John Feinstein Blog: Writers Should Keep Voting For Hall Of Fame

There’s been a lot of whining about the baseball Hall of Fame the past few years. A lot of it has come from people who don’t understand why a bunch of sportswriters hold the keys to Cooperstown. Here’s why: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio. Those were the four guys who absolutely should have been voted into the Hall of Fame this year and they are the four guys who will be inducted in July.

Most of the time, the writers get it right.

Can you make a case for Mike Piazza, who finished with just under 70 percent of the vote–leaving him a tad shy of the 75 percent required for induction? Of course you can. I’m a lifelong Mets fan and I’d love to see Piazza go in. He will–probably within the next two years. In all likelihood, Jeff Bagwell will get in too.

To me, as a former voter (The Washington Post stopped allowing writers to vote for any Hall of Fame several years ago) there were three levels at which I considered a player who merited serious consideration for the Hall:

  1. The no-brainer. Those are guys whose numbers didn’t even have to be studied. You  just knew the minute you saw their name on the ballot you were voting for them. Johnson and Martinez fit that category this year. There’s no list of the great pitchers in history that wouldn’t include the two of them.
  2. The, ‘yeah, I think so but let me double-check his numbers,’ candidate. That would be Smoltz and Biggio–who I would have voted for the first year he was eligible. Smoltz won more than 200 games and save more than 100. He went from dominating starter to dominating closer to very solid starter. If there’s ANY doubt, check his postseason numbers. Game, set, match. Biggio had more than 3,000 hits–that alone should make him automatic. No player in history with 3,000 hits didn’t make the Hall. Beyond that, he was a very good defensive player who started as a catcher, moved to second base and also played the outfield. Recently, I heard a radio talk-show host say that shouldn’t matter (it should because he played all the positions well) because, ‘heck, there are utility guys who do that.’ None of those utility guys had 3,000 hits. Case closed.
  3. The, ‘let me give this some serious thought,’ guy. Piazza, to me, is somewhere between that and category 2. Bagwell is more a category three guy: very good numbers: 429 homers, almost 1,500 RBI and 2,314 hits plus, very good defense. Very good numbers but automatic Hall of Fame numbers? No. There are other guys I looked at closely when I was a voter who I decided to vote for:  One was Jack Morris, whose postseason record put him in as far as I was concerned. The other one will surprise you: Steve Garvey. His regular season numbers were borderline Hall of Fame but his postseason numbers were out of sight. And, he was a superb first baseman.

Category three guys sometimes get in very late: Bert Blyleven and Jim Rice come to mind. I’m glad they got in, especially Blyleven whose numbers were underrated in my mind. Not only did he win 283 games, he had SIXTY shutouts. Just by comparison, Tom Glavine–a category one guy–had 57 complete games in his career. It isn’t like Blyleven pitched in the 1920s either. He was one generation prior to Glavine. Then again, I believe Tommy John and Jim Kaat, who both fell just short of 300 wins, should also be in–especially Kaat, who was arguably the best fielding pitcher in the history of the game.

Getting back though to the original argument: Should writers control the Hall of Fame vote? The answer’s yes because, even though we all have our biases, I have never met a writer who didn’t take his vote seriously; didn’t do his homework before voting and didn’t try–TRY–to keep his biases out of his final decision-making. Eddie Murray was a category 1 guy who treated writers with absolute disdain throughout his career. He went in on the first ballot–as he should have–even though very few writers liked dealing with him. Rice was also media-unfriendly but he got in, admittedly late. Just as admittedly, he was a category 3 guy, if only because of injuries. Don Mattingly, who almost no one has ever disliked, isn’t getting in because injuries simply cut his career too short to be a Hall of Famer.

What’s more, if there’s a glaring omission, there’s backup: veterans committees–who are frequently harder graders than the writers–who vote on managers and oldtimers who might have been missed. Gil Hodges should have gone in years ago. If he was borderline as a player–which he was–what he did as manager of the Mets should have gotten him in with the veterans committee. That’s THEIR bad.

Now, the question of the cheaters. I heard another radio talk show host screaming on Tuesday that ALL the cheaters should go in. “You can’t take away MY era of baseball,” he bleated. First of all, if anyone took away HIS era, it was the cheaters. They tainted and damaged the game and, in most cases, did so without regret and–often–without ever admitting their guilt. Mark McGwire came out because he wanted to work in baseball again. Those who defend Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens on the grounds that they’ve never been ‘proven,’ guilty should remember two things: this isn’t a court of law where you have to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt because your freedom is in jeopardy. It is a Hall of Fame which is a rare privilege granted to those who made the sport better. Second–and most important–the notion that guys like Bonds and Clemens would have been Hall of Famers without steroids (no doubt they would have) is irrelevant. They DAMAGED the sport. All the cheaters did. You don’t put someone in a Hall of Fame who damaged the sport. It is also worth remembering that Pete Rose denied he bet on baseball for 20 years. Then, when he had a book to sell, he finally fessed up. These guys lie until the truth becomes good for business.

There’s also the notion that EVERYONE was cheating so we should let everyone off the hook.  Everyone WASN’T cheating. Best guess, made by former players I know is that, at the height of the era, about 25 percent of players were using regularly. That means three-of-four players weren’t cheating.

If the Hall of Fame vote were left to guys like the radio bleater or fans or even ex-players, the cheaters would probably all get in. No one is saying the writers are perfect–how in the world did Carlos Delgado get less than 5 percent of the vote this year?–or they always get it exactly right. But, for many years now, they’ve come as close as anyone ever will to opening the doors for those who deserve to walk through and closing them to those who shouldn’t.

The cheaters all made huge money while they were playing. They deserve some kind of penalty for what they did to the sport. Baseball purgatory is just about right.

John Feinstein’s most recent book is, “The Walk-on,” a mystery set in the world of high school football. His most recent non-fiction book, ‘Where Nobody Knows Your Name,–Life in Baseball’s Minor Leagues,’–will be published in paperback next month. 

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