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In Defense of the BBWAA's 2013 Hall of Fame Results

Last weekend was induction weekend at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. However, despite the presence of Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens, Edgar Martinez and others on the ballot, no one was elected by the BBWAA. While some believe that this is proof that the process is broken, I do not.

Jim McIsaac

This past weekend was the induction ceremony for the Hall of Fame. As you may have heard, the Baseball Writer’s Association of America (BBWAA) did not elect anyone. Although there were three inductees, the only player amongst the trio played his last game in 1890.

I think the most common refrain that I’ve read and heard is that the process is broken, proof of which was the empty podium at Cooperstown last weekend despite the presence of Craig Biggio, Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens, Edgar Martinez and Alan Trammell on the ballot. I do not believe that the process is broken just because we don't like the results this year. Further, I don’t think that this year’s results should be viewed as a referendum on that process.

This is not the first time that the BBWAA has not elected anyone, and they failed to elect some worthy candidates in each of those years. Since the more-or-less current incarnation of the voting rules came into existence in the mid-1960s, this is the fourth year that will have no inductees from the BBWAA, following 1996, 1971, and 1967. The empty class of 1996 excluded six future HOFers – Phil Neikro, Tony Perez, Don Sutton, Ron Santo, Jim Rice, and Bruce Sutter. The empty class of 1971 excluded fifteen future HOFers. That year, the BBWAA did not elect Yogi Berra, Early Wynn, Ralph Kiner, Johnny Mize, and Duke Snider, among others. The empty class of 1967 had nineteen future HOFers, including Roy Campanella, Arky Vaughan, and Larry Doby. Of course, those years include a number of players later elected by bodies other than the BBWAA, but what would the reaction be today if no one was elected, and Yogi Berra was on the ballot?

This is also not the first time that players with hefty career totals were not elected on their first look. In addition to Berra, there were 500 homerun hitters like Eddie Mathews (who had only hit the sixth most HRs in history when he retired) and Harmon Killebrew (who was only fifth on the all-time list when he retired). There were 300 game winners like Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, and Early Winn. Some players might have needed more discussion of, or better appreciation for, their careers as writers gained more time and perspective. Others were victimized by the higher standard some voters hold players to on their first ballot. I’m not saying that it’s always right or logical, but that we should avoid making too sweeping a judgment on the validity of the entire system based on this year’s results alone. Let’s wait a couple of years before we get too righteously indignant about how the BBWAA are treating the Steroids Era in the HOF voting. If we always viewed elections in single-year increments, there would have been lots of outrage every year over who didn't get elected. After all, they are on the ballot for 15 years, and I think that most players who deserve admission are eventually elected by the BBWAA.

Another point of contention is the application of the “character clause” to Steroid Era players. Some object to the BBWAA citing it now to keep both admitted and suspected steroid users out of the HOF, when the HOF already includes all manner of racists, drunks, wife-beaters, and other horrible human beings.

The specific clause states that "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." However, the HOF website adds this clarification: "Implemented in 1945. Rule applies to how the game was played on the field, more so than character off the field." Does that calcification make it somewhat applicable to players who cheated? I think it’s within reason. I also think that it makes the argument that there are much worse people (like racists and drunks) already in the HOF largely irrelevant.

My feeling is that the BBWAA will eventually square the character clause with the Steroid Era in a manner similar to Bill James’s take on MLB Network: “Bonds did more than any other player to make a farce of the game during the Steroids Era, and I hold it against him . . . I believe Bonds was engaged in a pattern of dishonest conduct, and I hold it against him. He was a great player, even before he got into using every steroid he could find, and I think eventually you have to honor him. But I’d make him wait.” That’s pretty much how I feel as well, and I can’t be the only one. I like the idea of making him wait, and I think it’s in the spirit of the character clause.

