Baseball Hall of Fame: If You Can't Fix the Voters, Fix the Voting

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Baseball Hall of Fame: If You Can't Fix the Voters, Fix the Voting
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Every year, the sports world is turned upside down for a few days in January while we wait with bated breath to see whom the keepers of the game—the Baseball Hall of Fame voters—have selected to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Before the vote, eligible names are discussed ad nauseum. A case is made for each and every player on the ballot (someone will undoubtedly argue for Kenny Lofton or Jose Mesa if they haven't already) before the final vote is announced. Then, non-voting media spend more time talking about who didn't get in (like Tim Raines) than whoever does.

The Baseball Hall of Fame vote has become less and less about the players and more and more about the internal struggle for those who hold the keys to Cooperstown—the fight between those who have the keys and the next generation of writers begging for a set.

There are egos everywhere, and it has grown out of control. It's nearly impossible to discuss who the best players in the game are without focusing just as much attention on who gets to decide what "best" even means. 

The gatekeepers need to get over themselves. It's not about you. I repeat: It. Is. Not. About. You. 

 

It's about the vote, not the voters

Murray Chass used to be a popular baseball writer before he took a buyout some years ago when his newspaper needed to get rid of old, and presumably, overpaid writers. He still commands some respect within the baseball community, at least enough to get him a seat at games Major League Baseball still credentials him to attend.

Chass now writes a blog, though he never calls it that and hates the term . But his status as a trusted baseball scribe (and more importantly, his status as a Hall of Fame voter) means his opinion technically matters more than any former writer who now pens a blog ever should.

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When the voting gets tough...

That may end after this year, because Chass has decided to just vote for Jack Morris and then give up his vote. The baseball world should hold him to this because he has admitted—in this 1,713-word blog post—that voting for the Hall of Fame is more about him than any of the players who deserve to be in Cooperstown. 

T.J. Quinn of ESPN also quit voting and wrote a post for ESPN.com with his very detailed reasons why. In a nutshell, he admitted he liked to vote because it was "cool" to be a Hall of Fame voter, but with the presentation of candidates who have more complicated resumes, he decided he has, "come to the conclusion that it isn't my mess to solve, and I wouldn't be qualified to solve it even if it were."

On one hand, we should applaud Quinn for admitting that he can't make sense of what to do and that the pressure of being a gatekeeper for the history of the game should go to someone else, not him. 

On the other hand, it's complete and utter malarkey that Quinn would allow himself to vote for the Hall of Fame when it was easy to figure out who should or shouldn't be enshrined, but now that the vote is complicated, Quinn thinks it's time to give up and let someone else deal with the mess. In other words, now that the game needs a judging body to look at the last 20 years with the kind of perspective the gatekeepers of the game should be able to provide. 

After talking about the pressure of being one in 575 voters to pick each year's immortals, Quinn blames MLB and the Hall of Fame for not being clear on what to do about those who have used (or been accused of using) performance-enhancing drugs. He then gives a very interesting look into just how much of a joke Hall of Fame voting has become, and even indicts himself in the process:

Too many eligible voters like me have been away from the game for too long, and I think we undermine the integrity of the process. When I had spent seven seasons covering the White Sox and then the Mets as a full-time beat, followed by three seasons as an investigative reporter who spent a lot of time at the ballpark, I believe I was as qualified as anyone. But that was a long time ago. These days, my sons see more games in a year than I do.

As a journalist, I was also never completely comfortable with the idea of being a participant in a process I'm supposed to cover. I enjoyed it immensely…[T]he role comes with a sense of power and belonging that is intoxicating. And from a simple point of ego, having a Hall of Fame vote is a great tiebreaker in arguments around a Little League field or a bar.

In a way, it was nice to see Quinn admit he wasn't comfortable voting. However, it came only after he decided to stop when the mess baseball created under his—and countless other voters'—watch is no longer his problem to help resolve.

Of course, first-time Hall of Fame candidates on this year's ballot stopped playing in 2007, so it's not as if Quinn is deciding on whether Buster Posey or Felix Hernandez are Hall of Famers.

Quinn covered all the players he would have to vote on this year, which makes his reasoning about giving up his vote—while fair and honest for the integrity of the ballot—a rather easy excuse at this time in baseball's voting history with Bonds, Sosa, Clemens, McGwire, Palmeiro and Piazza all on the ballot.

Quinn did offer another reason why he wants out of the vote, and it's something many voters and non-voters have complained about for years: The voters are often too close to the game. 

