Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 20: Hall of Fame logjam

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 20 — The Hall of Fame Logjam 

Hall of Fame voting is pretty simple. Each year the Hall releases its ballot of candidates to the eligible voters from the Baseball Writers Association of America. The voters can pick up to ten candidates on their ballot. Any candidates who get 75% or more of the vote are elected. Candidates who get less than 5% of the vote fall off. Candidates who get more than 5% of the vote but less than 75% of the vote can stay on the ballot until they either get elected, fall below 5%, or appear on ballots for ten years without election (it used to be 15 years). If they haven’t been elected in that time they are done, unless the Veterans Committee puts them in later.

The system is designed to furnish new names on the ballot at more or less the same rate that old names fall off the ballot, giving voters similarly-sized pools to vote on each year. The ballot thresholds — 5% for falling off and 75% for induction — are designed to get the very, very deserving and the very, very undeserving cleared off the ballot quickly in order to keep the ballot from getting clogged up. As baseball history progresses, Hall of Fame voting is supposed to, at least roughly, track baseball history, lagging by about five years due to the post-retirement waiting period until guys become eligible.

In the early 2010s, however, it appeared as if this system was going to break down. The reason? Performance enhancing drugs.

The “Steroid Era” of the 1990s and 2000s began to wind down on the field — at least ostensibly — due to the release of The Mitchell Report in late 2007 and the subsequent strengthening of drug testing in its wake. Around this same time, and in the few years just after, the players most prominently associated with the Steroid Era retired. Soon they would be hitting the Hall of Fame ballot.

The fear was that, due to their association with PEDs — which was viewed as disqualifying for Hall of Fame induction by a large percentage of the electorate — even the best players of that crowd would fall short of the 75% they’d normally be expected to get, but because (a) the players were genuine superstars; and (b) enough voters would be more lenient about their drug use, they would likewise stay safely above 5% for a long time. The result: a crop of 1990s and 2000s superstars would clog the ballot for years on end. What’s more, because voters were limited to ten votes regardless, the concern was that votes devoted to the PED guys would take votes away from the non-PED-associated candidates who would come along later. Some worried that this state of affairs would mean that no one would be elected for multiple years in the mid-to-late 2010s.

As the decade began, there was already one datapoint supporting this fear. Mark McGwire — a guy most considered to be a shoe-in for election while he played — had fallen into ignominy after his retirement, being hauled before Congress and giving less-than-impressive and often evasive testimony when asked about his PED use. When he hit the ballot for the first time in 2007 he got 23.5% of the vote. Enough to stay on but nowhere near enough for election. He was still on the ballot in 2011 when Rafael Palmeiro, a man with over 3,000 hits but a positive PED test and some bad Congressional testimony of his own, hit the ballot. His support was small, but again, he wasn’t going anywhere, at least for a few years.

If you were a Hall of Fame voter in the early part of the 2010s and you saw that happen, it would not be unreasonable to look into the future and ask whether there was a the chance of a real disaster in the coming  years. After all:

  • Both McGwire and Palmeiro would still on the ballot in 2013 when Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa, and Kenny Lofton all became eligible. Absent PEDs that’s a bumper crop of Hall of Fame-worthy guys, but with the PED associations some of those guys had, things would get complicated, right?
  • In 2014 Greg MadduxTom GlavineFrank ThomasMike Mussina, and Jeff Kent would become eligible;
  • In 2015 you’d get Randy JohnsonPedro MartinezJohn Smoltz, and Gary Sheffield;
  • Throughout all of this time big but insufficient vote-getters such as Jack MorrisJeff BagwellLee SmithTim RainesAlan TrammellEdgar MartinezFred McGriffLarry Walker, Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy and Bernie Williams  were all hanging around.

And more worthy candidates would just keep coming. If you look at all of those names it’s not hard to find more — maybe even far more — than ten names any given voter could consider Hall of Fame worthy. Which means that, theoretically, the logjam would cause players who, in the normal course, would receive votes to get the shaft.

