyone, it seems, has his or her “guy.” If that “guy” is not listed on a ballot, the inquisition begins and the vitriol flies.

There are people who thank voters for supporting candidates. Many fans of Larry Walker, the former Expos, Rockies, and Cardinals outfielder, are happy to see him gain support in his 10th and final year on the ballot. The Twitter feed of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum thanks each Walker voter.

Brian Bahr/Allsport

For the most part, the ballot tracker provides a neat service, helping fans figure out, to some level of accuracy, whether their “guy” is going to get in. It helps stoke two months of debate and chatter, from the day the first voter reveals his ballot until the final vote is announced on Jan. 21. 

But revealing votes also brings out a lot of nastiness on Twitter.

“I do notice it, and it’s awful,” Thibodaux said in an interview. “I block multiple Twitter accounts almost daily throughout Hall of Fame ‘season,’ but it’s never-ending. Watching it happen is easily my least favorite part of doing the ballot tracker. There are certainly times when I think it’s fair to take issue with a voter’s logic, but the level of anger and vitriol a ‘bad ballot’ generates is rarely, if ever, justified. The problem is made worse by the fact that every single ballot is a ‘bad ballot’ to someone, so every ballot gets its share of negative feedback. Since it’s the internet, ‘negative feedback’ often means some combination of rude, angry, stupid and/or vulgar.”

Two longtime voters have differing opinions on releasing ballots before the final announcement.

“I don’t think Twitter (has) been good for a lot of things, to be honest with you,” said Tracy Ringolsby, who covered the Royals, Angels, Mariners, and Rangers before covering the Rockies from their inception. “As much as anything, everybody can be bold and brave because very few people put their name on it. They’ll criticize you for your vote, and if you don’t announce your vote, then they’ll criticize for being secretive, but you don’t know who they are. They get so personal. I try to respect everybody’s opinion. I don’t agree with a lot of them, but I respect them.”

Ringolsby doesn’t release his ballot ahead of the announcement and doesn’t know if he’ll release it at all this year.

Bill Center, who recently retired from The San Diego Union-Tribune but remains an active BBWAA member, doesn’t mind the Twitter spectacle.

“Actually it makes me want to make my vote more public than before, because it does stir controversy,” he said. “I really think that we should be making them public anyway and when you do make them public, you hear from all sorts of fans, some of whom have valid points and some who champion players just out of loyalty.”

That said, Center doesn’t think voters should have to explain why they voted for a certain candidate. “Sometimes I choose to get into a discussion, but that’s me. I like to stir the pot a little bit.”

It’s voluntary for writers to send their ballots to Thibodaux. Many old-timers don’t. Some might not even be on Twitter. There is a spot on the ballot for voters to check if they want their ballot revealed 14 days after the voting is announced. 

A writer earns a ballot by spending 10 consecutive seasons covering baseball as a member of the BBWAA. It’s an honor. It’s supposed to be fun. Invigorating, even. (For full disclosure, I’ve had a ballot since 2000.)

In a sense, voters are tasked with being judge, jury, executioner, St. Peter, and God, with virtually no input from the Hall itself. There was that one morning in November 2017 when voters awoke to find an email from Joe Morgan, who was voted into Cooperstown on his first ballot in 1990 and now serves as vice-chairman. 

Morgan pleaded for voters not to support candidates linked to steroids. Of course, he didn’t name names. And he added this P.S.: “Families come to Cooperstown because they know it’s special. To parents, it’s a place they can take their kids for an uplifting, feel-good visit. It’s a place where kids can see what true greatness is all about. It’s a place where youngsters can dream that one day they too might get in. This place is special. I hope it stays that way.”

How much it moved the dial is debatable. 

Some writers have refused to vote for any players linked to steroids in any way, either by suspicion, their being named in the Mitchell Report, or failing a drug test and being suspended. 

On a day when the heat index reached 100 degrees, Roger Clemens, wearing his Red Sox jersey and cap

Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Some writers have been voting for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens since they debuted on the ballot for the class of 2013. Their thinking is that two of the best players in the game’s history should be in Cooperstown, even if their legacies are tainted by suspicion of PED use. Some voters think all eras need to be represented, including the Steroid Era.

Others refuse to vote for Bonds or Clemens, but have given a pass to others suspected of drug use. They include Mike Piazza, inducted in 2016, and Jeff Bagwell and Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez of the class of 2017.

Bonds and Clemens are on the ballot for the eighth year, meaning they have only two more years of eligibility in the writers’ voting. 

They have had small gains in support. Clemens was named on 59.5% of last year’s ballots, falling 66 votes shy of election, while Bonds received 59.1%, falling 68 votes shy. If they don’t make Cooperstown via the BBWAA ballot, they will receive consideration from a veterans committee.

A candidate needs to be named on 75% or more of ballots cast to be elected.

Ringolsby has voted for Bonds and Clemens since they first appeared on the ballot. 

“If they didn’t violate any rules of the game, or were not suspended, how do I know?” he said. “It really bothers me that several guys who were very strongly suspected of steroids got in, but the two best players of their era have not got in. The inconsistency is what irritates me more than anything else. How can you put guys from the Steroid Era in who were suspected of using and then not put Clemens and Bonds in?”

Center said he didn’t vote for Bonds and Clemens at first, but has in recent years. “My thought was, I don’t know when they started and both were really Hall of Fame players before they got involved. You can’t tell anymore how many were involved and how many weren’t. I’ve changed my position on those guys.”

Sammy Sosa is in his eighth season and continues to get tepid support. Mark McGwire fell off the ballot in 2016 after getting little support in his 10th year. He later was denied entry by a veterans committee. Manny Ramirez, in his fourth year, is a lightning rod because of his two PED-related suspensions, the second of which effectively ended his career.

There was no class of 2013 because the writers didn’t elect anyone. That was the first year Bonds and Clemens were on the ballot. The late Michael Weiner, who was then the head of the Players Association, called it “unfortunate, if not sad.”

Beyond steroids, notable this year is that two writers for Newsday, Steven Marcus and Anthony Rieber, voted only for former New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter, who’s on the ballot for the first time and is polling at 100% of public ballots. If he finishes at 100%, he will join former teammate Mariano Rivera as the only players to be unanimous picks. Rivera was listed on all ballots submitted last year.

Yankees Derek Jeter tips his hat to the crowd as he comes out of the game

Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Rieber felt that “No. 2 is the 1 this year.” In submitting a Jeter-only ballot, he did not vote for Bonds, Clemens, former Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, Ramirez, and Curt Schilling as he did last year. A writer can vote for a maximum of 10 candidates.

Their ballots were the ultimate nod toward the “Small Hall” line of thinking. But if they wanted Jeter to have the stage to himself, he won’t. On Dec. 8, a veterans committee elected former catcher Ted Simmons and the late union chief Marvin Miller to the Hall.

Thibodaux’s tracker isn’t 100% accurate because not every voter reveals his or her ballot. But it gives fans an idea of which candidates have a chance.

Jeter is a lock. Walker might get in. Schilling will be close, but might have to wait another year. He’s a lightning rod because of his politics and a tweet applauding a T-shirt threatening violence toward journalists.

The announcement is still three weeks away. Ballots will continue to trickle in. The debate will rage on.