Baseball Hall of Fame vote has become an exercise in swings and misses


Baseball 500-homer club members pose in Houston on July 12, 2004. From left, front row, Hank Aaron, Commissioner Bud Selig, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew and Willie McCovey. Second row: Mark McGwire, Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, Ernie Banks and Eddie Murray. Back row Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Ken Griffey Jr. (Pat Sullivan/Associated Press)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist January 3

The National Baseball Hall of Fame is a mess. Worse, it’s not a mess that can be fixed, at least not now and maybe not ever. Sometimes you’re careless with a family heirloom. It’s cracked so badly that no matter how you patch and glue, the thing just never looks the same. You don’t dumpster it. But you think, “Man, we sure busted Grandpa’s spittoon.”

This year it’s a double shame because Greg Maddux (355 wins), Tom Glavine (305 wins) and Frank Thomas (521 homers, the same as Ted Williams) are eligible for the first time and presumably will be voted in Wednesday amid, I fear, a worldwide wail. (The Washington Post doesn’t let its writers vote.) Mad Dog, just plain Tom and the Big Hurt are what the Hall once was. Not anymore.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Cooperstown is well and truly busted for a variety of reasons not limited to jerks such as Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, who cheated when they were already rich and famous but wanted to be remembered as The Best of The Best, whether they were or not.

The Hall also has gotten kicked in the tuchus for innocent, accidental reasons, such as the too-much-information age’s passion for arguing about trifles and the rise of sabermetrics, my favorite art-pseudo-science that, if presented with a cup of morning coffee, would add two tablespoons of decimal points. Many writers say, “Here’s my ballot. It stinks.”

We’ve achieved total vote mockery when one of my favorite writers explained he was picking just five players; one of them was “because I can’t stand him” and another because “the sun-starved stat geeks hate him.” Two others he omitted because “they just don’t look right.” Too many muscles.

Okay, we’ve gone through the looking glass.

The sack of Cooperstown is now an annual sign-of-the-season embarrassment for baseball instead of a cheerful midwinter public relations gimmick. Every year, as ballots are cast by New Year’s Eve, the impossible conundrum will sit there like a smoldering reminder of an era of bad faith. You can’t close the joint. But the Babe deserves better.

Every vote will be wrong — or far from right. Arguments are now about messy morals and analytical methods as much as celebrations of performances and people. Clemens, Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro will get smacked around again and again. And so will baseball. Someday Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez get to join the no-admittance line that will then include six of the top 14 home run hitters in history.

That’s what the game gets — and probably deserves — for neglecting the integrity of its product for 20 years. Players didn’t care enough to speak up about performance-enhancing-drug use among teammates. The union lacked courage. Commissioner Bud Selig and the baseball writers who vote on the Hall (including me back in those days) were oblivious to the problem or ignored it or took a whack at it but didn’t step up to be the one to tackle it as a mission.

We’ll see the absolute ugliest side of the Hall vote this week, when Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio and/or Jeff Bagwell may again miss the 75 percent threshold for induction because some suspect them of having taken PEDs even though the actual case against them would be as subjective as saying, “That guy Boswell sure looks like my idea of an ax murderer.”

What’s the difference between this trio and the Shameful Seven listed above? Well, decency and presumption of innocence. Those seven confessed, got caught or were fingered in the Mitchell report (the sport’s own final PED exam), which is more than enough to keep them out of a Hall that’s an honor, not a right.

But cheating is only part of the problem. Without PEDs, maybe we could ignore everything else. With it, right at the center, Cooperstown achieves official craziocity.

Every new obsessive-compulsive nitpicking-nerd fussbudget debate point adds to the sense of mischief and increasing irrelevance of the Hall of Fame. How much do you penalize Larry Walker for playing in a mile-high home park or Edgar Martinez for being a designated hitter? Jack Morris’s wins and clutch postseason games mattered a lot to his teams, as did Lee Smith’s 478 saves. Now, wins, saves and even the word “clutch” have been trashed.

The opposite is also true. At 39, Mike Mussina retired with 270 wins after his only 20-win season. He didn’t trudge on for two or three extra years to get 300 wins and punch his ticket to Cooperstown. Was that his modest “not quite” vote? Now, the modern wins-above-replacement stat ranks him 18th among pitchers since 1900, just ahead of Bob Gibson.

There’s also a kerfuffle within the baseball writers. Many dislike the rule that you cannot vote for more than 10 players. Ah, ballot gridlock. Curt Schilling has serious support despite just 216 wins (plus a bloody sock) and a career of inconsistency: 158-75 in his nine best years, 58-71 in nine others. What about Fred McGriff, who sat becalmed at 20 percent of the vote last year despite a clean reputation and as many homers as Lou Gehrig?

This year, Jeff Kent, with the most homers ever hit by a second baseman, joined the ballot. He’s not a “first-time” Hall of Famer — yes, another distinction within a nuance — but some voted for him so he wouldn’t be kicked off the ballot by another Hall quirk: If you don’t get 5 percent of the vote in any year, you’re off the ballot forever.

Some of this makes sense to some of us, but all of it jammed together doesn’t compute to anyone. You can make a game so tough to enjoy that fun gets squeezed out.

What we’re left with is an incredible jumble. For a zillion fans (and me) who are not tasked to make a decision, it’s getting far too easy — for baseball’s health — to say, “Do I still care? Maybe Cooperstown was a nice 20th-century artifact.”

Move along. There’s too much to see here.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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