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Harold Baines and Lee Smith are going into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the system is broken

Even Big Hall people are flummoxed by Harold Baines and Lee Smith getting in, so let’s scrutinize how that happened.

Harold Baines

Harold Baines and Lee Smith are going into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and that’s fine. Really, that’s perfectly okay. They had long, distinguished baseball careers, and by all accounts are swell human beings, so congratulations to both. As a Big Hall stalwart, I’m not going to pretend that my definition of a “Big Hall” is the only correct definition. It’s almost guaranteed that I’ll disagree with some of the electees, so there’s no use grumbling about it. An imperfect Hall is the price of being a Big Hall fan.

Each marginal inductee gets us closer to Lou Whitaker getting in, that’s my motto. If one overlooked, deserving player gets in for every four iffy candidates, that’s a trade I’ll gladly make. Ted Simmons, Dwight Evans, Larry Walker ... I’m willing to negotiate. A Big Hall person should be more worried about who’s out than who’s in.

And yet.

Back in the days of the Great Jack Morris Wars, when writers who still had AOL accounts yelled at stat-drunk nerds and vice versa, I had an epiphany and made an argument for the argument for Jack Morris. It went something like this:

... if you have a gut feeling that Morris transcended the game in some capacity that isn’t easy to define in a number -- something that you just can’t explain to someone who is wrapped up in the stats-minded -- and you’re just compelled to vote for him, go for it. Because in order for him to get in the Hall, 75% of the voters would have to feel like that. And if over 400 of the voters saw the je ne sais quoi that I never saw, I’ll learn to accept that it’s my problem, not theirs.

This logical fallacy is known as argumentum ad populum, yet I’ll stick with it as a yardstick. The Hall of Fame should be a story of baseball, and if three-freaking-quarters of the writers paid to cover the game think Morris or Smith or Baines are a part of that story, cool. Slap a bronze face up there, and tell that story, baby.

Morris is in the Hall now ... except 75 percent of the writers who voted didn’t think he was an essential part of baseball’s story. He’s in because at least 12 of the 16 Today’s Game Era Committee members thought he was an essential part of baseball’s story. This is also why Baines and Smith are in now. A group of 16 people got together and lobbied and argued and needled and nudged, and now that big Hall is getting bigger.

It bugs me. Even as a Big Hall guy, the process bugs me.

For starters, there’s a huge difference between a committee having a legislative session and a bunch of writers getting a ballot in the mail and quietly sending it back in. These are the members of the Today’s Game Era Committee, and they got to hash out their arguments together:

  • Roberto Alomar
  • Al Avila
  • Paul Beeston
  • Bert Blyleven
  • Pat Gillick
  • Steve Hirdt
  • Tim Kurkjian
  • Tony La Russa
  • Andy MacPhail
  • Greg Maddux
  • Jerry Reinsdorf
  • John Schuerholz
  • Claire Smith
  • Ozzie Smith
  • Joe Torre

It’s a list of well-respected baseball folks, alright, but some of them have a connection to the candidates. Four of the committee members were connected to Baines’ career, for example, either as a player, manager, or executive. Which isn’t so surprising, when you remember that Baines played for 22 years. What bugs me the most, though, is that these friends got to advocate for him.

This is inherently unfair because when the BBWAA writers sit down to consider their ballots every year, there isn’t a vocal branch of the BBWAA lobbying in their ear. Give me a megaphone and a FaceTime feed patched into every writer’s bedroom, and we’ll see if 97.1 percent of the writers still think that Lou Whitaker wasn’t worthy, dammit.

Compare Baines’ situation with Will Clark’s, for example. Clark did not have a former teammate, manager, or GM advocating for him. No, but he did have a player who took a swing at him once. Which is basically the same thing.

The advocating bugs me, but it’s not the biggest problem. Because what is a “Player X Should Be In The Hall Of Fame” article if not advocating? Ozzie Smith should get the right to explain why he thinks Will Clark is a buttnose, just like Greg Maddux should get a chance to explain that after he faced Clark, baseball was never the same. I’m all for people stating their case and reevaluating their previously held convictions.

No, it’s the advocating combined with the teeny tiny committee that’s the worst part. Remember, the argument for the argument for Morris relied on hundreds and hundreds of people reaching some sort of hive-mind consensus. The Today’s Game Era Committee is filled with a small, elite selection of baseball people who talk their selections out. There will be some lobbying involved. A Baseball-Reference page is one plank of an argument, but another one is the charisma and persuasiveness of an especially strident member. When a committee is 16 strong instead of 400, an especially charismatic or persuasive member can make a disproportionate contribution.

Sample size, in other words. Dammit, it always comes back to sample size.

The Today’s Game Era Committee isn’t the same thing as a sweeping majority of hundreds of baseball writers tasked with paying attention to the sport. It’s not even a sweeping majority of ex-players, managers, or executives. That would at least would make for a solid case of argumentum ad populum — give me 400 players, managers, and executives telling me something I don’t believe, and I’ll at least nod my head while rolling my eyes.

Instead, we have a sprinkling of rotating baseball people deciding who gets in on their second chance. It allows for an unacceptable chance at weirdness.

It allows for sample-size chicanery.

There are supposed to be safeguards in place that prevent the sample-size chicanery, dang it. It’s called the hundreds and hundreds of writers who have to mostly agree on something, and it works pretty good if you let it.

Harold Baines and Lee Smith have long been members of the Hall of Very Good For a Long Time, which is a select, impressive group of players that includes Joe Nathan, Nick Markakis, and Paul Konerko. I love that Hall. So many great memories. But Baines and Smith are also in the actual Hall of Fame now, which seems hard to believe. They’re there because a couple of true believers got to lobby and convince a dozen other people.

Give me the majority rule, or don’t bother. The Hall of Fame really isn’t that important, but at least there used to be a way to explain away the results you didn’t agree with.

Eh, three hundred writers saw it differently. Maybe I’m the one who’s wrong?

Instead, we get a group with outsized amounts of influence on the Hall of Fame. I’ll take Alan Trammell if it means four Hall of Famers I don’t agree with, but the whole process stinks. There has to be a better way. A way that involves Lou Whitaker, for example. He should have ridden to the ceremony on a tandem bike with Trammell, and we’re all worse off for that not happening.

For now, though, the Today’s Game Era Now! Committee has made its decision, and it’s an empirically bad one. The easy fix is to add more voters — a lot more — or to not even bother. The Today’s Game Era Committee has way too much going against it.