Just when I thought I’d never feel good about the results of a Hall of Fame ballot again, suddenly, in one day, the dark clouds over Cooperstown started to clear. Looking forward a few years, it seems like this whole performance-enhancing-drug era is going to recede. What will be left afterward? A Hall with almost exactly the proper players in it. And less lingering controversy than anybody expected.
The least likely outcome, that things would, by themselves, shake out quite well may be happening.
The players who should enter on the first ballot this year just did: Randy Johnson, with 97.3 percent of the vote (75 required for admission), Pedro Martinez (91.1) and John Smoltz (82.9). Even their relative vote totals were appropriate. At his peak, Pedro was as great as the Big Unit but not for as long. Smoltz, fully deserving, wasn’t one of the 10 most dominant pitchers in history. Pedro and Randy both were.
Also, 3,000-hit Craig Biggio made it in his third year, fitting for a wonderful player who didn’t quite match MLB’s unwritten convention that there is an undefinable distinction between first-ballot HOFers and others, nearly as superb, who wait a year or two. It’s just a baseball conceit. But I’ve always liked it.
Just as important to framing and finally finishing the debate about the performance-enhancing drug era, it now seems certain that the players who have been caught, confessed or have voluminous evidence staked against them as cheaters will never get into the Hall, especially Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. Those two are still stuck for the third straight year with vote totals under 40 percent. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa got 10 percent of the vote or less. Rafael Palmeiro is already off the ballot for lack of five-percent support.
In contrast, those who are vaguely “suspected,” but without a shred of proof, gained support this year and will almost certainly gain entrance someday and not be scuttled by mere suspicion. Mike Piazza (69.9 percent) and Jeff Bagwell (up to 55.7) look like virtually certain Hall of Famers now that the “logjam” of 2013-14 — with seven inductees — has been cleared.
Is this the best outcome? I’d simply say that it’s the least bad. The range of opinions, and the rationales behind them among the baseball writers who vote is vast. The Washington Post stopped letting writers vote many years ago, a good decision; but I’ve been in many press box discussions. It fascinates me that 549 voters this year seemed to reach a wiser commonsense judgment than any individual voter. Not one of us gets it right, yet it feels, to me, like everybody together somehow did.
Confessed or caught, you’re out of Cooperstown. All others, scoundrel or not, form a line.
Life’s (still) not fair. Some of us get caught. But most of us don’t get nailed for a fraction of our misbehavior.
The world tries to catch the rule breakers. But it tries in proportion to the misdeed — from murder manhunts down to shrugging at jaywalkers. Hall balloting’s gone that route. If you never failed a drug test, never got hauled in by the FBI or stood trial, we don’t need a witch hunt for every “suspect.” Some players who risked their health to get an unfair edge will probably end up in Cooperstown. But it now looks like it’s going to be a mighty small number. It’s probably time for a new subject for hand wringing.
In recent weeks, voters felt bad that they were only allowed to pick 10 players; they believed more were worthy. That problem may quickly cure itself, too. In the last two years, seven players made the Hall and Don Mattingly now falls off the ballot, too. Also, only two big names will be eligible for the first time next year — the great Ken Griffey, Jr. and reliever Trevor Hoffman, who’s not a first-ballot guy.
The net result? A lot of ballot space has been freed up, especially regarding star starting pitchers now that five of the all-time best have been elected in the last two years. Who will get far more discussion, analysis and support? Curt Schilling (up 10 percent to 39.2) and 270-win Mike Mussina (up 4.6 percent to 24.6 in his second year). Also, Tim Raines, with two more years on the ballot, jumped from 43.1 to 55.0 percent, thanks largely to stat students who love his on-base percentage and total contributions. Now, he’ll get the full microscope treatment.
In other words, Hall of Fame debate may finally go back to its traditional level of press box screaming — about baseball itself. Raise your hand if you’ve heard enough debates about a proper methodology for measuring institutional MLB guilt versus individual responsibility?
Baseball has been dragging the PED issue around for at least the last 27 years. And it won’t go away entirely. But it’s headed that way. This was the first day in years when you’d say “Hall of Fame vote,” then actually talk about the Hall of Fame vote, not your skepticism about someone else’s moral views.
The sport has been working through self-inflicted problems for years, similar to the way the NFL is at the start of a long comeuppance for indifference to concussions and domestic violence. The pendulum swings in every sport. Sometimes even for the good. MLB finally adopted instant replay — and got it right in its first year. The Arizona Fall League just experimented with ways to speed up pace of play.
Sometimes it seems nothing ever changes. Then one day you look up and it already has. The Hall of Fame felt like a symbolic embarrassment to baseball for years, an emblem of deserved shame, with the plaques that aren’t there speaking more eloquently about the state of the game than those that are.
Then, on Tuesday, without planning, just as wounds heal with time, the Hall of Fame started to feel like the Hall of Fame again. Of course, the arrival of three of the greatest pitchers who ever lived helped, too.