We already have a fairly good idea what's going to happen Wednesday with the announcement of the inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame's Class of 2014. The most stone-cold certain of the likely outcomes is Greg Maddux's inclusion in that select group of men. It's almost guaranteed, both by merit and by the direction the publicly released ballots have gone in: As of this writing, every single voting BBWAA member who has publicly released his or her ballot has put Greg Maddux's name on it. So the primary question has changed from whether or not he'll get in on his first ballot, to where he'll rank on the list of first-ballot inductees receiving the highest percentage of the vote in the history of the sport.
The top-five men on that list -- Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken Jr., Ty Cobb and George Brett -- all received between 98.84 percent of the vote (Seaver) and 98.19 percent (Brett). Where Maddux ranks won't involve who he was "better" than, which is good, because saying Greg Maddux was "better" or "worse" than Ty Cobb is essentially a nonsense statement, no matter how well we've tried to account for value across era. Instead, where Maddux falls on that list depends on how many voters will decide to send in a blank ballot as a protest this time around.
The only other bloc of voters that would conceivably have a reason to oppose Maddux would be those who swear by the purity of the first ballot: The idea that getting into the Hall of Fame on your first go-round should be an even more prestigious thing than just getting in. But voters who lean in that direction really aren't thinking about Greg Maddux. As far as pitchers go, they're far more concerned about whether Maddux's Braves teammate Tom Glavine fits their first-ballot criteria (so far signs are generally pointing to yes). Maddux, with his counting numbers, his four Cy Young Awards and the seven consecutive seasons he spent at the height of the "steroid era" throwing 1675.1 IP of 2.15 ERA baseball -- with no off-field problems of his own with PEDs or anything else -- is the kind of guy this crowd votes for loudly and proudly when he comes around. He's an example of what they're looking for when people give them static for waiting on guys for a year or two.
So in short, come Wednesday it is entirely reasonable we will learn there is not a single voting member of the BBWAA who can name a single reason why Greg Maddux should not be in the Hall of Fame on merit … and yet he will not be elected unanimously. And most of the vitriol over why such a contradiction in terms is not only possible, but in fact becoming routine -- the fact that Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken Jr. and George Brett, all fell within a single percentage point of each other is not coincidence -- will zero in on the fact that by the voting regulations of the BBWAA, submitting a properly certified blank ballot does not mean a voter is abstaining from the process. Instead, it means he or she is essentially casting a vote against every candidate, ensuring no candidate will be elected unanimously that year.
Do this in perpetuity year after year, regardless of who is on the ballot, and no one gets in unanimously -- which is precisely what a group of writers and former writers have been doing since Pete Rose was banned for life for gambling on baseball. And since the only way a writer can lose his vote for the Hall is by voluntarily surrendering it, it seems like something they intend to keep doing from now until Judgment Day, unless someone either puts Pete Rose in the Hall or they stop counting blank ballots.
I think given the option, many people would choose to eliminate the blank ballot without much of a second thought. For one thing, putting Rose in because a few writers decided to co-opt the Hall of Fame voting process over the years to make a point sends a terrible message to anyone else who might be thinking of trying the same trick. Especially considering, well, they've actually been at it for a while already. Take last year's gang of five, for instance. Rose's name doesn't get shouted out once. The rationale for blank ballots has expanded.
If you're able to make it through the piece linked above past ESPN's Howard Bryant dropping "fascist," and past an egotistical statement from Mark Faller of the Arizona Republic, you reach Chris Jenkins of the UT-San Diego -- and his explanation is the reason you can't eliminate the blank ballot, however tempting it may be. If you as a voter don't think that confirmed steroid users should be in the Hall of Fame, and you don't think that anyone else on the slate meets the Hall's standards, then you'd be undermining that year's process by submitting anything besides a blank ballot. When you vote for the Hall, you're supposed to be providing your opinion as an expert, and if your opinion is that there are no suitable candidates on the slate, then that's what you say.
Now, I personally think the idea that Clemens and Bonds were the only two guys on that ballot worthy of the Hall is ridiculous on the face of it -- but there's a big difference between being wrong about baseball players and constantly submitting blank ballots to make a point that has nothing to do with those players.
In the Hall of Fame, it doesn't matter who gets the most votes -- it just matters who gets more than 75 percent of the votes cast. That means a blank ballot isn't "no opinion, but trying to get attention anyway"; it's an active vote against all candidates. Sure, Chris Jenkins has some pretty bad opinions about the 2013 ballot, but that's never been admissible grounds for tossing a vote out before. And while I generally believe that there's just about always at least one Hall of Famer hanging around on any given ballot, when you build that into the rules it's no longer a statement about the talent in Major League Baseball, but a statement about what purpose the Hall of Fame is meant to serve, and how important exclusivity is to its brand. There are sports whose Halls of Fames mandate someone go in every year -- football, for instance, requires between four and seven inductees yearly, and it seems to work for them just fine. So far nothing over there has caught fire, as far as I know.
But the Baseball Hall of Fame's approach so far has intentionally allowed for the possibility that some years, there just might not be any candidates worthy of induction -- and that's fine. A Hall whose brand is built on exclusivity absolutely should give voters a way to say "none of the above" and have it count just as much as the guy saying "as many of the above as will fit." The fact that last year wasn't actually the kind of year that should lead to no inductions isn't the rules' fault, and the fact blank ballots are sometimes used as media platforms isn't a problem in the bylaws either.
No player is going to get in unanimously, and people will always put out really terrible blank ballots and hop on the radio five minutes afterward. But functionally a bad blank ballot is weighted the same as any other bad ballot. The Baseball Hall of Fame doesn't need to compromise its belief in being selective in whom it chooses to induct. But, in order to fix what's wrong with the current process, it might just have to start applying that same exclusivity to the ones doing that choosing.
* * *