Sports History Files: Baseball’s hidebound gatekeepers

This time a year ago I wrote about baseball’s dwindling Romantics — those who have Hall of Fame votes but want to deny any player they suspect of steroids use from a having a plaque in Cooperstown — and thought the matter couldn’t get any more bizarre.

But that was last year. The addition next summer of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas as the Class of 2014 wasn’t a surprise, but the rationale some writers gave for what was on their ballots — or not — in voting disclosed this week reveals more troubling issues at work within the notoriously cloistered Baseball Writers Association of America.

Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?It’s bad enough for a longtime writer and BBWAA ballot-holder, Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, to unfurl such an ahistorical explanation for casting a vote only for Jack Morris and refusing to do so for any player from the steroids era, even Maddux. Gurnick never indicated when he thought that era began, nor did he acknowledge that Morris, whose eligibility on the BBWAA ballot has now expired, may have been playing during this time.

As some have noted, at least Gurnick came clean with his explanation, as indefensible as it may be. He’s entitled to do with his ballot whatever he likes according to the loose instructions laid out by the Hall of Fame, and says he won’t vote any longer. The BBWAA on Friday also released an aggregated list of 136 members who made their votes public (out of 571 writers with ballots), and this also is a valued public service.

But at the same time, the BBWAA swiftly punished perhaps the most honest member of its tribe. The day after the inductees were named, Deadspin revealed that the voting writer whose vote it had attempted to buy was Dan LeBatard of ESPN.

LeBatard insisted he wouldn’t take any money for letting Deadspin poll readers in an attempt to show how broken the voting process has become, and the website never revealed how much cash it offered. Here’s why he said he did it:

I feel like my vote has gotten pretty worthless in the avalanche of sanctimony that has swallowed it.

I have no earthly idea if Jeff Bagwell or Frank Thomas did or didn’t use steroids.

I think I understand why the steroid guys were the steroid guys in this competition-aholic culture

I hate all the moralizing we do in sports in general, but I especially hate the hypocrisy in this: Many of the gatekeeper voters denying Barry Bonds Hall Of Fame entry would have they themselves taken a magical, healing, not-tested-for-in-their-workplace elixir if it made them better at their jobs, especially if lesser talents were getting the glory and money. Lord knows I’d take the elixir for our ESPN2 TV show if I could.

I don’t think I’m any more qualified to determine who is Hall of Fame-worthy than a fan who cares about and really knows baseball. In fact, many people analyzing baseball with advanced metrics outside of mainstream media are doing a better job than mainstream media, and have taught us some things in recent years when we were behind. In other words, just because we went to journalism school and covered a few games, just because accepted outlets gave us their platform and power, I don’t think we should have the pulpit to ourselves in 2014 that way we did in 1936.

Baseball is always reticent to change, but our flawed voting process needs remodeling in a new media world. Besides, every year the power is abused the way I’m going to be alleged to abuse it here. There’s never been a unanimous first-ballot guy? Seriously? If Ruth and Mays and Schmidt aren’t that, then what is? This year, someone is going to leave one of the five best pitchers ever off the ballot. Suck it, Greg Maddux.

As a result, the former Miami Herald columnist has been banned from ever casting a Hall of Fame vote again, and his BBWAA membership has been revoked for a year.

I have no way of knowing this, but I suspect the hammer came down on LeBatard — whom I’ve never been terribly fond of — as it did because of what he said as much as what he did.

And the members of the BBWAA lodge really let him have it, reflecting an insular, arrogant organization that comes across as being fearful of change. The Road to Cooperstown

It’s a club that seems to be harder to gain entry to than the College of Cardinals, and is perhaps even more medieval and less transparent.

Yes, that’s a lot of hyperbole there, and who the hell am I? I never covered baseball, and I’ll never get a vote. Neither will the Deadspin readers and other fans, as well as quite a few online writers and sabermetricians who seem to have a greater appreciation for the history of the game and the place of contemporary players in it than some BBWAA voters.

What some of us on the outside are learning now is that some voting members don’t write about baseball that much or at all any more, enjoying “honorary” status for having been annointed during the halcyon days of newspapers, before those troublesome bloggers and stats geeks started making noise.

If you do get a membership card, as SB Nation’s excellent Rob Neyer just has, you have to wait 10 years to cast a Hall of Fame vote.

At this rate, some of the most interesting, knowledgeable and dynamic baseball writers we have — Jonah Keri, Maury Brown, Jay Jaffe and Craig Calcaterra, just to name a few whom I think are really good — are unlikely to be welcomed aboard. Many were inspired by Bill James, who also remains an outlier despite his enormous influence not just regarding statistics, but in using those advanced numbers to expand and even challenge the standard narrative of baseball history.

The James revolution has some mainstream adherents, most notably Joe Posnanski, who has deepened his reverence for the history of the game in part by embracing sabermetrics. He also voted for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, and was one of the BBWAA members making his vote public today.

But when one of the leading gatekeepers thinks the voting system needs only “tweaking” instead of a sledgehammer, there’s a more serious problem at issue than purposely leaving off slam-dunk inductees to protest the presence of performance-enhancing drugs. As Tomas Rios wrote on Sports on Earth today:

Maybe there was some stretch of time when Hall of Fame voters functioned as the truest distillation of our collective baseball knowledge, but it’s not a time worth remembering, given the present. The modern world of sports writing is fully incompatible with the old-guard standards of legitimacy and value.

That’s what I suspect has the BBWAA old guard on the defensive more than anything. The age of steroids has brought a level of scrutiny to the Hall of Fame voting process like never before, and some writers don’t like it. Some, in fact, sound as retrograde as the good ol’ boys at the Augusta National Golf Club about all them dadgum women agitators.

And yet . . . exactly how to usher in meaningful change?

Calacaterra belongs to a four-year-old organization called the Internet Baseball Writers Association, which he likens to a shadow government. It conducted a similar Hall of Fame voting process, and came up with the same BBWAA three this year, plus Craig Biggio, who for the last two years has barely missed official induction. Calcaterra writes that while “process matters, not just the results,” and that change will come, don’t expect much of what’s different in those results than what we’re seeing now:

We should not, however, [change] in the hopes of getting our preferred candidates into the Hall of Fame. Because no matter what changes, it’s still going to be an exercise in getting hundreds of people to agree on something, and that never happens. We should do so only in the hopes of cleaning up a messy system and making the process one in which baseball fans and baseball writers alike can have confidence and about which they can be proud.

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