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Four theories about the Hall of Fame voting changes

Jul 27, 2014, 12:20 PM EDT

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So I have three – no, wait, just thought of another one, so four – theories about the Baseball Hall of Fame’s decision to reduce the time a player can spend on the ballot from 15 years to 10. I am not opposed to this rule, by the way. I have long thought 15 years was too long for a player to be on the ballot. And I am absolutely for some changes in the Hall of Fame process.

But the Hall of Fame isn’t changing the rule now based on my idle thinking. They are sending a message.

The question is: What is the message?

Before offering my four theories on the message, let’s review. For many years now, the Hall of Fame balloting process has been like so: A 10-year Major League veteran is eligible to go on the Hall of Fame ballot five years after retirement. The ballot is then voted on by the Baseball Writers Association of America, which is one of the oldest sports writing groups in America. The BBWAA is, in theory, comprised of writers who covered Major League Baseball for at least 10 years. It is, in practice, a bit more unwieldy. We’ll get back to that later.

Anyway, the BBWAA is independent of the Hall of Fame itself. If a player gets 75% of the BBWAA vote, he is elected into the Hall. If the player doesn’t get elected but gets at least 5% of the vote, he will be retained on the ballot next year – this process lasting up to 15 years. Now, a player cannot be on the ballot more than 10 years.

Here is a list of players who made the ballot AFTER their 10th year:

Bert Blyleven (2011, 14th year)

Jim Rice (2009, 15th year)

Bruce Sutter (2006, 13th year)

Duke Snider (1980, 11th year)

Bob Lemon (1976, 12th year)

Ralph Kiner (1975, 13th year)

Dazzy Vance (1955, 16th year)

Gabby Hartnett (1955, 12th year)

Rabbit Maranville (1954, 14th year)

Bill Terry (1954, 14th year)

Harry Heilmann (1952, 12th year)

What would the Hall of Fame be like without those players? I actually think the question is moot because (1) If the limit was 10 years instead of 15, there’s a pretty good chance that all those players would have gained ground in the voting more quickly and (2) I’m convinced that all of those players would have been elected into the Hall of Fame eventually by one of the Hall of Fame’s countless veteran’s committees.

Now to the theories: Why did the Hall of Fame reduce the years a player can be on the ballot?

Theory 1: Because they don’t want performance enhancing drug users in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Well, this is the one that immediately jumps to the surface: The Hall of Fame leadership has been very coy about the steroid question, tending to hide behind the BBWAA’s staunch and literal reading of the character clause. I have suspected for a while that deep down Hall of Fame management agrees with this staunch and literal reading and does not want known steroid users in its plaque room.

Why not? A couple of reasons. First, much of the Hall of Fame’s mission revolves around a good relationship with its alumni. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Getting elected to the Hall greatly enhances a player’s value as a speaker, as an autograph signer, a fantasy camper and so on. At the same time, the Hall of Fame needs Hall of Famers to come to Cooperstown (and other places) for Hall of Fame events to help keep the Hall vibrant and alive. I think the directors know that the vast majority of living Hall of Famers do not want steroids users in their club.

Second is the embarrassment factor. The last time the Hall of Fame changed a voting rule was 1991, and that was to make sure that no player on baseball’s permanently ineligible list (see: Rose, Pete) should be included on the Hall of Fame ballot. Some in the BBWAA moaned but the Hall acted because even the slight chance of having Rose elected to the Hall was an embarrassment the Hall of Fame could not afford. The Hall of Fame has a close relationship with MLB, but it is a separate entity – the last thing they wanted to do was infuriate the commissioner and other baseball leaders by inducting Pete Rose just after baseball had spent so much effort banning him.

And even beyond that, I think the Hall of Fame saw a Hall of Fame ceremony surrounding Pete Rose as a potential public relations disaster. I suspect many at the Hall see a ceremony surrounding Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds the same way.

By reducing the limit from 15 to 10 years, they are basically eliminating any possibility of players like Mark McGwire (entering his 9th year on the ballot) being elected, and they are SIGNIFICANTLY reducing the chances for players like Bonds and Clemens (each entering their third years). Their only hope, slight as it was, came with time, a decade or more, and voters easing their views on PED use. It wasn’t likely to happen in the dozen or so years they had left. It almost certainly won’t happen now with five fewer years.

