After years of tweaking and retweaking the Veterans Committee process, you could have anticipated that it was only a matter of time before the Hall of Fame also tweaked the main voting process. On Saturday, that shoe dropped, and as you might have expected, it’s a mixed bag.
The biggest part of the announcement is that it’s cutting down the length of time players might stay on the ballot, from 15 years to 10, while grandfathering in three guys in that 11- to 15-year window: Don Mattingly (headed for his 15th year next year), Alan Trammell (in his 14th) and Lee Smith (headed toward his 13th). All three remain long shots at best, but at least the voters get another shot or two at being convinced.
On one level, this may not seem like a very big deal: The BBWAA’s voters can usually congratulate itself for getting the flat-out obvious guys right, albeit with less than 100 percent success, which is why there really isn't much to brag about on that score. (Chicago remembers Ron Santo.) In a perfect world, this latest twist for guys looking to get in means that the latest version of Veterans Committee voting will take up the causes of those in their respective eras and get them to Cooperstown a little sooner, rather than leave them in the back-end, five-year “pause” while they wait to slip off the ballot.
A problem with that expectation is whether you want to get hung up on the distinction between the people voted in by the BBWAA versus those selected by any version of the Veterans Committee, because if you want to cling to the assertion that being voted in by the writers is more significant -- when I'd expect most are just happy to get their plaque on the wall -- then this abbreviates that window of possibility. Which isn't necessarily the biggest deal in the world, although it does rob the electorate of late changes of heart in the face of cogent cases advanced for eminently worthy candidates -- as happened with Bert Blyleven in his 14th year of eligibility, after years of arguments advanced by sabermetricians helped swing voters all the way ’round.
Which brings us perhaps to the case of the next great “cause” candidate: Tim Raines. What do you do about the greatest leadoff hitter in the history of the National League, the latest example of a guy who needs to be talked up and debated because he spent the best years of his career in Canadian obscurity? Raines will be in his eighth year, so he, like Lee Smith, has just three more shots at getting voted in by the writers coming to him. That’s nothing if you have complete faith that the variation of the Veterans Committee or the present “Expansion Era Committee” eventually gets this done. But considering that the Hall’s extra-electoral processes have given us frankly stupid outcomes, like inducting former commissioner Bowie Kuhn while overlooking former MLBPA honcho Marvin Miller, I wouldn’t invest too much faith in the idea this will produce better justice when it comes to inducting people.
Another way of thinking about this new tweak is that it means we’ll have that much less time to put up with sportswriters yammering about the immorality of the PED scourge they either failed to discover during its heyday, or retroactively want to employ to punish people they suspect used PEDs. Think Jeff Bagwell, a slam-dunk Hall-worthy great, subsequently smeared by more than a few chuckleheads without much in the way of evidence or even rumor. Now, Bagwell has to endure just six more years of that kind of nonsense, while known users such as Mark McGwire (two years) or Sammy Sosa (eight to go) won’t have to worry about their past being brought up every December for too much longer. For me, that’s less of a big deal. The PED story has long since become more about the public posturing of people who want to sound off on the subject. I’d agree, seeing less of that is a good thing. But I don’t see how taking a generation’s greats off the ballot sooner makes for a better Hall of Fame.
The other huge problem created by shortening the window for Hall-worthy players is that this change did not also get rid of the cap on how many guys electors can vote for: It’s still at 10. With ballots already crowded with potential inductees, leaving a hard ceiling in place on who you can vote for guarantees that guys are going to get crowded out, not for lack of merit, but because of the number of worthies they’re among, and the fixed limit for how many votes are available (10 times the number of electors). This is a potentially massive, destabilizing error. You can hope it gets fixed before the next balloting, because relying on the tender mercies of whatever variation of the Veterans Committee exists now and in the years to come won't provide an effective correction.
All of which makes me ask again the question I always put to myself every time we get on this subject: Whose Hall of Fame is it? Who does it serve?
If you say “the players,” which ones? Those already elected, as often seems the case when you have guys on the various recent iterations of the Veterans Committee keeping players out? Or should it serve those who belong?
If you say “the fans,” here again, who? Today’s fans, or those who enjoyed the players in their heyday? That would seem to ill-serve someone such as Raines, a marquee player for a franchise that no longer plays in Montreal. Or are the fans a proxy for something amorphous, like the history of the game? If so, how do you tell the story of the game’s history by excluding many of the guys who made the biggest impact on the field?
At any rate, I don’t anticipate the changes being a good thing, but in the Hall’s long history of tinkering with the election process to guarantee a full and happy house every July, we’ll just have to see who gets shafted by the latest variation on this theme.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.