After missing by only a few votes last year, Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame today. Alomar got in with 90 percent of the vote – the highest total ever for a player who wasn’t elected in his first year. Blyleven finally got in after an excruciatingly long 14 year wait. Both of these waits bothered me a little bit for different reasons. And Jeff Bagwell’s vote total bothered me a lot.
There was no doubt that Alomar would be elected this year. He was a surefire Hall of Famer: depending on who you talk to, he was somewhere in the top five second basemen of all-time and certainly in the discussion for best second baseman ever. I couldn’t find anyone anywhere who doesn’t think that Alomar isn’t one of the ten best second basemen of all-time and he was unquestionably the best of his generation. There are nineteen second basemen in the Hall of Fame, so most thought his election last year would be a slam dunk. Yet in a shocker, Alomar came up eight votes short of election in his first year on the ballot.
So it was pretty much a given that this was his year. But the vote totals were astounding. Alomar picked up 123 votes (397 to 520). Let me repeat that – 123 writers that didn’t think Alomar was a Hall of Famer last year thought he was good enough this year. Now of course baseball fans know the real reason behind this: to many writers, election on the first ballot is symbolic and reserved only for the greatest of the great baseball players. Those 123 voters made Alomar wait a year to be elected either because a) they thought he was definitely a Hall of Famer, but not one of the best of all-time or b) they were punishing him for being a jerk, spitting on an umpire, allegedly giving HIV to various women after he retired, or a combination of the three.
This is nonsensical to me. First, I think if you’re a Hall of Famer, you’re a Hall of Famer. Making someone wait for election is just silly – if you’re good enough to be in the Hall of Fame, you should be good enough to go in when you’re eligible. And historically, how long someone waits to be elected bears no relation with how great the player is. Look at this conveniently cherry-picked list that nevertheless illustrates my point:
Players elected the first year they were eligible: Robin Yount, Dave Winfield, Dennis Eckersley, Paul Molitor
Players that had to wait three or more years to be elected: Harmon Killebrew (4), Hank Greenberg (9), Joe DiMaggio (3), Jimmie Foxx (6)
My first observation is obviously that we vote with a lot less dickish attitude than the voters did in the 1950s and 1960s. More importantly, this shows that the whole first ballot ship sailed already because those old baseball writers were way too stingy – if Joe DiMaggio took three ballots to get in, it’s pretty easy to make an argument that no one should get in on the first ballot. And furthermore, how smart do those voters look now? Is there anyone out there that would argue making DiMaggio wait three years was a good idea? Of course not. So what good does it do to make someone like Alomar wait a year?
Interesting tidbit from my research: on his second year on the ballot, Jimmie Foxx – one of the greatest first basemen of all-time – got 10 votes (6.2%). Only 10 of the 161 voters deemed Foxx worthy. Today, a player needs five percent of the vote to stay on the ballot for the next year. If that were today, Foxx would have only made it to the next year’s ballot by two votes.
That leads me to my second point about the 120 voters that made Alomar wait. These guys simply jumped on their moral high horse and told Roberto that he’d have to wait a year. But here’s the thing: what if everyone else jumped up on their moral high horse and did the same thing? He wouldn’t have made the ballot for the second year and baseball fans would have to wait at least twenty years for the Veterans Committee to elect one of the five best second basemen ever to the Hall of Fame. Basically, these writers are putting their own individual egos ahead of the good of the game. They knew full well that Alomar was a Hall of Famer but they relied on their voting colleagues to give him enough votes until the next season when he would suddenly become Hall worthy.
Why would voters do this? I’d assume every voter hasn’t a slightly different reason but I think the majority could be grouped in with power. Power goes to a voter’s head. They know that there’s a pretty slim chance that Alomar would get less than five percent of the vote so there won’t be any real repercussions to not voting for him in the first year and thereby preserving the “sanctity of the first ballot.” They know there’d be hell to pay if Alomar happened to get less than 5% of the vote, but that’s not a realistic possibility. And so the voters put individual egos ahead of the good of the game, if only for one year.
I’m exceedingly happy that Twins broadcaster Bert Blyleven got elected in his 14th year. Of course, if I was upset that it took a year to elect Alomar, you know I’m upset that it took 14 years to elect Blyleven. As I said above, if you’re a Hall of Famer, you’re a Hall of Famer.