But to be honest, I don’t think the steroid users were a prime consideration here. The Hall leadership may not want Bonds or Clemens elected, but it never really looked like they would be anyway. And I don’t think the Hall of Fame directors are manipulative in this way. I’m sure they’re not weeping for Bonds or Clemens, but I don’t believe that was the impetus here.

Theory 2: The Baseball Hall of Fame wants to maintain exclusivity.

This was the instant theory of Graham Womack, among others – that the Hall of Fame is simply making a small adjustment to make sure that the Baseball Hall of Fame stays the most exclusive in all of American sports. There is some credence to this theory because the Hall of Fame made a weird decision to grandfather in Don Mattingly (entering his 15th year), Alan Trammell (14th) and Lee Smith (13th) – none of whom are likely to come close to election — while not making any concessions for players like Tim Raines (8th year), who has been making steady gains.

Raines seems to be the biggest loser in this decision. He has been building momentum and you could see a path for him to the Hall of Fame, but probably not in the next three years. The ballot is already stacked and it is about it add Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz, then Ken Griffey, then Manny Ramirez and Ivan Rodriguez. Raines was always going to get buried the next three years. His hope was to weather the storm and emerge after his 10th year. Now, he won’t have that chance, and that’s a shame.

But, again, I have to say I don’t put much stock in this theory, again for two reasons:

1. I don’t think the Hall of Fame directors are concerned about the Hall of Fame becoming overcrowded (PED use aside). My sense in talking with people who have intimate knowledge about the Hall is that, if anything, the Hall of Fame would like to add MORE players from the last 40 or so years. I know that many in the Hall were very disappointed that Jack Morris, for example, was not elected. I think the Hall would be thrilled if Tim Raines was elected.

2. As you will see in my concluding theory, I believe the Hall of Fame wants to use those five years to elect MORE players, not fewer.

Theory 3: The Hall of Fame wants to clean up some of the BBWAA untidiness.

Now, we are getting to the point. In addition to the 15-to-10-year rule change, the Hall of Fame also announced a couple of smaller changes. They announced that Hall of Fame voters will have to fill out a registration form and sign a code of conduct. This, I must say, is LONG overdue. They also announced that the names of the voters will be released to the public, though the individual ballots will not. This too is a good decision — I would be for releasing everything but I understand the arguments.

I’m going to write a bit from here on out about the BBWAA – this is the very definition of inside baseball talk – and I should begin by saying that I’m a member, and that overall I have very good feelings about the group. There are problems, sure, and the BBWAA is obviously in transition right now. That said, I think the vast majority of BBWAA members take their Hall of Fame vote very seriously and together have gotten most of their votes right. The Baseball Hall of Fame is probably the most respected and talked about Hall of Fame in American sports, and I think the BBWAA has been a big reason why.

And now for the rest … the BBWAA has had its share of embarrassments recently. There was the Dan Le Batard Deadspin ballot and how that whole thing was mishandled. There are several BBWAA voters who are clearly not qualified.

And then there are the times. The BBWAA began as an organization that fought for the rights of baseball writers – this in a time when baseball was the biggest sport in America, and every big league city had several newspapers covering the teams. The BBWAA was there to fight for access, for adequate working conditions, for professionalism in the press box. When the Hall of Fame sprung up as an idea, the BBWAA was not only the best organization to choose the most worthy players it was the ONLY organization. There was no television. Radio was just beginning.

Now? Well, I don’t need to tell you what has happened and what is happening to newspapers. The Internet dominates the landscape. The biggest baseball covering entity in the world, by far, is MLB.com (whose members are not allowed in the BBWAA except when grandfathered in). Even the very act of sports writing is changing – baseball writers are, almost without exception, asked to mix their writing with some blend of video and radio and social media. It becomes harder and harder to tell the difference between so-called writers and so-called broadcasters. And yet the BBWAA never has included broadcasters. It has only recently included non-newspaper writers. At no point have baseball people like Bob Costas, Bill James, Vin Scully or Dan Shulman, among countless others, voted for the Hall of Fame.

It grows harder and harder to explain why.