It’s a scenario that had happened before. Back in the 1940s, Major League Baseball had been in existence for around seventy years, but the Hall of Fame had scarcely existed for a decade and voting did not even occur every single year. The result: there was a decades-long backlog of worthy players but no means to effectively clear it. It was so bad that even all-time greats like Rogers Hornsby was only elected with 77% of the vote. Others fell far shorter. Indeed, there were 46 future Hall of Famers on the 1946 ballot. Not a single one was elected by the BBWAA. Several, however, were elected by a much more friendly — probably too friendly, actually — “Old-Timers Committee,” the forerunner of the Veterans Committee. But no such friendly committee existed in 2013. Indeed, the version of the Veterans Committee which existed then was much stricter and, in any case, did not consider the same candidates that the BBWAA did, as it did in 1946.

More recently, particularly stacked ballots presented problems as well. In 1999, Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Robin Yount, and Carlton Fisk all debuted in the same year. Also on that ballot were five other future Hall of Famers. Ryan, Brett, and Yount got in — Yount just barely made it despite being a 3,000-hit guy with plus defense up the middle — and Fisk and the five other future Hall of Famers would have to wait. Would the post-2013 ballots present this same issue but more acutely? Would otherwise worthy Hall of Famers simply never get a chance to make it due to such a crowded ballot?

In the end, nah. It wasn’t as big a problem as a lot of people feared.

There has been enough traffic that a couple of guys — Mike Mussina and Edgar Martinez spring to mind — had to wait longer than they probably should have, but they made it.

Alan Trammell, Jack Morris and Lee Smith got pushed to the Veterans Committee, but they were all considered by a great many voters as borderline cases to begin with. Their struggle to gain election predated the logjam.

Curt Schilling isn’t in yet, but he’s kind of a special case given that people find him to be odious.

Fred McGriff is often called a casualty of the PED era — a presumed clean player whose accomplishments were overshadowed by the ‘roided-out dudes who followed him — but he never got anywhere near close enough to 75% for anyone to reasonably claim he was crowded out.

Current candidates Larry Walker and Billy Wagner and a few other guys on the ballot are on the outside looking in because it has taken years and years for a number of voters to be convinced that they are, in fact, worthy, as opposed to them being squeezed out due to people simply not having room for them on their ballots. Indeed, the average Hall of Fame ballot still doesn’t come close to having ten names on it. The guys who haven’t made it are victims of the Hall electorate’s historically and often unreasonably tough grading, not the logjam.

Which leaves us with Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez and, eventually, Alex Rodriguez. Men who, in the normal course, would all be Hall of Famers — probably first ballot Hall of Famers — but who are unlikely to get in or, at the very least, get in easily. Those men will never be considered victims of a logjam. Those men, because of their PED histories, won’t be considered victims of anything.

No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal

A’s running out of time to find home in Oakland, Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — The Oakland Athletics have spent years trying to get a new stadium while watching Bay Area neighbors such as the Giants, Warriors, 49ers and Raiders successfully move into state-of-the-art venues, and now time is running short on their efforts.

The A’s lease at RingCentral Coliseum expires after the 2024 season, and though they might be forced to extend the terms, the club and Major League Baseball have deemed the stadium unsuitable for a professional franchise.

They are searching for a new stadium in Oakland or Las Vegas, but they have experienced difficulties in both areas. The A’s missed a major deadline in October to get a deal done in Oakland, and there has been little indication they will receive the kind of funding they want from Las Vegas.

“I think the A’s have to look at it in a couple of ways,” said Brendan Bussmann, managing partner at Las Vegas-based B Global. “Obviously, they have struggled in Oakland to get a deal across the line. It isn’t for a lack of effort. . You have an owner that’s willing to pony up money, you have a club that wants to sit there and figure out a way to make it work, and you keep running into obstacles along the way.

“It’s time to fish or cut bait. Oakland, do you want them or not? And if not, where are the A’s going to get the best deal? Is it Vegas? Is it somewhere else? They’ll have to figure that out.”

What the A’s are thinking is a little bit of a mystery. Team President Dave Kaval was talkative earlier in the process, saying the A’s are pursuing two different tracks with Oakland and Las Vegas. But he went silent on the subject several months ago. A’s spokeswoman Catherine Aker said mostly recently that the club would withhold comment for now.

The A’s have been negotiating with Oakland to build a $1 billion stadium as part of a $12 billion redevelopment deal.

