by Bruce Dunlavy
(An index to my other posts is available from the pull-down menus at the top of this page, and my blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
As winter segues into spring, we are being confronted with the annual parade of awards ceremonies and other conferrals of honors. Perhaps they exist – and perhaps they exist at this time of year – to give us something of interest to distract from the midwinter, post-holiday slump. And instead of just talking about the weather, we can argues about who deserves what recognition and who does not.
From the announcement of the Oscar® nominees to the elaborate ceremony revealing the NCAA “March Madness”® basketball tournament teams and their respective seedings, we are given something to argue about almost every week. For about three months, everyone is an expert on the honorific-of-the-moment.
Earlier this week came the announcement from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (HoF) regarding which of the players who last played Major League Baseball between 2005 and 2014 will be enshrined in the Hall this coming summer. Two were named. Derek Jeter received 396 of a possible 397 votes in his first year of eligibility, and Larry Walker received 304 votes – just six more than the Hall’s threshold this year – in his tenth and last year of eligibility.
With two in and many others out, let the arguing begin. Should Jeter have been a unanimous selection? Should Walker have been elected if he couldn’t get in the first nine times he was on the ballot? Should Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and other PED-tainted superstars remain on the outside? Why did someone vote for Adam Dunn?
The selection is done by vote of qualifying members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), under the auspices of the Hall of Fame itself. Each elector’s individual ballot is kept secret unless s/he chooses to make it public. The BBWAA voted some years ago that all ballots should be made public, but the HoF, which has the final say in such matters, declined to do so.
With the announcement behind us, we can now turn to the post-mortem. As noted above, there are recurrent questions that stir up the aficionados. Let us examine some of them.
Should Jeter have been a unanimous selection? Last year’s balloting saw the first unanimous pick, Jeter’s longtime teammate Mariano Rivera. The argument for denying unanimity to Jeter goes like this: “There is no question that Rivera was the greatest short-end reliever of all time, but there is no consensus about the best shortstop of all time. It may have been Honus Wagner. It may have been Cal Ripken, Jr. It may have been Pee Wee Reese, depending on whom you ask. In any case, it probably wasn’t Jeter. Therefore, he should not be a unanimous inductee.”
My response to this is that we should stop straining at gnats. One is either Hall-worthy or one is not. It is pointless to try to create a hierarchy of enshrinement. Nobody really cares. Only the nerdiest and most picayune of baseball fans can tell you who was the recipient of the highest percentage of votes before Rivera, and even they cannot tell you why that is important. The argument, though, goes back to the very beginning of the HoF. No one was a unanimous pick in that first vote, not even Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb.
Five players made the grade in that 1936 election, and the HoF made it a point to induct them in order of the percentage of possible votes they received: first Cobb (222 of 226), then Ruth and Honus Wagner (215 each), followed by Christy Mathewson (205), and Walter Johnson (189). Perhaps Cobb got more votes than Ruth because he had been out of the game for eight years while Ruth was only a season removed from his final games. Things were always better in the old days, you know.
Image credit: waxpackgods.com
Does Walker’s last-year enshrinement hold any significance? This is a similar question to the one about Jeter. Some want to establish a further subset of honorees, “First-ballot Hall-of-Famers.” That is, there are those who think that, even if you are deserving of enshrinement, you should have to wait some number of years if you are not among the crème de la crème de la crème of players. The argument has something to do with comparative ranking. That only the tip-top should get in right away, and everybody else should have to wait some number of years, presumably proportionate to their achievements. This falls right in with my earlier post comparing sports – especially football – with religion. In this case, the analogy is Purgatory: only the truest saints may fly directly to Heaven, while their inferiors must spend some time being cleansed before they are worthy. This leads directly to the next question.
What about the “Steroid Stars”? Will Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, et al., who are believed to have used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), eventually have suffered enough in Purgatory to be allowed into the Baseball Heaven? Or are they doomed to suffer for all eternity? There is only one answer to this conundrum that makes sense, and it is based on the fundamental principle of all Halls of Fame: comparability. Players are put in the Hall of Fame because, in comparison with their contemporaries and those who came before them, they are adjudged to be superior performers.
Comparability rests on one thing, and that is having the same information about all players. In the era of (presumably) widespread PED use, there is no comparability. We know, based on evidence or admission, that some players used PEDs. We do not have evidence or admission from others. As the old adage goes, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” With information about some and no information about others, do you see how comparability is lost?
Thus information about the use of PEDs not being available for every player, we cannot use it as a criterion for admission to the HoF. The only option is to delineate the time frame of the “Steroid Era,” and identify which players – based on the established criteria for selection – are Hall-worthy. Then, either put them all in or keep them all out. We can’t say Barry Bonds must be denied admission, but David Ortiz must not. All in or all out – it’s one or the other.