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The Hall of Fame: Nothing is Likely to Change

Many writers, including Dave Cameron, have expressed their disappointment that the voters of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America chose not to enshrine anyone on a loaded Hall of Fame ballot this year. Some have already called for a change in the process. Perhaps unfortunately, then, the signs seem point to stasis when it comes to the Hall of Fame voting. Nothing looks like it’s going to change, and Hall of Fame leadership if just fine with that.

On a conference call held after the announcement, Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson’s responses to most questions seemed to convey the general attitude that there was no problem here. “Every election year is different,” and every vote is a “snapshot in time,” he said, and this particular snapshot “lasts fifteen years.” He also added: “I wish we had an electee, I will say that, but I’m not surprised, given how volatile this era has been.”

How the Hall intends to address the steroid era was also a general line of questioning. Pointing out that the Hall is actually three entities — the physical museum, the educational organization, and the fraternity of former baseball players — Idelson laid out current efforts that are already underway. The museum has an exhibit, and it “presents facts,” although the specific exhibits weren’t elaborated upon. The educational organization emphasizes healthy living and tells children not to take steroids.

When asked about the records of Barry Bonds in particular, though, Idelson said those records “were in good standing” as far his organization was concerned. Perhaps there are some inconsistencies in their approach to the subject.

But what about the issue of the moment? What should the Hall do to instruct voters about the infamous character clause and how they should consider steroids in their vote? In response to Joe Capozzi of the Palm Beach Post, who asked if the voter guidelines or instructions need to be revamped, Idelson said that he had personally has made himself available to the BBWAA repeatedly in case they wanted any elaboration on the voting instructions, and that he was told again and again that no help was needed and that those instructions were “self-explanatory” by different chapters of the voting organization.

Then again, Idelson also told Joe Posnanski, in an article posted today, that “Everyone should understand that ‘character’ is not to be used as a moral compass, but refers to how they respected the game, how they treated the game, how they used that character in the contributions they made to their teams.” This idea — that the character clause is more about morality as it applies to the game then the player’s morality in general — might be a clarification to some voters, even if it doesn’t do a great job of differentiating between the performance enhancing drugs and tactics of different generations.

Jack O’Connell, former president of the BBWAA, was also on the line, and he echoed the same belief that this was a personal process, and that nobody was elected because “75% is a hard thing to do.” The five blank ballots? They had nine blank ballots last year and the number of blank ballots “is fairly consistent year-to-year.” Why were the writers chosen to vote on this in the first place? “Our membership had the smallest axe to grind, and we were at the ballpark every day” he answered, without going into the spirit of the question, or the process which continues to award votes to writers that have long stopped covering the game.

Perhaps the most illuminating question was asked and answered quickly. One writer wanted to know what the BBWAA would say to those writers that were voting on suspicions. O’Connell said he wasn’t aware of any writers that were doing so and hadn’t seen anything on the subject.

That doesn’t seem to fit the reality on the ground. Suspicion without proof surrounds Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza. Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune said of Bagwell that he had “a difficult time believing he was clean.” He added that the first baseman’s “body type changed massively upon retirement.” Colleague Philip Hersh also did not vote for Bagwell and said, when contacted: “The numbers raise my suspicions.” Citing his six home runs in over 200 minor league games, and the timing of his rise to join the elite sluggers in the game, Hersh said that there were others he “favored over” Bagwell, “especially given the suspicions.” Hersh admitted that his experience covering Olympic sports might help him “see PEDs behind every door,” but also added that he may change his mind in the future.

Of course there are many more voters that saw things differently on Bagwell. BBWAA president Susan Slusser wrote on her blog that the people she voted for this time — Jeff Bagwell included — did not have “strong ties to steroids.” For Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register felt that performance-enhancing drugs were a “non-issue,” in large part because “it would be naive of me to get self-righteous and reject players with a steroids paper trail, while supporting other guys who must certainly have used but covered their tracks better.” He voted for Bagwell simply because his statistics stacked up well against his peers.

Either way, it’s clear that at least two voters connected their own dots on Bagwell and decided against a vote for the former Astros first baseman.

When asked for additional comment later, the leadership of both the Hall and the BBWAA were concise. “There are no changes planned in the Hall of Fame voting process,” said O’Connell. Idelson said that the leaders of the Hall of Fame “realize the challenges” voters face today, but “remain happy” with the role of the BBWAA and “have no plans to make any changes to the electorate or process, though we maintain an open dialog with the BBWAA on the subjects.”

What happens if next year brings another shutout? Idelson said “if that were ever the case, of course we would take a closer look at the electorate and rules, but added that he didn’t “expect that to ever happen.” He also told Posnanksi that this year was an “aberration.”

So there you have it. The processes in place for electing players to the Hall of Fame will not alter to fit the new (performance-enhanced) landscape. Maybe it shouldn’t. And maybe it’s fitting, considering how long baseball as a whole took to address the issue comprehensively.