Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 30, 2022

The Call To The Hall Loses Its Thrall

Regular readers know that On Sports and Life is no great fan of the NFL, where our society’s modern-day gladiators try to shorten each other’s lifespans.  But thank goodness for Tom Brady and the Conference Championships.  For by the time the 7-time Super Bowl winner’s potential retirement and Sunday’s two games became the center of attention, sports fans desperately needed something to talk about other than the results of this year’s voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Since Tuesday evening, when we learned that David Ortiz had been elected in his first year on the ballot, receiving eleven more votes than the 296 needed to pass the 75% threshold, but that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens had once again fallen well short of that mark in the tenth and final year each will appear on the ballots distributed to eligible members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, social media, sports talk radio, and columns by various pundits on assorted websites have focused on almost nothing else. 

While Bonds, the major league single-season and career home run king who averaged 8.8 WAR per season over his 22-year career, and Clemens, the 354-game winner who pulled off the rare feat of winning a majority of his starts while becoming the only pitcher to claim seven Cy Young Awards, both fell short of election, they each inched up from their previous vote totals and appeared on nearly two-thirds of this year’s ballots.  Given that latter number it’s not surprising that most of the sentiment expressed this week has not been kind to the BBWAA or the Hall.

Readers hoping for a contrary opinion should stop here.  The view of On Sports and Life is that by excluding Bonds and Clemens the Hall fails in its stated mission of “preserving history, honoring excellence, (and) connecting generations.”  And let it be clear that while the ballots are cast by ten-year members of the writers’ association, denying admission to these two players has been a tacit goal of the Hall’s hierarchy.  This was made plain by the 2014 decision to shave five years off the time a player could remain on the ballot, just one year after the two poster children of the Great Game’s steroids era first appeared on it, and by the late Joe Morgan’s 2017 public letter asking voters to reject any players tied to PEDs, written when Morgan was serving as the Hall’s vice-chair.

Presumably, Morgan would be disappointed by the results of this year’s balloting, since Ortiz was one of 104 major leaguers who tested positive for banned substances during the 2003 season, when MLB was conducting random – and supposedly confidential – testing without any penalties.  Then again, maybe not.  Perhaps Morgan would have been like the dozens of writers who twisted themselves into pretzels in their efforts to explain how one could vote for the talented and affable Twins and Red Sox slugger, but not for the talented but surly home run hero, or the talented by prickly right-handed hurler.  Suddenly those 2003 tests became not so important, or not reliable, with 2016 comments from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred questioning their validity frequently cited.  That was particularly laughable when many of those relying on Manfred as an authority regularly pummel almost any other statement he makes.  As others have noted, it’s hard not to think that a key difference for at least some voters was personality, with Ortiz’s universally good relations with the press providing an incentive to figure out a rationale for checking off his name, even as the often sour relationship between the media and both Bonds and Clemens made it easier to pass over each of them.

Still the problem is not that the little museum in remote Cooperstown New York has become the Hall of Likeability, as some called it this week.  Nor is it that if another forty writers had cast their votes for Bonds and Clemens it would need to be renamed the Hall of Shame, though one can bet there would have been such headlines topping stories penned by the minority of writers whose actions kept the two stars out of the Hall.  News that Bonds and Clemens were elected along with Ortiz would have generated just as much heat, and an equally miniscule amount of light, as did the actual outcome.  The real issue is the voting process itself. 

Make no mistake, if posting numerous stories about the Great Game every year since 2010 qualified On Sports and Life for a ballot, it would be eagerly cast.  But as the job title implies, reporters should report the news, not make it.  That is why some outlets, like the New York Times and Washington Post, prohibit their employees from participating in the BBWAA votes, not just for the Hall of Fame but also for MLB’s individual awards.  Given the electorate, it is inevitable that questions of favoritism will arise.  And even if every single voter is doing their absolute best to render a fair and impartial verdict, they do so using criteria that invite partiality.  Are Curt Schilling’s heinous social media posts proof of bad character?  If so, do they offset his considerable charitable work during his pitching career?  Or do we just not like him, though it is understandable some might react that way to someone who once posted a photo clearly suggesting journalists should be lynched. 

The oft-cited but undefined character clause in the Hall’s voting criteria, along with the multiple avenues by which one can gain entrance to the inner sanctum – not just the BBWAA election but the veterans committees who vote separately – also produce muddled results that leave most pundits and fans feeling certain that while Ortiz is the first inductee who failed a PEDs test, he is not the first user with a plaque.  And then there is Bud Selig, the commissioner who presided over the period of rampant steroids use, who is in the Hall by vote of a committee, even as Bonds and Clemens need to pay the price of admission if they should want to visit.

In short, it’s a mess; one that will remain, for despite numerous calls to change the process, there is no indication either the Hall or the BBWAA has any interest in doing so.  In the runup to this year’s election, there were those who speculated the debate would calm down after this year, with the fate of Bonds and Clemens finally decided.  It was a kind thought, but laughably naïve.  The home run and Cy Young kings now move over to the committee votes, where their candidacies will engender ongoing debate, well, probably forever. 

Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez debuted on this year’s ballot, garnering almost the same percentage of votes as Bonds and Clemens did their first year.  The steroids era has at least nine more years as the center of attention come Hall of Fame voting time.  And next year Carlos Beltran, the architect of the Houston Astros 2017 cheating scheme, will join the BBWAA ballot. 

How about letting them all in, with references beside their plaques to permanent displays explaining the often complicated and sometimes ugly story that is the history of the Great Game?  That is what a good museum would do.  While we’re at it, since Draft Kings and MGM Resorts are now official sponsors of Major League Baseball, why not make room for Pete Rose as well?  Or like the old Soviet state, is the repository of the Great Game’s history determined to make the career hits leader, career and single season home run leader, and most decorated pitcher, non-persons forever?

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