Mostly, however, I’m just glad that voters finally appreciated Blyleven. I never understood why this took so long. Blyleven’s candidacy really took off in the past few years (he had only 47.7% of the vote as late as 2007) because of the increased prevalence of advanced metrics. Smarter people than I have done way more in-depth looks into these stats, but the basic idea is that pitchers can only control so much (strikeouts, walks, HBP, and home runs) while everything else is pretty much pure chance. For most of his career, Blyleven was the best in the league at the stuff he can control (he gave up a lot of home runs in later years when his curve bull started hanging more). Still, it was hard for me to understand why we even needed to look past the regular statistics that most of these older writers are more comfortable with. Among eligible pitchers not in the Hall of Fame, he was second in wins (287 to Tommy John’s 288, who pitched four years longer) and was first by far in strikeouts (3,701, 888 more than second place Mickey Lolich). Seemed like a pretty clear case to me – it’s just a shame it took the voters so long to figure that out.
The most disappointing total on the ballot for me was Jeff Bagwell’s 41.2% of the vote.* There’s no point in me recounting Bagwell’s statistics other than to say there are 21 first basemen in the Hall of Fame and in 2001 the great Bill James broke the numbers down and named Bagwell the fourth best of all-time. There’s no question that Bagwell is Hall of Fame-caliber. Sure, some of these voters might be making Bagwell wait because of the first ballot issue I discussed earlier, but I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of the 58.8% of writers that didn’t vote for Bagwell did so because of the steroid issue.
* I also think Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell, Mark McGwire, Dale Murphy, and Rafael Palmeiro should be in the Hall of Fame but, unlike Bagwell, I can actually understand the arguments against these players candidacies.
Now my problem isn’t with voting for steroid users. I happen to disagree with the voters who’ve taken a blanket stand against admitted users like McGwire and Palmeiro because I think the Hall of Fame should showcase baseball history. Steroid users, like it or not, are a part of baseball history. At the same time, I understand not voting for them. I understand not voting for them if you think steroids give you an unfair advantage. I understand not voting them if you think using steroids is cheating. I disagree, but I get it.
But I don’t understand not voting for Jeff Bagwell. Bagwell was not mentioned as a steroid user in the Mitchell report, never tested positive, and as far as I know, no one ever mentioned him as a user at any point. Bagwell’s only crime? Getting bigger and stronger as he got older. I’ve seen multiple articles this week comparing Bagwell’s rookie card with later years. Big surprise: he got stronger. I’m 26 and I recently saw a picture of myself on vacation when I was 20 – I’m way bigger and I barely work out and certainly haven’t used steroids. Now of course that doesn’t mean that Bagwell didn’t use, but if the two cards are your best “evidence,” I’m not sold.
Earlier this week Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman said that steroids should be held against Bagwell because, even if he didn’t use steroids, he didn’t speak out against them. Seriously. Now, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but that leads to my biggest problem with the Hall of Fame balloting.
At its heart, Hall of Fame voting is about kids. Cliche, sure. But the one thing that every single one of these baseball writers has in common is that they spent their childhood studying the backs of baseball cards, playing Strat-O-Matic, pouring over newspaper box scores, and listening to baseball on the radio or watching it on TV. None of these writers suddenly started caring about baseball statistics and the history of the game when they became adults – it all happened when they were kids. That’s the reason why people care about the Baseball Hall of Fame way more than other sports’ Hall of Fames. People don’t argue for hours on end about football, basketball, or hockey hall of famers because they didn’t spend their childhood pouring over the stats of these sports.
I’m no different. I learned to love baseball by studying the weekly statistics in the USA Today every Tuesday and Wednesday while computing the results of my dad’s fantasy baseball league. Jeff Bagwell was one of the best sluggers of my youth and he should be in the Hall of Fame. But not a single one of the voters come from my generation. It bothers me that a bunch of writers not from my generation get to jump on their moral high horse and keep one of the best players from my youth out of the Hall based entirely on speculation. I have not been to Cooperstown but it’s definitely on my bucket list. Sure, I’ll enjoy going to see the transcendent players’ busts like Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, and Hank Aaron. But I want players like Bagwell there too because those are the players I grew up with. Bagwell, McGwire, Bonds, and Palmeiro all resonate with me far more than Gary Carter, Goose Gossage, and Jim Rice (to name a few of the inductees of the last few years).
Blyleven was elected this year on his 14th try in no small part because of the kids that grew up playing Strat-O-Matic while he was pitching got older and became voters themselves. Inevitably, the same thing will happen with some of the players of the steroid era. I just hope enough of the current voters keep these players on the ballot long enough for my generation to earn their own BBWAA votes and vote them in.