Craig Calcaterra: The Hall of Fame may be broken, but not in the way you think it is

An out-of-touch electorate? Not enough spaces on the ballot? Voting criteria too vague? All of those things have been cited in the past week as reasons why the Hall of Fame voting process is broken, but in exploring the matter last Monday, Nate Silver pointed out a broader problem: the unspoken nature of Hall of Fame voting has been derailed by the injection of controversy. Put differently, it’s not just a weird year, but the breakdown of a larger system:

Hall of Fame voting is ultimately designed to be a consensus process. One reason that players tend to gain votes over time is because the writers are looking at what their peers are doing and value the endorsements of their colleagues …

… But consensus is harder to achieve when members of a group have divergent values and ideologies. Instead of the typical friendly arguments about how a player’s lifetime accomplishments might be weighed against how dominant he was in his best seasons, or how to compare players at different positions, the writers are now spending most of their time arguing about who used steroids and when, and how this should affect Hall of Fame consideration.

Voters have always had divergent values and ideologies over what makes a good baseball player, but that’s pretty soft as ideologies go. People can and will change their minds on that based on the views of their peers, logrolling and things of that nature.  Not so when a truly polarizing variable is thrown in, and for a number of reasons steroids are that variable.

Which, sure, that’s obviously the key point of contention now. But I wonder, even if we pass by the steroids stuff in the next year or two, whether the disruption of the consensus system will change the nature of Hall of Fame voting for good. If, having gotten away from the “friendly debate” era once, there will be more and more instances of that occurring later, to the point where it is dead entirely.

Today the values and ideologies which make a consensus system have to do with steroids.  Maybe mere baseball prowess is becoming a matter of ideology too — Jack Morris could be the first real case of that, or perhaps Bert Blyleven before him was — and we will see increased polarization about non-PED associated players too. EVERY candidate will become a point of harsh debate, not just those who took drugs or allegedly pitched to the score. The arguments will be epic, consuming more and more time and column inches, print and virtual.

In some ways we’ve seen this happen in politics. Congress has always been nasty, but there were always matters which were subject to logrolling and compromise which didn’t necessarily become points on which the parties would choose to do battle.  Now nearly every topic, no matter how far removed from the main planks of either party’s platform, sees the same level of polarization and combat that the bigger social issues and battles over entitlements typically occasion. I mean, lawmakers now consider basic empirical facts to be the subject of political argument for crying out loud. The previously non-political is increasingly becoming political.

Might things be heading in that direction in baseball?  Might we, trained by the hardening of positions occasioned by steroids in baseball, come to view every Hall of Fame candidate as “our guy” or “their guy” and may we soon find ourselves in a world where consensus is never achieved? No, maybe there won’t be a complete disappearance of consensus.  Perhaps someone truly otherworldly like Greg Maddux or Derek Jeter will be akin to military funding — one of the last places where everyone in Congress seems to agree (more is better, always) —  while most other players, even ones who would otherwise be Hall of Famers, become the subject of political stances. Maybe that’s crazy. But we just had an election where a 3,000-hit middle infielder who never had a bad thing said about him ever failed to be elected. We’ve got a 300 win pitcher on the ballot next year in Tom Glavine who I suspect will get lower vote totals than a lot of people would predict right now.

Maybe it’s not as important as politics, but as someone who takes a great interest in how institutions function and established systems operate, it’s fascinating to see one encounter a breakdown, even if it’s only a temporary one, and to wonder whether or not it will recover its old dynamic or, rather, adopt a new one.  Congress shows no signs of returning to how it conducted business in the 1970s or even 1980s.  Why should we assume the Hall of Fame will revert back to a time when the rhetoric wasn’t highly-pitched and the votes contentious?

Craig Calcaterra writes the HardballTalk blog at NBCSports.com.

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