What might the Hall of Fame "process" mean for Frank Thomas?

Frank Thomas' size will probably be used against him. - Jonathan Daniel

The Big Hurt is considered a "lock" for induction next year, but the BBWAA's unwillingness to induct anybody this year makes it impossible to assume future actions.

Usually, journalists hate bureaucracies.

That's nothing special. Everybody hates bureaucracies. But many reporters have to deal with them (or find ways to work around them) every day, and on deadline to boot. So the agony of waiting on a slow-moving institution with little incentive to act is a constant nuisance in their lives.

That said, it's more than a little ironic that the Baseball Writers Association of America has embraced its role as a monolithic entity. On a ballot with anywhere from eight to 15 Hall of Famers by regular standards, the voters didn't come close to electing anybody on Wednesday, and what's odd is how gleefully many of its members view the shutout.

After all, Hall of Fame voters have been inducting cheaters throughout the entire history of the process, because ballplayers are always going to find edges until the game legislates against them. Hall of Famer and noted red-ass Bob Gibson gave what I think is one of the more truthful assessments of the past meeting the present back in 2009:

Guys have always been cheating. Period. It just takes a little different form today. I'm just glad they didn't have steroids when I was playing. I don't know what I would have done. It's very difficult to go out and perform when you know the guy next to you is taking steroids or some kind of drug to make you perform better and not do it yourself, to let this guy get an edge on you.

[...]

I don't know that I really criticize the guys. Whoever the first guy is that started it, that's the guy I criticize. The rest of the guys just followed suit. I don't think its OK. I'm not sanctioning it, but I understand why it happens."

Nevertheless, the development of performance-enhancing drug use caught the BBWAA off guard as a whole. Embarrassment has something to do with it, I'm guessing. When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa raced to 62 homers and beyond, writers were happy to go along for the ride, and some tried to write best-selling books about it all. Other reporters tried to get their hands around the problem of steroids and failed. Tom Verducci patted himself on the back in a recent interview about how he had it all figured out with Ken Caminiti before the 2002 season. A year later, he wrote a detailed piece about Roger Clemens' incredible workout regimen that mentioned nothing about the subject (the interview didn't cover it, either). Most writers didn't bother with PEDs at all, at least unless the Mitchell Report or drug-testing violations brought their coverage area into it.

A decade later, hundreds of baseball writers still don't know how to receive this information, and they're happy to hold up history while they figure it out -- if they're bothering at all. After Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson revealed that there were no names to reveal, he and other assembled reporters (Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman) defended the results by calling the shutout a part of the "process."

Never mind that the voters' "process" is a euphemism defending the ignorance and/or laziness of large sects of the voting body that wait until a candidate crosses a certain threshold of support before jumping on board. The question I have is, "Who does the 'process' actually serve?"

It doesn't serve baseball fans. It doesn't serve the museum, which has lost money in eight of the last 10 years, and $2 million in 2011. It certainly won't serve the village of Cooperstown for the same reason.

It doesn't serve the players on the ballot. Alan Trammell, a guy who retired in 1996 and has no apparent ties to the steroid era, lost 3 percent of support for his damn good Hall of Fame case. With another glut of superstars coming aboard the ballot, I'm sure he'll be comforted knowing the "process" is working to sink him after years of steady gains.

It doesn't even serve the BBWAA. Refusing to vote for Clemens, Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro is one thing. There's some amount of evidence, even if it isn't enough to convict in court. Failing to induct a 3,000-hit guy like Craig Biggio (who was a Hall of Famer at 2,600 hits, mind you) or Mike Piazza because of teammate ties and back acne is a whole other mess. They have baseball writers playing detectives or forensic scientists when they haven't even proven themselves capable of covering modern-day baseball.

Maybe the writers would be justified if they had a perfect record defending the character clause, but that horse left the barn a long time ago. Even by modern standards, the Hall still opened the door on the first ballot for Kirby Puckett and Dennis Eckersley with their first chances. When they refuse superior players entry because of "suspected" baggage, it just makes their enshrined swings and misses look so much more naive.

Basically, the BBWAA failed to put future Hall of Famers in the Hall of Fame because ... they didn't wanna. That creates a big ripple down the chain, and one that a healthy Hall class next year won't mend by itself.

Since that ripple hasn't come back to rock the BBWAA yet, it's not going to push for drastic change. Bob Nightengale put it best:

No need to condemn the process. It might not be perfect, but it's ours.

And as long as their position isn't threatened, they're happy being myopic. Instead of changing the process to solve problems, they'd rather "wait a year" for specious reasons and hold out until it's not their problem anymore, because otherwise they might put their own entitlements on the chopping block.

That's as bureaucratic as bureaucracy gets.

Star-divide

This all could be good news for Frank Thomas, but because of the aforementioned "process," it's hard to say.

The early returns are encouraging. Jeff Passan says Thomas, along with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, will "easily exceed" 75 percent. The MLB Network panel also considered him a lock, as did an article on MLB.com.

These days, "lock" status requires faith in the BBWAA, and I don't know why it should receive any benefit of the doubt.

While Thomas was an early proponent of testing reform and the only active player to participate in the Mitchell Report investigation, do you think voters who automatically reject any "steroid era" candidates will grant him an exception? That's going to require a little bit of research, and I don't trust the lifetime pass members who have been away from baseball 20-plus years to do it. It's easier to note his size and draw conclusions from that.

And while Thomas is a rare .300/.400/.500 guy -- and one with 521 homers and more walks than strikeouts, too -- he's going to get dinged for being a DH. Based on results, voters might not be aware of positional scarcity (which is a big reason why Biggio is so underappreciated), but they definitely don't like designated hitters.

The presence of Maddux and Glavine might hurt Thomas more than they help. I remember back in the late 1990s, my family was planning a trip to Cooperstown around the induction of Carlton Fisk, my brother's favorite player. We guessed that he would get inducted on his first ballot in 1999, but we didn't account for the class. Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount overshadowed Fisk's first-ballot sheen, and so he fell 9 percent short. Everybody invested in Fisk's campaign had to "wait a year."

Maybe Thomas will be recognized as The Clean Slugger, but Maddux and Glavine are a simpler storyline. They're not just 300-game winners with no apparent ties to PEDs, but they were also teammates and key players in one of the game's most remarkable organizations. Package them with Veterans Committee nods for Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz, and there's an easy theme for the day (as long as nobody watches this commercial!). Maddux and Glavine still leave plenty of room for Thomas, but when it comes to the number of qualified candidates elected by the BBWAA, the under is the better bet.

It's safer to assume Thomas has a climb in front of him. And since I imagine many Sox fans are planning a trip to Cooperstown around his induction, we'll do what we can over the next year to lay out his case, in hopes that it might provide a reference for people who can actually make a difference. From personal experience, waiting a year sucks.

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