Newly elected Mayor Sheng Thao said reaching a deal is important as long as it makes economic sense to the city. Her predecessor, Libby Schaaf, led prior efforts to reach an agreement, but after the city and the A’s missed that October deadline, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed reservations a deal will ever get done.

“The pace in Oakland has not been rapid, number one,” Manfred said at the time. “We’re in a stadium situation that’s really not tenable. I mean, we need to do something to alter the situation. So I’m concerned about the lack of pace.”

Recent California history justifies his concerns. SoFi Stadium in Southern California and Chase Center in San Francisco were built with private money, and Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara was 90% privately financed.

“And then I think there was some contagion where around the country people realized these deals could be done well privately and could generate a return on investment to those investors,” said David Carter, a sports business professor at the University of Southern California. “Why are we throwing public money at it at all?”

That’s also a question being asked in Las Vegas, even though the Raiders in 2016 received $750 million from the Nevada Legislature for a stadium. That then was the largest amount of public money for a sports venue, but it was surpassed last March by the $850 million pledged to construct a new stadium for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

Another deal like the one for Allegiant Stadium, where the Raiders play, appears unlikely in Nevada. T-Mobile Arena, which opened in 2017, was privately financed. An arena planned for south of the Las Vegas Strip also wouldn’t rely on public funds.

Las Vegas, however, has shown financing creativity. Its Triple-A baseball stadium received $80 million in 2017 for naming rights from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Room taxes fund the authority, so it was public money in a backdoor sort of way.

Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft, who is on the board of the convention authority, has spoken with A’s representatives about their interest in Las Vegas and said he is aware of the club’s talks with other Nevada officials. He said the A’s are taking a much different approach than the Raiders, who identified Las Vegas early as their choice landing spot after many years of failing to get a new stadium in Oakland.

“When the Raiders decided to come to Las Vegas, they had a clear plan,” Naft said. “You had a clear body that was tasked with assessing the worth and the value, and they committed to the destination. I have not seen that from the Oakland A’s at any level, and it’s not really our job to go out and beg them to come here because we have earned the reputation of the greatest arena on Earth. We have put in both the dollars and the labor to make that the case.

“I think I’ve made myself clear, but from conversations with others, I don’t think I’m alone on that.”

New Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo “will not raise taxes” to attract the A’s or any other team, his spokeswoman, Elizabeth Ray, said in a statement. But she said the club could qualify for other ongoing “economic development programs,” which could mean tax breaks similar to what Tesla received in 2014.

Manfred said in December that the A’s relocation fee would be waived if they move to Las Vegas, a savings to the club reportedly of up to $1 billion.

“We’re past any reasonable timeline for the situation in Oakland to be resolved,” Manfred said then.

Naft said Allegiant Stadium filled a hole that went beyond landing an NFL team. It allowed Las Vegas to attract major sporting events such as the Super Bowl and Final Four and major concerts such as Garth Brooks and Elton John that “in many cases we would not otherwise have.”

He said he doesn’t believe a baseball stadium would accomplish that, and sports economist Victor Matheson agreed.

“I think there’s a real question about how much people are willing to watch baseball in Las Vegas,” said Matheson, a professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. “It’s not like locals don’t have a huge number of entertainment options right now, and it’s not clear exactly how much people might travel to watch baseball in Vegas, either.”

If the A’s truly want to be in Las Vegas, Naft said they need to make that clear.

“I just believe you can’t play destinations against each other,” Naft said. “If you want to come here and you want to be met with open arms, you’ve got to commit.”

Should the A’s fail to reach an agreement in Oakland or Las Vegas, they could consider other destinations such as Charlotte, North Carolina; Nashville; and Portland, Oregon. Whether they would have the time to explore such options is another question.

Oakland has already shown it will watch the Raiders move to Nevada and the Warriors go across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco.

Las Vegas, Matheson noted, is hardly in a desperate situation. He also expressed caution that Las Vegas could go from being among the largest metropolitan areas without a major professional sports team to among the smallest with three franchises.

“So you’ve gone from kind of being under-sported to being over-sported in a short period of time if the A’s were to go there,” Matheson said.