On Monday afternoon, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced that former Cincinnati Reds shortstop, Barry Larkin, had been elected into the Cooperstown museum, receiving 86% of the vote. It was Larkin’s third year on the ballot, and quite honestly, he should have been elected in 2010. We’ll never know what Larkin did to sway enough additional voters his way over the past couple of years, but sometimes additional time, research, and consideration is needed. Regardless, it was a huge accomplishment, and one that was well deserved.
Sadly, several deserving players on the ballot fell short of the 75% threshold required for enshrinement, and were left on the outside looking in. Among those not elected were five players I included on my mock ballot a couple of weeks ago: Jeff Bagwell, Edgar Martinez, Mark McGwire, Tim Raines, and Alan Trammell. To be honest, I’ve gone back and forth on Rafael Palmeiro and Larry Walker several times, so that list of deserving players could easily be expanded to seven. While this happens every year, this year the situation seems a little more dire than in years past. Why? Because the Hall of Fame ballot is about to get really crowded.
Next year, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa, and Kenny Lofton will hit the ballot for the first time. While we’ll probably be consumed with a lot of passionate, divisive rhetoric from both sides of the steroid debate next winter, it’s pretty clear that each player has compelling cases for why they’re Hall of Famers. In fact, if not for the cloud of steroids, we’d likely be talking about six players with clear chances of being elected into Cooperstown. There wouldn’t be any discussion. It would be a rubber stamp. Mabye they don’t all get in on the first shot (it is a really stacked ballot, after all), but with the exception of Lofton; they would have all been shoe-ins for enshrinement at some point in the near future Instead, we’re probably looking at only Biggio getting elected next January because the BBWAA is too busy moralizing an issue they’re partially complicit in allowing to happen.
Therein lies the problem. Rather than having a consistent, blanket approach to the steroid issue, neither the proprietors of the Hall of Fame, nor the BBWAA have done anything to rectify a problem that’s about to reach a critical mass. They’re purposely evading the issue through grandstanding, in hopes someone else (read: Veterans Committee) will clean up the mess they partially created. No guidance has been provided to the voters, and many feel justifed of their irrational decisions by invoking the vague and preposterous “character clause.” They stand tall as the moral caretakers of a sport that’s lost it’s way, and strike quickly to cast the “cheaters” and “evildoers” out of baseball’s Eden. They don’t think about due process or downstream consequences, but instead of their own reputations and emotional reactions. If they were thinking rationally, they would realize it’s ridiculous to invoke the “character clause” for steroid users when it’s been ignored for years to elect players with significantly more questionable morals/personal ethos. Their own faulty thought processes and irrational arguments have created a caste system of baseball crimes by which some are acceptable and others are not. Throwing spitballs, using greenies, and corking bats are apparently forgivable. Failing a PED test and/or failing the steroid eye test? Not so much. Those players get life imprisonment, even if there isn’t any credible evidence proving them to be guilty.
Ballot overcrowding doesn’t just affect the 2013 ballot, but it affects every ballot for the next decade and beyond. As it stands right now, my theoretical (because I obviously don’t have a real one) 2013 ballot would include Bagwell, Raines, Martinez, McGwire, Bonds, Clemens, Piazza, Sosa, Schilling, and Biggio. That’s ten players; the maximum I could theoretically put on a ballot. It’s an incredibly strong ballot–maybe one of the strongest in history. But do you know what? I had to leave Trammell off of it completely, and that annoys the hell out of me. Maybe I’ll have a change of heart at some point down the line, and put him on at the expense of McGwire, Sosa, Schilling, or Biggio. That said, I’ll still have one worthy player being left off of my ballot entirely, and that I find to be unacceptable.
Of even greater insult to injury is that borderline Hall worthy players like Palmeiro, Walker, Lofton, and Bernie Williams get completely lost in the shuffle. (You could also include Raines, Trammell, and Martinez in this discussion, too.) Sure, their cases are questionable, but that’s not really the point. The ballot is about to become so crowded, they’ll end up losing much (if not all) of that 15 year eligibility period where the writers can examine their cases and re-evaluate their credentials. They won’t be able to gain any traction or momentum. This might not sound like a big deal to some of you, but to guys like Bert Blyleven and Jim Rice who waited years for “the call,” it was crucial. If they had to deal with today’s ballot conditions, it’s unlikely they ever would have had the chance to enjoy their day in the sun.
Still, like I said, ballot overcrowding doesn’t end after the 2013 Hall of Fame election. It gets worse. Here are a few of the top candidates that become eligible between 2014 and 2016:
Ken Griffey, Jr.
It’s a pretty impressive list. Each candidate listed has a resume that’s more than worthy of being enshrined in Cooperstown. In fact, with the exception of Sheffield, none of them have been linked to steroids in any way, shape, or form. As a result, almost everyone on this list has a pretty good shot of getting “the call” at some point.
Just for a moment, let’s assume that only Craig Biggio and (cringe) Jack Morris get elected in 2013.* I already explained how crowded my ballot would be in 2013, but what would it look like in 2014? It would be: Maddux, Thomas, Bagwell, Raines, Martinez, McGwire, Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, and Piazza. Again, even with a full ballot, I had to leave off Trammell, Sosa, Kent, Glavine, and Mussina (all whom I think are legit HoFers), plus Walker, Palmeiro, Williams, and Lofton (whom I think are borderline, but worthy cases). That’s 19 players that are worthy, and at most four will get in. Those four slots (if there are that many) will be filled by the 2015 class, and so on.
* I can’t envision the BBWAA voting in anyone else on the first ballot. Bonds and Clemens are tainted by very public steroid cases and might be second or third balloters; Sosa still has that ugly Congressional testimony with which to contend; Piazza has long been suspected by some media types; and Schilling doesn’t “feel” like a Hall of Famer to some people. Bagwell has the best shot of the non-first balloters, but he’s likely still another year or two away because people can’t get past the fact he “looked” like he did steroids.
It’s a vicious circle, and it won’t get any better until someone (MLB?) steps in and demands a solution or provides guidance. Unfortunately, all we can do it sit back and watch as worthy players get bypassed year-after-year because of flawed logic and hubris.