A co-worker recently asked me what I thought of the upcoming Baseball Hall of Fame voting. The 2017 Hall of Fame announcement was only hours away, and it got me thinking just how broken the entire process has become. Luckily, I’ve got some solutions the Hall of Fame and Baseball Writers’ Association of America can institute with relative ease.
Unlike the NFL, NBA, and other assorted Hall of Fames, the Baseball Hall of Fame is a place reserved for only the best of the best to ever play the game. It’s not the hall of the very good, it’s a special place reserved strictly for sustained greatness. Baseball boasts an almost a 150 year history, with the first Hall of Fame election coming in 1936. Since then, 246 former major leaguers have been enshrined and election requires a player to appear on 75% of ballots. In 2016, there were 440 voters from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWA) deciding the fate of Hall of Fame hopefuls. Unfortunately, the current 440 voters face a series of unprecedented factors that are destroying the Hall of Fame: steroids, early ballot result publication, and the dilution of greatness.
Strike One: What do you do with players who’ve been under steroid suspicion, admitted to usage, or tested positive? I’d first like to tackle steroids as it’s by far the biggest elephant in the room, and voters have failed to arrive at a consensus on this issue. There is no greater example of this steroid voting gridlock than in 2013, when zero players were inducted despite current Hall of Famers, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, and Tim Raines being on the ballot. When the results were first announced, a feeling of disbelief and disgust immediately consumed me as if the Red Sox had just won the World Series again. As someone who opposes instant replay, opposes restrictions on contact with catchers, and is more old-school in thought, my opinions on steroids with regards to the Hall of Fame might surprise you. You’re telling me there aren’t players already in the Hall of Fame who didn’t take steroids? Obviously none of them are going to take the podium and admit fault, but it’s inevitable a few are already enshrined. Hall of Famer Frank Thomas recently lamented this fact, stating “They’ve let a few people in already we all know. It’s uncomfortable at this point. I’m sure this year’s going to be uncomfortable because we’ve got two great players going in, but they know. It’s no secret. If they didn’t do it, they would be stomping and kicking and in interviews saying, ‘I didn’t do it.'” The worst possible outcome is a handful of unknown steroid users being voted in while others suspected but never proven being left out. Since we’ll never know the exact truth, if a player has Hall of Fame worthy statistics, then we should simply put them in. Bud Selig, the former Baseball Commissioner who oversaw and turned a blind eye to the steroid era, was even voted into the Hall of Fame this year. Does he not share a significant portion of the blame for the steroid era? His election seems highly hypocritical to me as players like Bonds and Clemens still languish on the ballot. That said, with multiple vestiges of the steroid era already in the hall, the solution is to acknowledge it happened and move on. It was an era of baseball that can’t be denied, forgotten, or ignored. Instead of burying it in shame and asterisks, it should be prominently recognized as a historical period of the game. To acknowledge the era, a separate wing in the Hall of Fame should be created documenting this period in the game in an honest and uncensored manner. The official title of the hall is, The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, key word being “Museum”. I completely condemn the use of steroids in all professional sports, but it’s the hall’s responsibility to accurately document all aspects of the game, just like any other reputable museum. However, until steroids are uniformly addressed and a consensus reached by not only the BBWA, but the Hall of Fame as well, steroids will remain a black cloud hovering over every ballot. This lack of agreement keeps all-time greats like Barry Bonds in voting purgatory. For the record, Bonds had already won 3 MVP’s and was the most complete player in the game before he started taking steroids after the 1998 season. He’s the only player in history to steal 400+ bases and hit 400+ home runs. He’s also the only player in the 500-500 club. Hall of Famer. Period. Acknowledge it happened, document it in a separate wing of the Hall of Fame, and move on.
