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A Hall of Fame ballot like no other: Will anyone be elected to Cooperstown in 2021?

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Many writers expressed discomfort with their votes this year — more should have altered their voting process to accommodate what they know is right.

Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The offseason has a cadence to it. You have the non-tender decisions, awards season, The Winter Meetings, the arbitration deadline, and finally, a few weeks before pitchers and catchers report each year, you have the annual announcement of the Hall of Fame votes.

As the votes trickle in from the BBWAA members who make their ballots public they are posted and tracked by Ryan Thibodaux (@NotMrTibbs). It’s a winter ritual for baseball Twitterati to argue about different players’ cases to be in the hall. In previous years those conversations were dominated by questions about PED usage and eligibility, but if you scratched below the surface of those narratives you would find a small group of writers and voters asking questions that went well beyond steroid usage. For example, here is ESPN’s Christian Kahrl’s explanation of her decision to exclude Roger Clemens in 2020:

The big thing folks will have noticed about my ballot is that I had Roger Clemens on my ballot last year (my first), and took him off this year. Clemens’ statistical accomplishments and historical achievements put him in the forefront of the Cooperstown conversation — he’s among the 14-15 players I referenced. If or when he’s elected, you’ll get no argument from me, not on that basis alone.

But the ballot is also very clear in its instructions that those are not the only criteria with which to make informed choices. After spending more time in the past year looking at the questions surrounding Clemens’ interactions with Mindy McCready, alleged and agreed-upon, starting from when she was a minor, and discussing the issue with other colleagues, I can only say that going forward, should he ultimately get elected, it will have to be without my support.

The 2020 ballot was amateur hour compared to 2021. While all of the controversies in this years’ ballot lurked under the surface last year the conversation centered around whether or not Derek Jeter would be elected unanimously (he missed by one vote). This year’s ballot offers a stark choice for voters because the players with the best statistical cases to be included in the Hall of Fame also all have some pretty serious asterisks when one considers the character clause. It seems so simple when you read it:

5. Voting: Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

It is anything but simple. Controversies over the character clause are nothing new as Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci explains in this short video, but the controversies have been amplified in 2021. Part of it is the players on the ballot. Part of it is the heightened awareness of issues like domestic violence, inappropriate sexual relationships, and political polarization. None of these concerns are new, but more voters being aware of their importance has shifted the conversation around who deserves entry into the Hall of Fame.

It has been eye-opening to watch the handwringing.

Steven Marcus started this controversial voting season with a blank ballot:

Since players need to reach a 75 percent threshold to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, a blank ballot shifts the denominator, making it harder for every candidate on the ballot to make it into the Hall of Fame. It was not the only blank ballot. Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explained his blank ballot as follows:

My vote would be different if Bonds and Clemens were up for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Its voters are instructed to make their decisions based strictly on what the players do on the field. It’s different with the baseball voters. We are reminded in our instructions each year of what has become known as the “character clause.” “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

Bonds and Clemens have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. I believe they cheated the game. I am not advocating that their accomplishments be stricken from the record books as if they didn’t exist as players. But I am not going to give them the game’s highest honor with my vote. I won’t be voting for Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz next year for the same reasons when they are eligible for the Hall for the first time.

His explanation for keeping out Schilling was even more blunt:

Larry Walker made it into the Hall last year in his 10th year on the ballot. Schilling has the best chance of getting in this year in his ninth year. Many voters look at the players who came close the year before — Schilling was named on 70 percent of the ballots last year — and vote to get the man in. I refuse to do that, although I thought long and hard about Schilling.

As of this writing there are six blank ballots on Thibodaux’s ballot tracker, up from zero in 2020.

In my opinion, the blank ballots are more defensible than the alternatives. The highly esteemed Ken Rosenthal wrote a remarkably incoherent explanation of his ballot where he basically said taking the character clause into account this year made voting such an unpleasant experience he wasn’t sure he even wanted to vote anymore:

I hate my Hall of Fame ballot. It might be my last.

The ballot is fine, baseball-wise. Some will disagree with this choice or that, as happens every year. But this time, my discontent runs deeper than usual, beyond the inner conflict voters face when simply trying to decide which players are most deserving.

That guiding philosophy — pick the best players — is how I settled on my 10 selections, seven holdovers from my past ballots and three others I had strongly considered previously. So many of my choices were people of questionable character, I called it my hold-my-nose ballot. But the more I think about it, the sick-to-my-stomach ballot would be a more accurate description. I voted out of obligation and ended up feeling like I did the wrong thing, not knowing what the right thing was.

It is worth noting that the sick-to-his-stomach feeling Rosenthal describes is the feeling many fans of the game have when their teams employ domestic abusers, players who harass women on Twitter, and other questionable characters. It sounds exactly like the feeling I had watching Addison Russell return to play for the Cubs in 2019. That Rosenthal is just encountering this feeling and hates it so much he doesn’t want to vote anymore says a lot about the privileged space most baseball writers occupy.

Marc Carig took a slightly more palatable approach in The Athletic today, discussing his discomfort about voting with a neuroscientist (yes, really):

We were 30 minutes into an enlightening conversation when the voice on the other line pivoted to an adjacent topic. “That wasn’t you,” asked Dr. Renee Miller. “Was it?” She wanted to know if I was the one who denied Derek Jeter unanimous election into the baseball Hall of Fame last year. When I assured her that I was not, she offered a friendly laugh. Then she resumed explaining, from a scientific perspective, why I found voting for the honor to be so painful.

It wasn’t always that way. But this year felt different, and it went beyond figuring out what to do with Curt Schilling. The process, the same one that I’ve used every year since I got my first vote, had failed me. I have ignored the dreaded “character clause” because it is impossible to truly know such a thing. Schilling’s social media rantings shook that belief long before his cheerleading for an insurrection. I have insisted that a Hall of Fame vote can’t be only about numbers. It must also include the subjective, such as the way you perceived a player when he played. Not once in the course of watching him did I think that Scott Rolen rose to the level of a Hall of Famer. The statistical evidence has increasingly made me doubt my own memory.

And then there are the voters who wanted their ballots back after the January 6 insurrection — presumably because they were fine with their vote for Curt Schilling prior to his support for the invasion of the Capitol, but not after. That’s a pretty mind-boggling distinction for me, but apparently it is a bright line for some, as Maury Brown of Forbes reports:

The fallout of the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 that left five dead has now made its way into baseball as numerous Baseball Hall of Fame voters have asked to amend their ballots after the controversial QAnon believer Curt Schilling supported the mob.

Schilling has been a lightning rod across his time on the Hall of Fame ballot for his alt-right conservative views; in 2016, for instance, he posted a picture to his Twitter account of someone wearing a T-shirt that read: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” Schilling added the comment “OK, so much awesome here…” That didn’t exactly endear himself to the writers who would be voting for him.

But the increase in his vitriol around the 2020 election, and his unfettered stream supporting the unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud, has made Schilling a unique case for the voters, particularly after he posted a series of videos and messages to his Twitter account regarding the Jan. 6 event at the Capitol.

In a few hours we’ll know if any player reached the threshold for inclusion in Baseball’s Hall of Fame, but we know now that the biggest story of the day is the discomfort that comes with change and awareness. I wish more writers had truly grappled with the implications of that discomfort and altered their ballots rather than retreating to their prior process even though they could feel in their gut that it those processes were inadequate.