Declining the opportunity to vote for baseball's Hall of Fame does not make sense to a lot of sports fans. Ever since I stopped filling out my ballot, I've had plenty of offers from friends and at least one brother-in-law to take up the responsibility. I understand their reactions. It's a thrill just to receive the ballot and look it over, even if I don't follow the thrill to its ultimate conclusion.
For a combination of reasons, I bailed out after just one election, in 2006. First, I don't really believe that 10 years as a member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America makes me qualified to vote. For many other members, three years would be sufficient. They follow the sport more intently than any other, weigh statistics passionately and care deeply who receives the honor of a plaque in Cooperstown. I've never covered baseball exclusively, and I generally pay more attention to the NFL. For the most part, I see the elections as statements of the obvious, and I'm far more intrigued by what kind of memorabilia goes to the museum. When I learned that Dave Roberts' spikes had not made it into the collection from the 2004 Red Sox, the oversight mattered a great deal more to me than any ballot.
In a larger sense, the idea of making sports news instead of just covering and commenting on it brings a certain discomfort. The New York Times shares this feeling; it bars its writers from voting. When the PED issue overtook baseball, my job as a San Francisco columnist gave me endless opportunities to judge Barry Bonds' choices and accomplishments. I'd get calls from surveying reporters, asking what I'd do when his name appeared on the Hall ballot, and over time, I realized that I couldn't confidently make that call. I no more wanted to decide his Cooperstown fate than I cared to serve on the jury at his perjury and obstruction trial. At that point, rendering an actual verdict would have felt like playing out of position.
Aside from that, I still bore some scars from my early years in the business, as a high school sportswriter who helped choose teenagers for all-star teams. One of the more humbling experiences of my career involved explaining to Marvin Harrison why The Philadelphia Inquirer had named him only to its second-team all-area football offense. Yes, that Marvin Harrison.
I told him that I'd been outvoted by fellow scribes, who favored some now-anonymous running back from the suburbs. In fairness to the other voters, Marvin was slender for a running back and played against weaker competition in the city, and for all-area purposes, he couldn't be moved to the receiver's position he ultimately occupied at Syracuse and with the Indianapolis Colts. But did that really matter? And did I, as the city-based writer, fight hard enough for him? No, and no.
I also told Marvin that I was sure he would prove us wrong. At least I got something right that weekend.
As bad as that incident was, it didn't feel as patently fraudulent as the attempt to pick offensive linemen for those teams. We covered a huge region, and most of the writers barely had sufficient information to pick out the superior skill-position players. But the linemen? We certainly didn't watch film. The criteria pretty much came down to size, college recruiting buzz and whether the kid's team won.
One coach complained to me that many scouts relied on writers' honors, so when we overlooked someone, we hurt his future. I was appalled that scouts had such poor judgment but figured that smaller schools from far away had limited options. I made this point the centerpiece of some world-class whining about the gig, and several editors agreed. One of them even hit hard on the theory that I eventually embraced: We were making news instead of reporting it.
Still, in my four years on the job, we couldn't halt the tradition. When baseball sabermetricians began hammering traditional sportswriters for their limited statistical analysis, I remember thinking they'd busted us on misdemeanors when the felonies were plain to see.
The baseball Hall of Fame elections bear none of the markings of those high school all-star farces. The writers know what they're doing. They have as much information as anyone else would, and sufficient detachment to support a meritocracy.
But with baseball under a PED cloud, I wanted to see current Hall of Famers select the next generations, if only so writers could do their primary jobs without engaging in the political battles that arose over the absences of Bonds and Roger Clemens from Cooperstown last weekend. Former players also seem to have a clearer idea of what the drugs mean to performance, and as coercion, than anyone who hasn't played the game at its highest level. In addition, if unsuspected juicers were enshrined, they'd eventually become voters and, knowing what they know about their own choices, would presumably bring a more lenient attitude toward their publicly tainted peers. Writers who want to exclude PED users cannot possibly know whether they are adequately guarding the gate.
That said, the Veterans Committee has gone through periods when cronyism appeared to hold sway, and recently inducted players might be even more susceptible to fears about snubbing friends and teammates. There is no perfect way to elect Hall of Famers. It could be improved by including broadcasters and some writers outside the traditional loop. But for now, the only way for me to upgrade the process is to abstain.