Friday January 8th, 2010

When I first covered baseball for Sports Illustrated in the late 1990s, I dreamed of one day becoming a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA).

It wasn't so much the bonding among peers, or the snazzy membership card, or the secret handshake, or the never-ending perks, or the conga line of hot BBWAA groupies, or getting to take long walks on a beach with Marty Noble.

No, in the spirit of Gordon Gekko, the turn-on was power.

Unlike the majority of the country's 304 million people, members of the BBWAA (those who covered the game for at least 10 consecutive seasons) are the ones who decide whether a retired ballplayer is worthy of enshrinement into the Baseball Hall of Fame. That, more than anything, is why entrance into the BBWAA's ranks is coveted by writers the same way 13-year-old girls crave Justin Bieber's used tissues. (For those lost by this reference, Bieber is the Jay Witasick of pretty boy pop singers -- decent numbers, iffy potential, ultimately forgettable.) I have known more than a few scribes who loathed their jobs; who couldn't stand the travel, the press box food, the missed picnics and school plays, the blow-offs from players like Erik Bedard -- yet held on a year or two extra in order to snag that BBWAA lifetime guarantee.

In a sociological way, it makes sense. Most of us writers weren't exactly the cool kids in school. We stunk at sports, failed at dating and rarely -- if ever -- got invited to the good parties. While our peers were making out with the cheerleaders, we were debating among ourselves whether the Yankees were wise to have traded Jerry Mumphrey to Houston for Omar Moreno (And I don't care what Chris Katechis said -- it was a horrible deal). Point is, even the eternally powerless crave power. In the world of baseball, few wands wield greater oomph than that of the BBWAA Hall vote.

And yet, after spending so many of my years itching to earn that elusive BBWAA Gold Card status, I can honestly say that I would rather work as Bieber's "swagger coach" (frighteningly, he has one) than cast a vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Why? Because the whole process is a crock.

To be blunt, sportswriters have no business deciding which men do and do not belong in Cooperstown. It's a farce. A joke. Having spent many of my days covering baseball from press boxes across the nation, I will now proportionately break down for you what, exactly, we scribes do during a nine-inning game:

20 percent: Watch baseball

20 percent: Write skeletal game stories, with blanks to be filled in later

15 percent: E-mail

15 percent: Facebook/MySpace/Twitter

10 percent: Attack press dining room ice cream dispenser

8 percent: Debate the Jerry Mumphrey-Omar Moreno deal

5 percent: Return to press dining room ice cream dispenser

3 percent: Return again to press dining room ice cream dispenser

2 percent: Complain to neighboring writer that press dining room ice cream dispenser lacks chocolate syrup

1 percent: Shoot evil looks toward the overexuberant radio dolt screaming, "I'M FRANKIE ZACCHEO! IN THE FIFTH INNING HERE FROM PNC PARK, IT'S THE BREWERS 3, THE PIRATES NOTHING!!!!!" into a telephone

1 percent: Google "public relations" and "job openings"

In other words, while most baseball writers attend 100 or so games per year, they are no more qualified to determine a ballplayer's Hall worthiness than, well, you are. They watch, they take notes, they even inquire. But do they know what it is to hit a Randy Johnson fastball? To dive into the stands and catch a pop fly? To play 162 games per year as your body crumbles; as your mind wanders; as your confidence comes and goes like the Bethesda rain?

Or do they merely know what it is to partially observe?

Last year, Rickey Henderson rightly got elected the Hall of Fame on his first try. He was voted in by 94.8 percent of BBWAA's participants, which means 28 so-called experts deemed Henderson unworthy. Think about that: Henderson is a 10-time All-Star who won an MVP award and a Gold Glove. He compiled 3,055 hits, stole 1,406 bases and won two World Series titles. By every possible measure, he is the greatest leadoff hitter in the history of the game -- and 28 voters considered him lacking.

This year's results were just as mind-boggling. Roberto Alomar is a no-brainer Hall of Famer, one of the three or four best second basemen ever who, like Henderson, won two World Series titles. His lifetime batting average is .300, he played in 12 All-Star Games and he won 10 Gold Gloves. For a reason no one has been able to explain, however, Alomar fell short of the required 75 percent of BBWAA support. Is it because he spit in an umpire's face? Is it because he stunk as a Met? Because of rumors about his sexuality?

Because he was only so-so with the media?

Or maybe, just maybe, it's simpler than that: Maybe the majority of Alomar's hits came when the press box ice cream dispenser was in operation.

Chocolate syrup and all.

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