Rational Thinking on an Irrational Topic

This is one of my favorite times of the baseball year, which is odd because there's no games being played, no highlights to goggle over, no action to analyze.

But there is the Hall of Fame, that marvelous institution/debate instigator that symbolizes so much and actually means very little. This is the time to think about the history of the game, the greatest players to walk on a diamond, and exactly how baseball still relates to our values personally and as a society. As a  fan of baseball history and a chronic over thinker, this is perfect for me.

Seriously...it's a good book.
In approaching the question of who I would vote for (which I don't and--barring a radical change in BBWAA rules never will--have), I decided to try a more logical, rational approach than the normal touchy-feely me is known for and than the great debate headquarters of Cooperstown, New York is used to. I thought, I'd fill out a ballot as an economist would...or even better, as a Freakonomicist would.

Those who've read the books by Stephen Levitt (pride of St. Paul) and Stephen Dubner know that, to an economist's mind, voting is futile. Elections (especially national ones) are decided by thousands of votes not just one; however the more local your election (mayor, city councilor, school board) and the smaller the margin of error in polls, the more likely that your vote will matter.

But civic elections are simple affairs--one winner, lots of losers.When it comes to the Hall of Fame there are really three kinds of winning: (1st) get 75% and get elected for enshrinement; (2nd) get more than 66% and apply enough peer pressure on voters to eventually get elected; (3rd) get more than 5% and stay on the ballot until you can boost yourself up for enshrinement.

So, if you cast an economical ballot for the hall of fame, then you can break down your vote to those three categories. You vote for people who might or might not reach one of those three thresholds (and don't worry as much about people like Roger Clemens or Dale Murphy who won't make 75 or 66% but will easily top 5%. With that in mind, here's how I would vote (if I could):

Yup, I'm biased...
1st--Guys to get over the top
It's no sure thing that any one will be elected this year. But the two candidates deemed most likely to succeed also happen to be two people I think are quite deserving and would be proud to help put into the hallowed halls. Craig Biggio reached the rarified air of 3,000 hits while adapting to three different positions: Catcher, 2nd Base, and Center Field. He might not be the most eye catching candidate this year, but a vote for him gets tremendous bang for your buck. The same goes for Jack Morris, who may benefit from what some people call the "acehood fallacy", but also dosen't deserve to suffer for it. Sure that one great Game 7 may be the main reason he's inducted...but it was our game 7 so...he surely deserves a boost.

3rd--Guys to save from elimination
If you read other people's ballots, chances are that you see lots of star powered name hemming and equal amounts of "gee-I-wish-I-could-vote-for" hawing. Since less than 5% of the vote eliminates you from future consideration, and since many people are doubting the next three candidates, a vote for them helps to encourage debate about guys who need a little more consideration before their time runs out. Ergo, I'll vote for the eternally moving Kenny Lofton (best lead off man of the 90s), Edgar Martinez (best DH, possibly ever) and Larry Walker (best Rocky Mountain-based jack of all trades).

Maybe they aren't surefire hall of famers, but they should be discussed more than once or twice, and voting for them helps keep them outside of the danger zone and on the ballot a little while longer.

2nd--Guys to make people talk about
For some reason, some voters (cou*knuckleheads*gh!) will only vote for players who've already been voted for by more than half the electorate. They're happy to vote guys in, provided their colleagues yell at them loudly enough. So, now that Jack Morris is being talked about (and perhaps inducted) we can move more guys up into the conversation (even if that conversation is fraught with ideological disputes of the rights and wrongs of drug use).

Listen, Monsieur Hendersono...
Start with two guys whose problem isn't drug use, but things beyond their control. So I'd vote for  Lee Smith (whose mistake was being very good at a job that lots of people don't like--and whose exclusion is a little like not letting John Adams into your house party because you don't like politicians) and Tim Raines (whose mistake was not being named Ricky Henderson's non-union Canadian equivalent)

Next, we'll start the steroid discussion by making people talk about good candidates whose only problem is being pilloried over a lot of hearsay and conjecture. Chances are voters will move first on good candidates who haven't been publicly identified as dirty-no-good cheaters--once we have consensus on them, we can move on to the more difficult headliners. So, I'll cast a vote for Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza.

That's 9 votes already...but since it's make 9 get the 10th one free, I'll also toss on Barry Bonds, because he's another conversation worth having: one of the best players without the juice, (the best player allegedly with the juice), more multi-faceted than the other boppers (Messrs Palmeiro, Sosa, McGwire et al), less prone to "his career was fizzling" blame than his most high profile partner in (alleged) crime (Mr. Clemens). Barry's case is special, and probably won't be solved within the next 3, 5 or even 10 years...but once he hits 50-60% a few more will waver, and a few more, and a few more...and that's how consensus is reached.

Now, of course, my perception of baseball's history, who the greatest players are, and what our values will make a difference to practically no one (save, maybe my wife [hi honey] and my mom [hi momma!]).  And yet! What is this time of year for if not for imagining that writing up your convoluted thoughts about baseball somehow qualifies you to make sweeping assertions about the history of the game, the greatest players of all time and baseball's relationship to our values? What is this blog for, if not to give voice to my opinions, as part of the longest running debate in baseball? I'll make my assertions, and others will disagree, and all will be well in the world of baseball punditry.

That's why I love this time of year: great debates, even on a tetchy topic.

(Think I'm right? Think I'm wrong? Leave your thoughts in the comments below)