I hold three things sacred in this world: God, country and Major League Baseball (I won’t say in what order). While I remember that baseball is just a game, however, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America seems unable to differentiate its work from that of the College of Cardinals.
After the white smoke rose from Cooperstown this year, four new members of the elect were unveiled: pitchers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz and second baseman Craig Biggio.
These canonizations were far from surprising. Johnson and Pedro are considered two of the best pitchers of all time. Smoltz excelled as a starter, a closer — and then a starter again — for the Braves, and Biggio collected 3,000 hits while mastering three different positions and doing just about everything for the Astros save selling popcorn in the aisles between innings.
Three of those members were elected to the Hall of Fame after just their first appearance on the ballot — the BBWAA’s rules for election mandate that a player must be out of the game for five years before being eligible for sainthood — but Biggio finally made it into the Hall on his third try. Several other players fell just below the threshold of 75 percent of the vote required to make the Hall, most notably catcher Mike Piazza who finished at 69.9 percent. Just last year, Biggio received a frustrating 74.8 percent, while he garnered votes from 68.2 percent of the writers in his inaugural year on the ballot in 2013.
Biggio did not notch one of his 3,060 hits, swipe one of his 414 stolen bases or even play one of his 2,850 career games in the years since his debut on the ballot. The same thing happened to shortstop Barry Larkin, who received just above 51 percent in his first year on the ballot, but two years later earned his wings with a whopping 84.6 percent of the vote. Neither of them was reported to have healed the sick or turned water into wine.
Even more perplexingly, some players lose votes from year to year, as was the case with pitcher Jack Morris. His votes rose steadily until he slipped back below 60 percent in his 15th and final chance.
This sad practice is the result of the BBWAA’s arcane rules for election, which limit each writer to 10 votes per ballot. The rule was enacted, much like recent changes to canonization procedures, to minimize false beatifications. But the rule underestimates the voting members of the BBWAA. God love him, but even with unlimited votes, no rational elector would select Pokey Reese for the Hall of Fame, no matter how much I loved his Topps card when I was 10 because I thought he had a funny name.
Better still, it would prevent situations like this year, when Pedro received fewer votes than he deserved because some writers wanted to make sure that outfielder Larry Walker got enough votes to stay on the ballot. With no limit on the number of votes, writers would not have to vote strategically; they could focus solely on who deserved to be enshrined. They could vote for 10 players if they wanted to, or 11, or 20 or even none at all.
One argument is that only the best of the Hall of Famers — Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Cy Young — deserve to be voted in on their first ballot. These apostles of the game deserve respect, and I understand the desire to raise them above the rest, even amongst such elite company. This can explain in some cases how a player can be bumped into the Hall after missing out on his first try. But it is not a reasonable explanation as to why a person can vote for a player one year, then drop them the next, short of a miracle.
I believe that the voters take the honor seriously, and that freeing them to vote for the number of eligible players they feel deserve to be in the Hall of Fame would do away with strategic voting and restore some legitimacy to Cooperstown. When the Latin Mass failed to keep up with the times, the Catholic Church had Vatican II. Now it’s time for Cooperstown to make some changes of its own.