This might seem obvious given its name but baseball’s Hall of Fame is important. It’s important to fans, and a trip to its home in Cooperstown – so idyllic, so nostalgic – reinforces that. But with the 2015 class set to be announced at 2 p.m. Tuesday it’s worth noting that if the Hall of Fame is important, then the voting process that both allows and denies players entry is important, too. And over the past several years, that important process has attracted, in some ways, more discussion than the results. The process, by now, is a bit of a mess.
To clarify: People who have been members of the Baseball Writers of America for 10 years are eligible to vote. Players must be retired for five years to be eligible. They must receive 75 percent of the vote to gain entry. To remain on the ballot, they must receive more than five percent of the vote. If they do, they can be considered for 10 years (down from 15, a change made last summer) before falling off. (An aside: Had 10 years been the previous limit, Bruce Sutter, Bert Blyleven and Jim Rice, all with plaques now, would not have gotten in.) Voters may name up to 10 players, but no more, on their ballots. And there is this guidance:
“Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
(Further clarity: The Washington Post, like the New York Times, does not allow its writers to vote for such awards and honors. The Associated Press this year changed its guidelines; its writers are now allowed to vote.)
So this year, hello to Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Gary Sheffield, John Smoltz and 13 others. Goodbye, Jack Morris. And welcome back, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and Jeff Bagwell, etc.
Start there. When McGwire retired from baseball following the 2001 season, he was fifth on the career home run list. Ahead of him were the following names: Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson, Hall of Famers all. Yet when the BBWAA electorate considered him following the 2006 season, for results announced in January 2007, McGwire received fewer than one in four votes. The voters had made it clear: As gatekeepers, they would not permit those suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs, which by all accounts were widespread beginning in the late 1980s through the early 2000s, into the Hall. Last year, his eighth on the ballot, McGwire received 11 percent of the vote, the lowest percentage of his tenure. He remains 10th on the all-time homer list.
Mike Piazza has more home runs than any catcher, ever. Clemens won more Cy Young awards than anyone, ever. Bonds surpassed Aaron and, given the offensive correction in the game, could be the home run king in perpetuity. Yet because they have been linked, directly or indirectly, to drug use, they remain in Hall of Fame limbo.
This is one of the great debates of the process: Should baseball writers be judge and jury, imposing their personal morality on some of the game’s great players who provided some of the game’s most memorable moments? Go whatever way you want on that – or on the entire idea of baseball writers voting for Hall of Famers to begin with. That’s all debatable. What’s not debatable is that the gatekeepers’ collective decision to scorn the supposed drug users has an impact on this year’s ballot, and on those to come.
At issue is the limit of 10 candidates that may be named on any individual ballot, a limit that almost everyone agrees is arbitrary. The impact is this: those voters who have decided to back the supposedly tainted players now must make a choice.
There were 34 names on this year’s ballot. Put aside the Rich Aurilias and Jason Schmidts, those appearing for the first time who almost certainly won’t receive five percent of the vote and, therefore, won’t be eligible next year. But look at this group: Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Bonds, Clemens, Johnson, Martinez, Don Mattingly, McGwire, Mike Mussina, Piazza, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Sheffield, Lee Smith, Smoltz, Sammy Sosa and Alan Trammell. It’s impossible not to acknowledge that each player in this 17-man group is worthy of consideration and debate. Maybe, after working through each individual case, you end up with fewer than 10 Hall of Famers. But maybe you end up with more. And if you do, you end up in a conundrum: Who to leave off, and why?
Baseball writers, already arbiters of morality, are now asked to be Hall of Fame strategists, too. If, say, a voter believes McGwire to be worthy of induction, might he or she look at his paltry percentage from last year, determine that he has no chance of jumping from 11 percent to 75 percent in a single year, and leave him off in order to vote for someone else with a more legitimate chance?
And would that decision then impact McGwire’s chances of returning to next year’s ballot?
Buster Olney, a former Baltimore Sun and New York Times beat writer who is an important voice for baseball information and commentary at ESPN, wrote in early December that he would not vote this year. His rationale: Because he is limited to 10 choices, he would have to leave off players he considered worthy – Mussina, Raines and Schilling, perhaps. By not voting, Olney will automatically increase the percentage of ballots on which those players appear, if only slightly.
This is mostly a procedural exercise, and it’s almost certain the fate of those players and others won’t be determined by one vote or one abstention. Last year, 571 ballots were returned, so one vote is less than 0.2 percent of the electorate.
But the fact that a voter of Olney’s qualifications and thoughtfulness is abstaining – Lynn Henning of the Detroit News also announced he would do the same – only highlights one of the ways the process is broken.
Tuesday, Johnson and Martinez figure to be voted in during their first year of eligibility. Others will likely join them, and the day will be filled with nostalgia around their accomplishments, their best moments on the field. But for those who are left out – again – the focus will go back to the reasons for their exclusion. And that focus will again return to the process for induction, an extraordinarily important part of how baseball’s history is considered that, at the moment, is seriously flawed.