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January 5, 2005

Prospectus Today

Time For a Change

by Joe Sheehan

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It just looks like I'm not writing. Actually, I've cranked out thousands of words in the last couple weeks for Baseball Prospectus 2005, which is about six weeks from your doorstep. I still have a few thousand left, but I should be done this week, which means I'll be back in this space more often starting next week.

I haven't written about any of the various Randy Johnson trade rumors yet, and even though the latest one appears to have become reality, I won't address it until he stands in front of a podium and holds up a jersey that doesn't have purple in it. That said, if it ends up that the Yankees chose Johnson, Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano instead of Javier Vazquez and Carlos Beltran, they deserve what's going to happen to them.

I wanted to take today to write about the Hall of Fame. The BBWAA again did a good job sorting through the candidates. Wade Boggs is overqualified for the honor, and if he's not an "inner circle" Hall of Famer, he's certainly above the median. While I pondered the candidacy of Ryne Sandberg, I eventually considered him "in," and I agree with the BBWAA's collective decision.

My ballot, if I had one, would have also included Bert Blyleven and Rich Gossage, neither of whom got in. The debates over both of these players can be found elsewhere, and I won't re-hash them here except to point out that Gossage is close to the point where he'll probably get in, while Blyleven doesn't appear to have a chance.

The BBWAA, in its nearly 70 years of handling the balloting, has largely done a good job. A list of only BBWAA Hall of Famers would conform much more closely to people's idea of the Hall of Fame than the complete list does, as they've tended to err on the side of exclusion. It would be short of 19th-century players and some other categories, and it would exclude a handful of worthies who they simply didn't judge correctly. By and large, though, the BBWAA has served as a credible gatekeeper of the game's highest honor.

Just after the results were announced, I happened to catch a snippet of a phone-in interview on ESPNews with Tim Kurkjian. In the course of discussing the results, right before ending the call, Kurkjian said that the BBWAA has set the standards, and that they get to because the Hall of Fame is "their" honor. I don't mean to pick on Tim, who, like Peter Gammons and Jayson Stark (as well as John Clayton on the football side), is one of the best reasons to keep watching ESPN and its tentacle networks. But on this point, he's absolutely wrong.

The Hall of Fame isn't the BBWAA's honor. They handle the voting by themselves, which is an anachronism, but that doesn't give them any ownership over the place. The Hall of Fame is baseball's sacred spot, and the room in which the plaques hang, in which the game's greatest players ever are cast in bronze and separated from the rest, belongs to baseball fans past, present and future. The mechanism by which the plaques get there--more by paths other than the writers' vote, it should be noted--isn't the important thing. It's what those players did to deserve the honor, their achievements and the memories they created.

That conveying the honor is a privilege granted only to 10-year members of the BBWAA reflects the fact that 70 years ago, the BBWAA was the baseball media. Giving the vote to them was giving the vote to all the qualified people. There was no developed electronic media, no baseball-book industry, no Society for American Baseball Research, no widely-read baseball writers who didn't appear on dead trees.

(Those of you who have read Bill James' The Politics of Glory will recognize many of the arguments in this column. I make no claims of originality; I just want to get these points, so well-crafted by James, out there again.)

Then, the BBWAA was the most qualified group of people for this task. Now, the BBWAA's qualifications aside, their exclusive hold on the Hall of Fame ballot excludes hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, just as qualified, for no reason other than the career path they chose.

As I mentioned, this hasn't had a deleterious effect on who does and does not get into the Hall of Fame, other than perhaps creating a false sense of entitlement among those people with a ballot. Remember that after the Hall changed the rules to keep Pete Rose off the ballot in 1992, the writers threatened to withhold their services as electors. In a situation like this, no entity should feel it has that kind of power. The BBWAA isn't essential to the process, and if the writers pulled an Associated Press and decided to not be part of the system, it would take about 15 minutes to put together 500 people who could do the job.

Think about the people who don't have a Hall of Fame ballot. Bill James, for one. He's not qualified? Jon Miller can't vote. Vin Scully doesn't have a say in the process. Skip Caray. For whatever you think of his work, I'd imagine 45 years in the game would make Tim McCarver a qualified elector. Jules Tygiel, one of the game's great historians, can't vote. Craig Wright and Pete Palmer and Clay Davenport, who have spent broad swaths of their lives figuring out how to compare and contrast baseball players across leagues and eras...they're excluded.

The BBWAA was once the source of baseball knowledge. That era has passed, has been gone for a very long time, and the voting process for the Hall of Fame should reflect that. I was fortunate enough to do an ESPNews segment yesterday with Gammons, during which his ballot was displayed. Mine, of course, wasn't, because I don't have one. Earlier, Stark and Rob Neyer's segment showed a similar disparity. Rob Neyer, who's the public face of sabermetrics, who's written three fantastic books loaded with great research about the game, and who worked under James, doesn't have a Hall of Fame ballot. That's not right.

It's not about being more or less qualified. It's about the Hall of Fame being too important to too many people for this process to be restricted to people who chose to go a certain way after college. No process that excludes as many smart people who have something to contribute can be considered optimal.

While watching the Orange Bowl last night with some friends, I was asked if I voted in the Hall of Fame balloting, and I had to explain that I don't and why that was the case. This isn't about me, though; if Baseball Prospectus, say, got one vote, the line of people more qualified than me within the group would stretch as long as this sentence. Davenport, for one; Chris Kahrl and Steven Goldman and Keith Woolner. I'd love a ballot, don't get me wrong, but you don't change a process to suit someone's ego. You change it because it's the right thing to do.

Expanding the pool of eligible voters in a way that acknowledges the breadth of baseball knowledge in the 21st century is the right thing to do. It shouldn't be the province of people who deliver information through one selected medium. The Hall of Fame has gone through a dozen iterations of the secondary path to the Hall of Fame--largely known by the umbrella term "Veterans Committee"--over the years. It's time to take a good hard look at the primary path and bring in people who can add to the process.

One last thing...

FIGHT ON!

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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