Cooperstown promises to be the host to one of the most memorable induction ceremonies of recent times, in which the careers of well-respected greats in managers Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, Joe Torre, and players Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas will all be honoured.
However, Saturday’s announcement regarding changes to the Hall of Fame voting process have needlessly created a distraction from what should be a completely positive celebration of baseball’s history and all the good that the Hall should represent.
The controversy was created by a press release that was quickly thrown under the harsh spotlight of modern day social media:
“The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s Board of Directors today announced changes to the rules for election for recently retired players, reducing the length of stay on the ballot for players from a maximum of 15 to 10 years, while installing a new balloting and registration process for Baseball Writers’ Association of America voting members.
The changes, effective immediately and to be reflected in 2015 Hall of Fame voting, are the first made by the Hall of Fame to the voting process since 1991 and just the second time the Baseball Hall of Fame has amended the rules for election since 1985”.
I’ve long been of the opinion that for the Major Leagues, where everything is documented and covered in so much detail, the 15-year ballot rule was a nonsense.
The Hall of Fame should be there to celebrate the elite, the select group who stood out from the rest. Opinions are the lifeblood of sport and so there will never be complete agreement on every player defined as a ‘great’, but if it takes 15 years of debate for 75 per cent of the voters to be convinced that someone deserves to be in the Hall of Fame then – unless the voting process is either completely inept or completely corrupt – designating them as such makes a mockery of the entire process.
The decision to reduce this period is welcome and whilst I would still consider ten years to be on the long side, it’s a sizeable step-change in the right direction.
However, there is deep suspicion surrounding the reasoning behind making this decision now and it is this that has caused the ensuing controversy.
A player remains on the ballot each year if they receive support from at least five per cent of the voters. If they go through the now-reduced balloting period yet don’t cross the 75 per cent threshold to be elected, they then move on to another process. As the Hall of Fame puts it: “Candidates would then move to the Era Committee system for review in perpetuity”.
The naming of the group as an “Era Committee” is instructive for our purposes and the kicker then comes in how the Hall of Fame has decided to implement the changes with regard to those currently eligible for election.
“Three candidates presently on the BBWAA ballot in years 10-15 will be grandfathered into this system and remain under consideration by the BBWAA for up to the full 15 years. Don Mattingly (15th year in 2015), Alan Trammell (14th year in 2015) and Lee Smith (13th year in 2015) will be eligible to remain on the BBWAA ballot for a maximum of 15 years of consideration”.
There is a clear and simple logic to ‘grandfathering’ those candidates who currently exceed the new ten year cut-off mark, but by doing so the Hall has very specifically excluded a lot of other players from the new system.
And they are the very players for whom the passage of time is currently seen as being crucial to evaluating their place in Cooperstown.
From Barry Bonds to Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire to Mike Piazza, the players of the so-called ‘steroid era’ are now more likely than ever to spend a decade in isolation. There’s no question that the issue of drug-taking – who did and who didn’t, what effect it had on their performances and whether ‘cheating’ by a little or a lot makes a difference anyway – is an extremely difficult one for those wanting to evaluate the best players.
The easiest approach of ignoring rumours and simply voting based on performances is attractive in some ways, especially as many were happy to turn a blind-eye to suspicions of drug use when it suited all to enjoy the ride and not to be the one to potentially kill the golden goose in the post-1994/95 player strike period. However, you sense that those who played the game without resorting to any drug-use would feel betrayed by such an approach.
So instead voters are left pondering a series of difficult questions to deal with, and it seems like the Hall has come to their rescue by making their ‘get out of jail free’ card easier to play. Let the debates play out over ten years, keeping players on the ballot without ever making a firm decision on them, and then leave it to the ‘steroid era committee’ to sort it all out for you.
That will be better for the voters, but will be a travesty to those players who deserve to be in Cooperstown but may now be condemned to a long wait and then a suggestion of gaining entry by the back door.