Strike Two: A more recent and highly disturbing development in the Hall of Fame voting is the publication of voter ballots prior to the results being announced. There are sites (which I refuse to list or credit) dedicated to tracking published voting ballots which previously never existed – God bless the internet. Hall of Fame voters are also aware of these sites, and can get a detailed breakdown as to which players are gaining momentum and which players are on the fence. Now if this isn’t leading to voter bias and a conflict of interest, I don’t know what is! Would Tim Raines have gotten in this year, his final year on the ballot, had popular early balloting results been kept confidential? Voters can be swayed by popular opinion, and can also manipulate their ballot to vote for players on the fence by waiting until the last moment. I’m all for voter accountability and transparency, but only after the results have been announced. The Hall of Fame should make it illegal for voters to publicize their ballots prior to the voting results and voters should be banned for life if caught doing so.
Strike Three: The dilution of greatness is what I call the growing trend of letting players statistically on the fence into the Hall of Fame. If a player wasn’t a Hall of Famer on a voter’s first ballot, odds are they really aren’t a Hall of Famer. It shouldn’t take 10 years to be swayed on a player being worthy of a Hall of Fame career. What transpires over a player’s 10 years on the ballot that boosts his candidacy after retirement? Even advances in sabermetrics still don’t hold enough weight to move a player like Raines from his year-one 24% to over 86% for election. It’s not like Raines logged another 1000 hits and 200 stolen bases during his 10 years on the ballot. If a decade worth of campaigning and debate is required, is the player in question really a deserving Hall of Famer? When you think of Willie Mays, you think, “Hall of Famer”. When you hear Mickey Mantle, you think, “Hall of Famer”. When you hear Ken Griffey Jr, “Hall of Famer”. Ted Williams, you get the point. In contrast, there are many players who had lengthy and productive careers, i.e. Tommy John, but he’s not a Hall of Famer, nor is Tim Raines. They both should make the 2nd team, honorable mention, as there is only one Baseball Hall of Fame.
Ok, but you may ask – why this is important? The reason this matters is because every new player on the Hall of Fame ballot is judged and compared to players already in the Hall of Fame. They’re the benchmark, so every year the bar gets set slightly lower and you have borderline outfielders being judged against 2009 Hall of Fame inductee Jim Rice’s 382 career home runs, or 2010 Hall of Fame inductee Andre Dawson’s .323 career OBP. The 86% of the vote Tim Raines received this year, in his 10th and final year on the ballot, is greater than the percentages received for induction by far superior players such as: Willie McCovey, Dave Winfield, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Eddie Matthews, and Ernie Banks. Clearly, something is wrong with this picture. Besides the BBWA, there is an archaic Veterans Committee (VC) that also votes in players from previous eras and tends to be even more lenient with their voting. The bottom line is this dilution of greatness has led to too many players getting a plaque in Cooperstown who should actually be on the honorable mention team. If given complete omnipotence, I’d omit the following players which received BBWA or VC induction within the past 30 years: Phil Rizzuto (VC), Tony Perez, Ryne Sandberg, Tony Lazerri (VC), Bill Mazeroski (VC), Orlando Cepeda (VC), Barry Larkin, Ron Santo(VC), Andre Dawson, Jim Rice, Red Schoendienst (VC), and Tim Raines. All of the above were fantastic players who had multiple all-star seasons, but ultimately should fall short. Demanding careers of sustained greatness is essential for the BBWA and VC to electing deserving players. What specifically qualifies a player for the Hall of Fame can be an entirely separate post, but raising, not lowering the bar is strike three to fixing the baseball Hall of Fame.
A joint collaboration by the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Baseball Writers’ Association is truly necessary to fix these glaring issues. I believe we’re at a historical crossroads and unless significant reform is made, the 2018 Hall of Fame vote will be subjected to the same questions and pitfalls that have plagued voting for far too long. Next year, notable ballot newcomers include: Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Jamie Moyer, Andruw Jones, in addition to holdovers Trevor Hoffman, Vladimir Guerrero, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, and Edgar Martinez. My way-too-early 2018 prediction is that Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Trevor Hoffman, and Vladimir Guerrero become the four members of the Hall of Fame class of 2018. Stay tuned.