I think the Hall of Fame would like to tighten up the BBWAA process. The 15-year process has always been clunky. And it’s even harder in today’s world, where everything moves so fast and everything is so magnified. We in the BBWAA spend way too much time arguing about players and leaving them in limbo. And I say that knowing full well that I’m a huge part of the problem. The last five years of the Jack Morris debate became unseemly, and I probably contributed to that more than anyone. I don’t dislike Jack Morris; I just believe that he falls a touch short of the Hall of Fame line. That should have been an easy line to draw. But when you argue that point again and again every year, that line gets blurred. Ten years is plenty. If anything it is too long.

But, I don’t think it stops here. I have one more theory.

Theory 4: The Hall of Fame is setting up for some major changes.

A few years ago, the Hall of Fame created a Special Committee on the Negro Leagues for the purpose of researching black baseball before 1960 and creating a book and an exhibit. It was a noble thing. As part of the process, a screening committee created a 29-person Negro Leagues Hall of Fame ballot made up of players, managers, owners, contributors. The ballot was then voted on by a 12-person voting committee. The voting committee, as far as I’ve been told, had no restrictions – they were free to vote all 29 people if they chose.

They chose to vote in 17 of them – a huge number of people to put into the Hall of Fame at once. But, even in the deluge, they did not vote in the two most prominent people (and the only two living members) on the ballot, Buck O’Neil and Minnie Miñoso. The exclusion of Buck was particularly outrageous because he was such a beloved figure and because – I have been told this by people who would know – getting Buck O’Neil into the Hall of Fame was the biggest reason the Hall of Fame had created these committees and set up this vote in the first place.

When it became clear that voting for Buck was not going well, former commissioner Fay Vincent, who was serving as non-voting chair of the committee, gave an impassioned plea to reconsider. Impassioned but ineffective. Buck still fell short. I’ve heard a hundred reasons for it, none which make much sense to me. But the point is not to rehash Buck’s vote but to point out this: The people at the Hall of Fame felt utterly impotent. This committee they had put together to celebrate baseball had, instead, given them 17 new Hall of Famers almost nobody knew and snubbed the two people fans not only knew but cared about deeply. The announcement came off terribly, and the induction ceremony was a dreary afterthought except for the singing of Buck O’Neil, who graciously agreed to speak on behalf of the Hall of Famers.

Since then the Hall of Fame has put a statue of Buck O’Neil in a place of honor at the museum and created the Buck O’Neil Award, given to those who, like Buck, gave their life to the game.

And I think the Hall of Fame leadership learned a hard lesson: Museum or not, you can’t just give up complete control of your own business.

The Hall of Fame has mostly allowed the BBWAA to do its work with little interference (the Pete Rose thing aside). But they have always kept some control. From the start, the Hall of Fame took responsibility for electing 19th Century players. And, through the years, the Hall of Fame created various veteran’s committees and Negro Leagues committees to put in players overlooked or never voted on by the BBWAA.

And now, I think they want to wrest more control back. By taking away five years of the BBWAA’s voting, the Hall can have their own committees consider players five years sooner. This is why I’m not sure the Tim Raines news is bad – the BBWAA might have voted in Raines by his 15th year but, then again, they might not have. I think Raines’ Hall of Fame fate – like Jack Morris’ – might be better off in the hands of the Hall of Fame and whatever committees they put together.

The Hall of Fame sees what’s happening. They see the world changing. They understand the BBWAA is evolving, baseball coverage is evolving, the idea of baseball credibility (which the BBWAA always provided) is evolving too. The BBWAA will become a very different organization over the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years. I’m not saying the Hall of Fame wants to break their relationship with the BBWAA; I don’t believe that. I think the Hall of Fame very much likes its relationship with the BBWAA. But I do think they see changes coming and want to give themselves options. They have to position themselves for the future.

So, this is my theory: The Baseball Hall of Fame is making some smallish changes now to set itself up for bigger changes soon. I’m sure they would deny this, and I would bet even they don’t know what those changes are. But they’re coming. I think in 10 years, the Hall of Fame will have a more open Hall of Fame voting policy that the BBWAA will have a part in but will not control entirely.

In case anyone cares about what the Hall of Fame voting process could look like, I had some ideas here.

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