If Only Integrity, Sportsmanship and Character Did Not Count in Hall of Fame Voting

BBWAA

A BBWAA Lifetime Honorary membership card, along with the envelopes for the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot.

I care about the Baseball Writers Association of America. I care deeply about the Hall of Fame vote I earned as an active member of that organization from 1999-2009. When my active membership lapsed after I was laid off from the newspaper where I worked for 16 years, I cared enough to pay the fee that ensured I would remain a lifetime honorary member.

The gold card that comes with honorary membership does more than allow me entry into any Major League ballpark in the country. It is my final tangible link to a 24-year sportswriting career that ended in 2010. It wasn’t entirely my choice to end that sportswriting career, but it’s over and I’ve moved on.

Mostly.

Every December I anticipate the arrival of the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot in the mail. Not in my e-mail inbox; in the mailbox that sits under a tree in my front yard next to my driveway. It comes in a distinctive manila envelope, stuffed in there along with a stamped return envelope, biographical information on each of the candidates, a letter from National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum President Jeff Idelson, and the BBWAA Rules for Election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

I’ll vote for the sixth time this year. Every December, I fax off my ballot to the BBWAA because I want to keep the actual paper it’s on. I sort of envision my kids’ kids holding it one day and talking about how their grandfather contributed, if only in a small way, to baseball history.

So, it means something to me. I covered the game long enough to earn that vote, and I actually got into sportswriting hoping to one day become a Hall of Fame voter. I consider it an honor and an important responsibility.

Now, I am aware that the system as it exists is flawed. It never was perfect, but the Steroid Era threw everything into disarray. The inherent subjectivity of the process practically guaranteed chaos as the list grew to include Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and others whose candidacies have been tainted by suspicion (or hard evidence, in Palmeiro’s case).

I wrote pretty extensively about my feelings on the process last year. I ended up voting for seven players, none of whom were elected (we are allowed to vote for as many as 10). In fact, as you might recall, no one was elected by the writers.

Here are the players I voted for last year:

This year’s ballot includes Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas. I’m not saying that’s how I’ll vote, mind you. I’m simply pointing out that those three players are, frankly, Hall of Fame locks.

Where does that leave the likes of Bonds, Clemens, et al? Off my ballot, at least for now. As I’ve written before, it all comes down to Rule 5 of the BBWAA Rules for Election:

“Voting shall be based upon a player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

I boldface the salient words – integrity, sportsmanship, character – because voting for the Hall of Fame would be a much different proposition without them. Those words transform an already subjective process into a guessing game. A game that I and 600 or so of my fellow voters are compelled to play every December.

The game reached a new level of absurdity this year when Deadspin announced that it would “buy” a BBWAA voter’s ballot and allow its readers to make the selections. I don’t blame Deadspin, which is just doing what it does. I honestly don’t even blame the anonymous voter who allegedly has sold his or her ballot to Deadspin. Just because I take the honor and responsibility seriously, it doesn’t mean the other 600 or so voters are obligated to do so. That person has his or her reasons, and I hope he or she spends the money well. (Might I suggest a donation to one of baseball’s most famous charities, the Jimmy Fund? Or the Children’s Cancer Center? Or anywhere else but the sell-out voter’s bank account? Because hey … it’s Christmas.)

That voter – or soon-to-be former voter, once his or her name becomes public – is no more absurd than the voters who decided Joe DiMaggio – Joe DiMaggio! – was not a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Or that Gaylord Perry, an admitted spit-ball pitcher, was somehow more worthy of election than others despite his transgressions.

Or the voters – like me – who take it upon themselves to act as gatekeepers in the face of rampant steroid use in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

There is a simple solution, you know.

Change the rules for election. To be precise, eliminate three words.

Integrity.

Sportsmanship.

Character.

Eliminate those stipulations, and we’re back to the numbers.

Then it would be like the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which explicitly prohibits the much smaller pool of voters from considering the off-field actions of players.

I can acknowledge right now that my ballot would look a lot different if not for the current wording of Rule 5. Bonds, Clemens and Palmeiro absolutely would have earned my vote. McGwire and Sosa might have, as well.

Those three words are there, though. And that means another year of hand-wringing, wondering, speculating. It means watching one of my fellow voters help push the whole thing to a new level of absurdity by selling it to a satirical sports website whose editors are in the business of exposing absurdity in sports – something they do quite well.

As for me, I will continue to take it as seriously as I always have. It means something, this signature honor bestowed only upon long-time baseball writers. It means I’m still part of the game in a small but meaningful way.

And it means I still have a voice in a complicated conversation that I care about a great deal, a conversation that I’m pretty sure is just getting started.