Time to push the reset button

I know the results from the latest Hall of Fame voting aren’t in yet, but it’s already clear that the process is deeply flawed. It was always imperfect, but its flaws are now deep, possibly mortal. The voting process is not equipped to handle the messy challenges of our day, and the Hall of Fame is suffering as a result.

Consider what is likely to happen when the results are announced on Jan. 9. The early betting was on Jack Morris and perhaps one or two other apparently clean players, such as Craig Biggio, earning enshrinement. The current guess is that no one will be inducted from this tremendous class of players, perhaps the best of all time. This would be a travesty.

The (arguably) greatest pitcher and batter in the history of the game won’t be admitted? The (unarguably) greatest-hitting catcher of all time won’t be admitted? What of some of the greatest home run hitters the game has ever seen?

There is now such a divide among current voters that nothing can cross it. There is no basis for consensus, no way through the arguments, no insight to compel anyone to change his minds. BBWAA voters are even dropping out of the process. The result is a rotten mess.

Say it any way you want. The Hall of Fame is dysfunctional. The Hall of Fame is irrelevant. The Hall of Fame is broken and it can’t get up. Regardless of how you say it, it needs to be fixed.

Let me say upfront that I love the Baseball Hall of Fame. Despite the shakiness of its origin myth, it stands as a perfect monument to the game. It is baseball history in form. Its bricks are the foundations of the game. Its halls are time tunnels to the past. Its plaques are windows into greatness.

What’s more, Cooperstown is the perfect setting for the Hall. A picturesque town on a beautiful lake in a faraway locale, with its own mythical history and origin (it is said that William Cooper saw the town like a vision when he first glimpsed the wooded setting at the south end of Otsego Lake), Cooperstown is an out-of-the-way, but deeply rewarding, destination. A trip to the Hall in Cooperstown is an exploration and a pilgrimage.

I grew to love baseball through the Hall of Fame, and I’ll bet there are many others like me. Its success is vitally important to the success of the game itself. But its decision-making roots are broken.

Truth is, there have been issues with the voting process for a long time. The New York Times, Washington Post and Baltimore Sun don’t allow their baseball writers to participate in the process, given the conflict of interest between writers objectively covering a player while also voting on his worthiness of the most prestigious award in the game. There are several other issues with the body electorate; I won’t go into those today. Read the link.

Clearly, the steroids controversy has broken the process altogether. Peter Gammons did a nice job of summing up the current state of affairs, and I don’t want to waste more pixels on the subject. Read the link.

I want to propose some ways to fix this rotten thing, because we must fix it. I’m not going to pretend that these are the best ideas available. I just want to get a serious conversation started here. I’m hoping that, in some small way, we can contribute to a consensus that things need changing right away.

I’ve got three broad approaches to put on the table:

1. Create guidelines for resolving issues that arise from the PEDs era.
2. Make small changes to the process.
3. Make great big changes to the process.

Let’s discuss.

1. Create guidelines for resolving issues that arise from the PEDs era.

The PEDs era has presented an ethical conundrum unlike any other in baseball history. For years, Major League Baseball gave lip service but no teeth to its ban on steroids. And the use of steroids grew out of a culture that was in place long before 1990. Yes, steroid users were cheaters. Yes, what they did was understandable, even defensible in some lights. Yes, they should have known better. Yes, we all looked the other way.

There is no easy way to solve this problem, and asking the Baseball Writers Association of America to resolve it is like asking me to tell you what hip hop music to listen to. They are not equipped to do so, and the voting guidelines for the Hall of Fame—the ineligible list and the “character clause”—are hardly the right mechanism for this particular challenge. The ineligible list is too blunt; the character clause is too vague. We need something just right. But is such a thing possible?

Imagine that we tell voters how to view the players of the PEDs era. I don’t really care what guidelines we give people, but let’s imagine giving them something. The guidelines should be fair, defensible and actionable. The possible solutions could range from putting certain players on the ineligible list to ignoring their PED use altogether. Or we could attempt to find a middle ground in which voters are asked to consider what a player’s record would have been without the use of PEDs.

