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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Why Harold Baines' election to the Hall of Fame makes me re-examine how I vote

The fine line between the truly great players and the very good ones has become blurred in the age of statistical analysis.

Lee Smith, right, and Harold Baines pose for

Lee Smith, right, and Harold Baines pose for photographers during a news conference for the baseball Hall of Fame during the Major League Baseball winter meetings, Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher) Photo Credit: AP/John Locher

Ultimately, for all of its historical pageantry, the criteria for induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame is whether or not a select group chooses to vote you in.

There is no statistic to reach for qualification, no number of awards required for consideration.

That group could be 410 people, as it was for Chipper Jones, who appeared on 97.2 percent of the 422 ballots cast by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America last year. Or it could be 12 people, as it was last week for Harold Baines, who earned the minimum 75 percent from a 16-member panel, in this case the Today’s Game Era committee.

Regardless of the process, everyone winds up with a plaque in the same place, a museum in upstate New York. And maybe the best part? They are forever referred to as a Hall of Famer.

Once that person is stamped for Cooperstown, the debate should be over, the hurdles cleared, the gray area gone. But the controversy over Baines, who many saw as unworthy of the honor, stirred up a sentiment that I had been wrestling with ever since I cast my first ballot 13 years ago.

Staring at the 8-by-11 sheet of paper that arrives every November, do I go with the slam-dunk picks, the transcendent, once-in-a-generation stars? Or first check those boxes and then work my way down, operating in the margins, sometimes looking for reasons why a candidate should not be in the Hall of Fame rather than the opposite.

From the start, I chose the latter course, and leaned toward the larger group. And by the end of a player’s 10-year stay on the ballot, the candidates whom I voted for regularly got into Cooperstown. The BBWAA process, for all the flak it receives, tends to serve the Hall’s purposes very well.

But as the years went on, everyone became much more adept at statistical analysis. Careers were dissected like never before, and it seemed as if a credible Hall case could be made for a growing list of players — especially if they were compared to those already enshrined. And as that line blurred, I continued to think more about cutting back on my own list, returning to the idea of those who truly stood out as the immortal class.

It had been an ongoing conversation with some fellow writers who always had voted in that fashion. They looked at a ballot, checked the box next to the Hall of Famers who were obvious to them, and the rest fell into the category of very good — just not special enough to join what they believed to be a very exclusive club in Cooperstown. As a result, I found myself sort of stuck in the middle.

But the Baines ruling nudged me out of that Hall-voting inertia, and I’m not disparaging Baines. Whether he deserves to be in Cooperstown was put in the hands of Hall of Famers themselves and very smart baseball people. While it’s true that three of the 16 — Tony La Russa, Jerry Reinsdorf and Pat Gillick — had strong connections to Baines, he still earned nine more votes. If the Hall’s board of directors is OK with this secondary committee system, who am I to shut them down? It’s their museum.

By comparison, Baines never received more than 6.1 percent of the BBWAA vote (75 percent is required for the HOF) before falling off the ballot entirely in 2011. With that prevailing opinion as the backdrop, La Russa launched into a spirited defense of Baines during an appearance on MLB Network last week in Las Vegas.

“I would love to get into a legitimate confrontation [and] debate where you pull all the stuff that we looked at and you tell me,” LaRussa said before adding some unsuitable-for- publication words, “that you look at, I guarantee you Harold [should be in]. Harold Baines is a Hall of Famer, and it’s a shame that now he’s being looked at as not right.”

As far as I was concerned, the Baines debate steered us all back to the gray area again, first carving up his 22-year career like forensic scientists, then providing another long list of candidates who now should be granted immortality in Cooperstown as well. Maybe that’s unfair to Baines, but it’s how the Hall machinery operates in 2018, and there’s no reversing it now.

All of this led me to looking at my own process a bit differently this time, but in a way that I feel provides more clarity. Mariano Rivera, who is new on the ballot this year, is automatic. I think everyone agrees on that, even if he won’t be a unanimous selection (just because no one is, for whatever reason).

As for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, we’ve already been over this a million times. Obviously, both fit the description as transcendent, once-in-a-generation players, as well as being among the greatest to put on a uniform. For the record, neither one was ever disciplined by Major League Baseball for performance-enhancing drugs, and in an extremely complicated era for all sports, that’s the threshold I go by when it comes to their Cooperstown eligibility.

It’s also worth noting that the BBWAA — the same organization that has kept both from the Hall thus far — voted Bonds the MVP seven times, including four straight from 2001-04, regardless of whatever suspicions floated around him. Clemens earned both the MVP and Cy Young Award from the BBWAA in 1986, and the writers voted him six more Cy Young Awards before his retirement in 2007.

I’ve never wavered on Bonds and Clemens since they first appeared on the ballot in 2013, but plenty of others have flipped on them since, which is partly the reason why both have climbed from the high-30s percentage-wise to the high-50s last year. Given that neither has played a game during that period, a philosophical shift (or bending to backlash?) can be the only explanation.

But those three were the easy part. Choosing to drop Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling, all of whom appeared on my ballot last year, was difficult. But in re-thinking my own evaluation process, as borderline candidates who sat atop the gray area — but still resided slightly below Olympus — they no longer fit.

In a sense, I had been waiting for an opportunity to go this more exclusive route, and this week felt like the time.

Deciding to leave them out this year is not a statement, or punishment, or some sort of nefarious grandstanding ploy. Believe me, I don’t have any holes in my life that have to be filled by attention over a Hall of Fame ballot.

The Hall of Fame continues to have BBWAA members vote because it’s the best available method to get an informed, objective verdict from a large group on a very hotly contested topic. And it takes the Hall off the hook.

Not everyone casts identical ballots. Some change their minds occasionally in what can be an organic undertaking. In reality, voting for three candidates rather than six isn’t all that radical. And for those who believe I did Martinez an injustice, I wouldn’t worry about him getting in after he earned 70.4 percent a year ago. No player has failed to be enshrined after reaching that number heading into his final try.

If anything, last week’s election of Baines — another DH — should help Martinez. It just didn’t resonate that way with me this time around, and from this point going forward. Others may disagree, but at least it comes from my genuine, thoughtful and untainted examination of an imprecise process.

I don’t think the Hall of Fame can ask for any better than that.

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