Friday, January 10, 2014

It’s Past Time to Fix the Hall of Fame Voting

By Jeff Kallman

The good news on the Hall of Fame front: Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine are the first teammates to go into the Hall of Fame together on their first try. They're the first teammates to go in together, period, since Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford in 1974. (Ford was elected in his second try; Mantle, his first.) They'll be the first teammates to go in with the man who managed the bulk of their careers, since Bobby Cox (along with Tony La Russa and Joe Torre) is also going in.

And, with Frank Thomas having been elected as well, we're going to see three no-questions-asked Hall of Famers entering the shrine on their first ballot, as they absolutely deserve to go.

Now, alas, the bad news, some of which may become worse before it gets better:

* Ken Gurnick turns out not to have been the only voter not to vote for Maddux, merely the most unapologetically, idiosyncratically, and idiotically conspicuous. He's one of 16 eligible Baseball Writers Association of America who failed to vote for Maddux, which surely helps put the lie to Ken Rosenthal's stubborn insistence that the incumbent Hall of Fame voting system isn't broken. Rosenthal is dead right, however, when he insists concurrently that transparency is a must, and discloses that some voting writers will publish their ballots on the association's Website.

* Anyone who says the system isn't broken when Craig Biggio (who missed in his second try by one vote), Jeff Bagwell, Curt Schilling (the very essence of a big-game pitcher), Mike Piazza, Edgar Martinez (the DH bias is going to be very hard to sustain credibly from now on, now that Thomas sailed into the Hall of Fame), and Alan Trammell (yep, I'm convinced: he does deserve the honor) still haven't gotten their due, should be made to explain why it doesn't need to be fixed.

* They should also be made to explain it in light of these men, who absolutely do belong in the Hall of Fame conversation at minimum, losing 50 votes or more between last year's and this year's ballots: Lee Smith (-101), Trammell (-72), Larry Walker (-65), Martinez (-60), Schilling (-54), and Fred McGriff (-51). I'm on the fence still with McGriff (I don't know whether he does or doesn't deserve the honor when all is said and done, though the fact that he wasn't as powerful a late-innings pressure run producer as you may remember him being is weighing heavily against him in my view), I could be convinced either way about Smith (I still have a problem with a guy whom, seemingly, his teams often as not couldn't wait to unload), and I'm convinced Walker would have a more powerful, incontrovertible case if he hadn't lost as much time as he did to injury. (The Coors Canaveral argument vaporizes the closer you look at Walker, by the way: his road numbers aren't exactly weakfish.)

But who can argue now that the ten-name ballot limit is legitimate when men like that can be losing votes that dramatically between two ballots?

* Of all the suspect candidates whose actual or alleged trucking with actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances have cost them Cooperstown plaques thus far, the saddest case of them all now has no hope other than a future Veterans Committee, on the assumption that they'd be willing to consider him. I wrote the following in 2011 and have had no reason to change my view since:

The Sad Case of Rafael Palmeiro

Even with counting stats to burn, Palmeiro was kind of the Bert Blyleven of position players: He snuck up on you when you weren't looking, until that one positive steroid test, after he finger-wagged his denial before the House Committee for the Dissemination of Great Messages to Kids (thank you again, Mr. Will), and just days after he nailed his 3,000th career base hit (he already had 500+ bombs and 1,800+ runs batted in), blew his reputation to smithereens.

The remaining problem? Palmeiro really may have turned up positive for stanozolol by way of a tainted vitamin B12 ingestion. The further problem: Palmeiro tested negative in 2003; he tested negative again almost a month after the positive that would smash his reputation, a negative test he took a fortnight before the positive was disclosed.

It gets better. Palmeiro passed a polygraph test that indicated he had offered no responses "indicative of deception." Even the House Committee for the Dissemination of Great Messages to Kids concluded there was nothing to tie Palmeiro to actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances before Palmeiro appeared before it.

As a matter of fact, the committee's then-chairman, Republican Tom Davis, has since beaten a soft but profound drum on Palmeiro's behalf. Davis will tell anyone who will listen that the committee didn't doubt Palmeiro was telling the absolute truth at the infamous hearing, and that Palmeiro just might be getting a bum rap over one mistake — a mistake that actually may not have been of Palmeiro's deliberate making.

That didn't help him reach the Hall of Fame on his first two tries. It probably won't help him for a number of years to come. But it probably will–and should–help clear his way in due course. Palmeiro will probably prove the absolute quietest superstar to make it to Cooperstown if and when he gets in. And, unlike a lot of instances of debatable wrongdoing, it actually does seem that, the closer you look at Palmeiro, the less wrong there is to see.

Something else of which you might make note: Palmeiro spent the bulk of his career playing for bad teams, or at least teams just shy of competitiveness, none of which was his fault. He was particularly lethal in the middle innings of games and very capable in late-inning pressure situations. But just what good is it when nobody else around you steps up often enough or keeps the other guys from stepping higher in those situations often enough?

Until that certain issue decimated his reputation, Rafael Palmeiro looked like he was going to be Ernie Banks without the extroverted personality — a bona-fide Hall of Famer who'd been sentenced unconscionably to performing most of his career for teams that didn't necessarily deserve him. Palmeiro actually did get to two postseasons in a 20-year career (Banks never got to one), and he performed decently enough when he got there. But those teams (the 1996-97 Orioles, who wouldn't have gotten there without him in the first place) didn't get past the League Championship Series in each instance, and it wasn't even close to his fault that they didn't.

