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 andBaltimore 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 the petition at Change.org.

References and 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?

Dave Studeman was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Follow his sporadic tweets @dastudes.

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9 years ago

I’m gonna go build my own Hall of Fame, with blackjack! And hookers! In fact, forget the blackjack.

In all honesty, if they don’t change it, someone really should just make their own, following your rules, send out ballots, and even if it lacks all the pizzazz of the current system, eventually the heads in charge will recognize that enough people want this fixed. Stodgy old baseball types (the anti-instant replay crew) who constantly talk about how nothing should ever change will be outvoted, and progress will occur.