Hall of Fame Voting in Dire Need of Reform
Bob Toth | On 12, Jan 2014
As expected, the announcement of the 2014 National Baseball Hall of Fame class, set for a summer induction into Cooperstown, did not come without its fair share of drama this year. It has become a norm as new members of the Steroid Era reach their five-year eligibility threshold.
A trio of deserving stars of the 1990’s were selected on their first appearances on the ballot, joining Veteran Committee nominees and successful legendary managers Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, and Joe Torre. Pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, teammates for ten years with the Atlanta Braves under Cox from 1993 through 2002, and slugger Frank Thomas all exceeded the 429 votes (75%) needed for enshrinement.
Four former Indians were on the ballot for this season and only one will survive to move onto next year’s selection options. Neither of Richie Sexson and Sean Casey received votes on the 571 total ballots submitted. Jack Morris, who pitched his final Major League season with the Indians in 1994, fell 78 votes short in his 15th and final year of eligibility.
The last former Clevelander standing is Jeff Kent, who spent a half-season with the Indians in 1996 after being acquired in a deadline deal with others from the New York Mets in exchange for Carlos Baerga and Alvaro Espinoza. Kent received 87 votes (15.2%) in his first year on the ballot.
Somewhat lost in the selection of Maddux, Glavine, and Thomas were the disappointing results for Craig Biggio. The lifelong Houston Astros model of versatility fell just two votes short (74.8%) of reaching the Hall in his second year of eligibility. The 20-year veteran was a seven-time All-Star and accumulated 3,060 hits over the course of his career. He made the 1991 National League All-Star team as a catcher and then was selected the next season as a second baseman. In 2003 and 2004, he was a full-time outfielder for the Astros, playing in 150 games in center field in 2003 and splitting time between left and center field in 2004.
It was an improvement upon the 68.2% of the vote he pulled as the leading vote getter on last year’s ballot, when no players were selected. Biggio and Morris were the only two players to pull at least two-thirds of the votes last season in a ballot that featured many prominent players from the 1990’s and 2000’s.
Biggio has not been linked to performance enhancers in the manner that several of his ballot-mates had. That does not mean that Biggio has been exempt from such accusations, as both he and fellow Houston teammate and ballot member Jeff Bagwell played with the Astros while reported user Roger Clemens and admitted user Andy Pettitte were members of the club from 2004 to 2006.
This year’s balloting process was mocked by several media members who decided to take policing the Hall of Fame into their own hands in a variety of detrimental ways.
The most visible of the abuses was created by ESPN talking head and former Miami Herald sportswriter Dan Le Batard in conjunction with Deadspin, a sports news site that emphasizes the news “without Access, Favor, or Discretion”. Le Batard allowed the readers of Deadspin to select his ten votes for his ballot as a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Le Batard shared his opinion for adding to the lack of integrity in an already-broken system on Wednesday afternoon: “I feel like my vote has gotten pretty worthless in the avalanche of sanctimony that has swallowed it. I think I understand why the steroid guys were the steroid guys in this competition-aholic culture. Baseball is always reticent to change, but our flawed voting process needs remodeling in a new media world. I always like a little anarchy inside the cathedral we’ve made of sports. I don’t want to be a part of the present climate without reform anyway.”
The official statement from La Velle E. Neal III, president of the BBWAA, indicated that Le Batard’s blatant publicity stunt would cost him his membership in the BBWAA for one year and that his eligibility for future votes would be denied for “transferring his Hall of Fame ballot to an entity that has not earned voting status”.
The ballot itself, as selected by Deadspin viewers, was hardly the worst ballot submitted. Other ballots, in what is expected to be a serious and valued process, actually gave consideration to J.T. Snow, Eric Gagne, Jacque Jones, Armando Benitez, and Kenny Rogers, all durable and reliable professional baseball players, but none even remotely close to deserving inclusion amongst a collection of the game’s best ever to suit up.
But even their inclusions on ballots did not compete with the efforts of Ken Gurnick, beat reporter for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the ultimate attempt to buck the system with his own personal vendetta, Gurnick was quoted on MLB.com as refusing to vote for “those who played during the period of PED use”. His submission was only for Morris, whose retirement following the 1994 season would have precluded him from most steroid or performance-enhancing related discussions. He has stated further that he intends to abstain on future ballots.
It may be best he formally relinquish his vote now so that we do not have to endure yet another ballot left blank with the absence of logical human thought.
Another national reporter, Marty Noble, gave notice that he does not want a gigantic Hall of Fame class and, therefore, a lengthy Cooperstown ceremony in July so he limited his ballot to three. He opted for Glavine, Maddux (“They’re automatic; there was no need for research or investigation.”) and Morris (“he clearly deserves the benefit of the doubt”), as shared on MLB.com’s story on how 17 different writers voted on Tuesday.
Benefit of the doubt and a quicker induction ceremony may be some of the worst excuses made in submitting a ballot and should not be the thoughts of a person who has been granted the opportunity to partake in the voting process.
Just as bad as these incidents was again an example of someone submitting a blank ballot. It is hard to convince me that not a single name from this year’s options was worthy, especially Maddux. While blank ballots have been submitted by writers abstaining to vote in protest (for example, Pete Rose’s exclusion from the Hall during Tom Seaver’s nearly-unanimous selection in 1992), such has not been indicated yet for this year’s lack of effort by one writer.
