Virtual Voices
Greg Maddux pitching for the Atlanta Braves in 1997.
Associated Press/Photo by John Bazemore
Greg Maddux pitching for the Atlanta Braves in 1997.

Tradition, progress, and the Baseball Hall of Fame

Sports

The holiday season is upon us and with it another annual tradition has arrived: baseball’s Hall of Fame debate—although it might be more accurate to call it a melee than a debate.

This week the nominees for the Baseball Hall of Fame were announced and the 600-plus voting members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) have until the end of the year to select up to 10 of the 36 candidates on the ballot. This year there are 19 newly eligible players, including such stalwarts as Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas. But this is where things get tricky.

More than 15 players have a legitimate case for Hall of Fame status, but only 10 can be inducted per year. Several of those 15 players have been tacitly ruled out by many of the voters because they played during the 1990s and early 2000s, baseball’s steroid era, and thus are guilty by association (or, in some cases, by admission or proof). Last year, for the first time in history, no one was elected to the Hall of Fame despite several worthy candidates being on the ballot. And this has created a logjam of deserving players that exceeds the available openings.

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No matter how one views steroids, the steroid era, and the players who used (or may have used) them, two primary reasons exist for this dilemma. Both have to do with a refusal by BBWAA members to acknowledge or accept change, much more so than with the issue of performance-enhancing drugs themselves.

First is a lack of acknowledging and evaluating the different eras of baseball well. The steroid era, in many ways, mirrors the pre-integration era, the dead-ball era, and the post-war era. For a period of 15 to 20 years, pervasive and immeasurable outside factors changed the results of game and affected players’ success. But rather than seeing the players against this backdrop, voters are viewing them against the arbitrary and inaccurate standards of eras gone by.

The second reason is closely related to the first: the unwillingness or inability of many voters to learn new ways of viewing and analyzing the game. In recent years more accurate statistical methods for judging players against their competition and their era have been developed. They remove much of the arbitrariness of the evaluation and allow us to see players accurately compared to their peers, so we can know who really was the best at any given time. The steadfast clinging to older, less complete analysis is harming the voting process.

Such staunch traditionalism reminds me of many organizations, especially churches, that view the past as the ideal and thus devalue current insights and learning. Is newer better? No more than Greg Maddux is better than Walter Johnson, but we should at least be able to accurately value them and appreciate them in their contexts. When we stubbornly refuse to change we harm the present for the sake of the past and in the process cause dissent about what was good in the past. Tradition and progress must meet or else both get hurt.

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