Baseball Hall’s electors to choose amid controversy

It’s that time again, much treasured in this precinct. Baseball gets to harvest its annual crop of fresh new immortals for us to either celebrate or bicker about, although all signs point to at best a thin crop this time. Observations are in order.

First come the old-timers. As the annual winter meetings unfold the second week in December, a new panel – the one called, somewhat curiously “The Pre-Integration Era Committee” and commissioned to consider only folks connected with the game prior to 1946 – will reveal the fruits of its oddly vague deliberations, or, more likely, the lack thereof. This ought be purely the task of certified historians, but at last check I noticed no Shelby Footes or Frederick Jackson Turners on the committee.  

Meanwhile, the official ballot of contemporary candidates annually concocted for the anointed scribes of the estimable Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWA) to hassle over is in the mail. Their conclusions, ever the grist for proper dispute and recrimination, will be revealed to us breathlessly, as usual, in early January.  

New controversy attends the process. The BBWA’s electoral college has been pared down, with roughly 100 of its oldest, mostly retired members having been booted out by the increasingly heavy-handed cabal of self-proclaimed experts who run the nice little shrine up in Cooperstown. This was dumb because the older guys were almost certainly the most qualified, and obviously the ones who most witnessed the work of the majority of the current candidates who mainly performed over the last quarter plus century.

Why the BBWA has put up with this nonsense is beyond me. The Hall of Fame exists at the pleasure of Major League Baseball, not the other way around. The marriage has worked well for 80 years, mainly because – until recently – the Hall’s directors have had no illusions about who ultimately is in charge of who gets enshrined and how and by whom. The writers need to get back on their high horse and do something about this.

Anyway, it will be mighty interesting to see how such stuff affects the vote. Young electors will obviously have greater influence. Might they, being less enthralled with stuffy old tradition, be less opposed to the performance-enhancement steroid cheats than older writers viscerally attached to a game that was purer, at least on this huge issue? It’s not one I can necessarily prove, but it’s strongly my hunch that older writers are much less forgiving of PED cheats. If, say, Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell get elected this time and the even more celebrated offenders – Bonds, Clemens, and Co. – significantly rise in the returns, we’ll know why.

The PED mess still hangs over the process, inspiring much loathing in the ranks of the electors. But one senses that attitude is already ebbing. Rationalizations minimizing the wrongs done sprout steadily, bound soon enough to attain a kind of effective indifference. The situation was always ambiguous, the blame impossible to fix precisely.
If there’s sure to be a place eventually for Bud Selig, chief architect of MLB’s “Great Denial,” up there in cozy Cooperstown, there’s gotta be a plaque, too, for Barry Bonds. Heck, Tony LaRussa – so nimble at looking the other way – is already immortalized there. So why not Roger Clemens? My guess is the “PedGate” walls will begin to tumble this year with at least one strongly suspected if less proven PED offender, probably Piazza, making it emphatically, thereby unlocking the floodgates. It’s a matter only of time.

Overall, there are 32 players effectively nominated by being placed on the ballot, which is now also being dictated by Cooperstown, with only seven of them – the aforementioned four plus Messrs. Sosa, McGwire, and Sheffield – being PED suspects. There are 13 who have been pointlessly nominated, having no chance ever. Another 11 are more worthy nominees but have no chance this year, although maybe five or six will have a fighting chance eventually. Which leaves only one as a lead pipe cinch to make it here and now, no questions asked, and that fellow is, of course, Junior Griffey.   

The group of the “pointlessly nominated” includes the noble likes of David Eckstein, Mike Sweeney, Billy Wagner, Garrett Anderson, Randy Winn and your own Mike Lowell, all 13 being solid, highly-respected players coveted in their time who had long and distinguished careers and well know they don’t belong in the Hall of Fame.  Is the honor of having been nominated sufficient to offset the embarrassment of getting only a couple of votes? One hopes so.

The second group of those having a fighting chance eventually – the ‘maybes’, if you will – is notably interesting. Far more than mere borderlines are Edgar Martinez, Jeff Kent, and Trevor Hoffman. Nor would Allan Trammell or Lee Smith diminish the Pantheon, although I also find them a bit short. Nomar Garciaparra belongs in that group, if only as tribute to how terrific his first nine seasons were before it all fell apart. Fred McGriff will make it one day, as might Tim Raines. So, for better or worse, will Curt Schilling. A certain Hall of Famer ultimately is Mike Mussina. Down the road they’ll look at his sheer consistency, durability, and big-game brilliance and be amazed. Starters like Mussina may soon be extinct.

As for Griffey there were, of course, two of them. One was the dazzling young man of over a dozen seasons, already a star as a Seattle teenager; the other was the too early battered and burned-out vet, simply ordinary over his last seasons in Cincinnati. But his 630 homers state the case quite adequately. He won’t be unanimous, but he’ll be close.

Being as much a fan of the old-timers as the moderns, what they are doing to what used to be called the Veteran’s Committee is infuriating. There are many associated with the process, including too many players lucky enough to be in the Hall who want to close the door at least on the more ancient times. They would probably make WWII the line of demarcation, arguing that anyone from earlier times not yet recognized simply doesn’t deserve to be. The argument is compelling to the light-minded (notably including players) but much too simplistic. We’re talking history here. You never close the door on history.
The ballot that this so-called Pre-Integration panel has drafted is ridiculous. It seems to me they are banking, even hoping, that it fizzles totally and no one gets in, thus bringing further discredit on the very notion of even considering the ancients any longer. So you see, there’s method to their bloody madness.

The ballot offers only two nominees indisputably worthy and too long denied: Bad Bill Dahlen, a superior turn of the century shortstop; and Harry Stovey, superior as both slugger and base-stealer in the raucous and rollicking but very early baseball of the 1880s.  

Dahlen was a great player, considered second only to Honus Wagner among the shortstops of his era and decidedly better than such contemporaries as Joe Tinker, Bobby Wallace, Hughie Jennings, and George Davis, all long enshrined, if less deserving. Back in the foggy days of pre-historic baseball, Stovey was a genuine star; five times the homer champ. But if Dahlen would be a great pick, and Stovey good enough, I’m betting this committee won’t have the wit and wisdom to choose either of them, let alone both.  I’m expecting it will be a wash.

Others on the ballot include four moguls long forgotten, and Marty Marion, who has been rejected several times, while how and why they came up with Frank McCormick defies speculation. Bucky Walters and Wes Ferrell are worthy nominees, at least.  Ferrell, good Lord, was six times a 20-game winner. But they, too, have been many times nominated and many times rejected. My last question is: Who the heck is Doc Adams?    

Do these people really know what they are doing?  My polite response is “NO.”