In a week, on Jan. 9, the Hall of Fame will announce its newest inductees. We can predict one thing: Few people will make it in, so the logjam of deserving players will only get longer. The Hall is a nebulous institution, and no two people have quite the same understanding of who qualifies, which means it’s awfully hard for any candidate to get the minimum 75% of required ballots needed for entry.
But some voters are having so much trouble making up their minds they’ve decided not to vote at all — in particular, ESPN’s T.J. Quinn and the Cincinnati Enquirer’s John Fay — which means the denominator is getting smaller. Though not by much.
The list of Hall of Fame voters is already relatively small, compared to the overall number of people who write about baseball. Only people who have been members of the BBWAA for 10 years qualify to vote. The BBWAA is an ancient organization, as these things go: It was founded in 1908, during the fifth World Series, and it has always been a newspaper-centric organization. So there’s a serious generation gap when it comes to the people who vote on baseball and the people who write about it on the internet.
But the aged don’t age out. Retirement is voluntary. As Jack O’Connell, the BBWAA’s secretary-treasurer, told David Laurila two years ago:
Every year, I get back about half a dozen ballots that are not filled out, and on the bottom the person has written, ”Take me off the list; I’m no longer qualified to vote.” … A few years ago, an older guy told me that the ballot that showed up included a bunch of guys that he hadn’t covered, so he didn’t feel qualified to vote. So there is self-policing that goes on.
Some writers may indeed police themselves. But we can all think of at least one aging sportswriter on the newspaper that we grew up with who stayed on for far too long. Quinn and Fay are clearly policing themselves here. Fay says, “I feel woefully unqualified to judge the `integrity, sportsmanship and character’ of players in the steroid era.” And Quinn says, “I haven’t covered games on a regular basis since 2002. Too many eligible voters like me have been away from the game for too long, and I think we undermine the integrity of the process.”
That’s certainly a more honorable stance than turning in a blank ballot and penalizing everyone. Everyone had to vote by New Year’s Eve, as Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch notes:
Almost 600 voters are expected to submit their response by Tuesday. Others will abstain from voting as protest over an issue they don’t feel comfortable deciding. Still others will submit a blank ballot, penalizing all candidates clean or dirty because of the gray area they believe makes the two sides indistinguishable.
One of those blank ballot returners was Mark Faller, of the Arizona Republic, who’s making a protest by not filling out a ballot. As Strauss points out, he doesn’t have to: he could just refuse to return it in. Faller says he’s doing it to protest the fact baseball was silent for so long about steroids. So he’s hurting deserving Hall candidates because he wants to draw attention.
It seems likely that this year, a number of writers will choose to protest the Steroid Era by means of their ballot. Dale Murphy and his children have expressed their hope he will receive some protest votes. I sympathize, but I actually think there is a serious case to be made for Murphy (as Mac Thomason has done) and I wish they would have left off the self-righteous politicking.
Of course, there are real questions when it comes to the ballot. There are PED users in the Hall, from Pud Galvin (who used the “Elixir of Brown-Sequard“) to Willie Mays, who took amphetamines, like most every other player over the past 60 years.
Perhaps steroids are different from other forms of cheating. As Quinn writes, “A player who used banned drugs did not simply disgrace himself, he altered himself.” Steroids allow the production of muscle tissue that would not be generated without its use: They literally can help a player change the size and shape of his body. The true on-field effect of steroids is unknown, but a player on speed looks different than a player on anabolic steroids, and I can understand why a writer might choose to treat them differently.
Ultimately any Hall of Fame vote comes down to just two questions: What are the criteria by which a player merits inclusion in the Hall of Fame, and does this player meet or exceed those criteria? Everything about a player, including evidence or admission of steroid use, should be used in answering those questions. If a writer is unable to determine how to answer those two questions, then he or she should ask to be taken off the list. Inability to determine the criteria for election for the Hall of Fame should obviously disqualify one from voting for the Hall of Fame.
Certainly, this election is just one more point in a long series of moralizing silliness on the part of baseball writers, many of whom refused to ask questions about steroids during the Steroid Era and then discovered their sanctimony only after the fact.
There were writers who acknowledged steroid use at the time, including Quinn. But many more just hyped the cartoon character notion of musclemen hitting homers like never before, and then turned on them almost as soon as Jose Canseco wrote Juiced. Those writers will never be able to write rationally about steroids because they were complicit in hyping the Steroid Era. To attempt to develop rational criteria — criteria by which Barry Bonds is a Hall of Famer but Gary Sheffield, say, is not — would admit the irrationality of what they’ve written for the past 10 years.
It may be too much to ask baseball writers to be rational. If they were, then we never would have had FireJoeMorgan. But we should never stop asking. Every baseball writer who can’t figure out how to think rationally about steroids should voluntarily give up their Hall of Fame vote. Because they don’t deserve to vote if they can’t think rationally.