The Hall Of Fame Problem Goes Beyond Steroids and the Character Clause

On Tuesday, David Ortiz, a long-awaited Hall of Fame inductee, was announced as the only new member into the HOF (from the BBWAA ballot).

Barry Bonds | Barry Bonds in action. | Kevin Rushforth | Flickr
Barry Bonds holds the major league home run record and has the highest single season OBP and OPS in Major League history, but will not be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. (Photo via Kevin Rushforth/Flickr)

That announcement also meant the long-anticipated fall from the ballot for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens (as well as Sammy Sosa and Curt Schilling) after 10 years, eliminating further consideration for induction by the BBWAA. Barring a miracle by the Today’s Game Committee next year, that likely means that one of, if not the best player in baseball history, the most decorated pitcher in history, one of the two major faces of the sport-saving home run surge in 1998 and one of the best big-game pitchers in history will be out of the Hall of Fame through 2024 at the latest.

Note how I didn’t mention character or off-the-field issues. Though disappointing, none of this should come as a shock. Ortiz is one of baseball’s lovable stars. Bonds and Clemens were polarizing figures when they played; meanwhile, Schilling has exposed his unequivocal bigotry in ways only matched by Aubrey Huff among recent baseball players. Ortiz is said to have failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs but many, including current MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, have defended the potential illegitimacy of the test. Bonds, Clemens and Sosa never failed a test for PEDs but were prominently named in scandals and went to trial due to those allegations. The only thing that held back Ortiz from possible election was if Edgar Martinez, the consensus best designated hitter in history, failed to gain induction in 2019. Unless you are a “guilty until proven innocent” fellow in the cases of Ortiz, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez, no prominently known steroid and/or PED user has earned a plaque in Cooperstown’s coveted hall.

If you’re shocked and angry at the results from Tuesday, you shouldn’t be. With the way the Hall of Fame balloting has worked over the past few years, this year’s results should have been a formality ever since Ortiz retired in 2016, followed by Martinez’s (and Harold Baines‘s) induction in 2019. This isn’t an Ortiz problem, nor is it a Bonds and Clemens problem. In fact, the selective justice that has caused the fall of Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, Schilling, Palmerio and many others under those same lenses is only a microcosm to the biggest problem with the Hall of Fame right now.

Baseball’s prestiges cathetral houses the sport’s best players…most of them, at least. (Photo via Kenneth C. Zirkel/Wikimedia Commons)

The biggest problem with the Baseball Hall of Fame is that its process allows way too much subjectivity. It allows extremely subjective opinions from subjective writers, who in turn will create their own separate subjective standards, whether it’s based on numbers or character. If those writers don’t induct players after a certain time period, the table turns to a selected committee — now in this case, the Today’s Game Committee — of subjective players. That’s a process that has turned one of the most prized sports museums into a subjective popularity contest. At this point, not including players that have been held out for PEDs or non-baseball-related reasons, there are no clear criteria on what a Baseball Hall of Famer is.

File:Scott Rolen on June 5, 2010.jpg
Scott Rolen is one of the league’s best third baseman, yet struggles to find a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. (Photo via dbking/Flickr)

Even when you take out those factors, there is always someone worthy left out. Take Scott Rolen, the top remaining vote-getter among the 14 players that will remain on the 2023 ballot. To most, he’s a clear Hall of Famer, with two high WAR totals in 70.1 bWAR and 69.9 fWAR at a position that is heavily underrepresented. Just 17 third basemen have earned induction in the Hall as of the 2022 ballot, and Chipper Jones is the only one to play on this side of the millennium. Rolen’s fWAR ranks 11th among qualified players at the position in history, with the only three non-Hall of Famers above him being Adrian Beltre and Miguel Cabrera — neither are eligible yet but likely won’t have problems getting in — and Rodriguez. How is he not in the Hall of Fame? It’s likely because of the over-relicense on counting stats and accolades, in which he meets none of those coveted magic numbers. While his percentage has seen considerable jumps since his initial performance on the loaded Hall of Fame ballot in 2018, it’s lunacy that he has had to wait five years to this point.

But, on those same ballots, Omar Vizquel found himself in a position to skyrocket into prime position for a plaque. Despite his only three traits being defense, longevity, and a 24-year compilation of hits that still didn’t reach the magic number 3,000, he received 37% of votes on his first ballot — the same as Rolen — and reached as high as 52.6% before a sexual harassment lawsuit in August caused his support to drop harder than an 808 on a Lil Pump song in 2017. The same folks that have kept Andruw Jones — a very worthy candidate — around for five ballots couldn’t keep the likes of Jim Edmonds, Lance Berkman and, in the past, Bernie Williams around for further consideration.