Another criticism, in general terms, is that the HOF is a museum; we can’t pretend the Steroid Era didn’t happen, or that those players did not play. I draw the distinction that it is the HOF and Museum. The HOF describes itself (again, from its website) as "three entities under one roof with a museum, the actual Hall of Fame and a research library." Their accomplishments are noted and artifacts from those games are on display in the museum, even if they, personally, don't have a plaque. They, personally, are enshrined in the HOF via the BBWAA ballot. That's an individual honor, subject to the rules above. The story of a player’s accomplishments, records, and feats can most certainly be depicted in the museum without that player being elected by the BBWAA.

Are there problems with the current system? I think there absolutely are. Some voters returned their ballots blank this year. That may be appropriate some years, if a writer legitimately thinks there are no deserving candidates on the ballot. This year, it would most likely be a form of protest of the Steroid Era, or specific players on the ballot, at the expense of everyone on the ballot, and I believe that is inappropriate. After all, per MLB’s rules, the penalty for the first two positive tests is a suspension, following completion of which a player is welcome to resume his career. A third positive test results in a lifetime ban, and would make them ineligible for the HOF. Since no one on the ballot has tested positive more than once, I think you have to consider them on their own merits, in accordance with the rules for election. But again, I don’t think it’s unconscionable to make players who failed a test or were convicted of a PED-related crime, wait a year or three.

Other details of the system and its mores could use a real discussion on potential changes. Under the current voting rules, a BBWAA member who gets a vote is a voter for life. Is that still a good idea? Probably not. There is also the idea that there is a difference between HOFers and First Ballot HOFers. Is that a distinction that should be drawn? I don’t think so, but I’m not sure it should be classified as voter negligence, either. Some voters are now making their judgments based on physical appearance, changes to body size and composition, or even abnormal aging curves. I would classify this as “definitely not a best practice,” for the simple facts that no player can ever "prove" his innocence, and there are such things as late bloomers.

If we want to effect change in the voting process, I think a formal proposal to the HOF’s Board of Directors and the BBWAA is the place to start. Of course, that proposal would have to be a rational argument based on voter eligibility, election rules, and proposed changes, not personal unhappiness with the results for a particular year, era, or player. What about something similar to the continuing education requirements in some professions? Or a requirement to publish a certain number of articles per year, or some guidelines to ensure that voters are keeping up with the game?

What about guidelines that specified that since first and second positive PED tests do not result in a lifetime ban, those players should be considered based on their statistical record without regard for PEDs? The Steroid Era could be dealt with in the form of official guidance to elect the best players of that era, regardless of suspicions or two positive tests. What about an additional penalty for those first two positive tests in the form of an additional wait before appearing on the ballot? What about a third choice of “not sure yet,” something I saw from Joe Posnanski?

If it’s really the results we’re unhappy with, we need to work to change minds in the arena of ideas, like Rich Lederer and others did for Bert Blyleven.

So, what happens now? Off the top of my head, some deserving candidates will get lost in the glare from a number of closely grouped stars for the next few years – Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina, Tom Glavine, Jeff Kent will debut on the 2014 ballot; Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Gary Sheffield debut on the 2015 ballot.. Other deserving candidates will drop off the ballot before we really have time to properly discuss them and their candidacies. Eventually, the backlog will clear up, and they’ll still have some portion of their 15 years on the ballot remaining. Some of them will then be elected by the BBWAA, some by the Veterans Committee, some not at all. In short, it will continue the way it has for nearly fifty years unless (or until) the HOF and/or the BBWAA are compelled to make changes. After all, it is most certainly not in the HOF’s best interest to have no inductees. If no one receiving 75% of the vote each year becomes a trend, I’m sure there will be swift changes.

Spirited and passionate debate will certainly continue. Small Hall people will disapprove of some of those elected. Big Hall people will disapprove of some not elected. Everyone will disapprove of the Veterans Committee. Maybe a form of Bill Simmons’ pyramid will evolve. But people will still go to Cooperstown, with their parents, their kids, their friends, or by themselves. It doesn't matter, as long as they do, because it means they care.

Is the HOF in trouble? I’d say not until people stop caring about the elections, which they obviously still do.

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