YSTL: Jeff Passan previews Wednesday's Hall of Fame vote
Programming note: For complete reaction to Wednesday's Hall of Fame vote tune into SportsNet Central at 7:30 and 10:30 and Yahoo! SportsTalk Live at 8:00, only on CSN Bay Area
SAN FRANCISCO -- I thought about it. Really, I did.
Spent more than a few seconds pondering it, too. In fact, for most of the time between receiving my Hall of Fame ballot in early December and sticking it in the mail slot a couple days before Christmas, I had made up my mind to do it.
I had every intention to NOT vote for Greg Maddux.
Reprehensible? Indefensible? Certifiable (in a mental health kind of way)?
How in the world could I justify not voting for perhaps the greatest, most accomplished right-handed pitcher currently drawing breath?
Rather easily, truth be told. It made total sense to me. Honest to God.
But first, at the risk of Comrade Ratto grabbing my hand and marching me to Home Depot, allow me to back up a bit and explain the unique challenge of this year’s voting process before revealing my actual selections:
Being a Hall of Fame voter is a privilege I take very seriously because no American sport reveres its history more than baseball and no Hall of Fame sparks more passion and emotion and debate.
This year, like many of the other ~600 voters, I did something I’d never done before. I voted for the maximum 10 names. And I would have voted for three or four more, if I could have.
Full-ballot syndrome suddenly exists because of the bulge created by steroid-era candidates like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens who would otherwise be first-ballot dunks. Some voters have made it clear they want all the cheaters kept out. Others … well, I’ll just refer you to Comrade Ratto’s brilliant point-by-point on Bonds and Clemens.
Either way, have your stance. It’s not as if a perfect and consistent rationale exists to wade through the mess baseball has left for us.
But here is what the resulting split of opinion has done: It has turned the Hall of Fame ballot into Stratego. You thought it was hard to come up with your own criteria that could be applied fairly to every steroid-era candidate? Well, it’s even harder now.
Last year, a record 22 percent of ballots came back with 10 names checked. That percentage was bound to soar this year. And here’s why the whole process is polluted as a result:
Imagine that you’re stepping into the voting booth at your local school or community center for a general election. You finish the big stuff and get down to the water utility board or Measure F or whatever. You didn’t have the time or interest to research it. You’d be throwing darts. So you just skip it, right? No problem. By not submitting a vote, you don’t affect who makes that utility board or whether Measure F passes. You’re just abstaining.
Stay with me a moment longer. Let’s say that Measure F needs 50 percent approval to pass. That’s 50 percent of all votes cast, right? Now imagine it worked a different way. Imagine it required 50 percent of all BALLOTS cast.
Now you begin to understand why a Hall of Fame ballot is different.
Whether a Hall voter checked one name or maxed out at 10 or even submitted a blank ballot, he or she still rendered a decision on each and every one of the 36 names on the list. Not voting for Barry Bonds is voting. Not voting for Todd Jones is voting. Not voting for anyone is voting.
You either contributed to a player reaching the 75 percent threshold or you held them back. Every name required a decision, an action. Or an inaction.
That’s why the 10-vote maximum needs to be rescinded. Last year, I voted for Larry Walker because, just barely, I determined that his career was compelling enough to clear the bar. This time I had to leave him off because he would have ranked as maybe the 14th best player on my ballot.
I used to support him. I still believe he is deserving. Now, by not voting for him, I’m essentially voting against him, and weighing down his already slim chances of getting in someday.
That’s just not right.
Similarly, I didn’t have space on my ballot for Mike Mussina or Jeff Kent, two first-year candidates who deserved better. I also very well might have voted for Hideo Nomo, who did not have the statistics one might associate with the Hall of Fame yet was a historic figure who did more than anyone in decades to internationalize the game and change the composition of every major league roster.
But the 10-vote limit got in the way of that, too. And if you think this is just a one-year blister, take a look at next year’s crop of first-year eligibles. It includes Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz – three pitchers who are reflexive Hall of Famers for me, at least.
Some members of the BBWAA believe the 10-ballot limit is just fine and there’s no reason to remove it. Most of them, I suspect, would call themselves “small hall” people and there’s nothing wrong with that. I respect their opinion that the Hall should be reserved for only the most exclusive – the best of the best of the best.
But having the bar set at 75 percent already ensures exactly that. Do you know how hard it is to get 75 percent of people to agree on anything?
And it’s not just fringe candidates who are hurt by the vote limit.
Jack Morris is a perfect example. He was on the ballot for the 15th and final time, and needed every bit of support to nudge up his 67.7 percent total from last year. But I know of at least one person, Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register, who went from a Morris voter to a non-voter this time. He wanted to check Morris’s name but deemed him not among his top 10 candidates. So he left him off – and because of that, he’ll essentially nullify three other ballots that have Morris on it. He wanted to vote for him. Instead, he damaged his chances.
Again, that’s just not right.
Now we get to Maddux, and the question that I asked myself as I began to construct my ballot.
It wasn’t, “Is he a Hall of Famer?” Instead, it was, “Does he really need my vote?”
