A NEVER-ENDING DEBATE

By Murray Chass

January 20, 2010

There is nothing in sports that creates the controversy and the debate provoked by voting for the Hall of Fame. More than a week after the results of the latest voting were announced, I was still getting e-mail about the results. Everyone is an expert, fans and bloggers alike. They all know better than the people who actually vote in the election, and they eagerly tell us so.Vote 225

A reader of this site told me in an e-mail that my ballot, which I disclosed before the results were announced, “contains votes for players I do not believe deserve to be in the Hall of Fame and you failed to vote for players who clearly deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.”

“Clearly deserve” in whose judgment? His, of course. Does that make him right and me wrong? Of course not. Am I right? Yes. Why? Because my opinion counts and his doesn’t. My ballot was one of the 539 counted in the election. He did not have a vote. Therefore, his opinion is worthless as far as the election is concerned.

That’s the real problem self-proclaimed experts have. They want to be the ones voting, but they don’t have that privilege. It’s their own fault. They chose the wrong profession. Accountants, lawyers, doctors, teachers and salesmen don’t get to vote for the Hall of Fame. Baseball writers do.

When I started out in life, I wanted to be a baseball writer, not so that I could vote for the Hall of Fame. I didn’t know anything about voting then, but it is something that came with the territory.

Actually, I don’t believe baseball writers should be voting for the Hall of Fame, though I don’t know of a more qualified group, which is why the Hall maintains its association with the Baseball Writers Association.

Nearly 20 years ago I introduced a motion at a Baseball Writers Association meeting that the organization should withdraw from voting. This was at the time Pete Rose became eligible for the writers’ ballot, and to make sure we didn’t elect him, the Hall’s board of directors changed the rules, deciding that anyone who was permanently ineligible from baseball was not eligible for the Hall of Fame. That meant Joe Jackson and Pete Rose.

I was not going to vote for Rose, but I objected to the board’s action. If Hall officials couldn’t trust the writers to do the right thing, I felt, we should end our association with the Hall and its election. If they manipulated the ballot in that instance, they could do it whenever they felt like it.

After listening to the discussion among the writers at the meeting, I sensed that the motion had a chance to pass. Dave Nightingale, a writer from Chicago, sensed the same thing, though unlike me, not happily. He quickly introduced a motion to table the vote, made some good arguments in support and saved the day for the BBWAA-Hall of Fame connection.

The vote was tabled until a vote of all of the members could be conducted by mail. With that development, I knew my motion had no chance. It lost easily.

Lisa Olson feels the same way I did then. A former sports writer with the New York Daily News, Lisa attracted unwanted post-election attention when an item on deadspin.com about the Hall of Fame voting said she always submits a blank ballot, has every year she has voted.

A blank ballot counts. It means the voter doesn’t think anyone should be elected that year, and it is counted in the tally. Depending on the number of blank ballots that are returned, they can affect the outcome of the election. The 75 percent threshold candidates need for election is affected by the total number of votes.

For example, this year there were 5 blank ballots among the 539 total ballots. Seventy-five percent of 539 requires 405 votes for election. Seventy-five percent of 534 requires 401. Without the blank ballots, Bert Blyleven would have missed election by one vote, not five.

But back to Lisa Olson. The report of her annual blank ballot made me curious enough to ask her why she does that. She doesn’t, she replied.

Lisa, who writes for fanhouse.com, explained that she doesn’t return any kind of ballot, blank or otherwise.

“I don’t participate,” she wrote in an e-mail, “because I believe journalists shouldn’t be voting on people they cover. As someone else noted, it’s akin to having journalists who cover the pentagon vote on who should receive the purple star. Who knows, maybe some day my mind-set will change, but that is how I feel now. I’ve no problem with journos who do participate; we all follow our own conscience. And not participating is much different than sending in a blank ballot. My decision to not participate has zero impact on the outcome.”

Gee, what a shock. A blog got it wrong.  Barry Petchesky, who wrote the item, was good enough to explain his mistake in an e-mail.

“On Lisa’s site, FanHouse,” he wrote, “they published the ballots of each of their voting members, with a note saying that Lisa ‘abstained from taking part in the voting process as she has in every election since she became eligible.’”

Petchesky said he attempted to ask Olson about her ballot via e-mail but heard nothing before he posted his item.

“A few hours later,” he wrote, “I got an email from FanHouse editor Andrew Johnson pointing out that Lisa’s abstention didn’t count as a ‘no vote’ against any players. I then updated the post to reflect this. Six or so hours later I received an email from Lisa explaining her reasoning for abstaining from the vote, and I updated my post again, publishing her note. I sent her an email apologizing for the confusion.”

But as usually happens with these things, Petchesky’s correction never caught up to his mistake, and Olson was branded as a blank-ballot voter. Worse, instead of eliminating the original erroneous report altogether, the blog left it on the site in with the updated information following.

I suppose that’s like having a report that a crazy man killed 27 people on a college campus, then finding out no such thing happened but leaving the report on the blog with a correction appended saying “never mind.”

That’s just one difference between a blog and a newspaper article. A newspaper would have deleted all mention of Olson and her ballot once the correct story was learned.

Blogs have had a field day with the Hall of Fame voting, and their focus seems to have been on criticizing voters. In one of the severest posts, on baseballanalysts.com, Patrick Sullivan, a name unknown to me, ridiculed Dan Shaughnessy, a highly respected columnist for the Boston Globe, for writing that … well, just about anything. I don’t know that Shaughnessy wrote a sentence that Sullivan didn’t ridicule.

One of the statements he faulted Shaughnessy for was his belief that Jack Morris was better than Curt Schilling. Preposterous, Sullivan suggested. True, I say in agreement with Shaughnessy. But then I would probably take Shaughnessy’s view over Sullivan’s on any subject. Shaughnessy has a track record; Sullivan doesn’t, as far as I know.

Bert Blyleven4 225I have had a similar debate with a reader over Morris and Bert Blyleven. Like Sullivan in his case for Schilling, the reader used statistics to argue his case for Blyleven. Most of the Hall arguments today seem to be statistics-centered. I get the idea that the stats zealots would draw up charts based on their new-fangled numbers and decide on the basis of the numbers who should be in the Hall of Fame. No thinking necessary.

Blyleven’s statistics have endeared him to the stats zealots. One of their big numbers is his strikeouts. He had a lot of them, 3,701. Tommy John, who otherwise had similar career statistics to Blyleven’s, struck out 2,245.

I think strikeouts get far too much attention and emphasis. Strikeouts are sexy. John, however, was a sinkerball pitcher and got more outs on batted balls and fared just as well as Blyleven. John had a career 288-231 record with a 3.34 earned run average. Blyleven’s record was 287-250 and his e.r.a. 3.31. John retired 57 percent of the batters he faced, Blyleven, with all his strikeouts, 59 percent. Yet in the eyes of the stats zealots, the voters were justified for not electing John but not for rejecting Blyleven.

The arguments will go on incessantly, and the conclusions will be I’m right, you’re wrong. Or is it you’re right, I’m wrong?

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.