January is coming to a swift conclusion, and for a particular sort of baseball fan, that means only one thing: It’s tracker time.
For the uninitiated, this is the time of year when qualifying members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America can choose to reveal their Hall of Fame ballot ahead of the official announcement on Jan. 25.
In a typical year, that’s cause for heated debates, teeth-gnashing and a hefty dose of social media vitriol — especially as the votes get tallied by Ryan Thibodaux, baseball’s unofficial patron saint of ballot tracking.
But this is no typical year. No, this is the year, the one in which writers will make their last referendum on some of the greatest — and most controversial — players of all time. It’s the 10th and final chance for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens to be elected to Cooperstown, along with Curt Schilling, who last year asked to be taken off the ballot, and Sammy Sosa.
And though all of these players could be inducted years from now by other committees, it doesn’t make the announcement later this month any less important. The decisions made here are an indication of the direction the Hall will go in years to come, especially when it comes to those suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs.
It also gives insight into the writers’ definition of Cooperstown — is it a museum for the best players of all time, or is it trying to be a museum of the best and most moral? Furthermore, what’s the line?
I’m not here to debate candidacy. Though my vote isn’t for three more years, I’ve written before that, given the chance, Bonds and Clemens would absolutely get my checkmark. Schilling’s case is more nuanced because of his character issues and, most notably, his desire not to be included, but his career is mostly Hall-worthy despite the lack of Cy Young Awards. Sosa is a no for me.
But that’s not the issue of the moment. The ballots already are in, and now it’s just a waiting game. The issue is transparency.
As of Sunday, Bonds has 77.1% of the vote, according to Thibodaux’s tracker — above the 75% threshold — and Clemens has 75.9%; both are eclipsed only by David Ortiz (83.5%), also suspected of PED use.
And what that tells the people who have been in the tracker game for a while is that there is a possibility that no one will get inducted this year, and a probability that Bonds’ and Clemens’ 10-year journey will be fruitless.
According to Thibodaux, numbers drop once private votes are factored in, and that’s affected Clemens and Bonds in great measure in past years. If you factor in only the ballots revealed before the Hall of Fame announcement last year, both players would have been very close to induction. The percentage of votes they received, though, dipped slightly once all public ballots were counted (a writer can choose to reveal his or her vote before the announcement or have the ballot made public 14 days after).
Once you factor in private votes, though, their numbers dropped precipitously. Private voters, he said, actually voted for the players at about a 40% rate. The result was that Bonds earned 61.8% of the total vote and Clemens had 61.6%.
Players have come in as high as 81.3% after 150 public votes (Jeff Bagwell in 2016) and still not gotten the nod that year. Last year, 68 of the 401 ballots remained private.
That discrepancy should give fans pause. There certainly are reasons to keep one’s ballot private — no one wants a Twitter mob to go after him or her, and certain writers might worry that their voting history could make readers think their coverage is skewed — but for many, the decision is making less sense as the years tick by.
For a profession that’s supposed to pride itself on transparency — not just our own, but the transparency we force on others — hiding one’s vote feels counterintuitive. If writers worry about not voting in Bonds because they know it doesn’t reflect the will of the fandom at large, they should be confident enough in that choice to publicly defend it.
This is not to say that all private voters are acting in bad faith. Or that not voting for Bonds or Clemens is necessarily the wrong decision. But as reporters, we ask that coaches and players be held accountable for the things they do that affect the sport. We’re even holding people accountable when we cast our ballot. Shouldn’t we ask of ourselves what we ask of others?
If you like your "small Hall," go ahead and scream it from the rooftops. The vitriol you get from submitting a blank ballot will die down eventually (probably?).
For what it’s worth, in 2016, the BBWAA agreed with that sentiment and voted overwhelmingly to make all ballots public. The Hall of Fame denied that request, though it wasn’t clear on what grounds, and it’s something it should reconsider. But as writers, we still have a say.
There’s a little line of text at the bottom of every ballot, and it reads: "Do you wish the BBWAA make public your vote 14 days after results are announced?"
That’s all it takes. Voters don’t necessarily have to write a column defending their choices or engage in a social-media war. I’d even wager that most fans wouldn’t cause much of a social-media fuss so long after the vote has been revealed. All anyone has to do is pick yes.
That’s the checkmark everyone should have on their ballot.