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Saturday, January 08, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing? (The Juiced Hall Era)

Almost exactly a year ago I posted my concerns about the increasing irrelevance of the Hall of Fame.  I didn't expect there would be much to add this time around.  As predicted, Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven did gain entry on the 2011 ballot, and no accused, confessed, or even merely suspected steroids users got even as high as 50% (with 75% needed for admission).  Several players who I, personally, think very relevant to the history of the sport - especially Dave Parker, Harold Baines, Kevin Brown, and John Franco - got little enough support that they will be dropped from all future ballots, until they are eligible for consideration by the Veterans Committee.

As I stated last year, I am in favor of inclusivity to the highest degree, because I believe that the Hall of Fame is only interesting as a museum of baseball history (it serves this purpose less and less every year).  I think arguments about "diluting" the player pool are frankly silly and condescending, and voting based on issues of ethics and morality utterly ridiculous.  There isn't a single member of the BBWAA that who I'd trust within a hundred yards of a podium or pulpit.  That some of them actually literally think of themselves as "morality police" is beyond laughable.  That they think moral policing is synonymous with acting as "custodians of the game's history" is evidence of actual psychotic delusion.  I would urge all who believe that the narrative of history should be tailored to a specific ideology to take a long look at the definition of propaganda, as well as the careers of Goebbels, Stalin, Joe McCarthy, and David Duke.

The selection process reached a whole new level of absurdity this year.  Foremost and most frighteningly there was the outrageous treatment of Jeff Bagwell.  Bagwell is something of a borderline candidate, based upon the strange numbers game that has historically dictated entry, and bordrline candidates generally don't get in during their first few years on the ballot.  So, Bagwell, who with 41.7% of the vote had the best performance of any player gaining eligibility in 2011, shouldn't despair.  However, that several righteous pundits took this opportunity to smear him with the scarlet S, despite the fact that he never showed up in A.) The Mitchell Report, B.) The BALCO Investigation, or C.) Conseco's sordid memoirs, is simply ugly.  I certainly don't believe that the sources listed above are utterly reliable (and U.S. law has thusfar agreed with me), but for Bagwell to have his candidacy jeopardized by merely circumstantial evidence (and that's a relatively kind description of Jeff Pearlman's justification) is the very heart of slander.  Shame.  Shame.  Shame.

Revelations which followed the BBWAA's announcement of the voting results compounded the absurdity.  Most glaring was one member's ballot which consisted of votes for Jack Morris, Edgar Martinez, Tino Martinez, Don Mattingly, and (I kid you not) B. J. Surhoff.  With the exception of Surhoff, I actually don't oppose the induction of any of these guys, but the fact that one can vote for up to ten players and this guy chose to leave off his ballot Tim Raines, Barry Larkin, Bagwell, Blyleven, and Alomar is obviously indefensible.  One can really only read this ballot as a satirical statement about the selection process itself.

There has been an abundance of commentary in the last few days, much of which is mere retread of disputes which have raged since Mark McGwire became the first presumed PED abuser to gain HOF eligibility.  The most interesting and original addition to this conversation comes from Rob Neyer, who, like his mentor, Bill James, actually cares a great deal about the Hall's existence, its standards, and the induction process.  I think he's probably wasting his energy, but I admire his resolve.  What Neyer observes is that the morality police contingent are actually endangering the tradition they have so pedantically sworn to uphold.  And, they are threatening the continued viability of the HOF as an economic institution.

Neyer points to the very real possibility, first off, that in the very near future there will be years in which way more than ten candidates who seriously deserve HOF consideration, may even be "sure things" in many voters minds, will be on the ballot all at once.  Such a glut of options could lead to many more instances of really good, even HOF worthy players falling off the ballot after gaining less than 5% of the vote.  It could also, as Neyer warns, result in years in which nobody gets 75% of the vote and therefore nobody comes to the midsummer induction ceremony which is actually what keeps Cooperstown economically viable.

Believe me, unless the people running the Hall of Fame are as "infantile, ahistorical, and asinine" as Neyer accuses many of the members of the BBWAA of being, he is not the only one worried by this potential.  The induction ceremonies bring tourist dollars to the institution and the surrounding community at a rate unequaled throughout the rest of the year.  However, the long-term sustainability of the Hall is also being jeopardized by the "morality police," even if we never end up with a year in which there are no inductions.  A contingent of indignant, short-sighted, and, frankly, bigoted baseball writers are blackballing a generation of baseball players and, therefore, a generation of baseball fans.  Think about it.  If you, like me, became a fan during the 1990s, what cause do you have to take your sons and daughters to an institution that minimizes (or, in some cases, even denies) the relevance of many of the most memorable players of your youth.

It isn't as though Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, et al are going to be forgotten by baseball history.  The Hall of Fame will stop being the custodian of that history long before that happens.  Which could be a great thing!  After all, Cooperstown is in the middle of nowhere, inaccessible even by major freeways, and, frankly, the selection process has been flawed from the start.  Maybe this is MLB's opportunity to start fresh with a serious baseball history museum in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or Atlanta.

More likely, however, the BBWAA are writing their own death warrant.  They have been the middle man in this process all along.  What they are doing right now is kind of like SYSCO refusing to bring Coke products to McDonald's.  When the smoke clears, McDonald's isn't going to stop selling Coke products.  They're going to find another distributor.  And the BBWAA, by compounding stubbornness with ineptitude and increasing irrelevance on all fronts, isn't exactly urging MLB and the Hall of Fame to keep them in the loop.  If I'm a curator in Cooperstown, I'm enraged by the fact that somebody with power over my institution has suggested that B. J. Surhoff is more important to baseball history than Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa.  I'm foreseeing the possibility of a Hall of Fame which does not include baseball's all-time hits leader, the all-time home run leaders, etc., etc.  And is also, thanks to the apparent political biases of the Veterans Committe, without Marvin Miller, Curt Flood, and several other icons who help to establish the relevance of baseball to American history at large.

Let's face it, we are on the verge of a situation which pits the BBWAA against MLB, the MLBPA, New York State, and the museum itself.  One of these things is not like the others.

Good riddance.


Anonymous said...

One can make too much of the vote for Surhoff on that ballot. That voter published a column where he explained that he'd known Surhoff since they were teenagers, and he was giving him a merely sentimental vote. (I'm going off memory...this is the gist; if I've fumbled some of the details, sorry.)

Stray shout-outs to favorites who are one-and-done on the ballot, even if they are wholly unqualified, are not the problem.

The fact that ballot glut and moral preening is going to keep plainly qualified people bottled up at 20-40% on the ballot instead of admitting them to the HOF in a relatively orderly fashion is the problem.

Hippeaux said...

I tend to agree with you, but that ballot was just too strange to go uncommented upon. My point isn't really about the Surhoff vote, so much as the fact that he left much of the rest of his ballot empty when there were clearly deserving candidates available. Thanks for reading.