A year ago, a change of heart among Baseball Hall of Fame voters gave a boost to the drug-tarnished candidacies of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, although it did not win them induction, or even get them that close.
Now, with a little more than one-third of the ballots for the class of 2018 already made public, Bonds and Clemens do not appear to be picking up any new converts from established voters, which strongly suggests they will fall substantially short of induction this time as well.
However, it also appears that they continue to make strides through the evolution of the Hall of Fame electorate, with newly eligible voters inclined to back their candidacies. And as those ballots are being cast, other voters, many of them older and less inclined to support Bonds and Clemens, are losing their voting eligibility and coming off the rolls.
Whether this gradual evolution will eventually pull Bonds and Clemens close to the 75 percent of the vote needed for induction remains to be seen. But they do not have much time, because they are already in their sixth year of a maximum of 10 years of eligibility.
After that, if they are not inducted, their candidacies can be periodically voted on by the Veterans Committee, where they may or may not find sympathy for their cause.
Baseball journalists make up the voting bloc for the Hall of Fame, and the final vote totals will be announced on Jan. 24, with Chipper Jones looking like a lock for induction in his first year on the ballot. By Sunday evening, more than 150 ballots, or about one-third of the expected total, had been made public, and they showed that some players were making significant progress from a year ago, but not Bonds and Clemens.
For instance, Vladimir Guerrero has picked up 26 votes from returning voters and seems in a strong position to be inducted in his second year on the ballot. Larry Walker has garnered 23 additional votes, Edgar Martinez has amassed an additional 16 and Trevor Hoffman has added eight.
Even Curt Schilling, whose controversial political comments most likely cost him votes a year ago, has picked up 13 votes so far.
But as of Sunday, Bonds and Clemens remained right where they were a year ago — with no net gain from returning voters.
“With stable voters, everybody is pretty entrenched,” Ryan Thibodaux, who compiles votes that have been made public on his Baseball Hall of Fame Vote Tracker, said of Bonds and Clemens. “Their hope is definitely that a turnover is enough to help them make the jump.”
On the surface, the early voting for 2018 looks promising for both Bonds, who is baseball’s career home run leader with 762, and Clemens, who won 354 games. They had both received 70.2 percent of the 151 ballots that had been revealed as of Sunday evening, according to Thibodaux’s Tracker.
But Thibodaux said that based on previous voting patterns, he expected those vote totals to decline as more ballots are tabulated, much as they did last year when Bonds’s final total was 53.8 percent and Clemens’s was 54.1 percent, after both had hovered around 70 percent with a little more than one-third of the votes counted.
Still, the percentages that Bonds and Clemens did end up with a year ago were their highest annual totals to date.
“With the early ballots, the percentage is looking really high, but by the time it’s all said and done, they’re going to drop a lot,” Thibodaux said of the current totals. “I think they’ll end up in the 50s again.”
But Bonds and Clemens have gained ground in the 2018 balloting with new voters, which could prove increasingly significant in ensuing years as more new voters emerge and other voters continue to be culled from the ranks.
In 2015, new voter-eligibility rules were established that eliminated any voters who had not covered baseball regularly as a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in the previous 10 years. In effect, it is the mirror image of the rule that allows journalists to become eligible to vote after they have covered baseball for 10 years. (Five newspapers do not allow their members to vote: The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Baltimore Sun and The New York Times.)
Actually, what really gave Bonds and Clemens a boost in last year’s balloting was the reasoning of some established voters that if Bud Selig, the longtime commissioner, was being inducted as part of the 2017 class then players who were tainted by the steroid era that Selig presided over should not be barred from the Hall, either.
That led to more than 20 voters deciding to switch from no to yes when it came to Bonds and Clemens. But Selig is no longer the provocative issue he was a year ago. Instead, it appears Bonds and Clemens are now left to rely on support from new voters while also benefiting from the gradual removal of voters who continued to oppose them.
Consider that last year, there were 21 new voters in all, and they gave substantial support to Bonds and Clemens. And this time around, according to the vote tracker, Clemens has picked up support from all eight of the first-time voters who made their ballots public by Sunday, and Bonds had the backing of seven of those voters.
Meanwhile, of the six voters who confirmed they had lost their vote this year, all declined to vote for either Bonds or Clemens a year ago.
Another 14 writers could be eligible to vote next year, and as many as 22 could be eligible to vote for the class of 2020, according to Jack O’Connell, secretary-treasurer of the writers’ association. But not all who are eligible choose to vote.
This year, the association provided names of 21 eligible new voters to the Hall of Fame, but only 16 completed the registration form and signed a code of conduct — requisites to receive a ballot.
Thibodaux was skeptical that Bonds and Clemens would ever get to 75 percent in their remaining years on the ballot.
“The only thing I can see is you’d need another Selig-type moment — maybe somebody in the Hall of Fame comes out and says, ‘I used steroids,’ ” he said. “Something like that would have to happen to have any chance of getting to 75 percent.”
If Bonds and Clemens’s race against the clock in their bid for enshrinement does come down to their final year, there is little doubt the vote will be a referendum on the steroid era. Appearing on a ballot for the first time in the class of 2022 will be another familiar and polarizing figure: Alex Rodriguez.
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