Todd Walker was a nice baseball player. He spent 12 seasons in the majors, playing mostly second base for seven different teams, including the Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox, and Chicago Cubs. Walker finished his career with 1,316 hits, 107 home runs, and a .289 career average. Walker was fantastic in the 2003 postseason, slugging five home runs for Boston.
But Walker never made an All-Star team. According to baseballreference.com, an analytics site, the players most similar to Walker include Randy Velarde, Ronnie Belliard, and Mark Ellis — not exactly all-time greats. When Walker retired in 2007, absolutely no one thought he’d be heading for Cooperstown.
So when baseball’s latest Hall of Fame ballot was released on Wednesday morning, and Walker was one of the 24 players appearing on the ballot for the first time, along with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza, even Walker did a double take. “I’d probably say that was surprising,” says Walker from Shreveport, Louisiana, where he’s now a high school baseball coach at Calvary Baptist Academy. “When you look at the other names on the list, isn’t it?”
The big question surrounding this year’s Hall of Fame ballot: how will the voters treat the candidacy of players like Bonds, Sosa, and Clemens? Their statistics – Bonds is the all-time home run king, Clemens won seven Cy Young awards and struck out 4,672 batters, Sosa hit 609 home runs – should quickly punch their ticket Cooperstown. But steroid suspicions have stained their careers. Do they deserve a spot?
We can debate that all day. But when I saw this year’s list, I wanted to know something else. Why in the world was Todd Walker – and Jeff Cirillo, Woody Williams, Royce Clayton, Rondell White and a few others, for that matter – on the Hall of Fame ballot? These guys come up in exactly zero barroom debates about the Hall of Fame.
In fact, we see this sort of thing every year: so-so players popping on the Hall of Fame ballot, only to be expunged the following year because they get less than 5% of the vote (you need 75% for enshrinement — each of the 600-700 baseball writers can vote for up to 10 players on the ballot. Write-in votes are prohibited). Pitchers Bob Knepper, Michael Jackson, Todd Worrell, Danny Jackson, and Jim Deshaises, for example, were all nominated, even though they finished their careers with a losing record.
Deshaises even mocked his own candidacy, launching a sarcastic campaign to get one vote; it had a website, putjdinthehall.com, which said that a Deshaies vote would be “an inspiration for “slow-footed left-handers everywhere.” A columnist from the Houston Chronicle gave it to him.
So how do players like Walker and Deshaies get their Hall of Fame shot? Each year Jack O’Connell, the secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, receives a list of players technically eligible for the Hall of Fame. To qualify, you must have played in the big leagues for parts of at least 10 seasons, and been retired for five years. From there, O’Connell sends the list to a screening committee, which consists of six writers. If two of these six writers deem a player worthy of the ballot, he secures a spot. “I have my hawks and my doves,” says O’Connell.
O’Connell argues that writers who put Walker on the ballot aren’t devaluing the process. They’re just doing these players a courtesy. “It’s a big day for them,” says O’Connell. “Not everyone gets on the Hall of Fame ballot. A lot of them have been away from the game for five years. If someone gives them a call, if it’s a chance for them to be remembered again, I look at it as a positive thing.” O’Connell says some players, knowing they’ll be off the ballot in a year, ask him for a copy of it, as a memento. When former Detroit Tigers All-Star Chet Lemon appeared on the ballot – he wound up with one vote in the 1996 election — his wife, Gigi, called O’Connell, asking for a copy; because Lemon was nominated to the Hall, she planned to throw a party for her husband, and replicate the ballot on a cake. Though the ballot-cake fell through – “I didn’t get the copy on time,” Gigi says – she still remembers the gathering. “I invited some friends, a everyone brought little gifts,” Gigi says. “We had a good time. To even be considered for the Hall of Fame, it’s such a great accomplishment.”
Walker got a few congratulatory texts on Wednesday. “Quite honestly, I wasn’t even aware I was eligible,” he says. Walker, an All-American at Louisiana State University, is enshrined in the college baseball Hall of Fame. He was the Most Outstanding Player of the 1993 College World Series, which LSU won. Though he admits his pro career wasn’t as stellar, being on the ballot is nice. “It’s awesome, just awesome,” says Walker. “Just to see my name there – it’s a tremendous honor.”