The drive from Utica to Cooperstown is a bit of a fog. The anticipation of what awaited me and my family is not. It’s what my summer had revolved around for weeks. I don’t remember much else from our trip to upstate New York, but our trek to the National Baseball Hall of Fame will forever be etched in my mind. My dad buying my brother a wooden crimson baseball bat with a Cincinnati Reds insignia on it. (My brother had a few baseball-player obsessions back then, with Eric Davis being first and foremost.) The three of us laughing at a picture of Amos Otis when we walked through the museum—it was an inside joke that I don’t fully remember the origin of. And of course, finally seeing all the plaques of the many legends about whom I’d heard so much—being still too young to have any playing-day memories of any enshrined players. Jim Palmer and Joe Morgan stand out the most, having both been inducted just a few weeks prior. I was 9.
The voting for the Hall of Fame is a mess. Regardless of who actually gets in on Wednesday, I feel comfortable making that statement. Whether you’re big on closers and can’t understand why Trevor Hoffman isn’t named on more ballots, or you think the character clause is being applied arbitrarily, or you see undervalued stars like Alan Trammell, Tim Raines and Mike Mussina getting overlooked, you’re going to have a beef. It’s inevitable that all groups, whether you have a vote or not, will be upset to some degree that someone didn’t reach the needed 75 percent of the vote.
There are plenty of valid criticisms to be made of the seemingly odd decisions many make when handing in their ballots; and while it’s easy to lob insults at all the different sides, I’m using this space to focus on the positives—both in terms of the direction the vote could be headed and the amount of quality voters currently active. No, I don’t like that players who never failed a test or appeared in a report are having accusations thrown their way. Or that columnists are using their platforms to insult a younger generation of voters and journalists who embrace advanced statistics and appreciate the intangible aspects of the game and spend time in the clubhouse. I spend much of my summer at ballparks talking to players, front office members, and scouts; I have a true appreciation for makeup and the clubhouse leader, and I know I’m not the only one. It truly is possible to love this game, understand there’s more than just numbers, while also embracing those numbers and analytics.
Over a decade ago being in the BBWAA wasn’t even a dream of mine; it wasn’t a dream because being in this business seemed like such a far-fetched scenario that I didn’t bother to think of things like that. I was just a college kid spending too much money at Wrigley Field, driving up to Milwaukee to see some Brewers games, or traveling to Boston to finally get the chance to explore Fenway. Baseball had always been a passion, but it took me a little longer than many in this business to realize it could also be my job. When that started to come into focus, the possible reality of membership in the BBWAA started to mean something to me; I would read about debates for the Cy Young, MVP, or Hall of Fame, and I wanted to enter that fray because I knew how seriously I would take it. As the years have passed, I have seen many complain about the BBWAA and the role they take in this process. As I’ve admitted, there are plenty of problems here, but sometimes the focus on these issues detracts from the fact that there are numerous writers who take the responsibility of voting for the Hall of Fame very seriously.
I’ve read so many passionate, thoughtful pieces written by voters that I struggle when people focus only on the awful ballots and articles that go viral. Jesse Spector touched on this on Tuesday and pointed to Peter Gammons’ leveled take as exactly the type that will go overlooked during this time. While I was in Nashville attending the Winter Meetings—my first as a member of the BBWAA—I made sure to talk to as many Hall of Fame voters as I could. Jeff Passan’s thorough ballot columns over at Yahoo! Sports always impressed me with the level of research he conducted and the time he clearly spent on his ballot. Passan shared a similar experience with the Hall of Fame to the one I did above:
When I was 10 years old, I spent my summer in Raquette Lake, N.Y., a grain-of-sand-sized town in the Adirondacks. Every week at Raquette Lake Boys Camp, we took a trip on Mondays. And in the fifth week of the summer, if I recall correctly, we took a ferry across the lake, boarded a bus and drove two and a half hours to Cooperstown. All summer long, the prospect of that trip pulled me through homesickness and all the rest of the stupid things that vex 10-year-old boys. And it lived up to every expectation I had.
It’s a simple story, one I’m sure many voters experienced in one form or another. And it’s what has led so many—yes, there are so many, despite what some would have you believe—to take the vote so seriously, including Passan:
So, yes, I do take it seriously, very much so, because even though I'm just one vote of many hundred, the least I can do is stay true to myself and my beliefs. It's a privilege to vote for the Hall of Fame, the sort of thing my 10-year-old self never would've dreamed of doing. Even if the Hall doesn't always stand right by the writers, so long as the vote is ours, it deserves nothing less than our best effort.
