There are three people whose work on the Baseball Hall of Fame intrigues me, and none of them are me. There’s a lesson in this for all of us, but I’ll get to that later.
The first is Jay Jaffe, who breaks down each candidate’s qualifications for Fangraphs in such exhaustive and exhausting detail that I am amazed that his wife, the redoubtable Emma Span, who is a baseball editor at The Athletic, has not long ago brained him with a cinderblock. There is nothing more fascinating and ultimately infuriating than reading a long treatise on, say, Shane Victorino only to learn that the tag line is “Of course, he has no chance.” Then why did you appropriate five minutes of my remaining life span compelling me to read about freaking Shane Victorino, you thieving bastard?
The second is Ryan Spaeder, who is probably a bit too obsessed with the subject to be allowed outside unsupervised even in non-viral times. Nevertheless, he provides a unique service by creating an outlet for current and former major leaguers to weigh in on the ballot by having them vote on the candidates with the same 10-human maximum restriction that the voters have. Not that anyone should particularly care what J.J. Putz thinks, but the totality of those opinions tells us that baseball players are not that much different perceptively than writers, broadcasters, fans, or associated idiots. As one former Miami Marlins player wrote, “First off, this is much harder than it looks.” It certainly is, because if you’re trying to do the thing correctly, it should be.
The third is Ryan Thibodaux, who counts the ballots as they’re revealed so that we can get a sense of how the electorate is leaning. Like Spaeder, Thibodaux probably didn’t date enough in his formative years, and his data tends to skew toward younger voters because his exit polling on Pariahs No. 1 and 2 leans higher than in the final voting. (If you need it explained to you that Pariahs 1 and 2 are Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, you probably stopped reading well before this. I know I did.)
But more than half of the voters will tell you who they’re voting for even if unasked because, to be honest, it kills a day’s work without the author actually doing any. And the beast must be fed; there are only so many baseball topics upon which one can weigh in November. Once you’ve gotten past “no games again today,” you’re stretching the pizza dough pretty thin.
I am a voter, and I don’t reveal the contents of my ballot. Actually, that’s a lie. I do release the contents of my ballot but only after the two-week quarantine following the announcement of results by the Baseball Writers of America. The reason I don’t tell Thibodaux who I vote for is that I learned something about this Hall of Fame voting dodge a long time ago, and that’s that other than the annual Window Of Pissiness (copyright 2020), nobody cares who anyone voted for. People get all ginned up about the voters who tell you weeks ahead of time who they voted for because that’s what they do, in the same way that those voters are doing the “Hey, look, I have a vote! Come marvel at my privilege and knowledge” thing.
To be less unfair than normal, it can be fun to relitigate these players’ careers, à la Remembering Some Guys, but it’s a bit like talking about your fantasy league team. Unless you are talking to someone else who wants to hear about it, or someone you’ve affixed to a chair against his or her will, this has limited audience value. Shane Victorino has a time and a place, is all I’m saying.
I also don’t tell Thibodaux who I vote for because it’s just a little game we play. He asks, I tell him to shove off with my usual bilious charm, and we go about our days.
But the cottage industry of demanding that anyone who doesn’t agree with you should have his or her vote taken away has also begun to see its end. As we have come to understand in the wake of the presidential election, complaining about the results of a comprehensive vote is evidence of someone who needs the restorative benefits of solitary confinement. In fact, when longtime St. Louis Post Dispatch baseball writer Rick Hummel inadvertently gave a 10th-place vote for NL MVP to Ryan Tepera instead of Trea Turner because of a pulldown-menu error, his abject apology for felony computer gaffe essentially went unremarked upon because frankly it’s no fun to call someone a blithering nincompoop if he or she has already done it him- or herself.
(Author’s note: Having had beers with Rick Hummel on a number of occasions, I contend that while he may occasionally blither, he is neither a nin, a com, or a poop).
The phenomenon of demanding the death penalty for alternative opinions started losing fashion last year when only one person out of 397 chose not to vote for Derek Jeter and the angry shrieking lasted about … well, half an hour after, if that. People oddly found that getting 99.3 percent of the vote might actually be a genuine mandate rather than a criminal insult. To this day nobody knows who didn’t vote for Jeter, clearly because we don’t actually care.
Pre-Jeter, the Hall of Fame process had been a notable breeding ground for electoral fascism in which Voter A releases his or her ballot, Non-Voter B says Voter A is unqualified, ignorant, and an affront to the dignity of all mankind, and should lose the voting privilege as a first step toward being shot and left in the woods to die. Other than a few radio subprimates killing a segment before the traffic break, that didn’t happen very much in the Jeter case, because someone figured that everything over the 75 percent minimum is just gravy and sprinkles. By comparison, the Great Griffey Bitchfest of 2016 engendered such cries for Stalinist-level revenge that it made the concepts of Hall of Fame voting, the Hall of Fame, baseball, and life in America nearly unbearable, and that was over three votes out of 440.
This coincides with the monumentally irritating campaigns for players that voters conduct, as though they are supposed to have rooting interests. it’s especially grating when someone tells you a candidate is in the “no-brainer” category for which almost no player actually qualifies. No-brainers don’t create or require arguments. That’s the definition of no-brainerhood. You didn’t see anyone advocating particularly loudly for Mariano Rivera, did you?
Persistent and obnoxious advocacy is for fans, and as we all know from our own experiences, most fans are to be avoided in all situations and at all costs. This year’s boutique Cooperstown nominees are Scott Rolen and Omar Vizquel, and they’ll either get in or they won’t with no damage being done to the alleged sanctity of the building. Neither is a no-brainer, not even among their fellow players, as Spaeder’s data shows.
I have advocated for only one historical baseball figure in my time as a voter, and that is Arnold Rothstein. Sure, you can drool-speak all you want about Curt Schilling’s postseason history, but give me a guy who won five games by himself without actually leaving his hotel. Hell, the best baseball movie ever featured him as a pivotal character, and that’s more than you can say for Manny Ramirez or Todd Helton.
The ultimate value of the Hall of Fame is that it is supposed to tell the history of the game, but everyone filters history through their own biases. Twould be fine if those biases didn’t ultimately harden and ossify through repetition the way political opinions do. By the end of the Edgar Martinez debate, most people hated the people who proselytized for him, agitated against him, and finally, him. That’s not the spirit of Remembering Guys. You keep this up and Comrade Roth will weep.
Maybe this would all be ameliorated if all the self-ordained experts who want to vote actually got a vote but that’s never going to happen. The BBWAA has already had a round of voter suppression in the recent past, and as regularly credentialed media people become rarer and media representation shrinks, there will probably be more culls. In fact, I’d bet that Major League Baseball will find a way to take over the voting so it can give it to the MLB Network folks and more easily monetize the process. There isn’t a lot I wouldn’t pin on Rob Manfred, so I’d bet a few IPAs on this occurring before I’m dead, and if I’m wrong … well, my heirs won’t be paying off, I know that much. I just know the image of Brian Kenny putting 10 middle relievers on his ballot every year while sitting on the set in a coat, a tie and no trousers is enough to put me off baseball for good.
Anyway, forgive the digression. The lesson to be learned that I promised you is this: I’m still not sharing my ballot. Not with my colleagues here at Amalgamated Sweatshop No. 114, not with Thibodaux, not even with my own dissolute offspring. I represent less than a quarter of a percent of the electorate, and while I care about my vote because voting is fun, I see no earthly reason why you should. My past votes are on the BBWAA website if you want to make assumptions about what I will do this time, and you’ll learn about 2021 when they decide to release the ballots in early February. You’ll find out then, if you still care.
And I’m betting you won’t.