Some writers and commenters have proposed this approach, but I’m a skeptic. First of all, it’s hard for me to imagine any group of people coming to a consensus about this issue. Secondly, I don’t think we really understand the issues well enough to make concrete guidelines. Public debate around the PEDs issue is still a good thing, however tired we are of it.

Finally, I don’t think guidelines would be enforceable; voters would still follow their emotions, and it would be impossible to prove that someone followed the guidelines or didn’t. Some of you may feel differently, but I think there is no way to avoid changing the process itself.

2. Make small changes to the process.

Tom Tango and Joe Posnanski have already kicked around one idea for changing the voting options, allowing voters to delay their decision for a year without hurting the player’s eligibility period. I like this idea, and I’m sure there are other good ideas out there, too. If you have one or have read one, please list it in the comments below.

At the same time, we need to make changes to the voting body. The BBWAA needs to refine its voting eligibility rules, and the Hall needs to bring other baseball observers into the voting. I think plenty of people agree with this latter point, but the details are difficult. How do you put in place a fair and impartial process for including more voters?

Here’s an idea: create two new voting bodies, each given equal weight with the BBWAA. One is a group of respected baseball observers—the Bill James types—that are selected by the Hall with the advice of SABR. (I’m being cautious here. I’m a SABR member, and I’d hate to see a fun group of hobbyists turn into a political morass). Make these observers pass some sort of test of baseball knowledge. Make sure they’re well-respected. Have them “run” for the privilege, putting themselves up for nomination.

The second group would be comprised of everyday fans. Let’s have fans nominate themselves to serve on an electing body, using the Internet to register votes. People could describe themselves on the web, outline their platforms, readers would vote (one vote per IP address), and the winners would serve one-year terms. The voting would be based on a mix of popularity and platforms (pro-Bonds or anti-Bonds? Big Hall or Small Hall?), and the results would be partially a referendum on the issues of the day.

There are about 500 votes in the BBWAA. Give 300 to the Fan’s Voters and perhaps 100 to the Observer’s Group and weight the votes from each group equally. Give everyone the Tango/Poz voting option, continue with the 75 percent eligibility rule, and require that all votes are made public.

Did I call these small changes?

I know there are many, many pitfalls in what I’ve outlined, but we need to find ways to allow players to stay eligible while we continue to hash out the underlying ethical issues. And we need to relieve the stranglehold that the BBWAA has on the process. I’m all for anything that does those two things.

3. Make great big changes to the process.

Further expand the number of groups that can vote. Fans, players, executives, managers, even the IBWA (Internet Baseball Writers Association). Let each group vote for the Hall, along with the BBWAA, and then send each group’s top three selections for consideration to a Hall of Fame Congress. Include the Tango/Poz option. In a year of strong consensus, perhaps only three or four players will be nominated to the Congress. In more divisive times, as many as ten players might be nominated.

Create a Hall of Fame Congress, consisting of 24 members (or any number divisible by four) to select the winners from the nominated candidates. The members of this Congress can be appointed by other bodies to represent them. We could use some of the ideas in the previous section, such as fans voting for other fans to represent them. Have the members serve on a rotating basis.

Let them meet in Cooperstown in January. Anyone willing to travel to Cooperstown in the dead of winter deserves a vote. Have them hole up in the Otesaga until they have selected at least two, but no more than four, new members to the Hall. Any player receiving at least 75 percent of the Congress’ vote makes it. When the players are selected, have smoke rise from the Otesaga chimney.

Make all voting public. Take minutes and make them public, too. Hold the people and the process accountable.

Okay, in a way this process is more republican than the BBWAA process. Elites will be given a lot of power—perhaps too much power. But I like this idea for a couple of reasons. First, the process would be more open to the public than the current one, and voters would be held more accountable. Membership in the Congress can change if their electors are unhappy with them.

Secondly, a small-group setting is an appropriate place for further discussion and resolution of the issues associated with the steroids era. The BBWAA has no way to come together and reach a consensus about difficult issues. A Congress would.

