The Baseball Hall of Fame will unveil its newest class Wednesday evening, an annual announcement that for eight decades was cause for rote ceremony and celebration. But over the past 10 years, the selection process has become more contentious, thanks largely to the inclusion on the ballot of some of the game’s greatest stars who are linked to performance-enhancing drugs, and this year’s voting may be the most talked-about yet.
The reason is not just the logjam of candidates created by the ongoing debate over whether to include steroid-tainted players, but also the Hall’s decision to cull some 150 voters who were no longer actively covering the game, and therefore deemed unfit to judge current contenders. The confluence of those factors has created an unpredictable dynamic and is further driving discussion around an already widely debated topic.
Think electoral rhetoric is running high in Cedar Rapids, Iowa? Check out Cooperstown, N.Y.
“I’m not sure any election in this country, other than a presidential election, generates the constant — and I mean unrelenting, constant — chatter than this election does,” said Tom Verducci, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and a member of an electorate that totals just 475. “It’s not just one day. It’s every single day. People really do care about it.”
This year’s Hall of Fame class almost certainly will include Ken Griffey Jr., the grinning and graceful outfielder whose flowing, left-handed swing generated 630 home runs, sixth most in history. Jeff Bagwell, an iconic first baseman for Houston, and Mike Piazza, a slugging catcher, also could gain election in voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America, whose voting body was cut by more than 20 percent since last year.
That adds another layer of intrigue to an election that once again will be considered a judgment on some of the sport’s most prominent figures. To this point neither Barry Bonds, who hit more home runs than anyone, nor Roger Clemens, the pitcher who won a record seven Cy Young Awards, has been granted entry. They are in the group of players who have documented links to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. In two previous votes, each fell well short of gaining election.
So whatever Wednesday brings, the process by which players are elected annually generates as much discussion as the actual results.
“All of a sudden, we’re not just voting,” said Jayson Stark, a longtime baseball writer at ESPN.com. “But because of the process, we’ve become part of the story.”
Said BBWAA President Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The Hall of Fame has fed into the social media sweetspot. It’s nestled here in January, when people are looking for sports topics to debate. And here on a silver platter comes the Hall of Fame. It shows how passionate people are about this stuff, but also how polarizing the PED guys are.”
The Hall of Fame, which sits in pastoral Cooperstown, was established with its first class in 1936. Much has changed about the process since then: how long players must be retired before they’re considered (now five years), how long they can remain on the ballot (a decade), whether character should be considered when voting (the rules say it should), whether candidates can be considered if they’re on baseball’s ineligible list (the rules say they can’t).
Two factors, though, have remained constant: a candidate must be named on 75 percent of the ballots returned to gain election, and the electorate consists of people who have been BBWAA members for at least 10 consecutive years. (The Washington Post has not allowed its employees to vote in more than a decade.)
“We continue to believe that the writers are informed, that they do their homework, that they care about the process,” said Jeff Idelson, the Hall’s president.
Still, the Hall took a step last summer to cull the voting body. Concerned that too many voters had been away from the game too long, Hall officials decided to eliminate voters who hadn’t covered the game over the past 10 years. Voters were asked to re-register online. The result: a streamlined electorate.
What that means for the prospects of a specific candidate is hard to say. What’s certain: Within the electorate, there is considerable consternation.
The worthiness of players who knowingly violated baseball’s rules has presented the most prominent divide. Verducci and Stark, who between them have voted in nearly 50 Hall of Fame elections and covered the game for almost 70 years, are on opposite sides of the issue: Verducci won’t vote for any of them because he believes they short-changed so many clean players; Stark believes they deserve inclusion because who can say for sure that some who used but were never caught aren’t already in?
“Why are we in this really uncomfortable position of trying to be the morality police and deciding who should be honored?” said Stark, who has asked the Hall to issue guidelines on how voters should handle steroid users.
“It’s a very fundamental thing we teach from the moment our kids play sports: play fair,” said Verducci, who is “totally against” the Hall issuing guidance.
And the issue isn’t going away. Alex Rodriguez — who trails only Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth in career home runs — was suspended for the entire 2014 season because of PED use and he is under contract with the New York Yankees through 2017. Even if he retired after that season, he — and thus the PED issue — could remain on the ballot into the 2030s.
That has a trickle-down effect into the granular nature of the process, one that has some voters equally rankled. The Hall limits each voter to 10 choices annually, so a writer who wants to continually vote for Clemens and Bonds is limited to eight other choices so long as they’re on the ballot. With new deserving candidates landing on the ballot every year, clutter ensues.
This development caused the BBWAA to petition the Hall last year to allow as many as 12 choices. The Hall declined.
Even asking for opinions can reveal the layers of emotion, sometimes raw. Last year, ESPN.com baseball writer Jerry Crasnick put a simple question on Twitter: “Should Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds be in the Hall of Fame?”
“One hour, 1,200 responses and a barrage of ‘yes’ votes later, I felt like a guy piling sandbags against a tsunami in my efforts to rationalize my ‘no’ vote,” Crasnick wrote last month.
This year, he voted “yes” on both players.
The internal rancor among the electorate has become too much for some. Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports had participated in Hall votes for years. Last year, his ballot sat on his desk until the deadline passed.
“I simply tired of helping — in a very small way — to create the news that drove the outrage,” Brown wrote after last year’s results were announced.
Which, of course, gets to another central question: Should the Hall use writers as the electorate at all?
“We think the process is healthy, the electorate is sound, and the results are a great product of both of those two pieces,” Idelson said.
This summer, the new inductees will gather in Cooperstown to be welcomed into the Hall. Many of the voters who put them there will cover the ceremony. And all subsets of the baseball world will be open for examination: the player for his career, the voter for his or her voting choices, the Hall for its process.
“There’s a lot more — I don’t know if ‘pressure’ is the right word — but a lot more scrutiny on the people who vote,” Verducci said. “I think that’s good. But it can also influence how people vote.”