For all the caterwauling that accompanied this year’s Oscar vote, its deadline dilemmas and electronic exasperations, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences can be thankful it’s not Major League Baseball right now.
At least Academy voters know that they’ll have a bunch of nominees to honor come Thursday and new winners to crown Feb. 24. But when baseball announces the newly elected members of its Hall of Fame at 11 a.m. Wednesday as part of a three-hour nationally televised special on MLB Network, many insiders expect a Sandy Koufax-like shutout.
Despite a ballot filled with the kind of stars that would leave most of Hollywood feeling inadequate, the Baseball Writers Association of America is not expected to give any one of them the required 75% of the vote needed for election to the Hall. For the first time since 1960, as Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times writes, Cooperstown could play host to a ceremony with no living inductees.
The evaluation of Hall candidates has been a clash of differening philosophies for a while now – just imagine the arguments of “Moneyball” being played out on the ballot in the debate of Bert Blyleven vs. Jack Morris – but disagreement and confusion over how to treat ballplayers who are linked to performance-enhancing drugs have taken things to a new level of stalemate.
You’d think the BBWAA was taking notes on the U.S. Congress. In fact, New York Times political guru Nate Silver got into the act today, going back to his Baseball Prospectus roots to analyze the conflicts in this year’s vote.
Some argue that direct evidence to PED use is needed to keep a player off a ballot, while others say that any suspicion is sufficient to hold off approval, and a third group – which I would be part of if I had the vote – contends that you don’t try to rewrite or erase history with the Hall vote.
My reasoning, if you’ll indulge this digression: Despite knowing full well what was going on in the sport with drug use, MLB did not implement its first random drug-testing program until 2001, and decided the punishment should be a suspension of all of 15 games for the first positive test.
By that point, before anything he might have done was considered against the sport’s rules, the No. 1 villain in this play, 36-year-old Barry Bonds, already had about 500 career home runs, nearly the same number of stolen bases and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of nearly 1.000.
Even so – even though players had been popping pills for decades to try to get a competitive edge, even though Bonds faced pitchers who were using PEDs themselves – numerous voters find it sufficient to dismiss his entire body of work.
I won’t dispute there’s a case to be made against players like Bonds and Roger Clemens, but it only gets worse. Players such as Mike Piazza, the greatest hitting catcher of all time and a no-doubt Hall of Famer, are being waylaid by nothing more than McCarthyesque suspicion of drug use, without any failed test or punishment on their ledgers whatsoever.
Perhaps the poster child for all that’s gone horribly wrong with the Cooperstown vote, however, is Craig Biggio. The longtime Astros star has no taint of PED use and is also the type of player who bridges the “Moneyball” gap. The catcher-turned-second baseman has more than 3,000 hits – forever a barometer for traditionalists in choosing Hall of Famers – 1,844 runs, 291 home runs and 414 stolen bases. In addition, according to Baseball-Reference.com, Biggio is one of the top 150 players of all-time according to the modern stat Wins Above Replacement. In 1998, godfather of modern stats Bill James wrote that Biggio was one of the five greatest second basemen of all time. Yet Biggio is considered borderline at best for Hall approval, with such voting experts as Chris Jaffe and Bill Deane split on the matter.
Why isn’t Biggio getting his 75%? While every candidate has always had a share of detractors, it doesn’t help that some voters, whether disgusted or perplexed by the steroid era, are turning in blank ballots. “This is all very confusing to me, and I think that MLB has weighted down the press with a very large responsibility,” wrote one such voter. “Maybe for 2014 I will have changed my mind and position. Today, I simply left my ballot blank. I first I considered voting for Craig Biggio, but now I am unsure about everybody.”
That’s a travesty.
Unlike the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which if nothing else has attempted to solve the problems bedeviling the Oscar vote this year, leaders of MLB and the BBWAA have maintained silence on the Hall crisis, leaving it for individual voters to fend for themselves. Without a doubt, it’s an area where reasonable minds can disagree. But it’s also an area that breeds a tyranny of discord, with players considered guilty until proven innocent, paralyzing what should be an ongoing source of wonder and celebration.