Bert Blyleven, Roberto Alomar voted into baseball's Hall of Fame
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 12:32 AM
The fickle body of voters who preside over the entrance to baseball's Hall of Fame on Wednesday elected a pitcher it had previously turned away on 13 consecutive ballots, overwhelmingly approved a second baseman after what can only be interpreted as a one-year penalty for spitting on an umpire, and sent its most emphatic signal to date that anyone linked to performance-enhancing drugs is unlikely to be enshrined in Cooperstown anytime soon.
The winners: Pitcher Bert Blyleven, elected on his 14th year on the ballot - one shy of the 15-year limit before candidates are bounced from the ballot - and former Baltimore Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar, who made it on his second try. They will be inducted in a ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., on July 24.
The biggest losers: First baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who has Hall-worthy numbers but whose failed steroids test in 2005 resulted in a stunningly low vote total in his first year of ballot eligibility, and prodigious slugger Mark McGwire, whose admission of steroids use 11 months ago caused his vote totals to drop, not rise, in his fifth year on the ballot.
The elections of Alomar and Blyleven both highlighted different idiosyncrasies - critics might say lunacies - of the Hall of Fame's voting, which is done by 10-year members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
In the case of Blyleven, he had been on the ballot since 1998, when he was named on only 17.5 percent of submitted ballots - closer to the 5 percent threshold below which a candidate is banished from the ballot forever than to the 75 percent required for enshrinement. But after a grueling wait, Blyleven finally made it into Cooperstown this year with 463 of a possible 581 votes (79.7 percent).
"It's been 14 years of praying and waiting," Blyleven said in a conference call with BBWAA members Wednesday, "and I thank the [BBWAA] for - I'm going to say, finally getting it right."
Blyleven's career numbers obviously didn't change between 1998, at which point he had been retired for the requisite five years, and 2011. What did change was the perception of his career, a change that had its roots in baseball's increasingly influential sabermetrics movement, with its advanced statistical analysis powered by the reach of the Internet.
Though Blyleven was not particularly exalted during his career - making only two all-star teams and earning Cy Young votes in only four seasons - his sabermetric backers were able to show how deceptively dominant Blyleven was in his own era, and how favorably his numbers stack up against Hall of Famers from other eras.
"I thank all those people in my corner trying to get me into the Hall of Fame, that the day has finally come," he said. ". . . They brought out so many stats, showed it wasn't just about wins and losses."
In the case of Alomar, he made what was an unprecedented one-year jump from non-election a year ago (when he was named on 73.7 percent of the ballots last year) to a 90 percent approval rate this year - higher than first-ballot picks Frank Robinson or Mickey Mantle, among others. Aside from Alomar, only 25 other Hall of Famers won election at higher than 90 percent.
The strange boost in Alomar's totals was almost certainly the result of a conscious decision on the part of many voters to deny Alomar "first ballot" status a year ago, most likely because of the infamous 1996 game in which he spat in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck. Although Hirschbeck later publicly forgave Alomar, and the two even became friends, the incident remains perhaps the most vivid part of Alomar's legacy.
"I regret every bit of [the Hirschbeck incident]. But at same time, I apologized many times to John. John has apologized to me, and we both moved on," Alomar said. "Maybe it wasn't meant to be last year; it was meant to be this year. I'm not going to to look back. This is an exciting time for me. John and me are friends, and I think some of the writers have moved on, and I'm glad for it."
Aside from Alomar and Blyleven, shortstop Barry Larkin (62.1 percent) and pitcher Jack Morris (53.5) came closest to gaining election this year, and both could reach 75 percent next year, a relatively down year for first-year eligibles.
Meantime, the paltry vote totals for Palmeiro (11.0 percent) and McGwire (19.8) - whose career numbers likely would have gotten them elected, were it not for their ties to the steroids scandal - sent an ominous signal to the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and other steroids-stained players who will be appearing on the ballot in future years.
"I think the steroids era had a lot to do with" the low vote totals for McGwire and Palmeiro, said Blyleven, who currently works as a television analyst for the Minnesota Twins. "Guys cheated. They cheated themselves and their teammates. The game of baseball is to be played clean."