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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Hall of Fame voting can get a little cloudy

Former San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds, right,

Former San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds, right, hits his 761st career home run off Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Chris Capuano in the fourth inning of a game in San Francisco. Photo Credit: AP, 2007

On Tuesday, the Hall of Fame will announce its Class of 2015, which is expected to include Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio.

That, of course, immediately will be followed by the annual public debate over what's wrong with the system responsible for putting them there.

As a voter myself for the past decade, I've always felt that sure, the process is flawed, but it's the best we've got. The Baseball Writers' Association of America, with an electorate of more than 500 qualifying members, has both the numbers and perspective to make sound choices about who deserves to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

This year, however, I've started to wonder about that.

As someone who consistently votes for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, I'm in the minority of the BBWAA. I understand the reasoning -- even if I don't agree with it -- and the Hall of Fame has never had any desire to provide specific guidelines about PED usage, be it allegations or otherwise.

But when that shadow stretches even further and darkens the candidacy of someone like Mike Piazza -- another name that regularly appears on my ballot -- I have a problem with suspicion overriding statistics.

Proof is one thing, but absent a positive test, or the confession of PED use, can we really discern exactly who did what and when?

These days, none of us would be genuinely surprised by any name that pops up on a suspended list -- and those that do certainly won't get the support needed for Cooperstown.

That's probably fine with the Hall of Fame. But the fact that it chooses to stay removed from the PED scrum -- and toss that decision in the laps of the BBWAA voters -- should open the door for icons such as Bonds and Clemens despite their anti-hero status.

"Our official stance is that we're prepared to induct whomever the writers choose to elect," Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson said during a telephone interview. "We realize that the rules have some subjectivity to them and some objectivity. But by the same token, you want writers to be able to vote their conscience. And how one interprets character, integrity and sportsmanship as it relates to the game on the field is up to each individual writer to determine. I think once you start telling people how to vote, that's not a very pleasant scenario either."

Idelson is referring to the only criteria the Hall provides for the ballot. Aside from having played in 10 seasons, there are no statistical milestones that need to be reached or number of trophies to be collected; the voting "shall be based on the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team[s]."

The BBWAA has exclusively voted for the Hall since 1936, but that character/integrity amendment wasn't added until 1945, and -- as Idelson pointed out -- it specifically pertains to on-field behavior, more so than off it.

People seem to get those two confused. If we remove the courtroom drama from Bonds and Clemens, does that change your mind? We know that anyone who snubs either player on the ballot isn't making that judgment based on performance.

For a sport like baseball, in which advanced analytics can dissect performance -- of any era -- down to the decimal point, there now is more ammunition than ever for these Hall of Fame arguments.

For more than a decade now, the old vanguards of 400 home runs and 300 wins have become devalued by PEDs and the specialization of pitching staffs.

The proliferation of expanded statistics, thanks to the warp-speed technology for data-crunching, has helped to blur the lines of what once separated a consensus Hall of Famer from a very, very good player. And that is becoming a concern for those who protect the show in Cooperstown. Restricting the number of votes to 10 players per ballot -- a rule that has been in place since 1936 -- is a way of maintaining exclusivity. That stipulation has come under fire recently, however, as the BBWAA and the Hall discuss a possible increase to 12 players.

That's still not enough for some. A growing faction within the BBWAA pushes for an unlimited ballot, but that appears to have almost zero chance of being approved by the Hall, which has the final say. There has been growing frustration, however, with the 10-player cap, and a few BBWAA members refused to cast ballots this year as their own public protest.

Others have talked about getting around the 10-player maximum by gaming the system, such as skipping the obvious choices -- i.e. Martinez and Johnson -- to instead use their checkmarks for players on the bubble, such as Mike Mussina or Edgar Martinez. If that strategy gains momentum on a greater scale, it could open the Hall to more candidates as it keeps players on the ballot longer.

But should that really be the purpose of voting? The mission here is supposed to be choosing the players who belong in Cooperstown, the elite of the elite. Case closed. Circumventing the rules to squeeze more players in should not be the goal, but the Hall continues to have faith in the BBWAA system, even with these splinter-group movements.

"It's always been a voter's prerogative to determine how he or she wants to fill out the ballot, whether it be 10 candidates, five candidates or not vote at all," Idelson said. "The balloting process has truly stood the test of time. It's very hard to have second-guesses about who's in here."

And that's why the Hall of Fame never sounds overly concerned about the public dust-up that inevitably follows every election. Despite the heated debates over ballot reform, the Hall usually gets what it wants each year -- fresh faces from the game's top 1 percent. As long as the BBWAA keeps delivering that, there won't be any lobbying from Cooperstown for a major overhaul.

"We're continuously analyzing," Idelson said. "It's hard not to live it when you work here, in terms of wanting to make sure you have a great, fair voting mechanism in place. The dialogue with the BBWAA has always been open and I don't think it's been a stronger relationship than it is today. We're very comfortable with the electorate voting with the rules that we've put forth. We believe they work and work well."

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