COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The Hall of Fame voting process can wear on the emotions of a candidate who lingers on the ballot for a number of years. But it’s unseemly for that candidate to state his case too vigorously, lest he appear arrogant, or complain about the judgment or the intelligence of the baseball writers, in which case he stands a good chance of alienating the people entrusted with determining his legacy.
Few players had their nerves taxed on a big stage more consistently than Bert Blyleven, who passed through stages of anxiety, frustration, resignation and jubilation during his time on the ballot.
At the beginning, Blyleven waited for congratulatory phone calls that never came. He later expressed frustration over being excluded despite 287 career wins, 242 complete games, 60 shutouts and 3,701 strikeouts -- still the fifth highest total in baseball history.
By the time his 10th appearance on the ballot rolled around, Blyleven threw up his hands and spent election day having his truck serviced.
The public water torture finally ended in 2011 when Blyleven made it to Cooperstown on his 14th try. So he seemed like the ideal person to assess the latest directive from the Hall of Fame’s executive board, which condensed the waiting period for potential inductees from 15 to 10 years Saturday. If a decade isn’t enough for a player to crack 75 percent, his name is passed on to the Hall’s Era Committee in perpetuity.
The Hall’s decision might expedite the process, but it still isn’t going to satisfy observers who think the Baseball Writers Association of America is clueless, has too many personal agendas, or is too selective or not selective enough. And the wait, while shorter, will remain stressful for the person being judged.
“What helped me is that guys like Bob Feller and Harmon Killebrew said, ‘You’re going to get in. Be patient,’” Blyleven said. “It’s a tough thing to crack. This [change today] might put more pressure on the Veterans Committee.
“Maybe if the wait is only 10 years, the writers will look at the numbers a little bit better and quicker. I hope so. I’ve wondered over the years about some of the guys who have the opportunity to vote. You have guys like Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken and you wonder, ‘How can they not be on 100 percent of the ballots?’ Writers got more publicity for not voting for them than the guys who did it in a legit way. Maybe they ought to look at that more than the number of years [on the ballot].”
Jane Forbes Clark, chairman of the Hall’s board, praised the baseball writers Saturday for their “excellent" job in the voting. In a follow-up interview, Hall President Jeff Idelson said the likelihood of a player being elected after 10 years on the ballot was "incredibly minimal," and the overriding goal is to keep the process "relevant." If the new system is more humane, helps unclutter the ballot and forces writers to come to grips with players from the steroid era more quickly, those will be significant fringe benefits.
Still, the process could be further improved by eliminating the 10-man limit on the ballot each year. The ballot continues to get more crowded as Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and other real or alleged PED users stick around but can’t generate enough support to make it to Cooperstown. Meanwhile, other candidates are being judged by factors beyond their individual merits. When Jack Morris slipped from 67.7 percent to 61.5 percent in his 15th and final appearance last year, it didn’t help his cause that some voters simply didn’t have enough room to vote for him.
The Hall’s new system will add a sense of urgency to the candidacy of Tim Raines, who received 46.1 percent of the vote last winter and now has three more cracks at Cooperstown rather than eight. The same sense of urgency applies to Alan Trammell, Lee Smith and Don Mattingly, all of whom fall in the 10 to 15 year netherworld and will receive the full 15 years of eligibility under a grandfather clause. Trammell received a strong endorsement Saturday from Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline.
“I’ve always thought that he should be in the Hall of Fame,” Kaline said. “He should certainly get more recognition than he’s gotten. I’m not being prejudiced because I’m a Detroit Tiger. I watched him play for over 20 years. He was an outstanding fielder and a very clutch hitter. He was MVP of the World Series and a leader of the club. I’ve been totally shocked that he hasn’t gotten more votes.”
Many fans and Hall-watchers wonder how a player’s Hall case can change so drastically years after he’s hit his final home run or recorded his final strikeout. It’s a valid question. Blyleven received 17.5 percent of the vote in 1998 and 14.1 percent in 1999. Twelve years later, he was celebrating his election with almost 80 percent of the vote.
Blyleven benefited from a concerted lobbying effort by the sabermetric community, and human nature invariably enters into the process. Some writers change their minds with time or loosen their standards when they know a player is nearing his final appearance on the ballot. The makeup of the electorate also changes slightly each year as new voters attain the requisite 10 years of BBWAA service time and are added to the rolls.
But every time a player makes it to Cooperstown after a lengthy wait, it debunks the notion that “A Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer, and you shouldn’t have to think too hard to figure it out.” Some of that distinction might lie in the philosophical divide that separates writers who think Cooperstown should be a place for only the true elite and others who advocate a “Big Hall” approach.
Among the Hall of Famers in Cooperstown this weekend, Jim Rice and Bruce Sutter can best understand the ordeal that Blyleven endured. Sutter waited 13 years to be inducted, and Rice went the full 15. Five years after his election, Rice still questions whether the baseball writers are the best arbiters and would be open to a system in which the writers and current Hall of Famers both have a say on new inductees.
As for the question of time on the ballot, Rice insists that he never worried about it because his fate was beyond his control.
“What’s the difference between 10 years and 15?” Rice said. “The bottom line is, if the numbers are there, it doesn’t matter if it’s 10 or 15 years. The numbers aren’t going to change.”
But the rules just did.