John McGrath: Dismissing cheaters still leaves great crop of candidates for MLB Hall-of-Fame

I returned my baseball Hall of Fame ballot Tuesday with check marks alongside the names of these players: Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling and John Smoltz.

Voters can choose as many as 10. I chose 10. I could have chosen 15, even after eliminating the candidates whose artificially enhanced performances mocked such official Hall of Fame requirements as “integrity, sportsmanship and character.”

I realize that some of the players on my checklist may have accumulated similarly tainted statistics, but there’s a difference between suspicion and evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. I don’t relish serving as a judge — I flunked a communications law class in college, and to prove the grade wasn’t a fluke, I flunked it again before managing a D — I’m just trying to interpret vaguely phrased election rules.

A common complaint raised at Hall of Fame voters is how our ballots tend to fluctuate. It’s true. On previous ballots, I saw Lee Smith, Don Mattingly, Alan Trammell, Fred McGriff and Larry Walker as Hall-of-Fame worthy. None received my support this year, prompting a question: How can somebody such as Smith, who threw his last big-league pitch in 1997, regress in retirement?

Here’s how: Smith is a borderline candidate whose credentials for the Hall can be debated. I happen to think he’s deserving, but not as deserving as, say, Randy Johnson, whose credentials for the Hall can be summed up in five words.

Greatest lefty of all time.

Last time I voted for Smith, Johnson wasn’t eligible. Schilling, Smoltz and Mussina weren’t eligible, either. Different year, different ballot.

I suppose I could hold off voting for Johnson on the assumption he’ll be a virtually unanimous choice anyway. But if every voter did that, the greatest lefty of all time would be booted off the ballot and relegated to the eternal-limbo jury known as the veterans committee.

In other words, I make no assumptions about what my colleagues are thinking.

Johnson and Pedro Martinez were the easy picks this year. Of the several hours I spent deliberating the Class of 2014, maybe two or three seconds were used to apply check marks next to their names.

The pros and cons regarding the other pitchers who got my vote — Mussina, Schilling and Smoltz — are more nuanced.

Mussina never led the league in strikeouts or ERA, never won a World Series ring (his postseason record was 7-8) and never earned a Cy Young Award. On the other hand, the left-handed workhorse finished among the top six in Cy Young voting eight times, and retired with a terrific old-school stat (270 career victories) and an even more impressive advanced stat (82.7 Wins Above Replacement).

Schilling’s career, to borrow the lyrics from the only Christmas song linked to Boris Karloff, was a strange one. He didn’t bridge the gap that separates the truly elite from the very good until his age-30 season, in 1997, when he was selected to the first of six All-Star teams.

Some athletes are distracted by the center-stage spotlight. Schilling, he of the bloody red socks associated with the bloody Red Sox and their curse-busting sweep through the 2004 World Series, lived for it. The right-hander ranks among baseball’s best postseason pitchers: 11-2 record, with a 2.23 ERA, and 4-1, with a 2.06 ERA, in the Fall Classic.

Smoltz is another complex candidate. During his prime seasons in Atlanta, he was considered the No. 3 starter on a Braves staff that also boasted Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.

Middle-of-the-rotation starters, generally speaking, don’t belong in Cooperstown, but it wasn’t Smoltz’ fault to be part of the most dominant pitching rotation ever assembled. When the Braves determined Smoltz was better suited for the bullpen after sitting out a year recovering from Tommy John surgery, he reinvented himself as an All-Star closer.

Smoltz earned the 1996 Cy Young Award as a starter, finished third in the 2002 Cy Young vote as a 55-save reliever, then returned to the rotation to win a league-leading 16 games in 2006.

Baseball has been around awhile — the first major league was established in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, or about 80 years before the NBA was born — and the only pitcher to have retired with 200 victories and 150 saves is John Smoltz, who literally defines the term “Hall of Famer.”

Then again, I’m a proponent of an expansive Hall that isn’t limited to once-in-a-generation superstars. When I submit 10 players on every ballot, I realize I’m risking the wrath of those bemoaning how the high bar has been lowered to accommodate mere pedestrians.

But has the bar really been lowered?

Between 1996 and 2008, Carlos Delgado averaged 109 RBIs a season. The first baseman, who holds most of the Toronto Blue Jays’ career batting records, is among only six players in history to hit 30 home runs in 10 consecutive seasons. He retired with 479 homers and 1,512 RBIs.

Delgado needs to be named on at least 5 percent of the ballots cast to survive the cut for next year, but he wasn’t named on mine, and I doubt he was named on many others.

So much for the relaxation of the Hall of Fame’s sacred standards. If it were up to me, I’d expand the dimensions of the front door, and be happy to hear five or six players give acceptance remarks every year.

Carlos Delgado, the most prolific power hitter Puerto Rico has ever produced, must overcome long-shot odds to remain on the Hall-of-Fame ballot. How crazy is that?