Yes, having Bonds, Clemens, Sosa and others hoard the ballot for so long is a direct collation? With just 10 votes and a logjam of worthy players over the last three years, tough decisions had to be made with many of the 400 plus ballots from writers each year. But is that really an excuse to turn borderline candidates into “one and done”, or keep Abreu, Buehrle, and Hunter from any sort of consideration? The shortened span has more negatives than any positives for Hall of Fame voters. It has forced numerous worthy candidates off early, caused near cardiac episodes on Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker’s chances and did not give Fred McGriff a chance at full consideration.

Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker formed the longest middle infield duo in major league history, yet only one of them is in the Hall of Fame. (Photo via Tom Hagerty/Flickr)

The truth is, changing who is in charge of the sport’s most prestigious museum and who’s allowed a plaque in that room isn’t going to fix anything. The issue of pure, unchecked subjectivity and agenda seeking isn’t just on writers. If baseball writers aren’t responsible for the vote, then who should be? A committee of former players and executives who have continued to find a way to keep Dick Allen out of the Hall of Fame? The other one that found a way to get Harold Baines in the Hall of Fame, but not Orel Hershiser or Will Clark? Or maybe the one where Dwight Evans and Lou Whitaker were denied? The fans should have a say, you say? The same ones that almost sent a middle infield duo with a combined 1.255 OPS between the two to the All-Star Game in 2015? Former Hall of Famers? Would that include Goose Goosage, who’s stuck in a 1978 simulation with The Bronx Zoo Yankees?

Andrew Baggarly of The Athletic said it best: “Maybe you’re of the opinion that the BBWAA vote was rife with politics, biases, hidden agendas and bad actors. Maybe you think the writers shouldn’t be voting in the first place. Well, to that I’ll only say this: You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Are the 2022 results an embarrassment to the sport? Is it bad that a day — much less a week — that should be about Ortiz is being used to demonize the Hall of Fame itself? Does this put the game in danger of losing one or both of their current demographic or the one that it’s trying to reach? All of that plays a small role in baseball problems. But Ortiz finding his way into the Hall of Fame in one swoop while others, morality issues or not, disappear from consideration is not the worst thing to happen to the sport. I would say a lockout caused by owners over a $10 billion revenue share, led by one who prefers to govern his own spending on his $5.25 billion franchise, is much worse for the sport, but that’s a story for another day.

So where do we go from here? If changing the honchos in charge won’t help, then it might be time for a change in the system. But what would work in place of 10 votes a year, a max of 10 years on the ballot, 75% and you’re in? If I were in charge, I would have made it so that all voters can vote for whoever they want, with the caveat that all players get one year to reach 75%, but that’s just as unrealistic as any sort of change. Maybe we don’t need the opinion of 400 writers to decide on the exclusive club. Can we take something out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame playbook, which hosts a committee of 49 selectors — one for each of the 28 single city teams, four between the New York and Los Angeles markets, and 17 at-large people — who select from a scanned selection of players each year? Those 49 selectors are expected to select four to eight inductees a year. That might work. Does the character clause need to be re-stated, unwritten, or abolished? Considering the personalities in the Hall of Fame right now, maybe it’s for the best.

Carlos Beltran’s legacy will be determined by one 2017 scandal based season over 19 HOF worthy years. (Photo via Sean Porkorny/USA TODAY Sports)

However, if we keep going down this current path, this is only going to exacerbate the problem. Consider the following: Next year, Carlos Beltrán, the leader of the Astros cheating scandal, will be on the ballot, and despite an outstanding 20-year career where he spent 19 of them as one of baseball’s most respected and talented players, many will look at that final, controversial year and use it against him (it shouldn’t). In the 2030s, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman will be under heavy scrutiny for their supposed roles when it’s their time for consideration. If Alex Cora ends his Red Sox tenure as one of the best managers in baseball history, he could face a committee that remembers his actions as bench coach of the 2017 Astros or a slew of future baseball writers on a committee that will likely believe managers are meaningless anyway. And let’s not forget about how offense as a whole can be viewed when this generation is all said and done.

That accentuates one point: the process has to change, and it has to change soon. I propose a lot of questions in this article because I don’t have a concrete solution. But I do know that if it means limiting the number of voters to a select few or getting rid of all non-statistical analysis, or another option, then it’s a solution. For the sport’s top honor to be put into question each year over PEDs, character or being Scott Rolen and not Adrian Beltre isn’t good for Cooperstown, and it’s terrible for the game.

It’s one thing to hold something against PED users; it’s another thing when clear Hall of Fame candidates are turned away. That needs to come to an end.

Follow Payton Ellison on Twitter (@realpmelli14).

Payton Ellison

Payton Malloy Ellison is a recent graduate from SUNY New Paltz with a degree in journalism. He has been writing his entire life, and about sports in various genres and settings for five years, starting with monthly coverage for the NBA and Major League Baseball on Grrindtime. He has been the Managing Editor for Diamond Digest for two years, written and edited articles produced live content and assisted in growing the brand for four years. He has also served as the sports director for the New Paltz campus radio station, WFNP The Edge, and had provided play-by-play and color commentary for SUNY New Paltz basketball.

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