Everyone knew Maddux would sail in at 95-plus percent, and probably finish as close to unanimous as any player in history. And I knew I wouldn’t have enough spots on my ballot to support all the candidates I deemed worthy. If I left off Maddux, that meant I could free up a place for a Walker or a Kent or Mussina.
The result would be no different for Maddux. He’d still get in, just maybe at something like 98.7 percent instead of 98.9. And while critics spend a lot of time wringing their hands over the sprinkling of voters who leave off a Rickey Henderson or a Cal Ripken or Nolan Ryan, all of that seems like a lot of wasted breath to me.
The way I see it, a player either clears 75 percent or he doesn’t. He’s in or he’s out. It’s not like the Hall displays plaques in descending order by vote percentage.
(There’s going to be a cacophony of outrage over the minuscule number of voters who didn’t check Maddux’s name, and the critics will say it makes a joke of the entire BBWAA. They might as well bemoan the 67,450 Americans who voted Roseanne Barr for president, and argue that they undermine our country’s entire democratic process.)
Leaving off Maddux would set me up for ridicule, I knew. I’d have two hands full of sore thumbs. And maybe, being honest with myself, the pressure to conform was a factor when I filled out my ballot.
But here was the bigger one: When it came time to check the actual boxes, I couldn’t just scroll past Maddux’s name. I couldn’t employ game theory with my ballot if it meant leaving off the absolute best pitcher of his time, and perhaps all time. I couldn’t drop the envelope into the mail knowing I did not vote for a player I recognized, as I admired and marveled over him throughout his career, as one of the all-time greats.
Maddux was more than the sum of his Cy Youngs and ERA titles. He was one of the game’s sharpest minds. He stood in the most precarious place on the field – alone, on a perfect circle of an island, just 60 feet and 6 inches away from the lion’s mouth, dueling against steroid-fueled hitters that were bigger and stronger and more fearsome than anything the game had ever seen. And he dominated them.
He did it without a 95 mph fastball or a 6-foot-8 physique or one of those farm-fed thick torsos with tree-trunk legs. He didn’t try to overpower hitters. He out-thought them. He bent pitches to his will, matched his stuff against a hitter’s swing path and found areas he could exploit, even if they were as small as a pencil eraser. He fooled the umpires, too. When a plate ump gave him a strike on the outside corner, he treated the zone like salt water taffy. He pulled and stretched it a little more. And he was so precise and so subtle at it, I’d imagine the umpires never realized what they were calling by the sixth and seventh innings.
He was David with a sling, and he could spot those stones anywhere he damn well wanted.
Once I covered a game that Maddux completed on something ridiculous, like 79 pitches. I made it over to the visiting clubhouse, hoping to gain any kind of insight into the strategy he employed on the mound. The other reporters had come and gone, so it was just us. I forget how I phrased the question, but I’ll never forget his answer:
“Just brain-dead heaving out there, man,” he said.
He looked up for an instant. His smile was sly and nonchalant. He knew I knew it was total B.S. He also knew I knew that I wasn’t going to get anything better.
Magicians never reveal their tricks, right?
I wish I could perform some trick that would allow me to vote for more than 10 players. Hopefully the BBWAA will approve a recommendation to remove the cap, and forward that recommendation to the Hall of Fame. At a national chapter meeting last month, despite some resistance, a committee was formed to study the matter.
Too late for this year’s ballot, however.
Ultimately, I voted for the three clear-cut Hall of Famers among the first-year candidates: Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas. And that meant of the eight names I checked last year, one of them had to go.
I kept Bonds and Clemens because they had elite careers regardless of steroid use, and I do not feel it’s my place to be the game’s moral police.
I kept Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza and Craig Biggio because, ignoring innuendo, their numbers stack up noticeably well with Hall of Famers at their positions.
It’s a shame Tim Raines’ credentials aren’t as noticeable to enough voters, because he’s one of the game’s all-time greatest leadoff hitters. There was no question Raines would stay on my ballot, too.
That left one spot, and I determined Edgar Martinez’s case to be the firmest. His statistics were better than Walker’s. His career made a deeper, more lasting impression. And he pulled a higher vote percentage than Walker last year (35.9 to 21.6), so he’s got more of a realistic shot at making it someday.
Regrettably, Walker did not receive my vote this time. Neither did Mussina or Kent, although I hope to support them in the future. I doubted I’d have that chance with Nomo, since he needed 5 percent to stay on the ballot. And I’ll stay open-minded when it comes to Curt Schilling, too, just as I’ve been for Jack Morris over the years. (I strongly considered Morris every year but couldn’t bring myself to vote for him.)
In the end, the Hall of Fame isn’t as important as a congressional race or maybe even Measure F. But I can guarantee you this: people will continue to be passionate about it. They will continue to debate and disagree and throw stinging criticism, some of it fair and reasonable. They will continue to care.
And I’ll continue to try to vote my conscience, not a stratagem.
Maybe next time, I’ll tell you I just brain-dead heaved it.
In-line images of Greg Maddux and Barry Bonds courtesy USATSI