It’s never been tougher to vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Yes, the Steroid Era is a large, pimply, ornery reason why, and everyone seems to have an opinion on what the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ought to do about it.
Some want to bar the doors of Cooperstown. Some are comfortable enshrining even the most blatant performance-enhancing drug users without preconditions. And some expect the BBWAA to come up with an authoritative whodunit list of steroid cheats, even though such information is known only to scribes in the celestial press box.
In this unenviable position, the BBWAA needs help. The most logical — and most necessary — step is to remove the prohibition on voting for more than 10 players, beginning with the 2013-2014 voting cycle.
The BBWAA never will have all the answers when it comes to PED use among Hall candidates. For all we know, a past steroid cheat has been enshrined already or will receive his ticket to Cooperstown when the 2013 results are announced Wednesday. But at a time when BBWAA members are expected to serve concurrently as talent evaluators, private investigators and morality policemen, they should be afforded two luxuries — time and flexibility.
Here’s what that means: Hall of Fame electors — BBWAA members with at least 10 years of consecutive service — are instructed to vote for between zero and 10 players on each ballot. A candidate needs support from 75 percent of the voters to be elected. (Disclosure: I’m a BBWAA member but don’t have enough tenure to vote for the Hall.)
The 10-player provision has been in place since the first election in 1936, when the majors included only 16 teams. This was more than a decade before Jackie Robinson courageously broke baseball’s color barrier, greatly expanding and diversifying the sport’s talent pool.
Today, the majors include roughly twice as many teams — and nearly 30 percent of players on Opening Day rosters last year were born outside the United States. The game has more great talents from more places around the globe. Yet the limit on every Hall ballot has remained the same. Rather than grow incrementally in a way that maintains the same exclusivity, the 10-player cap makes it harder for contemporary players to gain entry.
That, in fact, has nothing to do with steroid use. It’s a simple matter of scale.
PEDs enter into play when we consider the evolution of voters’ thinking. Of course, the actual criteria, set forth by the Hall of Fame, remain unchanged: “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.” The BBWAA isn’t easily convinced, enshrining more than two players in a year only once during the past two decades. But now it seems successful candidates must check three boxes.
• Outstanding statistics, particularly in the realm of relative player value (WAR, OPS+, ERA+), to please the growing number of statistically minded voters.
• A compelling narrative — "The best such-and-such of his era" — and sufficient old-timey measures of career achievement (MVPs, All-Star appearances, round numbers of hits or wins).
• No firm evidence of steroid use.
How difficult is it to pull off the hat trick? We’re about to find out. As my colleague Ken Rosenthal wrote earlier this week, there’s a chance no one will be voted in Wednesday. And if that happens, it may be because Jack Morris or Craig Biggio or Jeff Bagwell — worthy candidates, albeit for different reasons — were the mythical No. 11 on a number of ballots.
The electoral vise tightened with the debuts of Biggio, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza and Curt Schilling in the current cycle. The 10-man limit will be even more cumbersome next year, with the arrivals of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina and Jeff Kent. Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Gary Sheffield follow the year after that.
ESPN’s insightful Jim Caple deserves credit for identifying this crunch years ago and calling for the elimination of the 10-man maximum. Regardless of Wednesday’s result, officials from the Hall of Fame and BBWAA should discuss and ratify that very rule change. (The Hall’s Board of Directors has ultimate oversight of the selection process.)
And if the ballot instructions remain untouched? Well, we can expect unjustifiably stagnant vote totals for many returning candidates. That much will be evident from Wednesday’s results. Morris (66.7 percent), Bagwell (56.0), Lee Smith (50.6), Tim Raines (48.7), Alan Trammell (36.8), and Edgar Martinez (36.5) were supported by at least a third of last year’s electorate, but how can they move upward during a year in which first-timers may occupy half the spots on many ballots?
Morris, in particular, could become the Sisyphus of Cooperstown. His vote total has climbed achingly close to the 75-percent summit. This year, some observers believe it could actually slide backward. And if Morris doesn’t make it Wednesday, he will be down to his 15th and final try next year — when he may not have much of a chance unless the rules are changed.
An expanded ballot wouldn’t ensure Morris’ election. But it would give him — and all players — a fair chance to let their careers be judged on their own merits, rather than against an arbitrary limit set nearly 80 years ago. The greater flexibility also would allow the BBWAA to keep credible candidates on the ballot — which requires a minimum 5 percent — while we gain more (but not complete) perspective on the Steroid Era.
The job of Hall of Fame voters is hard enough. With a little more room to work, they have a better chance to get it right.