Over time, the need for a Congress might fade, and the voting could become more directly democratic, depending on how well the underlying representative voting works. Give it time, let it develop.

But change it now. Please.

If you agree that the Hall’s voting process needs changing, please sign our petition at Change.org.

References & Resources
Of course, many other people have the same idea. Here’s a recent article by Ian Casselbery with his own thoughts.

Another good read is T.J. Quinn’s explanation for why he has decided to drop out of the Hall of Fame voting.

The best book on the subject that I know of is Bill James’ Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?

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Comments

  1. Squires8 said...

    Count me as one who loves the Hall, but doesn’t feel its voting is broken.  While I do agree that those given the privilege to vote should be expanded to include “the Bill James types” for sure, I don’t see anything wrong with not having Barry, Roger etc. elected.  Their cheating has paid with big contracts and records. The like has avoided jail time.  What’s left to show them (and our kids) that the cheating did have some costs? 

    I also see nothing wrong with those with just suspension not getting in yet.  Once one is in, he’s in.  Wait and see if further evidence presents itself; don’t be in a rush.

    Also remember that those who inflated their numbers w/PEDs may very well made other’s feats not look as great as they should have been seen thus keeping those player’s vote totals down.

  2. Aaron said...

    I signed the petition… Voters should vote on how good a player was, period.  The Hall of Fame shall then decide how to portray that person within the physical hall of fame.  History should not be ignored.

  3. Tom said...

    I would love to see votes given to the type of national broadcasters who cover the game on TV and radio and who are not paid by any specific team. The guys on MLB Network and MLB Network Radio, for starters, are probably the most knowledgeable broadcasters around because they cover and watch the sport as a whole – not just one or two specific teams.

  4. Howard Cole said...

    I like your thinking, Dave. But just in case you are not already aware, there is a group out there with an interest in the process. And they’re getting the word out.

    It’s called the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America (IBWAA) and you are very much welcome to join. Results of our 2013 Hall of Fame election were announced today. Mike Piazza was one lone winner.

    More at http://www.ibwaa.com.

  5. Rob said...

    I think the process now works pretty well.  I understand that these are difficult circumstances we face now, but are we going to change it to the point where we begin comparing players by the process they were elected? Maybe statistical minimums could be instituted somehow to keep out the borderline players.  As long as Cooperstown doesn’t end up like that joke of a hall in Springfield,  I’ll be happy.  Seriously,  have you ever seen who is considered hall worthy there?

  6. Frank said...

    Just saw that this story, with link, was wriiten up on CBS sportsline. The readers’ comments, while more numerous, are less than insightful.

  7. Jason S. said...

    I really don’t know what to make of Jim’s comments when he says that he dislikes voters not seeing any games or turning in blank ballots (I agree on both accounts) but then argues that the process is fine as it.  That seems a bit inconsistent to me.

    I cannot support fans voting because as bad as the BBWAA has been, things would be worse with fans voting.  The majority of fan comments I see on various blogs are basically how every decision their team’s GM made is pure genius and how every player in their system is a potential All Star.  Letting fans vote is a terrible idea.

  8. Jim said...

    Enough, already.  Before we go one, I want to make one thing clear, I do not have a vote.  The only thing wrong with the Hall of Fame voting is fans today who think they are so smart that they have all the answers.  Think back to the first class.  The Hall was started, and as I believe, five players were inducted.  The fact that none were unanimous, is amazing, but that’s another story.

    Somewhere along the way the Hall came out with a guideline, and although I cannot recite it verbatum, I have read it and can interpret it. I have my own idea what it means when it talks about integrity and sportsmanship, etc.  Maybe some people who vote have a problem interpreting the English written word.  But I don’t.  Before we go any further, I also do not have a vote.

    The Hall of Fame voting is nothing more than a beauty contest.  It would seem that I would come up with the final ten and write their names down.  If my final ten of 2009 changes in 2010 and in 2011 and again in 2012 and is really different in 2013, then so be it.  It is still a beauty contest, and my opinion of who should get votes and I should not even try to influence others’ voting.