Current BBWAA president Derrick Goold covers the Cardinals for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Goold is a self-professed newspaper lover. That tag may lead some to unfairly jump to the conclusion that he’s some sort of old-school curmudgeon who will thoughtlessly send in a blank ballot or throw unsubstantiated rumors of PED use around. But that couldn’t be further from the truth with Goold, who takes the vote very seriously:
It’s history, something that will outlast both of us. It’s a responsibility. I try to think about the ballot as an article that I will have to defend because like an article in the newspaper—a ballot is permanent and it has my name on it. I cannot revise either later, so I better put in the time to do things the best I can now. One of the reasons why I think the Hall vote stirs such debate is because it means so much to fans, to writers, to people in the game. Cooperstown is like a bank, and each of us who care are investing something valuable into it—our memories, our time, our fondness for the game. I try to keep that in mind. Something that invites that much passion—whether someone agrees with my vote or is disgusted by it—should not be taken lightly. Ever.
And of course there’s former BP writer and current Sports Illustrated columnist Jay Jaffe. Jaffe created JAWS, a tool that evaluates the credentials of every Hall-eligible player. Jaffe himself doesn’t have a vote—he’s still five years away from earning that right—but he still takes a significant amount of time to thoroughly explain his hypothetical ballot, even poring over players who wouldn’t get a second look from many voters.
I feel a responsibility to ensure that the tool is used correctly, as I don't want people to get the notion that it's designed to render a binary yes/no verdict. JAWS and the underlying WAR metrics don't account for postseason stuff or historical importance, and there's room for doubt with regards to how we measure defense and reliever contributions, and so on. So I think it's better to show my work when taking those JAWS numbers and turning them into a ballot, even a virtual one, and having invested hours upon hours in profiling each serious candidate at length, and some amount of time critiquing the past and present choices of actual voters, the least I can do is approach the process of assembling a ballot seriously.
These are just a few of the people I spoke with, and there are certainly numerous more who put in painstaking hours to come to decisions that aren’t easy.
“I know so, so, so many others who feel similarly and put in a lot of time on their ballot, pulling up stacks of stats to support a vote or discover a reason for a vote,” Goold said. “Many voters begin preparing for the ballot long before the ballot shows up—interviewing people through the years to gather information and opinions about candidates and then gathering all that together to review before putting pen to paper.”
While we might not always agree with the conclusions they come to, I think it’s clear that the vast majority certainly take the privilege that the Hall of Fame has bestowed upon this group very seriously. There are some who make a mockery of the vote, tainting the group as a whole, but I once hoped, and now I’ve come to truly believe, that they are merely a vocal minority. They are a group that is easy to pick on and likely deserves to be called out for lazy habits and equally lazy reasoning, but those who work to make the process better deserve recognition as well.
Goold has written about a change in voting he’d like to see implemented—“A yes/no on each candidate so we can answer the paramount question: Is this player worthy of the Hall?”—but he also pointed out that there are numerous other viable ideas out there that other writers would advocate for. Passan admitted to me that he’s not sure if the BBWAA actually deserves to have the right to vote—and he wouldn’t be against giving it up—admitting that this process likely breaks the cardinal sin of journalists not being a part of the story. However, he felt he was able to separate things enough to deliver a fair vote, and he takes great pride in it.
Goold reminded me that this isn’t a right the BBWAA demanded. The Hall reached out to us decades ago and bestowed this upon us. Ultimately, I think I agree with Jaffe that the BBWAA should be a part of this process, but I would like to see the voting process altered in different ways. Though the Hall rejected a proposal by the BBWAA to expand the voting limit from 10 to 12—a compromise the BBWAA felt may be easier for the Hall to swallow rather than going to a straight unlimited ballot—Goold wanted to emphasize that this wasn’t a period on the discussion, but rather a semicolon. With some changes already implemented—writers who hadn’t covered the game actively in the past decade losing their voting rights, and the time on the ballot for players cut from 15 years to 10—the Hall wanted to see how things went before adding more alterations.
The bottom line is that many are ready for things to evolve, with both the structure of the BBWAA voter pool and the voting process in general. I’m certainly for non-active voters being removed from the pool, but I’d also like to see the list of those who are eligible for the BBWAA be expanded, whether it be broadcasters, historians, and writers from less conventional outlets—like, of course, Baseball Prospectus—that have earned that credibility.
So, yes, I certainly am calling for change along with many of you. I think it’s imperative that the BBWAA as a group honors the history of the game while also being sure to stay relevant in an ever-changing world—both with regards to how we all consume our media today and with how baseball itself has evolved as well. But I also want to make sure we don’t spend days like today focused on bad ballots or voters who seemed to skirt their duties. Let’s focus on Ken Griffey, Jr. (and hopefully a few others), instead, and let’s praise the voters who treated this as an incredible responsibility.
Thank you for reading
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