Friday, December 28, 2012

Why I'm glad I'm not voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame

-- by @Josh_Suchon

When I left the newspaper business in 2007 to pursue my play-by-play dreams, my biggest regret was losing a Hall of Fame vote. At the time, I’d spent seven years as a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. In three more years, I’d be eligible to vote for the Hall of Fame forever.

If I was one year away, I’d have probably delayed my career switch. Two years would be a tougher decision. Three years wasn’t that tough. No way was I spending three more years in the print journalism world.

Five years later, in what would be my second year as a Hall of Famer voter, I’ve never been happier to not vote. In fact, I think TJ Quinn has the right idea about giving up his vote.

The first reason is the performance-enhancing drug conundrum.

The second reason is the decision has such a massive financial impact on the player.

The third reason is joining a group of people who shouldn’t be making the decision.

I’ll go into more detail on each reason shortly. But first, let it be known that I once viewed voting for the Hall of Fame as the greatest honor for a baseball writer.

During my 10 years at The Oakland Tribune, the last seven covering baseball, I occasionally used the Sunday Baseball Column as a forum for my opinion -- especially unsexy candidates like Tommy John, who I wrote should be inducted because he’s on the cusp based on his career, and having a surgery named after him that saved so many careers should push him over the edge.

In 2008, when I auditioned for a job as the co-host of “PostGame DodgerTalk,” myself and Ken Levine spent about half the three hours discussing Hall of Fame candidates. The baseball knowledge we displayed, plus our instant chemistry, was a huge reason why decision makers hired us both and teamed us together.

But now, voting for the Hall of Fame is a lose-lose endeavor.

The performance-enhancing drug conundrum

Do you knowingly vote for a cheater and ignore how he compiled his accomplishments? Do you automatically eliminate anybody who even once put a questionable substance in his body? Do you try making a very subjective case-by-case decision? There is no correct answer.

For instance, my inclination would be to vote for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. My opinion is both were Hall of Famers, before the overwhelming circumstantial evidence suggests they began using performance-enhancing drugs.

My opinion is that Mark McGwire was a one-dimensional player whose candidacy is based on strictly hitting home runs, and he wouldn’t have hit that many without taking steroids. Sammy Sosa wasn’t as one dimensional, but his career arc was aided greatly by what appears to be an obvious case of PED use, even if there’s no smoking gun.

But those are just opinions. We don’t know exactly what they took, how often they took it, and what impact it had on their careers. We never will know. So how do you justify voting for one player and not the other?

If this is strictly a moral issue about character, then do you kick notorious scoundrel Ty Cobb and certified racist Cap Anson out? If it’s about using illegal substances, then do you kick noted spitball pitchers Gaylord Perry and Don Drysdale out? If it’s about using PEDs, then what about Willie Mays’ use of a “red juice” commonly known as an amphetamine, or the use of “greenies” by Mickey Mantle and so many more?

Does a one-time experiment with steroids (say in college) enough to eliminate somebody from consideration, or must it be over a number of years? What if there was no failed drug test or former teammate blowing the whistle on a candidate, like Mike Piazza, but widespread speculation because he was drafted in the 62nd round, and looked the part with back acne?

I’m not sure where you draw the line. The makes me want to draw no line at all. But I couldn’t wrap my head around voting for Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa or Rafael Palmeiro without making an argument that is contradictory to why I’d vote for somebody else.

The financial impact on the player

Getting inducted into the Hall of Fame isn’t just about a plaque on the wall, and making a heartwarming speech in Upstate New York to thank everybody who helped you along the way. It’s a ticket to potential financial freedom the rest of your life, or at minimum a huge immediate economic burst.

The fee for “Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter” to sign autographs at a baseball show is dramatically higher than the fee for “former Cubs great Lee Smith.” The same is true for “Hall of Famer Barry Larkin” compared to “Tigers legend Alan Trammell.”

How much would the lives of Dale Murphy, Craig Biggio and Tim Raines change if they are elected to the Hall of Fame this year? Not sure how you quantify it. But I know it’s significant.

Reporters should be covering the news, not creating the news.

It’s admirable that Dale Murphy’s son wrote an open letter to Hall of Famer voters to make the case for his father, and another son drew a cute cartoon. It won’t make a difference. Murphy isn’t close to getting in.

But when a family lobbies for their dad to receive an honor that could financially benefit them all, or when a team like the Giants uses its strength to lobby voters into admitting borderline candidate Orlando Cepeda to help the team constantly sell its rich history, it brings out the cynic in me.

Joining people who shouldn’t be making the decision

My last year as a baseball writer, I was the Bay Area chapter President of the BBWAA. It’s largely a ceremonial position. If there’s an issue with access to clubhouses or rules being followed, it’s the President’s job to talk with the team, or take the concern to the league office if the issue isn’t rectified.

The chapter President’s biggest responsibility is deciding which two members will vote for Most Valuable Player, Cy Young Award, Rookie of the Year, and Manager of the Year.

What amazed me during that year was the number of people who were BBWAA members that had no business in the club. It’s supposed to be daily beat writers, national ball writers, columnists, the sports editor, and perhaps a feature writer who covers a lot of baseball.

The sports editors of each newspaper decide which writers from their staff will get a BBWAA card every year. Again, if you’re in the BBWAA for 10 straight years, you’re voting for life. Most sports editors were very loose deciding who received a card.

Former beat writers would want the status of the BBWAA card, cover a few games as a backup, and somehow maintain their cards. A few smaller papers had copy editors who’d write a numbers- or notes-based Sunday column from the office, without ever visiting the ballpark, and they’d get a card. The list went on and on.

What I felt like doing was cleaning house on the individuals who didn’t belong in the club. But since it’s just a one year position, I didn’t want to get power hungry, and risk alienating my colleagues in the area. The only thing I did was ensure the people who were at the ballpark most frequently voted for the yearly awards.

I’m sure that many of those names that I wanted out of the BBWAA in 2006 are now voting for the Hall of Fame. There’s probably a decent-sized group who legitimately covered baseball for 7-10 years, but their careers went in directions beyond baseball, yet they keep voting. The might take the responsibility with incredible care -- and I sure as hell hope they do. Still, their credentials are flimsy at best.

And that’s the people who aren’t at the ballpark very often.

There’s also the people who are at the ballpark frequently, yet still aren’t qualified to be voting on certain members. This is a category that I would include myself.

Let’s say I never left the newspaper industry, just completed my 12th consecutive year covering baseball, and was voting for the HOF this year. I never covered Jack Morris specifically, or baseball in general, during his entire career. I might have seen Morris pitch 1-2 times as a kid in the stands. Now I’m supposedly qualified to decide Morris’ candidacy because, what, I saw Livan Hernandez eat up a lot of innings too?

I’d probably lean against voting for Morris, based on his career 3.90 ERA and because I think too much emphasis is based on his 10-inning shutout masterpiece in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. But then I read this blog from Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, and it makes me realize that I should be voting for Morris.

So now I’m voting for Morris because of Verducci’s strong persuasive skills and writing acumen, instead of my own personal experiences and opinion. I’m using Morris as one example. The same thing applies for Dale Murphy, Alan Trammell, Lee Smith and Don Mattingly.

I’m not sure who should be voting for the Hall of Fame.

All I know is that I’m glad Tom Verducci does has a vote, I’m glad TJ Quinn eliminated himself for these thoughtful reasons, and I’m glad that I’m not voting.