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March 11, 2003

Breaking Balls

Changing the Rules

by Derek Zumsteg

The new Hall of Fame Veterans Committee didn't elect anyone this year, despite having a number of excellent candidates in Ron Santo, Minnie Minoso, and the always-controversial Dick Allen. Because of this, it's likely that the rules will be tweaked in the future, lowering the threshold for induction. Never mind the fact that the Hall of Fame has much bigger problems on its hands, small induction classes mean small revenues for the folks in Cooperstown, New York. The more serious issues will have to wait.

And the serious issues I'm referring to? How about the fact that Hall of Fame needs to tweak its electorate as well as its rules in the future? Comments by some of the voters has made it clear that the Hall of Fame would be better served by new voters.

Consider this. During a recent conference call (which is like a press conference where everyone gets to stay in their pajamas), head of the new Veterans Committee Joe Morgan said:

One very important thing that players look at is that they feel it's very important that the player sitting beside them will be a player who truly deserves to be there. Maybe not as many people fell through the cracks as people think. We think there have been some, but maybe there haven't been any. Maybe the writers have done a pretty good job.

Truly deserves to be there? You'd think that Joe Morgan, who would be in the Hall of Fame if it only enshrined a couple players per position, would be a good judge here. He's not. Morgan has for years pushed the candidacy of his friends and teammates from the Reds, and was so effective in doing so that he got Tony Perez in as a part of the 2000 class.

That Joe Morgan could believe that Tony Perez is a truly deserving Hall of Fame member and Ron Santo somehow is not should be enough to take away his ballot.

His sentiment may be misguided, but I think Morgan's sincere when he talks about being reluctant to vote--that there should be a heavy burden of proof on candidates to show that they were overlooked, and that the initial voting process should generally be trusted. And I agree with that sentiment. I think that Santo's got one of the strongest cases, for instance, and even then it's not an easy choice to vote him in. If Morgan wants to err on the side of caution, I understand that; and in a way, I understand why someone might rate their own teammates and friends above others they were not so exposed to. So I don't blame Morgan for cheerleading--every nominee deserves strong advocacy and debate.

Reggie Jackson begs to differ. "Marvin Miller," according to Jackson, "was a great figure in the game's history who deserves some honor, but the Hall of Fame should be for players only."

If Reggie Jackson wants to start his own Hall of Fame, the Reggie Jackson Hall of Fame for Players Only, nothing's stopping him. But he was given a specific task, and has refused to do it. Why ask him again?

Marvin Miller took the players from a constantly abused and underpaid rabble to the strongest union of players in professional sports. He is responsible for baseball's rapid growth and continued success. While Miller was head of the MLBPA, he was the most important man in baseball, continually bettering the lives of players and in turn, of the game. If the strictest standard for a Hall of Fame player is that the player must have been the best player in the league for an extended period of time, how can Marvin Miller not be elected?

To think that Jackson--a player who experienced the rise of the union and benefited from all the advantages it carried with it--would say that Marvin Miller is worthy of "some honor" but not the Hall of Fame is just mind-boggling. I can't see how he could possibly have reasoned it out, assuming that he actually took the time to do so.

Let's say I bought a team, and I put Reggie, who's long wanted to move up in the front office world, in charge of assembling my roster. But instead of a team, he came back with only outfielders. "Reggie," I might say, "I told you to go out and get me a team of players. We went over this--you needed to get position players, and starters, and relievers, and all you got me was outfielders." "That's right," Jackson might reply. "But you see, I believe that only outfielders are truly baseball players."

Jackson would get fired on the spot.

In a way, this is like Most Valuable Player voting: the ballot's quite specific about not giving or taking from players because of their team's performance, but every year most of the votes come in as if they're the Most Valuable Hitter on a Contending Team votes. If most people don't do their job, eventually they're let go. I don't understand why the Hall of Fame, or baseball's award balloting, should tolerate delegates who can't carry out tasks that come with clear instructions.

Jackson continues: "I probably shouldn't have gotten in until my third or fourth year. How can Willie Mays or Hank Aaron not get 100 percent of the vote and other guys are getting in that probably shouldn't get in. Do we want to get like football and basketball and put 10 guys in every year? If we keep this up, we'll have to put Aaron and Mays in a separate Hall of Fame. If things keep going the way they are, some guy from Hollywood will be voted into the Hall of Fame."

This first-year-of-eligibility thing is silly. In an ideal world, with an educated and unbiased electorate, every person worthy of the Hall of Fame would get in on their first year on the ballot. Writers would look at the vote, do their research, and boom: worthy candidates elected. I understand that there's a lot of education--the public lobbying of other voters through columns--and that a voter might abandon a candidate he supports in favor of another with a better chance, but we shouldn't see huge swings in votes from year to year.

And yet, this whole first-ballot, second-ballot thing has been going on for a while. It's an attempt to introduce an artificial tier system. What purpose does it serve to make players wait? The plaques don't have the amount of votes a player received by year on them. The Hall of Fame isn't arranged by percentage of first-year vote, or year of eligibility elected, and there's no reason it should be. Whether you want to chalk this up to base self-promotion by ballot-holders who want to make when they put a player in the Hall as important as whether the player's in the Hall, or if you would ascribe this to the Hall's own problems with marginal and, frankly, unqualified inductees is your own perogative.

Possibly the worst thing about this, though, is the arrogance in Reggie's attitude. Despite his self-effacing comments, Jackson was a no-brainer inductee. That does not mean that as a ballot-holder he shouldn't at least think about this. To brush Santo off--saying the ballot didn't require much thought--shows, at the very least, Jackson's lack of respect for the Hall of Fame that inducted him, and at worst, the self-serving nature of a current HOFer who wants to raise the bar so his own plaque will be more valuable.

Now, I don't know about you, but I think the Hall of Fame would do well to consider this as it looks to make future changes. The election of players like Perez and Rabbit Maranville have lowered the bar enough as it is, and quotes from players like Jackson only seem to support those types of inductions. If nothing else, it certainly proves that the trees are often poor judges on the state of the forest.

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