Twitter is changing the prestigious Baseball Hall of Fame voting process, for better and for worse.

By Jacob Feldman
January 24, 2019

Welcome back to SCREENSHOTS, a weekly report from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet.


As baseball writers reveal their hall of fame ballots, Ryan Thibodaux keeps score. The late-30s healthcare professional gathered 250 public ballots from stories and tweets this year before Tuesday’s results show, giving his 30,000 connected followers a good sense of what the final tally would be. He loves the work—fueling conversation about baseball greats. And every year he tells his friends he’s going to quit. Man, I’ve got to stop doing this, he’ll say.

“I certainly don’t want to be known to the voters as the guy responsible for getting them screamed at by 100s of people,” he explained this week. “There are a dozen a year where when I see their ballot, I just go, ‘Oh no, this is going to get ugly.’” One Baseball Writers’ Association of America member, out of the 400-some with voting power, once messaged Thibodaux from the a local police station. He was reporting a credible death threat and wondering if Thibodaux could help identify the menacing tweeter.

This year, semi-retired columnist Bill Ballou of Worcester, Mass., drew much of the animus. In December, he wrote that he wouldn’t be voting for Yankees closer Mariano Rivera because he didn’t value the closer position, “a role I equate with a PAT kicker in football or a shootout guy in hockey.” Instead, he’d be abstaining from the voting process altogether. Local readers hardly reacted to the story; Ballou had been banging this anti-closer drum for years, working at the paper since 1987. But Twitter was another story.

“I clicked and I had 742 notifications,” he said. “When I first pulled them up, I was called a fascist, a Nazi, a racist. It was just incredible the things that people called me…. Once that happened I just tuned it out.”

Ballou did respond to a collection of thoughtful emails that came in from around the country, and after a series of conversations, reversed his opinion. He would vote for Rivera after all, he declared on Tuesday. Hours later, Rivera became the first unanimous inductee ever.

If you want to know why Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron or any other legend didn’t receive total support first, Joe Posnanski has twice chronicled the full, silly history of MLB non-unanimity. The short answer? A few voters had questionable reasons for slighting this star or that, not unlike Ballou’s, while others decided that no player should earn unanimous support unless they were truly better than those previous icons who fell short of 100%.

So Thibodaux was shocked when Rivera became the first to do so. Nathaniel Rakich, who calculates Hall of Fame probabilities for FiveThirtyEight based on Thibodaux’s surveys, was equally stunned.

Maybe they should have seen history coming. As inhospitable as the internet can be for baseball writers each January, it’s been former players’ best friend.

Three other men were voted in this week—the late Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina. It’s the fifth four-man election since the first balloting in 1936 and the first since … 2018. The 20 inductees since 2014 is now the most the Hall has seen in any six-year span.

“Folks involved in this annual exercise have come to believe that the social media attacks and counterattacks have become a factor in the voting,” ESPN senior writer Buster Olney wrote this week. After the results were announced, he said, “I feel like social media has had a big impact.”

According to Thibodaux, writers who publicize their ballot voted for an average of 8.5 players this year. Those who kept their picks private voted for 7.5. Maybe the former happen to be more generous. Or maybe they just don’t want the hatemail. Talking to The Wall Street Journal, political science professor Costas Panagopoulos referred to that behavior as “social desirability bias,” making decisions based on how they will be viewed from the outside.

As Olney sees it, ardent fans now view a writer’s Hall choices “almost like a litmus test for intelligence.” Leaving one player off your list will lead some to believe you don’t understand baseball’s modern stats. Leave another off and another segment will say you don’t appreciate the fine details of historic defensive play. You’re biased. How could you snub a record breaker? How could you vote for a steroid user? You don’t deserve a vote. You’re ruining everything. You’re an idiot. &$@#!

Rivera Makes History With Unanimous Hall of Fame Election Among Huge Class

And while the insults are usually par for the internet course—often times tamer than what more vulnerable public figures receive on a daily basis—they are clearly affecting writers. Ballou closed out his U-turn column by writing, “voting for that ‘Hall of Fame’ can be at the same time the best, and worst, experience of a baseball writer’s life.”

When Tim Raines was inducted after not hitting the 75% vote bar his first nine years of eligibility, Adam Kilgore wrote in The Washington Post that, “Raines’s triumph also illustrates, depending on one’s perspective, either the power of modern communication to persuade or the dangers of its ability to promote groupthink.”

Writers are often left in an awkward spot. This isn’t their day job, after all, and while the Hall of Fame is important—maybe the most prestigious professional team sport honor in America —sticking to a principle isn’t worth risking credibility with fans. Not in this media economy.

Noting potential conflicts of interest, several organizations forbid staff members from voting. Other electors opt to keep their ballots private or anonymous. A majority, though, release their picks, citing the journalistic principle of transparency if not obeying a boss’s request for buzzworthy baseball conversation in the dead of winter.

It’s worth saying, writers aren’t just affected by the online mobs. They sway each other too. Easy access to respected peers’ picks and explanations also contributes to the group’s accepting consensus.

The dual trends will only grow stronger.

Next year, Derek Jeter will likely become the second player unanimously voted into the Hall of Fame. Or else.


A FEW QUESTIONS FOR CRIS CARTER

Cris Carter thinks before he speaks. You can see it in the way he drops his eyes, in his active brow, when he clasps his hands. Broadcasting FS1’s First Things First with Jenna Wolfe and Nick Wright, Carter even uses his pen and paper on screen. Their show is quieter than its debate brethren, more Yes, and… than Shut up!

