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HOF Shutout Shouts Out a Need for a Refined Voting Process

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The mixed interpretations of loosely-defined rules leaves everyone unsatisfied

Boston Red Sox Photo Day Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

It is typically and widely advised to avoid certain few topics in professional and familial settings: religion and politics. These important topics shape humans at both the societal and individual level. Religion and politics are also highly sensitive and combustible topics because they reveal our very sacred but very subjective core beliefs called morals. Widely-held morals often become societal norms, which eventually become laws to guide us in our daily lives, where we do not necessarily have the time or resources to wax philosophical about morals.

For example, in the U.S., morals surrounding marijuana consumption have relaxed after the pros of legalizing marijuana have been recognized by individuals, healthcare professionals, trade unions, and other trusted groups. As a result, marijuana consumption and purchase is becoming generally accepted behavior (a norm) and on the pathway to federal legalization. Of course, there are other complicated issues, like abortion and immigration, that will likely be discussed in perpetuity.

In our own baseball bubble, it seems like the 2021 Baseball Hall of Fame vote will be a hot-button issue for some time.

Moral and political decisions are everywhere, even baseball

While baseball and politics are two different things that many wish to keep separate, the 2021 Baseball Hall of Fame voting process and results publicly display how difficult it is to separate our morals, and subsequently political and legal views, from our real lives.

It also brings up a complex question: Should we/can we separate our individual thoughts on morals, norms, and/or laws from those who, at minimum, made major contributions to baseball and, at maximum, we laud as “legends” or “heroes?”

This is not a new question in life, or even baseball, for a simple but unsatisfying reason: It’s complicated. Navigating moral issues is uncomfortable. That much can be gleaned from those who publicly shared their decision-making process when voting for the Hall, whether they cast their ballots with moral caveats, voted by the stats, or did not vote at all.

Voters who explain away moral caveats

Most media chatter in the past few weeks has been created by a deluge of cringe-inducing articles and opinions written by (probably) well-intentioned but misguided voters like Ken Rosenthal and Bob Nightengale that explained or justified who they voted for and why. While transparency is highly regarded in journalism, from a pure optics standpoint reporting on horrendous domestic abuse allegations against Omar Vizquel and then turning around and explaining why you voted for him can be described as a lot of things, disingenuous being at the nicer end of the spectrum.

Voters who rationalize their votes with stats

While some voters felt the need to make a public confession about their perceived sins, other voters were more forthcoming about voting based on performance or stats alone. As a research professional, I also rely on this method frequently. It’s great, because looking at just the numbers appear gives us a sense of certainty, black and white, “just the facts.” The numbers help us rationalize or support our decisions. However, numbers do not always paint a full “human picture.” Numbers often support findings but are only one part of the picture. When you begin to look less tangible or qualitative variables, the story numbers tell might occur in a silo.

In baseball and sports at large, cheating within the game is an instance where the numbers alone do not tell the complete story. At this point, issues of sign stealing and PEDs and other stat boosters have been so pervasive in baseball, we have just accepted them as a contextual norm. However, looking at numbers alone is convenient when it comes to shrugging off more egregious, off-the-field actions like supporting and encouraging insurrection or beating your wife multiple times over.

Voters who voted with moral caveats and/or on stats alone are problematic by the BBWAA’s own Rules for Election which state “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

How does the BBWAA handle individuals who outwardly admit they voted against the BBWAA’s guidelines and purely on record, playing ability, and team contributions, which are only half of the categories to be considered? Why have these regulations if they are not upheld?

Voters who don’t vote

Then there are those who seem to draw the most ire: Those who had a HOF vote and did not vote at all. While the section heading is oxymoronic, not voting (depending on who you ask) is the most bold, stupid, careless, or brave decision you can make. However, these folks are acting more in step with the BBWAA’s own voting rules than the previously mentioned types of voters. A decision not to vote is certainly a stance against the choices — just as a decision to vote is standing with the choices — whether we like any of these stances are not.

How do we move forward? Tackle important questions

The various methods of voting presented above are not necessarily wrong, even though I personally disagree with some. Voters have chosen the best route to express themselves based on their interpretation of loosely-enforced voting guidelines.

Any sort of question involving morals and politics will make most of us uncomfortable, but that does not mean they are not worth addressing. Here are a few questions the BBWAA can answer to improve voting guidelines and improve the direction and future of the Baseball Hall of Fame:

  • How do we define a “Hall of Famer?”
    Are there certain characteristics we expect? Is it just about stats? Is this something that needs to be rubricized? What do we want those in the future to learn from the game?
  • Who upholds the BBWAA’s voting methods?
    There are methods on which voting should be based on. However, who is upholding these methods? Are they regularly reviewed? Part of creating regulations is that they must be maintained in order to work.
  • Where do we (and do we) draw our moral and legal lines?
    If there are individuals that knowingly used PEDs and even actively encouraged their usage, cheated in the game, or committed crimes of various extremes, why stop there? Who could we realistically induct otherwise? How can we justify the presence of tainted players already in the Hall?
  • Can we address humanness and mistakes without ignoring victims?
    What stories are worth salvaging — and how do we address them without encouraging bad behavior and turning our backs on victims?
  • Why are only longtime BBWAA members voting for the Hall?
    As Tommy Barbee and I discussed on our latest Killer B’s podcast, the electorate of the BBWAA is made up of mostly white men. This is an extremely small subset of those who are knowledgable about baseball, and bypasses those who have had different and various experiences within baseball.

Voting is a powerful tool that is sacred for a reason: It is an opportunity for an individuals to have their preferences guide and/or shape the world we live in. The Peter Parker Principle had it right in terms of voting: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” The BBWAA and BBWAA voters have power in who they choose for us to put on a pedestal, and bear responsibility in baseball, sports, and culture narratives at large when they cast their HOF votes.

Let’s discuss a vision for the Hall of Fame and clear, enforceable voting guidelines, so we can spend the rest of our time focused on the love of the game for all.