Monday, January 6, 2014

2014 Hall of Fame Musings

In their excessively moralistic quest to punish everyone who played in what will forever be known as the "Steroid Era," the Baseball Writers Association of America voters created a major traffic jam on the Hall of Fame ballot by not electing a single person last year. Never mind that candidates included one of the two or three best hitters of all time (Barry Bonds), one of the five or so best pitchers of all time (Roger Clemens), the greatest-hitting catcher ever (Mike Piazza), a pitcher with 3000 strikeouts, the best K/BB ratio since 1900, and one of the top October pitching records ever (Curt Schilling), a 3000-hit second baseman with an outstanding glove (Craig Biggio), three other 500-home run hitters (Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa - who hit 600), perhaps the best all-around first baseman in baseball history (Jeff Bagwell), and one of the two or three best leadoff hitters ever (Tim Raines). It didn't matter; none of them got in, and only Biggio (and Jack Morris, which is a whole 'nother discussion, one which I'm sure Joe Posnanski can express better than I) got within fifteen percentage points of the 75% needed for election.

Okay, so most of the men above have ties to steroids (but not all). Allow me to remind you that a) baseball did not have drug testing of any kind at the time, and b) the BBWAA members who can't get off of their high horses to vote anyone into the Hall of Fame are the very same guys who did precisely zero investigative work as home run totals ballooned almost as quickly as biceps measurements. Translation; they're hypocrites. And now those ten men, all of whom are somewhere between "pretty deserving Hall of Fame case" and "there shouldn't BE a Hall of Fame without ______," are back on the ballot for another go-around (so is Morris, but I don't find him deserving). For some reason, there's a ten-man maximum on voters' ballots. So even if you could find some unanimity among them (HA!), the odds of all of them making it in get pretty slim.

Why is that? Because there are nineteen new names on the ballot this year. Even if only a crank would vote for Armando Benitez, Mike Timlin, or J.T. Snow, those nineteen players include the following: another pitcher with a case as one of the five or so best ever (Greg Maddux), his 300-game-winning teammate (Tom Glavine), one of the most fearsome hitters for the entirety of the 1990s (Frank Thomas, who came by his size naturally), a pitcher who was one of the five or ten best in baseball for just about his entire career (Mike Mussina), and one of the best offensive second basemen ever (Jeff Kent). In 2015 Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Gary Sheffield join the party. Ken Griffey, Jr. is eligible the following year. Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and Vladimir Guerrero come up in 2017. And finally, Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Scott Rolen, and Andruw Jones debut in 2018.

Wow. In addition to the ten guys I named in the first paragraph (not to mention the very strong cases of Alan Trammell, Larry Walker, and Edgar Martinez), that makes thirty-one compelling Hall of Fame cases over the next five years, when typically only two to four guys make it in any given year. You do the math. Someone like Schilling or Mussina will probably get crunched by all of the ballot pressure and not emerge until ten years from now, or on the Veterans' Committee, and the same could even happen to Glavine or Thomas or Smoltz.

For many years my parents have (somewhat) jokingly claimed that I would fill the Hall of Fame with just about anyone, including Wheeler (deceased). That's not quite true, but I do think that the Hall cases for the vast majority of the players named above are rock solid, but the writers have been witch-hunting to "keep the Hall clean." That's bogus. No matter how hard you try, you can't rewrite history. If you want to keep guys out because you suspect they were using steroids (again, when no one was testing for anything), you had better be able to provide some measure of proof (cut to Jeff Bagwell nodding). If you want to keep the assholes out, better get rid of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth and Cap Anson. If you want to spurn those who cheated with illegal substances, good-bye to Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. And what would a baseball hall of fame look like without all of them? Pretty boring, right? So I think it's time for the BBWAA to relax a little, and also to tweak the voting rules.

For starters, no more arbitrary ten-man limit. Voters should be able to select as many (or as few) players that they believe deserve the honor. Twelve guys? Sure. Three? Don't forget to stamp your envelope. Next, individual votes need to be made public. Hiding behind a secret ballot is good for political elections, but ALL the writers (not merely the ones who choose to reveal their votes) should have to defend their actions. If you're one of the four or five snobs who won't vote for anyone on the first ballot because "nobody should be unanimous," then you deserve to get ridiculed for your choice (or lack thereof). They need to quit being cowards. Third, enough with all of the committees. One Veterans' Committee is enough,* without having a separate Old Timers' Committee or Negro Leagues Committee or whatever else. Or perhaps we could get rid of the BBWAA voting privileges entirely, especially when not all of those guys are active baseball writers.

*And that Veterans' Committee only elected three managers this year, all of whom were deserving (Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, and Joe Torre), while neglecting (again) Tommy John, only one of the most important pioneers in the game's history. It's also worth pointing out that as long as people moralize about steroids, all three of those managers worked during the height of the steroid era, and LaRussa in particular managed the Canseco-McGwire teams that were effectively Ground Zero for 'roids.

Anyway, this whole process is unfortunate, and it hurts the Hall of Fame as a whole. Again, the place is a museum celebrating the history of baseball, so as many of those stories should be told as possible. Frankly, I'll be surprised if more than three people get elected on this ballot, even with no fewer than SIXTEEN good options (Bonds, Maddux, Clemens, Thomas, Glavine, Bagwell, Piazza, Biggio, Raines, Trammell, Schilling, Mussina, McGwire, Martinez, Sosa, and Palmeiro) to choose from. I think that Maddux will sail in with 90% or more of the vote, joined by Biggio in his second attempt, Glavine, and maaaaybe one of Morris (facepalm), Bagwell, or Piazza. It's unfortunate, because Cooperstown is really such a joyful place to visit, and hopefully these next few years won't suck all the joy out of visiting what is still one of of America's greatest museums.