Immortality Strikes Out: The Baseball Hall of Fame Is Getting an “F’’ in History

With Roger Clemens still on the ballot, Michael Gee feels the Hall wants him to evaluate the Rocket on his merits as player only.
With Roger Clemens still on the ballot, Michael Gee feels the Hall wants him to evaluate the Rocket on his merits as player only. –The Boston Globe

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, to use its full name, has a crisis on its hands. I ought to know. I’m helping to cause it.

As a retired member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America with 10 consecutive years or more of service, I am one of the voters for the election of players to the Hall of Fame. I regard my vote as both an honor and a tremendous responsibility, and so do almost all my fellow voters. We are selecting human beings for the ultimate honor in their sport, an honor which lasts long after they and we are no longer here.

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But we’re not selecting them so much anymore. Deserving candidates are being denied a fair shot at their plaques in Cooperstown through a toxic combination of the Hall’s stultifying rules for the selection process and baseball’s continuing inability to come to terms with its era of tolerated performance-enhancing drug use. The sport ignored that issue until it blew up in its face in the early 2000s. Using the same blind eye, baseball is letting the PED question wreak havoc on the Hall of Fame a decade later.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the Cooperstown Crisis is to consider my own ballot in this year’s election, my vote, and the rules under which I cast it. The ballot is a one-page document which listed 34 players retired for at least five years who met the Hall’s baseline standards for eligibility. I could vote for as many as 10 players, but no more. If any players receive 75 percent of the votes of the total electorate, they become Hall members. If any get less than five percent, they are dropped from the ballot. No player can be on the ballot for more than 10 years (It was 15 until 2014).

In what used to be rare, I voted for the maximum 10 candidates. In alphabetical order, they were Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, John Smoltz and Curt Schilling. Ordinarily I feel proud when I put the envelope with my ballot in the mailbox. This time I was miserable. I never got the hang of hurting people on purpose.

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Alan Trammell, Mike Mussina and Mark McGwire, all of whom I’ve voted for before, didn’t make the cut this time. I didn’t change my mind about their qualifications. They were victims of the PED Era logjam. In my judgment, they weren’t quite as deserving as new candidates Pedro, Randy Johnson and Smoltz. Allowed only 10 choices, I had three Hobson’s choices among them.

I am on one side of the PED Era issue that has left the BBWAA voters as polarized and gridlocked as Congress. It is my firm belief that my job as a voter is to be jury, not judge. I don’t make baseball law. I have never written in Pete Rose’s name, as the Hall has ruled him ineligible. Bonds, Clemens and the other PED suspects, some of whom like Bagwell are suspected by nothing more than rumor, are on the ballot, so I believe the Hall wants me to evaluate them on their merits as players only.

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Trying to boil a complex issue into a short paragraph, I further believe that PED use was so widespread in baseball in the 1990s and early 2000s it could not have given any individual player an unfair advantage. How can doing what everyone else does be cheating? Most of all, I believe the Hall of Fame is about history, and any honest history of baseball would say Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were among the sport’s greatest players, warts and all. To pretend the PED Era didn’t happen is an offense to the truth, an alleged goal of journalism as well as history. A museum of a sport that’s 150 years old which skips a few decades is a pretty silly-looking museum.

This is not a majority view within the Hall electorate. Neither is it a fringe opinion. This is an irresolvable dilemma for a process that by rule only works through consensus.

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There have yet to be enough votes cast for candidates viewed as PED users to get any into the Hall, but enough get cast to keep them on the ballot each year. As a matter of principle, I continue to vote for them. As a matter of chronology, new and deserving candidates such as Greg Maddux last year and Pedro this year are placed on the ballot in their turn. As a matter of arithmetic, I wound up screwing Mussina and Trammell out of a vote they should have had. There’s the PED logjam in action.

As you might expect, the Hall electorate of the BBWAA is as or more tradition bound as the rest of baseball. Apparently, however, more and more of them are as uncomfortable with hurting former players as I am. Buster Olney of ESPN, as much of a baseball insider as can be, cast a blank ballot this year to protest the logjam, or more accurately, to bring more attention to it.

The ordinarily outstanding baseball writer Tyler Kepner of the New York Times proposed a solution in a column last week. He urged those of us who vote for players like Bonds and Clemens to give up. I admire and respect Kepner. In different eras, we went to the same prep school. So it is without hostility that I say, get bent, Tyler. It’s easy to sacrifice other people’s principles.

The Hall of Fame is an organization theoretically, but not really independent, of Major League Baseball. It, and MLB, could do within their power three ways to break the logjam without waiting for the voters to change our closed minds.

The Hall could remove the PED Era candidate from the ballot. Not gonna happen. Doing so would generate an intense rehashing of that Era, possibly in courtrooms, where how baseball and everybody in it let the issue slide in pursuit of more homers and the profits said homers generated.

The Hall could issue an addendum to the ballot instructing voters to ignore the issue of PED use when evaluating players. That’s even less likely to happen. It wouldn’t work and would open the same can of worms from the opposite end.

Or the Hall could alter the rules and allow voters to choose as many candidates on their ballots as they wish. If blank ballots are allowed, and they always have been, why not full ones? The change might not get logjam victims their Cooperstown plaques. The 75 percent rule remains a wicked high barrier. But at least they’d be judged on their own merits as players, and I’d feel less miserable when I mailed in my ballot.

Changing the 10 candidate limit would be an easy and simple solution to a dilemma that threatens the integrity of the Hall of Fame as an historical institution. Since we are talking baseball here, I’m not optimistic that’ll happen either.

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