It happens every winter. An overstuffed, unwieldy collection of voters, some much more qualified and conscientious than others, holds an election to bestow the highest honor of a cherished American institution. It is a secretive process in a world that, more and more, craves transparency.
It is, of course, the Oscars, voted on by nearly 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. What, you were expecting this to be about the Baseball Hall of Fame?
The Hall of Fame is yet another example of the higher standard baseball must meet with the public. Nobody seems to complain much about the integrity of the Academy Awards process, which has a voting body roughly 10 times the size of the group that guards the doors of Cooperstown. Hundreds more vote for the Heisman Trophy than the Baseball Hall of Fame, but, again, nobody seems to mind.
The steroids issue also seems much more troubling to those who care about the Baseball Hall of Fame than to those who care about its professional football counterpart. Mike Webster, center for the fabled Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s who died in 2002, was a steroids user. Yet he has a bust in Canton, Ohio - as do many other steroid users, it is safe to assume - and yet somehow, the building still stands.
None of this is meant to excuse the miscreants who warped baseball’s records by cheating. Neither is it meant to rationalize the flaws in the Hall of Fame voting process. But it bears mentioning, for context, as baseball again confronts issues that do not drag down other popular forms of entertainment.
This is baseball, after all, and while it is fun and games, it is also serious business. Its historical underpinnings are a source of strength and, at times, a burden. That is why, this week, we will celebrate the election of some, but not all, of the best players in recent memory to the Hall of Fame.
Nobody has as many Most Valuable Player awards as Barry Bonds. Nobody has as many Cy Young Awards as Roger Clemens. In their second appearance on the ballot, neither will come close to enshrinement because of his ties to steroids. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and probably Frank Thomas, all decorated performers with no connection to performance-enhancing drugs, should make it on their first try.
Bonds and Clemens have been somewhat vindicated, officially, through the legal system.
But so were the 1919 Chicago White Sox, eight of whom were barred for life anyway by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Bonds and Clemens never served a suspension and are, as the saying goes, members in good standing with Major League Baseball.
The voting members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, however, gave Bonds and Clemens little support last winter. Clemens got just 37.6 percent of the vote and Bonds 36.2 percent, with 75 percent needed for election. Others with strong ties to steroids fared worse: Mark McGwire (16.9 percent), Sammy Sosa (12.5) and Rafael Palmeiro (8.8). A candidate must receive at least 5 percent to remain on the ballot.
Voters are asked to consider integrity, sportsmanship and character, among other virtues, when filling out their ballots. But those seeking further clarity from MLB or the Hall of Fame on steroid-era candidates are unlikely to get it.
The only official guidance is the 1991 rule, put in place just before Pete Rose could appear on the ballot, that says any person on baseball’s permanently ineligible list is also ineligible for the Hall of Fame. Baseball’s rule on steroids is that a player must flunk three tests to be declared permanently ineligible. Nobody has been willful or foolish enough to do so.
All 36 candidates on the current ballot played in the era before steroid testing, and even the tests are not a foolproof way to catch all the cheaters. We will never have all the evidence about who did what drugs, and how much they affected the game. This uncertainty, and the presence of some players who are presumed guilty of steroid use without a tangible link, has created a backlog of strong candidates.
Employees of The New York Times are spared this thorny decision by an editorial policy that says writers should report the news, not make it. But we still have opinions, and as a 17-year member of the BBWAA and the current chairman of the New York chapter, I have argued at national meetings for the elimination of the rule that limits voters to 10 selections.
Last year, 22 percent of voters filled out all 10 spaces on their ballot. Nobody was inducted, so nearly all the candidates rolled over to this ballot. So if the voters who picked 10 last year wanted to vote this time for newcomers like Maddux, Glavine, Thomas, Mike Mussina and Jeff Kent, some candidates would have to fall off their ballots.
This is clearly unfair to the candidates, who could be considered worthy of the game’s highest honor in one election but not the next, simply because of a rule that serves no purpose.
The ballot does not ask voters to rank candidates, as the annual award ballots do. The only question that matters for each candidate is, “Yes or No?” The 10-man limit is a contradiction.
The BBWAA voted last month to form a committee to study that issue and, perhaps, other elements of the voting process. The Hall of Fame would need to approve any recommendations from the writers, but excising the voting limit would be a logical improvement to a complicated but critical process that still matters greatly to so many.