Anybody who suggests the Baseball Hall of Fame is irrelevant doesn't understand one prevailing truth about the sport: its history is more important than its present. Baseball treats its history as a sacred bauble, which, until recently, it hasn't tried to rinse, wash or scrub. Its darkest moments are some of its most famous. The sport is evermore human because the Black Sox succumbed to greed and threw the World Series, because the segregationists won until they could no longer bottle up social change, because the Hit King was a flawed man who couldn't overcome a gambling addiction. Baseball is all of us.
Much of its history is in the hands of writers given the imposing task of judging it, and the latest Hall election, in which not one of perhaps a dozen worthy players reached the 75 percent threshold for induction, didn't as much prove their failure as it did a reckoning.
This wasn't just a referendum on steroids. It was one on the writers and their failure to recognize as long as they want the privilege of creating history, they must in doing so protect the worthy institution that finds them fit for the task. And considering the backlash following Wednesday's revelation that it wasn't just Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens who didn't pass muster but Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and so many others, the 10-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America with Hall of Fame votes seem not to care about the damage they're doing.
The Hall of Fame is still relevant, yes. The active effort of so many to sanitize it, however, by imposing retroactive justice is misguided. Every vote that tries to parse a reality no one – not writers, not fans, not even the players themselves – can ever fully understand harms the ultimate mission of the Hall of Fame, which is to celebrate baseball's best, whether they're good, bad or, in this case, ugly.
As long as the vote is in the writers' hands, they are duty bound to induct the best players. Doing so with a three-quarters vote should prove difficult, lest the Hall turn into any more of a watered-down version than it already has thanks mostly to the backslapping Veterans Committee. At the same time, all writers must understand – and perhaps it is the Hall's charge in the coming years to remind them as much – that this vote is about the player and his merits, not the moralistic preening of people who have been told to commingle something evident and measurable (performance) with something so subjective (character).
It's why the character clause is such a farce, something the Hall should remove immediately to keep writers from using it as a trap door to a real discussion about performance-enhancing drugs and in what context they belong in Cooperstown. It goes without saying: Of course the Hall would prefer to induct players with "integrity, sportsmanship, character." That clause didn't stop racists, bigots, jackasses, misers, criminals and a wide assortment of otherwise unsavory people from induction, and the Hall's halls seem no less gilded now than before.
The character clause is like so many other things written more than 70 years ago: well-intentioned but positively archaic in 2013. Our baseball players are no longer heroes but take-the-good-with-the-bad humans like all of us. The character clause was put in place as an idealistic nod to what was supposed to be a gentleman's game. Anybody who thinks he or she can accurately apply it to these ballplayers we don't know need only look at Kirby Puckett, media darling and, it was later alleged, wife beater.
Similarly, the electorate does not know who did and who did not take steroids – or whether a pitcher gave up home runs to PED-aided hitters or if a hitter struckout to a juiced-up pitcher. From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, the game operated in a haze of drugs that corrupted what we knew about the sport. If the amphetamines that amped up players from the World War II era buoyed the game, the PEDs bastardized it.
[Related: Ken Burns wants PED-era players to suffer]
Still, the idea that the media used Wednesday's election as some sort of revenge for the criticism it took on failing to report rampant steroid use is absurd. There is no perfect voting bloc for the Hall of Fame, but the media is the least of all evils. The original idea in 1936 was to give the most impartial entity the opportunity, and the writers qualified better than management, players and others involved in the game, whose biases would contaminate the necessary objectivity.
All media members have their favorites, sure, though the best of us base those on performance rather than the sorts of intangibles that inexorably cloud good judgment. And the idea that the writers and only the writers should receive this charge, without the inclusion of well-qualified broadcasters, historians, sabermetricians and others who would make for a far better-educated electorate, is pure stubbornness. As a BBWAA member who gets a Hall of Fame vote next year, I have no problem saying this: We shouldn't wait for the Hall to approach us to overhaul the voting process. We should ask those who run the Hall to do it for our sake and especially theirs.
Because the rolls of the BBWAA are larded with writers who haven't written about baseball for two decades and whose lack of connection to the game today does not demand the encyclopedic knowledge that should be a prerequisite for filling out a ballot. Somebody actually gave Aaron Sele and his career 4.61 ERA a vote this year. These people are as qualified to vote as my dentist, and it is incumbent on the BBWAA to root out the incompetence and figure out a compromise that rewards longtime service but doesn't embarrass a Hall that entrusts it to carry out its most important task.
More than anything, writers must learn to trust the Hall. Considering the six different incarnations of the Veterans Committee and the abject failure that was the Committee on African-American Baseball, this is not easy. And yet I am exceedingly confident that Hall president Jeff Idelson and his lieutenants will treat the eventual inductions of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds – who were on 37.6 and 36.2 percent of ballots, respectively – with the proper amount of respect, knowledge and history they deserve. They embarrassed the game and the sport, but they also were the best, and to keep them from a Hall of Fame that exists to celebrate the best is rinsing and washing and scrubbing at its worst.
At the end of the voting directives from the Hall is rule No. 9: "The Board of Directors of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc. reserves the right to revoke, alter or amend these rules at any time." Which is to say, if the Hall feels like the writers have lost their way – and considering the Hall hasn't given guidance or directions at all regarding PEDs, that may well be the case – it can rejigger the voting as it sees fit. That shouldn't be necessary, not if the writers begin to remember their job.
Around this time next year, the song and dance won't be as desperate and broken. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas easily will exceed 75 percent. Probably Biggio, too, and maybe Bagwell and Mike Piazza. This would be a historic class, one of the biggest ever, setting the stage for the sport to embrace the warts of Bonds, Clemens and others, and vaulting the Hall back into its rightful place in the public consciousness
Not the place of protest voting. Not the place of blank ballots. Not the place of dawdling and delaying the inevitable and hoping context will change.
The place of baseball history. The real history.
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