Even when the decisions are easy, the annual election of players to baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., is the most overanalyzed and overwrought vote in sports. Wednesday’s announcement of the class of 2013 will be triple that, and then some.
To hear people speak, this year’s ballot is toxic because it contains two names from baseball’s steroid era, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, as well as Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, two significant offensive players who have been unfairly tainted by amateur physiologists who believe body size and type alone are evidence of steroid use.
There is a fear of wrestling with the issue, with critics of the process suggesting that the Hall of Fame needs to give voters more guidance about the place of character beyond the soft-sounding charge that voters should base their decisions on the player’s record, playing ability, “integrity, sportsmanship, character” and contributions to the clubs on which he played.
Good luck with that.
Good luck defining “character” and “integrity” in a game that has historically celebrated bending or breaking the rules, popping pills to play “through the pain” and be a “gamer,” and kept out players due to their skin colour. No-hitters have been pitched and World Series won without black players being allowed on the field, and in the free-spirited days of the 1960s and 1970s and the cocaine-fuelled 1980s, you had best believe not everybody played every inning clear-eyed.
The best thing about the Hall of Fame is that it will survive the prejudices and predispositions of the people who watch, run, play, report on baseball and select its inductees. It will survive the combination of statistical, anecdotal and first-hand reflection that led some of us to vote for Bonds, Clemens, Piazza, Mark McGwire, Larry Walker and Tim Raines on our ballot.
The Hall will survive the obstinate nature of those of us who think using all 10 allotted places on the ballot cheapens what should be an exclusive club; who grudgingly give up our vote with favouritism for players we have actually seen; who are not above voting for, say, McGwire as an act of defiance in the face of zealous interpretations of when exactly the playing field stopped being level. That “small-tent” approach – which isn’t meant to sound as obnoxious as it seems – makes it difficult for those voters who don’t like jockeying names on and off each year.
You will hear fretting about the chance that no one player gets the required 75 per cent of votes to gain admission this time around, and that might happen. No one, not even those of us who didn’t vote for him, would begrudge Jack Morris getting in, but he has some statistical lifting to do. You’d like to think a player of Raines’s pedigree would get enough support and maybe even gain traction from steroid withholders looking to put their votes elsewhere.
Cooperstown will survive and indeed grow and get better because the Hall usually gets its right. Can the process be changed? Tough question. How do you tidy up a democracy? One suggestion: forget trying to define the undefinable, but cut down the number of players allowed per ballot to, say, five.
So fear not the release of Wednesday’s vote by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America at 2 p.m. (Eastern). Fear not for the legacy of Bonds and Clemens and the really aggrieved party here, Piazza, who was the most dominant offensive catcher since Johnny Bench, guilty apparently of having too much acne on his back.
Don’t fear for the message that would be sent by a Hall of Fame shutout. Celebrate, instead, the induction of the late Tom Cheek, the long-time voice of the Toronto Blue Jays who was selected as this year’s winner of the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcast excellence.
For the most part, Cooperstown takes care of all in its own way, if not always in a linear fashion and at a speed that is to everybody’s satisfaction (for example, the egregious blackballing of the late Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1982).
It’s not perfect, which makes it perfect for the sport it celebrates.