This is the second straight year Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens haven’t dominated the conversation in the lead-up to the voting and announcement of baseball’s next Hall of Fame class. But it very well may be the best indication yet whether or not the poster boys for the game’s steroid era will be elected before their 10-year window to be voted in by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America expires in 2022.

A year ago, Bonds and Clemens were a back-burner topic while the discussion raged about whether or not Mariano Rivera would be the first player elected unanimously. Many thought that honor should be reserved for Rivera’s longtime teammate, Derek Jeter. History tells us that many more thought that honor should be reserved for … nobody.

As has been well-documented, this is Jeter’s first year of eligibility — bad timing, to say the least. It would have made for a much more delicious topic of conversation if the two had squared off in a unanimous race. Instead, we have to settle for back-to-back discussions about singular honors.

Since Rivera became the first-ever unanimous choice, much of the Jeter support has swung to the idea of him being the only one elected this year. To that end, at least two voters are known to have cast ballots with Jeter’s being the only name getting a check mark.

There was a time when being elected in your first year was a coveted reward reserved only for special players — as though being elected wasn’t honor enough. Now that a unanimous vote has been cast, being a solo inductee appears to be the next best thing. But that’s happened before — if you don’t believe me, ask Reggie Jackson.

Jeter easily tops this year’s freshman class of eligibles and is undoubtedly the only one who will draw serious consideration. Even that, though, is a disservice to Bobby Abreu, who at least deserves to be in the discussion.

But back to the original point taken here. Beyond the possibility of Jeter going solo, this year’s vote should tell more about the candidacy of Bonds and Clemens with the voting members of the BBWAA charged with the election process during the 10-year period before a player is passed on to the Eras Committees.

Bonds received 45.6 and Clemens 44.2 percent of the vote when they became eligible for the first time in 2013, the last time no player received the required 75 percent needed for election and also the last time there were no living inductees. The ballot has been like an overstuffed sandwich ever since, and in the ensuing six years 20 players have been elected by the BBWAA.

Since that somewhat predictable start, the two have progressed almost like an entry, to the point where both have closed in on the 60 percent range. In the interim, the window for a player to be voted in (after a mandatory five-year wait) was shortened from 15 years to 10, which hardly seemed an accident given the backlog being created at that point.

Whether or not that move was made to hasten the resolution of the cases for Bonds and Clemens remains an unanswered question, but this year’s result is likely to provide a strong clue one way or another. With ballots due Dec. 31 and the announcement Jan. 22, we should have a better idea of how these two will fare with active BBWAA members, all of whom must have been covering baseball for at least the last 10 years to have a vote.

The recent voting patterns are of particular interest. As the electorate has gotten younger, the percentages have gone up for both Bonds and Clemens. It wasn’t until 2017 that either passed 50 percent — and both saw their numbers increase by almost 50 percent that year. The BBWAA has elected eight players in the last two years, and only three of them were eligible for the first time, so the ballot is more open this year than it has been in more than a decade.

The big jumps made last year by Edgar Martinez, who was in his last year of eligibility, and Mike Mussina, who was barely at the midpoint, and the fact that Jeter is the only first-year shoo-in have created interesting dynamics for this year’s election. Curt Schilling (60.9 percent), Clemens (59.5) and Bonds (59.1) are the top returning vote-getters from last year’s ballot. Larry Walker, now in his 10th and final year, came in at 54.6, giving his large contingent of supporters hope for improved vision for 2020 voters.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am among those with mixed emotions who have remained on the sidelines in the Bonds-Clemens debate. I’ve never felt it was the voters’ job to determine eligibility, only the worthiness of a candidate. For me, given all the circumstances, the decision will be harder because it would be a stretch to find 10 HOF-worthy players without including the two lightning rods of the discussion.

For the record, with the election of Roy Halladay, Martinez, Mussina and Rivera and with Fred McGriff’s eligibility having expired, I have five open spots on my ballot. Though I’m generally reluctant to disclose my full list pre-announcement, it’s safe to say that Jeter will fill one of those spots. My five returnees — Schilling, Walker, Gary Sheffield, Jeff Kent and Billy Wagner — will also get my vote. That leaves four available spots.

Unless the “Solo Jeter” campaign runs amok, I feel certain that Schilling will make it this go-round, and I think Walker has an outside chance, though a 21 percent jump would require a huge leap.

I seem to be on an isolated island with my support of Sheffield (13.2), Kent (18.1) and Wagner (16.7), but I’ve been known to be stubborn. Sheffield’s 500 home runs and Kent’s power numbers, especially for someone who played in the middle of the infield as long as he did, are good enough. And the only significant difference I can see between Wagner and Trevor Hoffman is the latter has an award named after him (for the National League’s top relief pitcher). That’s not quite enough for me.

As for those other four spots — there are still plenty of good prospects, including you know who. We can talk about it later.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com

Photo Credit: Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Issue 260: December 2019 / January 2020  

Originally published Dec. 18, 2019