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As Baseball Hall of Fame voting inches toward progress, more questions arise

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports
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Barry Bonds, who may be baseball's greatest hitter, is one source of much Hall handwringing. (Getty Images)

As one side seethed about the indignity of Greg Maddux failing to show up on 16 Hall of Fame ballots and another side bellowed about the shame of Dan Le Batard giving his vote to Deadspin readers and another wallowed in the misery of Craig Biggio falling two votes shy of induction and the entire operation reached levels of rage and fulmination and wrath that have turned sports debate today into the modern-day Cuyahoga, a conflagrant river of pollution, a harrowing fact fell to the background.

The man who may be the greatest hitter ever and the man who may be the greatest pitcher ever are going backward in their efforts to join the Hall in which they belong.

[Tim Brown: Simply put, there was no one like Greg Maddux]

In their second year on the ballot, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens lost ground, ticking back about 2 percentage points each. Clemens was named on 202 of 571 ballots, or 35.4 percent. Bonds received 198 votes, or 34.7 percent. As the New York Post's Joel Sherman noted, Bonds and Clemens' combined vote totals still would not exceed the 75 percent threshold for induction.

What should have been another day of joy – Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas all joining the Hall on their first ballot and making for a whopper of a celebration July 27 in Cooperstown, N.Y., with Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox – turned into what has become a January tradition: an orgy of bloviating, of trying to tear down the Baseball Writers' Association of America that handles the voting (misguided), of ballot-sniping those who make the process farcical by voting for Armando Benitez and Jacque Jones and J.T. Snow (eminently fair) and of suggesting that because a process spurs heated debate and rampant disagreement that the institution fostering it is thusly broken (wrong, too).

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Time could help the Hall case of Roger Clemens, who may be baseball's greatest pitcher. (USA TODAY Sports)

The only difference between the Hall of Fame voting now and the Hall of Fame voting of years past is that the Internet gave everyone a voice and democratized opinion, which comes with merits and demerits. For those capable of separating the intelligent commentary from the yelling – and that is part of any baseball writer's job today – that marketplace of ideas serves to better educate the electorate.

Because, hell yes, it's shameful that writers who demand openness from those they write about can hide behind some self-administered cloak of anonymity and cast votes with no merit. And you're damn right that if 50 percent of the 10-man ballots were stuffed and voters copped to wanting to vote for Biggio except he was No. 11, the process deserves – demands – to undergo a thorough vetting and reconsideration. There are problems in the voting, no question, and in his explanation at Deadspin, Le Batard did a poignant job at pointing them out and forcing the BBWAA to ask itself how to remedy them.

[Also: Tom Glavine wasn't flashy, but he was a sure-fire Hall of Famer ]

Is it right, for example, that he has a vote? Le Batard admitted he's not qualified to vote. Hundreds of others fall into the same category – and that's not an exaggeration. These are questions worth asking. Any organization that wants to legitimize its relevancy – and, sorry, but as long as the BBWAA not only handles the Hall of Fame votes but owns the MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards, it will be exceedingly relevant – will ask itself whether it is handling something of great import in the proper fashion.

Similarly, the question about Bonds, Clemens and other performance-enhancing-drug users must continue to be asked to those who don't vote for them as well as those who do. If a myriad of Hall of Famers used amphetamines, drugs now considered illegal by Major League Baseball and thought of by some players as even more performance enhancing than steroids, how can we pretend keeping out the modern-day users somehow sanctifies the Hall? If the difference between Bonds and Clemens and others from their era who weren't caught is as simple as the fact that their drug dealers were pinched by authorities, does the organization believe it's tantamount to a drug-sniffing dog, that it knows enough about those it is electing and their potential use to prevent a scenario in which a Hall of Famer later is found to have used and the guys with seven MVPs and seven Cy Youngs are left on the outside?

For all the hand-wringing about how their candidacies are essentially dead, let's remember that the BBWAA voting bloc isn't exactly full of Captain Consistencies. In his second year on the ballot, Bert Blyleven dipped from 17.5 percent to 14.1 percent. A dozen years later, he received 79.7 percent of the vote, having not thrown a single pitch. His greatest ally was time, and the same can be said for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

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Craig Biggio should, in theory, make the Hall of Fame next year. (AP Photo)

They have until 2027. That's 13 more years. Think about where we were 13 years ago. Bill James was a cult hero. "Moneyball" was two years from being released. The evolution of the game since then has been staggering, frightening, glorious. If the game grows half as much over the next 13 years, it will still be a monumental shift.

So after Biggio gets in next year along with Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and perhaps John Smoltz, and with the possibility of casting votes for more than 10 players a far greater possibility, writers no longer will be able to hide behind the stuffed ballot as a reason not to ask themselves whether they have better answers to the above questions than, "They were cheaters," which would be perfectly viable were the Hall of Fame, and baseball in general, not already littered with such fine folk.

The moment this changes might be next year, or the year after, when Mike Piazza finally reaches 75 percent. The steroid speculation around Piazza – based in rumor, unfounded in evidence – has not torpedoed his candidacy as much as delayed it. Piazza almost assuredly is getting in, and once he does, perhaps the fiercest of the steroid moralists will begin to soften in their stances. If for whatever reason they believe Piazza used, and Piazza is in, no longer is the Hall some hallowed ground to protect. It becomes what it should be: a monument to history, to the best players who played the game.

It will be a slow climb. Maybe 5 percent more one year, 7 percent another. Eventually, as with Blyleven, and as with others whose candidacies were backed by difficult-to-refute reasons, Bonds and Clemens will near 75 percent and we'll look back at this time as an important one in the history of Hall of Fame voting. The time when we asked ourselves what was important, and we answered resoundingly that it is the Hall of Fame, the players who deserve to be there and nothing else, not us, not the seethers and bellowers and not the fire that can be put out by doing the whole thing proper.

 

 

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