The Hall of Fame doesn’t always whiff

Saturday, the Hall of Fame announced the first signfiicant change to it’s BBWAA voting rules in some decades, with the eligibility period dropping from 15 years to just 10. A few thoughts about this momentous change …

1. Please don’t tell me the Hall of Fame is irrelevant. It’s Saturday morning in the middle of the summer and the Hall of Fame announces what is essentially a minor change in the voting protocols, and Twitter explodes. I’ll grant that the Hall of Fame might someday become irrelevant, but there are a lot of people with vested interests in preventing or delaying that eventuality. So I wouldn’t bet on irrelevance in our lifetimes. Or not mine, anyway.

2. It might literally be true that nobody’s “hurt” by the new voting rules.

We know that Don Mattingly, Alan Trammell, and Lee Smith won’t be hurt. They’ve been grandfathered and will remain on the ballot for the full 15 years. Granted, they’re not really helped by this, either; after all, they still won’t be elected. But the Hall of Fame is all about public relations, and ejecting this trio from the ballot would have been a p.r. disaster of the greatest magnitude.

3. Okay, so there probably are a few players who will be hurt some in the short term. In recent years, Bert Blyleven was elected in his 14th year on the ballot, Jim Rice in his 15th, Bruce Sutter in his 13th.

It’s difficult to guess which players currently on the ballot won’t be elected in 10 years, but would if given 15 years. I suppose the obvious possibilities are Tim Raines, who’s now got only three more tries. Fred McGriff and Edgar Martinez are down to five tries, Larry Walker and Jeff Bagwell six. But all the other great players who didn’t make it last year have eight or nine more tries. So we still have plenty of time to lobby for almost everybody.

4. It’s been said this is largely a ploy to get the steroids guys off the ballot sooner. Well, good! Has there been some public good served by having them on the ballot? They get the same support (i.e. not much) from the voters every year, and every year the same voters write the same columns explaining why they did or (mostly) didn’t vote for Bonds, Clemens, and the rest. It’s one thing to have a healthy and spirited debate, but all we’ve been getting is the spirit. It’s not healthy if nobody’s willing to change their minds, and it seems like 98 percent of the minds are made up, if not cast in steel-reinforced concrete.

5. If anything, this move helps the steroids guys. Clemens and Bonds simply have no chance now, and they seem to have little chance within their eligibility whether it’s 10 years or 15. What they “need” is a different sort of process … which is exactly what they’ll get after falling from the BBWAA ballot. It’s like Harold Ramis tells Seth Rogen about the pregnancy in Knocked Up: “This is a good thing.”

6. It’s good for everyone else on the ballots, too. In the case of some minority of voters, a vote for one candidate is not a vote for another. Because some voters JIM CAPLE will hit their maximum allotment every year. So a vote for Alan Trammell or Don Mattingly or Lee Smith is a vote that might otherwise have gone to a highly deserving candidate. Essentially, shortening the period of eligibility shortens the ballot, and shortening the ballot means the remaining candidates will have slightly better chances of getting elected. Which means slightly more Hall of Famers. Which is generally a good thing, since there’s now such a huge (and growing) backlog of worthy candidates.

7. Will the steroid guys ever get in? I believe they will. At some point, the Hall of Fame might come to seem irrelevant, terribly out of touch, if the best players from an entire era aren’t honored in the Hall. I believe that the crimes of that era will eventually be seen contextually, today’s overheated emotions largely drained from the conversation. At which point the Hall of Fame’s various committees will reverse the BBWAA’s collective decisions.

That will take quite some time. In that scenario, Clemens and Bonds might well be in their 60s or 70s before they’re fully contextualized. There is another possibility, though. If a few Hall of Famers elected by the BBWAA are discovered to have used forbidden fruits during the Steroid Era, the resistance to better players who used drugs might crumble away quickly, unable to support the weight of its own convoluted inconsistencies.

8. Oh, and another good thing: For the first time, the Hall is actually going to require every eligible voter to register, and the names of all voters will be revealed. No, it’s not full transparency. But it’s a great first step along the path that many of us have suggested over the years.

Institutions are, on the whole, concerned more with self-perpetuation and -aggrandizement than anything else. They don’t deserve our trust, because they’re neither trustworthy nor altruistic?

But there’s often a knee-jerk reaction to everything that public institutions do, as if they’re incapable of doing anything without generally negative consequences. Leaving aside motivations, though, institutions are perfectly capable of doing thing with positive consequences, even without meaning to.

That’s what this is. The Hall of Fame’s latest moves might be motivated by p.r. concerns and the desire to placate petty interest groups. But in the long run, these moves make the institution better tomorrow than yesterday.