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Hall Of Fame Voting: Pursuit Of Perfection

January 15, 2016

During the last couple of years, baseball's Hall of Fame has made a couple of significant changes to its voting process, so another tweak or two probably wouldn't hurt the process. In fact, it might help.

But here are two words of advice, or warning, for those who continue the quest to find the perfect system: Forget it.

It isn't going to happen in this lifetime -- or any that might follow. 

Two years ago, in an effort to unclutter a ballot clogged by candidates, justly or not, associated with performance-enhancing drugs, the Hall of Fame's board of directors decided to reduce a player's time on the ballot from 15 years to 10. It didn't immediately produce the desired weaning effect it will have in the future, and last year, an even more drastic move was made -- eliminating more than 100 veteran members from the Baseball Writers Association of America's roll of voters.

It wasn't enough to quell the annual uproar. 

Outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. is this year's poster boy for the latest cry for change. He was the one player eligible who was as close to automatic as it comes in this kind of election. Of the 440 votes cast, he got all but three -- a 99.3 percentage that is the highest ever recorded, breaking pitcher Tom Seaver's previous record of 98.4 percent.

But it was the three votes Griffey didn't get that caused most of the ensuing furor. If everyone agrees Griffey was way over the top, the best candidate presented, comparable to any of those who preceded him, how could three conscientious voters cast a negative ballot? Why wasn't he a unanimous choice?

Those who ask those questions are not satisfied with the explanation that it's never happened before and isn't likely to happen in the future. That reasoning, they say, isn't good enough, and they are right. 

But the fact that it hasn't produced perfection doesn't make it a bad system, simply one that isn't without flaws. To be elected into the Hall of Fame, you need 75 percent of the total ballots. 

This year, there were 440 ballots, so a player needed to appear on 330 ballots to make the Hall. Each voter got to pick a maximum of 10 players.

Poll 100 people, and you'd have a difficult time getting 75 to agree that next month is March, let alone who is, or isn't, worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame. I don't understand why three wouldn't have voted for Griffey, but I suspect we'll probably find out they are among those avowed not to vote for anybody from the steroid era. If so, so be it. There are more important issues to worry about.

Even though the BBWAA has elected 12 members during the last three years, the ballot remains cramped because of the divide among voters about players accused or suspected of having used PEDs. That has made the 10 maximum limit on the number of players who can be checked off a problem for many voters. 

The irony here is the number of voters who used all 10 spots historically has been low until the last couple of years. Now, many of those voters are clamoring they don't have enough room for all of their candidates. The BBWAA petitioned the Hall of Fame last year to expand the ballot -- many members pushed for one that was completely open, but compromised with a request to add two spots, allowing a total of 12.

That request was denied, keeping the limit at 10, a decision that led ESPN's Buster Olney, a former baseball writer for The Baltimore Sun, to withdraw from the process until it was changed. His reasoning was he could help four players (including former Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina) he didn't have room for on his ballot by abstaining.

I don't agree with that philosophy, because in effect, Buster chose to hurt his top 10 choices rather than hurt the four players he couldn't fit on the ballot. But at least he showed his passion for the process, which is more than I can say for Dan Le Batard, a former Miami writer who now has an afternoon gig on ESPN. He surrendered his ballot (forever removing himself from the voting process) last year to a web-based outfit, which turned it over to a fan vote, which I suspect did a better job than he would have done.

I don't know Le Batard, but in the 35 years that I've participated in the Hall of Fame process, I've never met a voting member who didn't consider the HOF vote the BBWAA's most precious responsibility. Some found humor in Le Batard's stunt, but to me, it was the worst kind of professional betrayal.

I've known some members who have relinquished their vote out of respect to the game and the Hall of Fame because they felt they no longer were close enough to participate. Last year, many honorary members retired from active writing were dropped. Some day that will happen to me, but I'm not ready to give up on the process as long as I feel qualified and meet whatever guidelines the HOF might establish. 

I would like to see an expanded ballot -- it would help satisfy those who believe if you can't vote for somebody the first year of eligibility, it should be "one and done." I don't necessarily subscribe to that theory, but it would be a step to satisfy those who think it shouldn't take more than one year to determine if someone qualifies.

There's a very important point I think needs to be made here. It has become fashionable, especially on the network shows that feed off the continuing controversy, to refer to the Hall of Fame by saying "it's only a museum." That's a ridiculous assertion -- the building in Cooperstown, N.Y., might be a museum; the Hall of Fame is arguably the most prestigious fraternity in existence. They don't call it the 1 percent club for nothing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit to being among the voters perplexed by the PED issue. Early on, I voted for first basemen Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire under the logical theory, at least for me, that if they were on the ballot, they were eligible, and it was up to me to determine if their numbers outweighed other considerations.

I have abstained from voting for outfielder Barry Bonds and pitcher Roger Clemens, at least somewhat influenced by the known feelings of many Hall of Famers, partly because of the ballot issue, but I admit to being torn by the fact that I'm among those caught in the middle of a dilemma not of our making. Being able to fill 10 spots without including either of the two otherwise "slam dunk" candidates has made the decision easier.

But it's not easy for a good reason -- it's not supposed to be. I've heard all of the complaints about the system being broken, that it's not working and needs to be changed. But that's as far as anybody can go, again for good reason. 

The search for perfection is as futile as it is never ending.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.

Issue 217: January 2016