The voters know these players too well and have been known to get vindictive with their votes because they didn't like a player, not because he wasn't good enough. 

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Jim Rice

Did it take Jim Rice 14 years to get into the Hall of Fame because he wasn't good enough or because he was a jerk with the media, many of who were Hall of Fame voters?

Will Barry Bonds not get in because of all the steroid controversy, or because of his Barcalounger and entourage in the clubhouse after games, precluding writers from getting a good quote? Bonds was a jerk, but that shouldn't keep him out of Cooperstown. Are we sure—are we really sure—that's not part of this?

 

The first ballot nonsense

The last issue—well, not the last, but the last big issue for the sake of this article—with Hall of Fame voters is this notion that letting people into Cooperstown is a privilege, not a right. Essentially, the voters get to decide who has that privilege, and when.

How many times has a player not gotten in on the first ballot, simply because some voters didn't feel he deserved to be on the elite list of "first ballot" players?

In 1966, Ted Williams was inducted with 93.4 percent of the 302 voters selecting him. The 20 voters who didn't pick him should have been banned from covering baseball. 

Sandy Koufax got in with less than 87 percent of the vote in 1972. Willie Mays, one of the two greatest players to ever put on a glove, had more than five percent of the Hall of Fame voters (23 voters) not select him in 1979. 

Jackie Robinson—that's right, the Jackie Robinson—was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with just 77.5 percent of the vote.

In 1955, Joe DiMaggio was elected to the Hall with 88.8 percent of the vote after three years on the ballot.

Baseball Hall of Fame Voters have long been a fickle lot. 

Only five players in MLB history have received over 98 percent of the vote (and none received more than 98.8 percent): Ty Cobb, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Cal Ripken, Jr. 

Maybe those other voters had their ballots get lost in the mail. Maybe they died and it took a year or two for anyone to notice. Maybe, like Quinn or Chass, they just punted when pressed with a hard choice somewhere down the ballot.

 

Time changes opinion 

It should be simple for Hall of Fame voters: the player is a Hall of Famer or he's not.

It shouldn't take Goose Gossage or Andre Dawson nine years to get into the Hall of Fame. They were either great enough to get in or they weren't.

To keep a player on the ballot long enough for a lean year to come up so they can sneak over the 75 percent threshold is an unbelievably flawed model for voting a player into the Hall of Fame. Peer pressure between voters (and non voters) is a built-in part of that process. 

In 1960, back when Hall of Fame voting took place every other season, Ralph Kiner received 1.1 percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot. Two years later, Kiner received 3.1 percent, a number that slowly increased each time voters cast their ballots. It wasn't until his 10th year on the ballot that Kiner received more than 50 percent of the vote, and it wasn't until 1975, his last year of eligibility, that he received enough votes to get into the Hall of Fame.

Did Kiner become a better player over those 15 retired seasons? Did history shine a more focused light on his career when given time? Or did he just have to wait for more vote-worthy players like Stan Musial, Warren Spahn, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra to get in first? 

This has happened throughout history.

Bruce Sutter received less than 30 percent of the votes the first four years he was on the ballot before finally gaining traction to the point of induction in his 13th year of eligibility. Sutter's numbers apparently got way better when compared to his contemporaries that from 2002 to 2006 (the year of his induction) he went from 245 votes to 400? What changed the minds of more than 150 voters? Time?

Hank Greenberg wasn't inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame until nine years after he retired, and that was in a time without a five-year waiting period. Greenberg was a career .313 hitter with a 1.017 OPS (granted, they didn't know what that meant in the 1950s) and averaged 38 home runs and 148 RBI per 162 games in his career, yet it took him nine years to get into the Hall of Fame. Nine.

The process is ridiculous. 

The voters know it's ridiculous too, which is why some of them refuse to participate, while others take advantage of their power as gatekeepers.

 

A flawed solution 

Joe Posnanski, one of the best writers covering sports on Earth right now, wrote about a model he thinks voters should institute to help their difficult annual task of picking who the best players in history really are. 

Posnanski wrote that it's not fair to just have two choices on the ballot—Yes or No—and that he would like a third option he calls "No for right now, but the player deserves more consideration."

To an outsider without a vote, this is insane. To Posnanski, who has the burden of making this choice year after year, it makes perfect sense.

