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January 7, 2013

BP Unfiltered

Time to Push the Reset Button

by Dave Studeman

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 and Baltimore 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 areseveral 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 our 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

Related Content:  Barry Bonds,  Hall Of Fame,  Cooperstown,  Mike Piazza,  Sosa

9 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

BP staff member Joe Hamrahi
BP staff

I'd like to thank Dave for sharing his ideas and article with us and for pushing the envelope even further on the Hall of Fame conversation. Consider this an open forum to discuss your feelings on Dave's ideas and any others you may have regarding the HOF, voting, and the BBWAA...except those that write here at Baseball Prospectus of course! :)

Jan 07, 2013 16:48 PM
 
studes
(280)

Thanks for adding this, Joe. In case folks missed it, here is the link for the petition:

https://www.change.org/petitions/change-the-baseball-hall-of-fame-voting-process

Jan 07, 2013 17:08 PM
rating: 0
 
Andy McG

Dave - if nobody is elected this year, and I agree that would be idiotic, shouldn't the first option taken be to simply increase the number of slots on the ballot beyond ten?

"In a vote of this type, where there are a limited number of spaces on the ballot and a player must get 75%, then the *more* qualified players you have the less likely it is that any of them will be elected".

Bill James wrote thusly about the mess that was Hall voting in the 40s, but it could equally apply today and for a few years to come.

Andy.

Jan 07, 2013 17:39 PM
rating: 0
 
studes
(280)

Yes, allowing more than ten votes makes sense. Given the current logjam, I also like loosening the 15-year and minimum voting rules.

Jan 07, 2013 17:48 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

I like the methods employed by the Hall of Merit group on baseball think factory. Although I may be biased, as a voter in the process for around 8 years now, the process ensures that a set number of players will always be honored and it also demands accountability from the electorate.
In short, the key rules are as follows:
- All voters submit a ballot of at least 15 names, ranked in order. Points are allocated to players based on the overall rankings they receive.
- All voters must also provide some commentary explaining their votes and relative positioning. Beyond voting for their top 15, voters must also comment upon players who were previously in the top 10 and remained eligible, as well as new comers deemed "relevant".
- Eligibility is perpetual. The only thing that can remove a player from consideration is to be elected.
- Boycotting a player for any reason is not allowed. The Hall of Merit permits a single year abstention for contentious players. (btw - not a single member of the electorate used this allowance for any of the "PED" players, although it has been used in the past by various voters on Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson)
- Before being eligible to vote, a prospective voter must submit a detailed preliminary ballot to the electorate at large, complete with commentary and a summary of the individual's consideration criteria/methodology. This makes sure that any participants are taking the process seriously. There are no wrong answers - only evidence that someone is systematically short-shrifting a group of players
- Negro League credit is enforced, while war credit is strongly encouraged and minor league credit (mostly for long-ago players) is also eligible.

In the most recent election, Barry Bonds was elected unanimously - placing 1st on every single ballot. Clemens came in second in every single ballot as well. It was an elect-four year, with Piazza and Biggio grabbing the other two spots.

Jan 07, 2013 18:32 PM
rating: 0
 
palehose

The process is indeed broken. The people who legitimately can elect Hall of Famers are the fans and/or the players/managers/coaches. Voting for candidates compromises the sports writers objectivity and plays into biases formed over years of covering certain players.

A process should be set up whereby the fans screen an eligibility list with a super majority vote of 75%, the players/managers/coaches give their concurrence with their own super majority vote and a committee of 12 baseball experts, equally chosen by the Commissioner and the head of the players union, votes on induction. Induction would be by super majority.

All other eligibility requirements could remain as they are today and the Commissioner could retain his authority to override the process for extraordinary circumstances as was done for Roberto Clemente.

This process would create drama and off season enthusiasm from media coverage throughout the process. The results of the entire process could be broadcast on the MLB Network in an awards show format.

Jan 08, 2013 06:10 AM
rating: 0
 
Shaun P.
(676)

I worry that any type of voting that involves "the fans" will quickly turn into a popularity contest, a la All Star Game voting, even with restrictions like Dave's suggested fan elections put into place.

I'm not sure what the "right" system is. There are just so many factors to consider.

At the very least, I think the BBWAA should restrict the franchise on both ends. You must be a BBWAA member for 10 years to gain the franchise. Why not have a mechanism by which you lose the franchise? For example, if you no longer professionally write about baseball with some frequency.

I'm surprised that the BBWAA allows so many of its members who don't write about baseball anymore to continue to hold the franchise. My experience with professional legal associations is that almost anyone can be a member, but only folks who are lawyers or work in the legal industry get to vote. Why doesn't the BBWAA do this?

Jan 08, 2013 09:06 AM
rating: 0
 
palehose

It is naive to think that when the writers vote for a player they too are not influenced by popularity or their own prejudices. Plus you have the situation of writers acting as judge and jury with certain players based on unsubstantiated rumors, i.e. Jeff Bagwell and possibly soon Mike Piazza. This unfairly deprives the fans of these players of the satisfaction of seeing their favorite get HOF recognition.

The fans are what make baseball and other professional sports viable. The Hall of Fame in Cooperstown would be an empty shell without the fans buying its tickets and souvenirs. Making them part of the process would enhance baseball's popularity and give the fans some equity for their loyal support, making the process better just for that reason.

Jan 08, 2013 13:37 PM
rating: 0
 
aidanh21

I think the most important thing that need to be done is letting the fans vote. We're the ones that visit the Hall so we should be able to see who we want to see.

And having a ten vote limit is ridiculous, that should be changed anyway.

Jan 08, 2013 18:27 PM
rating: 0
 
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