Henning: 10-player limit justifies boycott of Hall vote

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

A problem arrived last week in tandem with this year's Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. An insurmountable problem, it seems.

There are 13 men who in my opinion belong on the dais next July at Cooperstown, N.Y. They pass one of the hoarier tests in all of sports, in this case applied to players whose careers in big-league baseball not only were exceptional in performance, but long in duration.

And their reward for having qualified for enshrinement in a Hall of Fame whose followers and whose pilgrimages to Cooperstown merit that every worthy player be installed there?

Some are being shut out by an, at best, antiquated, and at worst, perverse, ballot that for indefensibly arbitrary reasons says I can vote for 10 men only.

And so, after considerable thought and after one man's earnest efforts for the past year to rid voters of this man-made obstruction to simple justice went nowhere, I've decided, no.

No more participation in a deeply flawed, abjectly negative exercise. There is no dignity in deciding among 13 worthy Hall of Famers which three are less worthy than the 10 whom some people, at some former time, decided must be my quota for a given year.

And, so, reluctantly and distressingly, for the first time in 25 years I'm not sending in a Hall of Fame ballot.

A once-happy, interesting, even exciting privilege and responsibility, has become a negative act resistant to simple, reasonable, ultimately necessary repairs.

In alphabetical order, here were the 13 names I concluded deserved a place on a ballot that this year offered 34 names for consideration (howls accepted at least until explanation is offered for a couple of unpopular people):

Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Jeff Kent, Edgar Martinez, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, John Smoltz and Alan Trammell.

It's a heavy group, for sure. In many eyes, it should have been even larger if you decide as some have that Curt Schilling, Fred McGriff, Mark McGwire, Don Mattingly, Lee Smith, Larry Walker, etc., also belong in Cooperstown.

But realizing there will always be sound and constructive disagreements on any two ballots about who is Hall of Fame-qualified and who isn't, those are the 13 names I've been asked to magically stuff onto a 10-man list.

No. It's not going to happen. Not this year. Not after I personally wrote last January to the Baseball Writers Association of America leadership asking that we do away with the absurd 10-man limit and was basically ignored in terms of even cursory feedback.

An unnecessary boundary?

All the more reason for why there will be no ballot participation this year is the experience from 12 months ago. I, and we, then had the same issue in trying to find sufficient space to accommodate candidacies subject to discrimination because of a single number – 10 – that, last I was informed, is no more sacred of a numeral than any other digit governing any ballot in any election.

A year ago I was forced to decide that a man for whom I had voted in all previous years of his eligibility, Edgar Martinez, was now a victim of numbers that had no reason or right to disqualify him.

Others had the same experience. A number of them later acknowledged that had there been no such exclusionary quota, they would have more than been able to provide the two votes by which Biggio missed election.

Now, with the arrival this year of new candidates – Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Smoltz, etc. – the traffic has moved from slowdown stage to a certified pile-up.

What an embarrassing, self-defeating boundary we're governed by.

Until this ballot is given the essential breathing room it and any pursuit of integrity demands, there will be no vote cast here -- not when irresponsibility in culling names trumps the accusations of irresponsibility that some will levy against a non-voter.

Of course, there are furious critics who will protest on any number of fronts, beginning with some of those names included and excluded on one man's Hall of Fame list of preferences.

Barry Bonds warrants Hall of Fame inclusion, in Lynn Henning's opinion.

You can begin, they say, by eliminating the cheaters: Bonds and Clemens.

It's a reasonable demand. Except, I view this situation no differently than last year, or in previous years. After a decade or more of reflection and soul-searching I have a personal and wholly imperfect method for dealing with a hopeless mess.

I choose to vote for players whose careers, apart from any relationship with performance-enhancing drugs, were, in my view, unambiguously Hall of Fame-grade. Clemens and Bonds, as odious as they were with their lies and with their apparent reliance on PEDs during an ugly and lawless era of big-league baseball, pass this excruciatingly distasteful challenge. Their numbers would have won them a trip to Cooperstown if they'd never once dabbled in the ugliness of PEDs.

Conversely, players who by way of circumstantial or documented evidence might have had dalliances with PEDs that moved their numbers into Hall of Fame territory – Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, etc. – are denied a vote.

Again, there is no pretense that it's a distilled means for determining who was clean and who was dirty. But no evaluative process has been able to show, with any degree of overwhelming accuracy, who did, and who didn't, benefit from PEDs, and for how long.

This is particularly true for an era of relative anarchy, 1996-2002, when baseball had no firm policy or serious drug-testing apparatus and when so many players were attempting to keep up, competitively, with the Joneses.

How many voters whom the Bonds and Clemens vigilantes wish to hammer are naively blessing players who might well have been juicing, at some point, as furtively as the more notorious suspects?

Answers are frustratingly few. That, of course, is an issue unto itself, the level of PED influence, and I respect many who have a different disposition toward the PED interlude. A personally crafted system for sorting through the likely offenders and their HOF candidacies represents only, for me, the best way to deal with reality.

Make ballots public

But back to the BBWAA, which in concert with Hall of Fame executives, conducts the Cooperstown vote.

A year ago, we had a robust discussion of the 10-man limit at a heavily-attended BBWAA meeting annually arranged at the Winter Meetings. A committee was formed to study the 10-man limit.

It was urged, personally in an e-mail letter to BBWAA officers, that the 10-man limit be expanded – this year – to avoid the very clutter and marginal chaos that voters now face on an unnecessarily restricted ballot.

Nothing has happened. Anyone understands change can take time. But there are Constitutional amendments that have been ratified in shorter time than would have been required to make the fair and reasonable expansion on this year's Hall of Fame ballot.

I now must ask: How many players will join Biggio this year in not receiving a sufficient percentage of votes – 75 percent is required for election – because a ballot had artificially created contours that once might have been acceptable but no longer apply?

How many voters will be forced, as I was, to decide which player worthy of enshrinement was somewhat less worthy of standing at Cooperstown next July than the 10 to which I'm limited?

This is separate from another plea I've formally made – that all Hall of Fame ballots be made public. It would go a long way to ensure that better ballots and more accountability is made part of an increasingly unpopular referendum on those who ultimately crack Cooperstown.

I was told by BBWAA officials this year that the Hall of Fame bosses want ballots to be private. And I can't for the life of me figure out why that would be helpful or necessary. In fact, it's a policy as easily remedied as doing away with the 10-man limit. But we know how that urgency was met in 2014 and there is no real hope that public disclosure of votes will happen any time soon.

But the 10-man limit, above all and immediately, must be lifted, and not only because qualified Hall of Fame inductees are being kept from enshrinements they, and all of baseball, deserve to see fulfilled.

It's because of something even more compelling that this ridiculous constriction needs to be whacked, instantly.

It's known as common sense. And that is a process to which we're all called.