In the weeks leading up to Jan. 18, when the new inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame are announced, Vladimir Guerrero likely won’t make news, retired outfielder that he is. Ivan Rodriguez hasn’t caught a game since 2011. Jeff Bagwell’s last hit came more than 11 years ago.
Those players and others will be in the news between now and the announcement. But those making news will be the members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America who do the voting.
And it’s long past time for that to change.
This isn’t just about baseball, it’s not only about the Hall of Fame, and it’s really not meant to be some preachy, holier-than-thou screed.
Most importantly, it’s not a criticism of how effectively the writers who have been members of the BBWAA for 10 consecutive years elect players to the Hall. Many of these people are my good friends, and I know how much time, how much consideration and how much angst they put into their ballot choices. There may not be a more qualified group to vote on players’ credentials for the Hall or for MVP, Cy Young honors, etc.
But come on. Let’s stop. For all awards. Across all sports.
The roots of this practice trace back to when sportswriters served as much as promotional arms of the leagues they covered as they did detached, independent observers. But you don’t have to be the Philadelphia Inquirer beat writer whom the Eagles kicked out of the press box Sunday to realize those days went out with the straight-ahead place kick and the underhanded free throw.
The Washington Post has a long-running policy preventing its writers from voting on any and all awards. Other organizations — including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun — have similar policies. So while these decisions were taken out of my hands for me, let’s follow a couple of examples of why we all need to pull ourselves out of these processes.
Hall of Famers, of course, make more money in retirement than really good players do. Speaking engagements, card signings, potential endorsement deals — they’re all impacted by whether a player is in the Hall. “Hall of Famer Johnny Bench” simply earns more than “former Reds catcher Johnny Bench.”
If that doesn’t seem like a direct link between a writer voting and a player’s earning potential, look at current players’ contracts. Carlos Gomez is a veteran major league outfielder who, this offseason, signed a one-year, $11.5 million contract to return to the Texas Rangers, with whom he had revitalized his career. This wasn’t a marquee signing, and it barely made much of a ripple outside of Arlington, Tex.
What also didn’t make a ripple because they’re so mainstream: clauses in Gomez’s contract that would pay him $250,000 for winning the American League MVP award, $200,000 for coming in second, down to $50,000 for placing fifth — in voting performed by two members of the BBWAA in each AL city.
Should Gomez be named the World Series MVP, he would receive $150,000. Should he be the MVP of the American League Championship Series, that’s $100,000. Both of those postseason honors have BBWAA members as part of the voting panel, joining broadcasters. Given he hit .231 and slugged .384 while splitting time between Houston and Texas in 2016, Gomez would be a candidate for comeback player of the year in 2017. That would be worth $150,000, and that, too, would be voted on by baseball writers.
So Gomez could earn $650,000 in awards voted on by the people who cover him. And he is just an example.
In some ways, these kind of pay-for-performance deals should be praised because they reward players for what they accomplish, not what they might do. The problem lies in how those accomplishments are determined. Think about it: Part of a Rangers beat writer’s job is having at least a working relationship with Gomez. What’s to prevent Gomez, at the end of a strong season, from approaching a reporter and saying, “Hey, you thinking about me for MVP?”
Sounds preposterous, I know. And I have never heard of a player asking a writer to vote for him. For anything.
But perception is a powerful force, and the perception that there could be a conflict of interest has to be avoided. Couldn’t a writer feel indirect pressure to vote for a player he or she covers, just to maintain relationships with that player? Good relationships can foster good stories, which is what we get paid for.
The NBA actually has taken this a step further. The league’s new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union, forged just last month, continues a practice that allows teams to use something known as the “designated player exception” to try to retain top players before they reach free agency.
To qualify for the exception, a player must have been the league’s MVP once in the past three seasons, the defensive player of the year or made one of the three all-NBA teams the previous season, or all-NBA or defensive player of the year in two of the previous three seasons.
Confused? Here’s all that matters: All those awards are voted on by a panel of media members who regularly cover the league, a panel selected by league officials that includes team broadcasters as well as columnists and beat writers who work for newspapers and websites.
“Media members that cover the NBA have a long history (40+ years) of determining our annual awards,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank said in a statement. “Because of that history, we have the utmost confidence in their decision-making and helping to identify players for recognition.”
And, it turns out, helping identify players whose current teams will be allowed to pay them more money. Need a stark example: Had Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans been voted onto one of the three all-NBA teams following last season, he would have made $24 million more over the course of his contract. He wasn’t, so he won’t.
“I have severe concerns about writers participating — even tangentially — in any process that would determine player salaries,” said Josh Robbins, who covers the Magic for the Orlando Sentinel and serves as the president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.
Robbins said he intends to bring up the issue at the PBWA meeting during next month’s All-Star Weekend, but he also acknowledged that — unlike the BBWAA, which owns and runs baseball’s awards — the basketball awards are run by the NBA, so individual media members would have to bow out on their own.
Which they should.
So what’s the solution? If not the writers, then who should determine such honors? I will leave that to other people. Maybe that’s a cop-out. But the current setup assigns responsibility where it does not belong.
Part of a sportswriter’s job is to debate the historical merits of Guerrero, Rodriguez, Bagwell and the other candidates up for the Hall or argue whether Daniel Murphy or Kris Bryant should have been the National League MVP last season. Affecting the livelihoods of athletes, either during or after their careers, most certainly is not.