And the way it would work is -- no more 5% minimum to stay on the ballot. Instead, any player who gets 50% of either "Yes" or "Deserves More Consideration" stays on the ballot. Every player who gets less than 50% of "Yes" plus "Deserves More Consideration" falls off.

It seems to me that this is better in so many ways. Right now, people try to say many things with their "Yes" and "No" vote -- a lot more than "Yes, I think he's a Hall of Famer" and "No, I don't think he's a Hall of Famer." They are trying to say, with just those two choices, "Yes, I think this player should stay on the ballot." Or "No, I don't think this player should go in as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but next year I'll change my vote." And "No, I don't think he's a Hall of Famer, but I hope enough other people vote Yes so I can think about it again later."

This way: there's no hidden agendas.

Posnanski also explains that choosing "let's address this guy later" gives voters the ability to put a guy on the shelf until time has given them the right amount of perspective to properly vote yes or no.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It's perhaps unfair to vote on the steroid-era players right now if more information about that time—and this time—in the game is still being learned. Giving a flat "no" to Barry Bonds could prove to be short-sighted in five or 10 years. 

That said, giving voters the ability to blow off candidates until they are ready to vote yes or no is not only disrespectful to the candidates—we think you are close, but let's wait until a thin year to really decide if you are worthy—it's disrespectful to the entire voting process. 

 

An improved solution 

If you are a voter, you have been given five years of post-career perspective to decide if a guy is, in your voting opinion, worthy of induction. You shouldn't need 20 years after a guy retired to decide if he's one of the game's best. 

This is only complicated because the voters want it to be. So here is a much simpler way that also appeases Posnanski's point of a third "wait and see" option.

• After the customary five-year waiting period, players should be on the Hall of Fame ballot for two years. After two years, they are no longer eligible.

• There shall be no minimum threshold for votes in the first year to stay on the ballot in year two. There shall be no maximum of 10 players who can receive a vote in any year. Every player, once retired for five years, gets his name on the ballot for two seasons. 

Note: This rule essentially lets voters decide if a player is a Hall of Famer or not, with the acceptance that some old coots still like to reward certain players as a first-ballot guy. It's nonsense, but let's fight the battles we can win.

• After the two-year voting window is over, those who did not reach the mandatory 75 percent minimum for induction will have to wait an additional eight years to be eligible for the Veterans Committee to vote. Ten years after a player was first on the ballot, he will be eligible for consideration from the Veterans Committee.

• To afford original voters the gift of "proper perspective" on a player, they would be invited to participate in the Veterans Committee vote for the first year only, giving them a chance to correct any potential wrongs from their first and second opportunities to vote. The media will consist of 50 percent of the vote, with the Veterans Committee making up the other 50 percent. A candidate would need 75 percent of that vote for induction.

• To ensure members of media aren't allowed to block a candidate's induction in perpetuity, the second year of Veterans Committee voting will take place without media involvement, giving the Committee the chance to include a player in their club without the original voters mucking things up with egos and agendas.

• A player's eligibility for induction from the Veterans Committee can never expire.

Note: You may notice that this relatively streamlined process considers the Veterans Committee to be made up of older players and not the Historical Overview Committee that currently votes in managers, executives and older players. To give just 15 or 16 former media members the keys to the Hall of Fame's side door is even more ridiculous than the regular voting process. The Veterans Committee should consist of any living member of the Hall of Fame, including managers, executives, players, umpires and media.

 

Who does waiting really serve?

If 500 or so gatekeepers to baseball's legacy don't think that Bonds is a Hall of Famer, keeping his name on the list and fighting about it for 15 years serves nobody but themselves. The annual arguments each winter keep the voters relevant, even if they look as petulant and stubborn as Congress debating the fiscal cliff.

Sure, giving a player 15 years on the ballot allows for fresher and younger writers with a different perspective on the game to be included in the vote.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Tim Raines

With a new generation of voters (the Hall had 100 more voters in 2012 than in 2002), the chances for a player like Raines getting in may increase over time because his statistics measure far more favorably to the advanced statistical crowd than their more traditional forefathers.

That's another reason why voting five and six years after retirement, then voting again (with the Veterans Committee) 15 years after retirement can work. Eliminating all those nonsensical in-between years of filibustering, soapboxing and overt peer-pressuring that gets a player's vote from the less-than-a-quarter of the ballots all the way to induction.

Either he was a Hall of Famer the whole time or he wasn't. If the voters can't figure that out, maybe it's time to bring in all new voters, not just the ones who think it's "cool" to hold the keys to baseball's history.

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