Hall of Fame season has traditionally made me pretty miserable. I started to pay close attention to baseball around 2012, and as you may remember, the 2013 Hall of Fame results weren’t pretty. Players were actually inducted in 2014, which was better, but the debate was never something I particularly enjoyed. There wasn’t much room for nuance in the Jack Morris conversations, and the kind of joy you would hope a Hall of Fame would foster seemed entirely absent from the discourse.
The last few years, therefore, have been pleasant surprises. Pedro Martinez was one of my favorite players of all time, and he and Randy Johnson were both utterly deserving of being inducted in their first years on the ballot. Maybe it helped that neither of them had widespread allegations of steroid use leveled against them, but my memories of the 2015 voting are primarily positive, of appreciating the two of them and agreeing that they were outstanding and entertaining. Ken Griffey Jr. seemed to evoke similar unanimity in 2016. And this year, we got to see both Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell finally make it over the hump, along with Ivan Rodriguez.
Pudge and Mike Piazza (inducted in 2015) have a lot in common: both catchers, both inducted with relative ease, both entirely deserving of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. And both the subject of steroid rumors, rumors that ranged from almost entirely unsubstantiated, in the case of Piazza (back-acne! drafted in the 62nd round but became good!), to moderately solid, in the case of Rodriguez (Jose Canseco’s book (eh), “only God knows”).
The last thing I want to do is litigate the likelihood that either of them used PEDs. But if you accept that they both are viewed as users, fairly or unfairly, it’s striking that they both glided into the Hall of Fame in consecutive years. It’s tempting to conclude, based on their experiences, that the Hall is changing — that Pudge and Piazza are the first drops that both herald and hasten the breaking of the dam.
Heck, it’s more than tempting; clearly, some writers believe it wholly. Here’s Bob Nightengale, writing before the 2016 vote that, “if Piazza is elected Wednesday into Baseball’s Hall of Fame, the door barring all suspected performance-enhancing drug users will be torn off its hinges.” And here he is after this year’s vote, interpreting it as evidence of “a softening toward suspected PED users by the Baseball Writers Association of America.” Chris Cwik last year said that “[t]he only logical reason for Piazza to see his vote total rise so much is that the voters don't care as much about steroids, or are no longer willing to punish players due to gossip and hearsay.” And Ed Graney of the Los Vegas Review-Journal confidently announced that “[a] definite shift of judgment is underway among the electorate” after Wednesday’s results.
They might be right. It could be that the two catchers are early indicators of a changed attitude toward steroids on the part of the Hall of Fame electorate, and that their presence in the Hall — and the resulting hypocrisy of keeping players like Bonds and Clemens out — will herald a new age, in which baseball finally comes to terms with its chemically enhanced past.
Probably not, though. There are plenty of people who voted for Piazza and Pudge and who didn’t vote for Bonds and Clemens; I’m not sure what their reasoning was, but I highly doubt that explaining the logical fallacy of excluding some but not all players because of steroid use will sway them.
Is it hypocritical? Unquestionably. But while pointing out hypocrisy might be a way of proving a point or convincing an undecided person, it’s not a way of changing someone’s mind. The Hall of Fame voting process, for better or worse, is designed to be subjective. Voters make decisions based on their personal beliefs, personal beliefs that can not only withstand cognitive dissonance, but might even become stronger as a result.
And it’s not as if hypocrisy is a new addition to the Hall of Fame voting. As Grant Brisbee pointed out last week, there’s an enormous, self-contradictory nugget at the core of the votes of the writers who discounted Rafael Palmeiro’s inflated offense but don’t give extra credit to Mike Mussina’s inflated defense. He’s right! The constant adulation that David Ortiz gets and the eight years that Edgar Martinez has spent languishing on the ballot are pretty hard to reconcile, too. But merely pointing out those seemingly incompatible views is not enough to make a voter change them.
Instead, the lesson that should be drawn from this year’s voting is that constant and assertive public pressure is the way to effect change. Tim Raines’s long saga on the ballot wouldn’t have had a happy ending if not for the tireless advocacy of Jonah Keri, and while that advocacy was based on a sturdy analytical foundation, it consisted of much more than that. What put it over the top, and what was ultimately responsible for Raines’s induction, was the unrelenting fashion in which Keri delivered those analytical arguments. They were just as true, and Raines was just as deserving, in 2014 as they were in 2015 and 2016; what changed was not the argument, but the number of times the voters had heard them.
Similarly, the culling of the voter rolls that the Hall of Fame performed before this year’s vote didn’t happen because it was a good idea (though it was). It wasn’t newly ridiculous to allow writers who hadn’t actively covered baseball in ten years to vote on the Hall; instead, the clamoring of fans for accountability and something resembling rationality grew too loud to ignore.
That’s the way to change the Hall of Fame: not through clever arguments and demonstrating to voters their own foolishness, but by advocating, loudly and consistently, for what you want the Hall to be. Maybe that feels discouraging; if all it took was the argument to end all arguments, it’s possible to imagine that you and you alone could get someone into the Hall, and without more than an afternoon of work. The method I’ve laid out takes a lot of effort, and though it doesn’t all need to be done by one person — Jonah really is incredible — it is neither a straightforward nor fast path to change. But if you want to actually change the Hall, it’s the best and only choice.
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Henry Druschel is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.