Cooperstown’s doors will swing wide open for a handful of stars and might go more than slightly ajar for a couple of icons linked to performance-enhancing drugs when the Baseball Hall of Fame reveals the results of voting Wednesday evening. The announcement will mark the culmination of celebrated careers and the continuation of intense debate about who belongs in the Hall and who doesn’t.
With the election process having taken on a life of its own, the announcement has become a highlight of the offseason and has made the Hall as relevant as it ever has been.
“It underscores how passionate the discussion is and how much people care,” said Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson, who will announce the new inductees on the MLB Network. “Usually, when a player retires, we move on to the next generation. But in baseball, we never let go of our heroes. It shows you the high regard in which baseball history is held.”
Chipper Jones, Jim Thome and Vladimir Guerrero are expected to be named for induction, judging from tracking of ballots that have been made public so far. They might be joined by Trevor Hoffman and Edgar Martinez, who would become the first enshrined as primarily a designated hitter.
Perhaps most intriguing will be the vote totals of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, whose election had seemed nearly impossible a few years ago but who have come increasingly closer to the 75 percent needed for enshrinement. That specter is a flashpoint, as Hall of Fame player Joe Morgan, now vice chairman of the Hall, took the unprecedented step in November of writing to all voters saying that he and fellow inductees “hope the day never comes when known steroid users are voted into the Hall of Fame.”
Fellow Hall of Famer Willie McCovey later publicly took issue with Morgan, charging that the letter was a direct shot at Bonds, his fellow former Giant and the all-time home run leader. That exchange reflected the hard questions confronting voters about performance-enhancing drugs: Who used them and how much does it matter?
All of this continues to unfold in full view of fans armed with an array of new statistical data and empowered to make themselves heard through social media.
“I think that the rise of the internet as a factor in baseball coverage has turned the Hall of Fame voting season into a spectator sport unto itself,” said Jay Jaffe, a Brooklyn-based contributor to SI.com and author of the 2017 book, “Cooperstown Casebook: Who’s in the Hall of Fame, Who Should Be In, and Who Should Pack Their Plaques.” He also developed the widely quoted Jaffe WAR System (JAWS) for measuring Hall candidates.
Jaffe cited the rise of advanced statistics for fueling the fervor, adding, “While Hall of Fame selection certainly existed before, now every fan has the means of weighing in on his or her choices and points of view.”
Following the model established by Rich Lederer, whose persistent stats-based campaign helped Bert Blyleven make it to Cooperstown, fans have lobbied (and occasionally badgered) voters to reconsider their favorite candidates. Many voters — members of the Baseball Writers Association of America become eligible after 10 years in the association — now make their ballots public.
“If not a democracy, there’s at least some expectation of a republic, with bystanders hoping that their voices will be heard by voters,” Jaffe said. “It can make for a noisy cacophony, particularly in the six to eight weeks between the ballot’s release and the announcement of the voting results, but fans and voters bring a lot of passion to the process. It’s a reminder that the Hall doesn’t just belong to the players, it belongs to the fans as well.”
Idelson said of the new participatory environment, “I find it fascinating, and good for the conversation.”
In recent years, the Hall’s board has become concerned about a lack of inductees, a shortage probably brought about by the electorate’s wariness of the steroids era. The Hall has changed voting criteria, eliminating many older and inactive writers, and restructured what used to be called the veteran’s committee. This year’s class figures to be a large one, with former Tigers teammates Jack Morris and Alan Trammell having been elected last month by the Modern Baseball Era committee.
“Even with the recent rise in the number of electees the last three or four years, the total number of players who have worn major league uniforms and have made it to Cooperstown is still right around 1 percent,” the Hall’s president said, mindful of the spirited debate. “It speaks to the difficulty of getting in, and the passion that people have for their heroes.”