If these various individuals supplying votes as members of the BBWAA think that they are making a statement, their efforts may be a few years too late. The policing of the Steroid Era has long been underway.
Prolific home run hitter Mark McGwire has been unable to earn more than a quarter of the votes on the ballots after his historic career was revealed to have been influenced by the use of steroids and human growth hormones. “Big Mac”, who hit 70 home runs in a home run chase to remember (and now forget) with Sammy Sosa in 1998, has maxed out with 23.7% of the votes in 2010. He received his lowest vote total to date on the 2014 ballot, when he was selected on 63 of the ballots (11%), despite ranking tenth all-time in home runs.
Speaking of Sosa, he is hanging on by a thread after receiving 41 votes in his second year on the ballot (7.2%), a decline of 30 votes from his first attempt. He finished his career one of just eight players all-time to hit 600 home runs or more, but also totaled the third-most strikeouts (2,306) in baseball history.
Barry Bonds, the all-time single-season and career home run king (asterisk), has been on more than one-third of the ballots in his first two years of voting. A seven-time NL MVP and 14-time All-Star, Bonds is also owner of the sixth-best on-base percentage, fifth-best slugging percentage, fourth-most runs batted in, third-most runs scored, and most walks and intentional walks all-time.
In his fourth year of eligibility, former first baseman Rafael Palmeiro has fallen off of future ballots after receiving just 4.4% of the vote this year. Linked to performance enhancers after his animated Congressional display in 2005 and the owner of the twelfth-most home runs in MLB history, Palmeiro now resides with Rose and Biggio as the only retired members of the 3,000 hit club to not be residents of Cooperstown. Biggio is expected to be the 25th member of the club to gain entrance at some point in the next few years.
While generally garnering far less public attention, pitchers have been linked to uses of performance enhancers, and none more notably than Clemens.
Clemens saw a slight decrease from 37.6% of the vote in 2013 to 35.4% of the vote this season. His name was linked to anabolic steroid use in both the Mitchell Report and by former trainer Brian McNamee. The eleven-time All-Star and seven-time Cy Young Award winner ranks third in MLB history with 4,672 strikeouts.
The ballot confusion and inconsistencies will continue until the Hall of Fame and baseball in general take some stance on the Steroid Era. It is clear a large portion of the voters have spoken with their refusal to include McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Palmeiro, Clemens, and others who were linked more visibly to performance enhancers.
That said, it remains unfair to chastise the rest of the players from the era who were not criticized or linked to cheating along the way, whether it be through failed drug tests, corked bats, or visible bottles of Androstenedione in one’s locker.
For Cleveland Indians’ fans, could this hit close to home in a few years?
What will happen to former Indians slugger Jim Thome when his name first appearances on the Hall of Fame ballot for the Class of 2018?
Thome played 22 years in the Major Leagues, including his first three seasons in Cleveland when he appeared in less than one-third of the team’s games. He came up a thin 20-year-old rookie in 1991, slugging his first professional home run into the upper deck at Yankee Stadium against former Indians pitcher Steve Farr while wearing the number six instead of his customary 25 and weighing 50 to 60 pounds less than his playing weight later in his career.
In the strike-shortened 1994 season, he slugged 20 home runs in 98 games. In 137 of 144 games in the shortened 1995 campaign, he batted .314 and hit 25 home runs. For each of the next nine years, he hit no fewer than 30 and no more than 52 home runs for the Indians and the Philadelphia Phillies, averaging 41 home runs and 111 RBI in that span.
After injury deprived him of the majority of the 2005 season in Philadelphia, he averaged 37 homers for the Chicago White Sox in three full seasons before being relegated to a part-time role from 2009 until his career ended after the 2012 season.
Thome was never a league MVP. He was a five-time All-Star first baseman, designated hitter, and former third baseman who only once led his league in home runs. He hit for power (612 home runs) but had the eye for his pitch (his 1,747 walks are seventh-best all-time). His big swing occasionally missed, as shown by his 2,548 strikeouts, which trail just Reggie Jackson by 49 for the MLB record.
Will Thome go the path of Thomas, a hulking man who was a college tight end at Auburn University who became a first ballot Hall of Famer? Or will Thome, who gradually grew into a larger build over time and generally avoided any accusations of wrongdoing, be hurt by those unwilling to recognize the efforts made of players of the Steroid Era who had no steadfast evidence against them?
It should not be a question that one has to ask, but the breakdown of the voting process forces it. Reform is needed and soon. It may be cleaning house of those resistant to change and unwilling to participate in the process appropriately. It may include expanding the field of candidates beyond the ten players currently allowed on the ballot. It is not a simple fix, but it is worthy of address and as soon as possible.
The most tarnished of the names of the Steroid Era will continue to appear on the ballot, year in and year out, until they run out of time or fall off of the bottom of the ballot altogether a la Palmeiro this year and possibly Sosa next.
Those names and their legacies will continue to foster and breed resentment amongst the purists and further cloud the Hall’s future until something is done to correct what has grown to be a corrupted and ineffective system.
Photo: Kathy Willins/AP Photo