Baseball Hall of Fame voting becoming as heated as our elections
January 17, 2017
Updated: January 17, 2017 7:00am
January 17, 2017
Updated: January 17, 2017 7:00am
Like most great baseball debates, the annual back and forth over Hall of Fame elections used to be fun. Friends would sit on barstools as the new year dawned and good-naturedly gibe one another over which players they believed were the best of the best and should be enshrined at Cooperstown, N.Y.
“There’s no joy in it anymore,” said Howard Bryant, a Massachusetts-based columnist for ESPN the Magazine who, for the first time in 10 years as an eligible voter, did not cast a ballot by the Dec. 31 deadline.
“I knew the day was coming where we were going to get into the heart of this, where pretty much everybody on the ballot played through this (steroid) era,” he said. “The entire ballot is going to be ’95 to the present, and I don’t want to play anymore.”
The National Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2017 will be announced Wednesday, ending another round of angst-ridden argument over whether players who tested positive for drugs — or were implicated through circumstantial evidence, or merely drew suspicion as their muscle mass and statistics grew — should be enshrined alongside the likes of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Willie Mays. The Hall’s rules for election include a somewhat nebulous clause instructing voters to consider “integrity, sportsmanship, character” along with playing ability and contributions to his teams.
At the heart of the debate are Giants great Barry Bonds and his pitching contemporary Roger Clemens. They have not been elected to the Hall, despite being the best hitter and pitcher of their era, because of their reputed abuse of performance-enhancing drugs. Both men have denied using PEDs.
This year’s debate was further roiled when a committee of writers, historians, executives and former players voted to enshrine recently retired Commissioner Bud Selig, who oversaw a huge rise in baseball’s popularity and revenues during the steroid era.
Selig’s election has caused many BBWAA writers to throw up their hands: If the man who oversaw the steroid era is in the Hall, they argue, why not the players? One is Peter Botte of the New York Daily News, who voted for Bonds and Clemens for the first time this year.
“It certainly seems disingenuous and hypocritical now,” Botte wrote, “to not open the doors or at least reconsider the candidacies of some of these lingering former stars of the game … after people who benefited from their transgressions — such as Selig and, let’s face it, a few big-name managers who wrote their names into their lineups with regularity — have been so enshrined.”
Many fans, players and others have argued that the electorate should be expanded beyond baseball writers, who have chosen each Hall of Fame class since the first in 1936. That’s a move the Hall has declined to make, but it’s hard to imagine the task becoming easier or less polarized no matter the makeup of the electorate.
For the 2017 election, 440 ballots were mailed to those who have been in the BBWAA for 10 or more years. Players who appear on at least 75 percent of the returned ballots are elected to the Hall.
Of the 34 former players eligible this year, three — outfielder Tim Raines, first baseman Jeff Bagwell and catcher Ivan Rodriguez — are expected to win enshrinement, based on their support among writers who have revealed their votes ahead of Wednesday’s announcement.
Two others, outfielder Vladimir Guerrero and relief pitcher Trevor Hoffman, appear to be on the bubble.
The most significant development this year has been skyrocketing support for Bonds and Clemens, who are each on the ballot for the fifth time. (Players must be retired for at least five seasons before becoming eligible for the Hall, and they have a 10-year window to be elected.)
In their first three years on the ballot, neither man surpassed 38 percent approval. Last year, though, support for both rose to about 45 percent, and it has soared to nearly 65 percent this year — a trend that suggests they could be elected as soon as next year.
One reason for the surge is an increasingly younger sportswriting electorate, including many who write strictly for online publications and place more weight on statistics and less on what they consider issues of “morality.”
According to bbhoftracker.com, a vote-tracking website run by Ryan Thibodaux, a 35-year-old baseball fan from Oakland, 11 of 12 first-time voters this year selected Bonds and Clemens.
Opinions on Selig and players suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs are so divided, BBWAA members are pilloried no matter what they do.
Ken Gurnick, a baseball-writing fixture in Los Angeles for decades, cast his last ballot in 2013. He said he would no longer vote because he refused to pick anyone who played during the steroid era.
Another longtime Bonds-Clemens opponent, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, was not moved by Selig’s election.
“The most ridiculous new narrative is that because this committee voted Bud Selig into the Hall of Fame, now we must vote in steroid users,” he wrote. “This is laughable on so many levels, starting with the concept of chucking your voting standards to adopt those of this committee.”
ESPN writer Bryant said Selig’s election was one reason he chose not to vote. He said he believes Major League Baseball wants to celebrate team executives and managers who exploited steroid users while letting writers do the “dirty work” of electing tainted players.
“And I don’t want to be used that way,” Bryant said.
Join the debate
The Chronicle’s baseball writers, including Henry Schulman, Susan Slusser and John Shea, will host a live discussion of their Hall of Fame ballots on Tuesday at 2 p.m. on The San Francisco Chronicle’s Facebook page.
The Hall of Fame ‘morality’ clause
Rule 5 of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s rules for election:
5. Voting: Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.