    In addition this whole process is not life and death.  This is really not as important as anticipating (by the fans) and getting ready (by the teams) the results of this year’s championship season.  Which by the way is not very important in the grand scheme of things.

    If you interpret the guidelines, and they are just that – not cast in stone rules, to mean vote for the guys with the best basic stats, then okay.  If you interpret the guidelines to mean a higher moral standard and all-around person and you believe some are not up to snuff, then don’t vote for them.

    Except for the fact that baseball fans like to argue over whether this is really 2013 and other baseball items, we don’t have a say and we should not be going ballistic at the Hall of Fame directors who are just waiting for the results so they can prepare for induction day.

    In summary, I don’t think there is anything wrong with the process.  I don’t like the fact that some voters rarely see a game, let alone report on it.  I don’t like the fact some voters submit blank ballots, but then maybe they think no one is deserving.

    I see there is a petition circulating to change the Hall of Fame.  I will not sign it as it does not affect me one iota.  It is a private institution there for the enjoying just like a Van Gogh exhibit. 

    Remember it is still a beauty contest.

  9. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Jason,

    Anytime somebody writes like 9 paragraphs repeatedly referencing the frivolousness of sports on a website dedicated to scientifically and historically dissecting the frivolities of a sport, you know you are in for some gems. Jim did not disappoint.

    Squires,

    If not in complete disagreement with you. The lack of a preferred outcome does not alone indicate that the process in place to determine said outcome is broken. But, I will add two points.

    First, you acknowledge that the votership needs to be expanded to include additional voices. Now, it may just be an issue of semantics as to whether that’s a recognition of the process being broken, but at the very least it’s pretty fair to say that any endeavor central to establishing baseball history that asks for Woody Paige’s opinion, but not that of Bill James is at the very least not optimized. Two, the BBWAA doesn’t even necessarily represent the thought leaders in the understanding of and preservation of the game anymore. By those whose ideas more and more rule the day, many of the current voters expose themselves as at least borderline incompetent. That’s a major problem. If the system systematically invites a votership that is extremely far from the best expertise on the subject at hand that the baseball loving population has to offer, that’s a problem too.

    Rob,

    I’m not saying that the Basketball Hall of Fame is not deserving of any criticism, but I just want to make sure that you understand it is not the NBA Hall of Fame, but the Basketball Hall of Fame. A player’s entire career as a basketball player is to be considered when evaluating candidacy – college, foreign leagues, etc. If you think, for example, that Arvydas Sabonis does not deserve enshrinement, it is because you fundamentally misunderstand the mission statement of the institution.

  10. Dennis said...

    What about all the players that stayed “clean” who might have excelled to stardom with the “juice”? Lowering the stick for the cheaters just doesn’t send the right message. Especially when they blatently denied the whole thing for years. They should do to them what they did to Lance, period!

  11. studes said...

    So you think they were cheaters and should have known better, right?  Which was the point of the paragraph, of course.

  12. Philip said...

    “Yes, steroid users were cheaters. Yes, what they did was understandable, even defensible in some lights. Yes, they should have known better. Yes, we all looked the other way.”

    Sorry, Dave. But what the steroid users did was not understandable nor defensible. And not all of us looked the other way.

  13. HuskerDru said...

    Quit telling me I “looked the other way!!”  I didn’t, and I know lots of people who didn’t.  Yet, the players, owners, MLB admins, and, most especially, media types have all bought into this line of BS to collectively absolve themselves while collectively taking blame for something whose blame should NOT be apportioned uniformly.  Who’s MOST to blame for the steroid era/controversy?  In this order:  the players who juiced, the players who didn’t juice but knew teammates who were, MLB, MLBPA, much (though not all) of the media.  That’s it…quit blaming the fans, and quit saying we looked the other way!!  If you really believe that, how ‘bout rationalizing it rather than just proclaiming it as a given??

  14. studes said...

    Wow.  I really think you’re not getting what I was trying to do with that paragraph. No need to get so angry about a paragraph that tried to express a number of different viewpoints without taking a stand on a particular one.

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