BRADENTON, Fla. — I was 7 years old when Roberto Clemente died and, as far as I can recall, I saw him play just once at Three Rivers Stadium. Honus Wagner, arguably the greatest Pirate of all time, ended his playing career nearly a half-century before I was born. So when people ask me who was the best Pirates player I ever saw, I reply it was Barry Bonds. I became engrossed in baseball in the mid-1980s and watched Bonds in action with the Pirates and San Francisco Giants dozens of times from his rookie season in 1986 until his final season in 2007. When he bolted from Pittsburgh as a free agent after the 1992 season, I already firmly believed Bonds was on a path toward the Hall of Fame.
I’ve been covering baseball for the Trib since 1994, but this is just my second year as a Hall of Fame voter. It was my first chance to vote for Bonds, to ratify what I had judged him to be more than two decades ago. I take the voting process very seriously. I evaluate candidates throughout the year by poring over stats, doing research on the Web and seeking input from former MLB players and execs as well as fellow reporters. And I consider more than just raw stats; the instructions from the Hall make it clear that a player’s character and respect for the game should be taken into account. By making the Baseball Writers Association its voters, the Hall has sort of made us caretakers of the game’s history and reputation. The results of this year’s voting will be announced at 2 p.m. Wednesday.
My ballot arrived in early December. I mulled the list of 37 candidates for another week before making my picks (each voter can choose up to 10). I selected six players: Craig Biggio, Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling and Lee Smith. I did not vote for Barry Bonds, the best Pirate — perhaps the best player — I ever saw.
I believe Bonds was a Hall of Fame talent in 1992. I also believe Bonds later enhanced his skills to monstrous proportions by stepping beyond the bounds of what is ethical. I believe he cheated the game. Bonds’ stats are famous, but the aura around him is infamous. He seems to care everything about the former and nothing about the latter, which is why I couldn’t bring myself to put a check next to his name on my ballot. Bonds still could get into the Hall someday — actually, I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t happen. I’ll keep an open mind about him next year and every one after that until he is either elected for falls off the ballot. But, I also think a player getting inducted the first time he is on the ballot is a special thing. It’s a sort of ring of honor among an already elite group of men. Clemente deserved that. So did Wagner. Not Bonds.
OK, end of sermon. Here’s a bit more about the fellas I did vote for … Morris, Bagwell and Smith were on my ballot last year. Morris was the template for a successful pitcher in the ’80s. Smith sticks in my mind forever as a dominant closer, a guy no one (well, except Bonds) wanted to face with the game on the line. I saw Bagwell play when he was still in Double-A and even then his slugging was eye-opening. I bypassed Raines on my ballot last year and regretted it. He was one of the finest leadoff batters of all time, maybe the best ever in the National League. Biggio and Schilling are newcomers to the ballot. Biggio could flat-out play as a hitter, fielder, runner and leader. Schilling was durable, nasty on the mound and nails in big games.