Like Mark McGwire when he was in self-imposed exile, Palmeiro hasn't spent his life away from the game lamenting that he's baseball's wronged man. Until or unless you ask him. And, even then, he says it simply and lets it drop at that. Allowing the facts to get in the way of juicy stories simply has too strong a grip to release for a long enough time.

* Regarding at least Bagwell, Piazza, and Clemens: Innuendo isn't evidence. Show actual, tangible, incontrovertible evidence that these three had any serious, no-questions-asked truck with actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, or shut up and give them their due.

* Want to fix the Hall of Fame voting system? Step one: the Hall of Fame itself ought to remind Ken Rosenthal that, contrary to his self-satisfied ejaculation that the BBWAA "[doesn't] need the Hall of Fame to give us more specific guidelines on how to vote," that voting for the Hall of Fame is a privilege, not a right. The Hall of Fame has every last right to determine who should be eligible for enshrinement and who should be eligible to choose, chairman Jane Forbes Clark notwithstanding.

"We're in an age where everyone does want to be heard," she says, "but we really see this as an issue that needs to be dealt with by the BBWAA . . . I don't think that in any situation one needs to react to a one-off and change an entire process." Except this hasn't been a one-off. And everyone in and around baseball knows it.

But the Hall might also acknowledge that Rosenthal is dead right when he says BBWAA members who aren't actively covering the game should be removed from the Hall of Fame voting. Not to mention that lots of people are covering the game actively who don't all write or have associations with daily newspapers or news agencies. And they're not all just schpritzing, carping bloggers.

The Hall of Fame is on the threshold of admitting its first J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner who never worked for a daily newspaper and never covered a team or a specified, specialty baseball beat. But if Roger Angell (once more around the park: he isn't baseball's Homer, Homer was ancient Greece's Roger Angell) can win a Spink Award and stand with the Cooperstown immortals, why the hell should he never have had a Hall of Fame vote?

Vin Scully has been the game's most singular announcer for most of his career with the Dodgers — he's probably been more atop the games themselves than the writers whom Rosenthal thinks should be removed from the voter roll. Why the hell should Vin Scully not have a Hall of Fame vote? Or Tim McCarver, who played and then broadcast and analyzed his own way into the Hall of Fame? Or Bob Costas? (You win, Mr. C. — I'll never again suggest you should be the Commissioner, because you don't want the job even if you're the man most qualified to hold it.) Or Tony Kubek? (He broke his own precedent: the first Hall of Fame broadcaster whose air career was on television entirely.)

Bill James is the founding father of the sabermetric revolution that has, among other things, made a (justifiable) Hall of Famer out of Bert Blyleven and forced reviews of the cases of Tim Raines, Jack Morris (who's dropping off the ballot after failing to get in this year despite Ken Gurnick's best effort), and plenty of others. Why doesn't he have a Hall of Fame vote? Why doesn't his disciple Rob Neyer? Or at least a few staffers at The Hardball Times and Baseball Prospectus?

Why shouldn't Hall of Famers themselves — whose input is for the time being restricted to assorted Veterans Committee subsets — have Hall of Fame votes? (Why wouldn't you feel good about a vote from Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Yogi Berra, Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Ferguson Jenkins, Whitey Ford, Juan Marichal, Ryne Sandberg, or Eddie Murray, to name a few?) Why shouldn't the umpires who call the games, the executives who operate them, the men who formerly played the game even if they weren't Hall of Famers themselves, the other men who broadcast the games, the men who manage them, the scholars who have made the deep study of the game their (and a big part of the game's) life blood, have Hall of Fame votes?

James once suggested (in Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? Baseball, Cooperstown, and the Politics of Glory) that a properly-constructed Hall of Fame should be handled by five groups who would nominate and then elect candidates. The five he proposed were the media unrestricted to the BBWAA (he does not favor removing the BBWAA vote, and neither do I), the fans, the players past and present, baseball executives/professionals (the umpires would fall into this category, I should think), and baseball scholars. (Bet you didn't realize John Thorn, Ken Burns, or a lot of the Society for Baseball Research folks don't have Hall of Fame votes.)

He suggested further that the players (past, present, and minor leaguers who spent 10 years or more in the bushes) in August, fans in September (with an entry fee — he suggested $10 — and a single vote, unlike the All-Star Game mess, to ensure honest, thoughtful votes as surely as possible), the media in October, the scholars in November, and the executives/scholars at the annual winter meetings, should make their nominations to the Hall of Fame ballot. Then, a second vote by all those groups, with Hall of Famers being chosen if they're picked on four of the five ballots.

It makes sense to me. By themselves the BBWAA hasn't elected too many turkeys and the Veterans Committees have elected quite a few. But it's absolutely wrong that the BBWAA and the Veterans Committees should be the sole arbiters of who are or are not Hall of Famers.

Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas actually may have been lucky to get in on the first ballot entry they so richly earned. When you can say that about three no-questions-asked Hall of Famers, you know good and well that the incumbent voting system most certainly is broken.

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