Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 28, 2021

No Call To The Hall

About the only thing lacking was colored smoke wafting from a chimney atop one of the five buildings that have combined through assorted expansion projects over the years to form the current footprint of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The Hall was founded in the tiny upstate New York village of Cooperstown during the Great Depression by a local businessman and philanthropist who, as a way of generating economic activity for his out of the way hamlet, cleverly traded on the then-popular myth that the Great Game originated there in 1839. Of course we now know that Abner Doubleday was fully occupied 150 miles away at West Point when he was supposedly laying out the first diamond in Cooperstown, but then organized religions also rely on the occasional fable, so perhaps it is fitting that today the annual announcement of the newest group of Hall of Famers is treated with all the gravity of a papal election.

Except had that been the purpose of this vote, balloting would still be going on, since an announcement that a search for the apostolic successor of Saint Peter resulted in “none of the above” likely would not sit well with Roman Catholic faithful around the globe. But when the votes of the eligible members of the Baseball Writers Association of America were tallied, that was precisely the judgment rendered on all twenty-five names on this year’s Hall ballot.

This was the first shutout pitched by the writers since 2013, but with last month’s meeting of the committee charged with voting on non-players and those no longer otherwise eligible cancelled because of the pandemic, the induction ceremony’s usual summertime boost to the Otsego County economy was imperiled. Fortunately for the owners of local restaurants, hotel franchises and souvenir shops, COVID-19 postponed not only the recent gathering of the Veterans Committee, but also last July’s Hall of Fame weekend for the class of 2020, a group led by former Yankee captain Derek Jeter and the late union head Marvin Miller. So plans for July festivities are still being made, with a hopeful eye on the continuing rollout of coronavirus vaccines.

But neither the enshrinement of the longtime Bronx hero nor the long overdue honoring of the brilliant labor lawyer who impacted the modern game more than anyone else who never posed for a baseball card are likely to make fans forget the overheated theatrics and unseemly drama of the past several days. Even if they wanted to do so – and who wouldn’t – next year’s ballot will bring it all back to center stage.

When that happens, fans will once again have ready access to minute-by-minute tracking of votes by those BBWAA members who opt to make their ballots public. Thanks to a handful of dedicated individuals and the omnipresence of the internet, everyone will know how each ballplayer on the list is faring, not just in relation to the required 75% of the vote for election, but, for every returning candidate, whether the votes cast by a writer represent a gain, a hold, or a loss compared to that scribe’s previous ballot. And since not all voters choose to reveal how they voted, analysts now fill the unknown with informed speculation based on how a player’s public polling has compared with the results of previous elections.

This year it was that type of analysis that made the outcome unsurprising. The three leading candidates, Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, all appeared to be just a bit short of 75% based on the publicly released ballots. But all three had seen their percentage drop in prior years once secret ballots were added in, so the well-founded expectation was that the same erosion of support would occur.

Those three candidacies were the source of most of the drama around Hall of Fame voting, because all three forced BBWAA members to decide the meaning of the Hall’s so-called character clause. The criteria for election include Rule 5, which states “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.” Neither the Hall nor the BBWAA has ever been willing to elaborate on that simple yet extremely broad language, which has left individual writers to define the terms as they see fit, often with tortured logic.

For some, the alleged use of steroids by Bonds and Clemens, and Schilling’s extreme political and cultural views coupled with his willingness to support fanatical means of imposing them on others, amount to ample evidence that all three lack the necessary character for induction into the Hall of Fame. Others concur with respect to MLB’s home run king and the only pitcher to win seven Cy Young Awards but contend that Schilling’s character flaws are unrelated to the sport and thus should not impact their vote. Then there are those who believe Schilling’s views set him apart as evil, but the apparent misdeeds of Bonds and Clemens reflect an era in the sport that while unfortunate, cannot simply be treated as if the players in it did not exist. Still some BBWAA members are comfortable voting for all three, given the lack of specific guidance on the meaning of Rule 5, as well as their absolute certainty that among those already enshrined in the Hall, there are more than a few with their own character flaws. Or they say that Bonds and Clemens had Hall-worthy careers before their alleged dalliances with PEDS, and Schilling’s reprehensible views were never expressed while he was taking the mound every five days. And just for good measure, there are at least a few who mark their ballots while seemingly randomly picking and choosing from all the above rationales.

It makes for drama worthy of bad daytime television, which is perhaps appropriate, since the MLB Network dedicated most of an afternoon to this year’s announcement of the election results; four hours of coverage that ended with “never mind.” Meanwhile two players whose careers would normally have resulted in enshrinement in their first year of eligibility are left on the outside looking in, and a third, borderline candidate becomes that rarest of Hall hopefuls, someone who steadily climbed in each year’s balloting and finally broke the 70% mark, but then did not win election in the next vote.

But don’t worry, we fans are told, next year marks the end of the ten-year eligibility for all three of these extraordinarily controversial candidates. But this year’s vote for other players was affected by evidence of domestic violence and DUIs, and next year’s ballot will include, for the first time, the names of David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez. And then there is the question, fundamental to the Hall’s entire electoral process, of whether sportswriters should be making news, as some seem intent on doing, rather than reporting it. The Hall of Fame election process is thoroughly broken and no longer enjoyable. Sadly, the only certainty is that by this time next year, nothing about it will have changed. There will still be no smoke.


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