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The Hall of Fame ballot: Annual exercise in frustration

Each year at this time the BBWAA seizes the spotlight for ritualistic hand-wringing over the ballot and the denigration of the very players they're supposed to be celebrating.

Frank Thomas
Frank Thomas
Getty Images

A year ago, the Hall of Fame voters of the Baseball Writers Association of America sent a big F-you out to the public by failing to elect anyone still breathing to the Hall of Fame. Equally paranoid and puritanical, the voters cast their small-minded judgments on, in order of their ranking in the final vote, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro on evidence ranging from scant or not-at-all to full-on confession, and based on an inference of the efficacy of so-called Performance-Enhancing Drugs that is not supported by the data. In the process, the invalidated whole decades of baseball. Those players you loved, that baseball you enjoyed, it was all bull, sorry.

Since the voters were also characteristically obtuse about (again in order of finish) Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell, Larry Walker, Kenny Lofton, and Bernie Williams (the latter two dismissed from the ballot without ceremony), it made for a sad day in upstate New York, with a 19th century catcher, the umpire who screwed up the "Merkle's Boner" game in 1908, and a beer baron who has been dead since 1939 given plaques. Understandably, none of them were in town for the festivities.

It was the BBWAA's efficiency in taking a celebration of baseball and turning it into a joyless, dour exercise in retrograde thinking that celebrates the blandly above-average-at-best pitching of Jack Morris while denigrating, well, pretty much everything and everybody else that motivated Tim Marchman of Deadspin to offer to relieve the voters of their terrible, heavy burden in return for cash. You can't put it any better than this: "What was meant as a way to honor great ballplayers is now an annual exercise in vigorously insulting them, and thereby asserting the power of the baseball writer."

As if to confirm just how pathetic the process has become, one of the writers took Deadspin up on their offer. Last year the voters passed the point of self-parody. Now we have arrived at decadence and corruption. These are good times if you enjoy the spectacle of old-time institutions swallowing their own tails. Deadspin has shown that a process that was already hypocritical is also corruptible in deed as well as in thought. No doubt the BBWAA will expel the malefactor who sold his vote, but this should serve as a wakeup call to an organization that has not educated its members in basic ethics, history, or responsibility (I was a member for a year and heard nothing from them except when dues were expected). They have no inherent right to be guardians of the game's story, and if they care so little about getting it right as to prostitute the privilege, maybe they shouldn't have it.

All of this is a prelude to the fact that the annual Hall of Fame ballot was released today. The aforementioned holdovers from last year are being joined by no-doubt-about-it players such as Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine, as well as a pitcher who was just as good as Glavine but doesn't have the 300-win dog-whistle attached to his name (big round numbers mean the voters don't have to think) and one of the best-hitting second basemen in history, Jeff Kent.


Greg Maddux (Getty Images)

What an ugly irony it will be if Kent, who owed six of his eight 100-RBI seasons and his 2000 MVP award to batting behind Bonds, outpolls his teammate in this year's voting because the BBWAA believes Bonds' hitting prowess was the gift of some chemical djinn.

Given the Big Hurt, Maddux, and Glavine as well as a supplementary Expansion-Era Committee Ballot that has three managers who deserve election in Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre, the voters, if they have any sense at all, could give Cooperstown an induction day unlike any since perhaps the day Mickey Mantle and White Ford went in together. It would almost, but not quite, make up for last year's sulky dereliction of duty. Cox, Maddux, and Glavine were at the core of one of the great sustained runs of excellence in baseball history and it is appropriate that they go in together. Throw in one of the great right-handed hitters of all time in Thomas and two of the winningest managers in history in Torre and La Russa and you have a the potential for one of the most star-studded days in the 75-year history of induction ceremonies.

If the writers get wise to themselves and take a more responsible look at the Biggios and Bagwells, we might even get to celebrate the triumph of responsibility over ignorance and the reign of what you can prove instead of what you think you know and responsibly handling someone's reputation by way of fact instead of innuendo -- which is to say that if you think you know something about Jeff Bagwell or Craig Biggio, have the courage of your convictions, step up, and say so. And if you don't, if you're just operating by some half-assed inference about the arc of a man's career or the cut of his teammates, just shut up and work with what you actually do know, namely the numbers on the back of the baseball card.

(Parenthetically, just because this is a good spot to rail against the establishment, I accidentally turned on one of those ESPN idiots-yell-at-each-other shows that dominate the nets' afternoon programming this summer and some geriatric hack from Boston was going on and on about how he didn't like WAR because it is an "imaginary stat! It is not a real number!" Hey, genius: It's a baseline. It's a way of avoiding measuring performance in a vacuum. If you don't like that baseline, use a different one. Would you prefer "above average?" Because we can do that. You'll get to roughly the same place, too. You won't have as good an understanding of the talent distribution in baseball, which is part of the point of the hypothetical replacement level, but we can do the training-wheels version for you if you're not too busy inspecting Mike Piazza's back hair.)

Through the inept performance of an organization that equates "grinding on [the] beat" with an ability to contextualize player performance, not to mention basic fairness, ethics, and honesty, the Hall of Fame vote has become an annual exercise in anger and sadness, not celebration. Something has to change. Until then, this time of year will be about how badly the voters get it wrong, not about all the things that the players on the ballot got right. Somehow, the wrong party claimed the center of attention. I hope they're enjoying their time in the spotlight.

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