The result of Carter’s affect is that what he says hits with the weight of common sense, even when he’s explaining why he left ESPN or how “people don't know that much about football.”

After Tuesday’s episode of First Things First, Carter sat down to discuss his NFL announcing debut as well as those pesky Patriots, with Whole Foods granola in front of him and Adele radio playing on his Beats Pill. “I’m the resident DJ,” Carter explained. “I think either I’m good enough or I’m high enough on the food chain they won’t tell me the truth.” Here’s what else he had to say.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

How did you come to call two NFL games for FOX this season?

I've always wanted to call games. (FOX Sports CEO Eric Shanks) told me the first year he wanted me to concentrate on the show and then the second year he would look into getting me some games. So he did follow through with that and I was able to get several great experiences. There's nothing like—if you're covering the NFL—the pregame shows and the telecast. They’re the most as far as the energy. It’s easy to feel the football. If you love football, those are the two that I would say are probably the most fulfilling.

How was the experience of that first game, Titans at Dolphins?

Well, it was the longest game ever. The initial parts of it until they got the rain delay were what I expected. Then, after that, it helped me out as a broadcaster because I didn’t have to wait until the second game to make adjustments. I had people at FOX that were reaching out to me during the break, and I could actually take some critiques inside the game and make an adjustment. For me it was like broadcasting two games.

They wanted me to make sure that I was relaxed, making sure that I didn't get ahead of the play as far as predicting potential injuries. The other thing was showing a little less energy, so you have more room to be able to elevate the big plays.

So it was like, Wow, one of the first things they taught me was to make sure your energy is consistent. Then it was like, We need a little less energy.

How do you think about the competition as you measure yourself?

I don't think about competition. I don't.

I measure myself based on the bosses and what are our objectives every day, and based on some of the other sports I can bring my sources in on—the stories I’ve been involved in.

Kawhi Leonard, was he going to leave San Antonio? I said, he was definitely going to leave. Or recently Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan fans—Harbaugh saying he never wants to leave Michigan. I don't believe that to be true, based on what my sources tell me. So I think that I have a different measuring stick.

You can't always appropriate being an athlete to everything that you do. As an athlete some of the things I learned were persevering, working with teammates, things like that, but I don't have an athletic mentality going about doing my job no more than you do.

Along those lines, what do you think about comparing your move from ESPN to FOX to switching franchises during your playing career?

Well, I think that they can be the same. Broadcasting networks, they are like franchises in that they have the ability to utilize you anyway that they feel is the best for your talent. Shannon Sharpe and myself have been involved in the NFL landscape for a long time but FOX felt as if we were better utilized doing different things. That's why both of us are hosting our own shows.

And sometimes it's a matter of: Certain things are like dinosaurs and eventually they're going to be obsolete. If you look at the studio show that I was on and what they were trying to do at that time, it had been like the team was trying to move to a different type of offense and I didn't feel like my skill set was going to be utilized the best. It's not as if they didn't want me there. No, they wanted me to stay. They asked me to stay but I have enough leverage that I was able to get out at a very, very high level.

Another broadcasting team wanted me, signed me, put me on a show. So I think you can draw certain correlations between athletics and professional franchises.

FOX has more football than anyone else. And my brand is football. So I thought it was a great fit. Just based on that. FOX had a definite plan for what they thought that I could do. And I’m in the process of that plan. Other networks, they don't make plans like that.

Switching gears to last Sunday, what’s it like for you to watch two All-Pro receivers this year, Tyreek Hill and Michael Thomas, disappear (they combined for five catches, 72 yards, and no touchdowns)?

Tyreek Hill, I thought he would be negated. It also speaks to how Tyreek Hill needs to develop more things as a wide receiver. Michael Thomas also. Michael Thomas couldn't create enough separation for Drew Brees to get him the football. It speaks to where these guys are in the art as far as being dominant wide receivers, because that's not something they could do to Julio Jones. It's not something they could do to Odell or AB. That's why they're in that category.

So that's the way I looked at it. In a big game like that, it speaks to some of the things that (Hill and Thomas) are missing in their game, even though they are some of the NFL's best.

Do you feel like people understand the Patriots, who they are?

No. They don’t want to. In all reality, people don't know that much about football. As popular as football is, as much as they watch, they don’t know. So what the Patriots do, you can't see. So no, you can't appreciate it. It's like the Warriors, you can see what they do. They overwhelm you with talent, alright? Their ability to be able to pass the ball, cut and move and everything, is at an extraordinary level. Everyone can see it.

You can’t see what the Patriots are doing. You don't understand the game enough.

SIGHTLINES

• ESPN+ said it brought in 568,000 new subscribers for at least a seven-day trial leading up to the debut of UFC on the platform.

• TNT will air the NBA All-Star draft for the first time Feb. 7.

• NBA refs are answering questions on Twitter in real time.

• If for some reason you’re looking for more Patriots content, Boston Globe reporter Chad Finn spoke with team color man Scott Zolak, one of the more excitable broadcasters in the business.

• ESPN is bringing back commercial-free Formula 1 coverage this year.

• Kevin Garnett had some great answers regarding why he features WNBA stars during his TNT segments.

• CBS rejected a Super Bowl commercial that focused on medical marijuana. A company spokesperson said the network has a policy against showing marijuana ads. Meanwhile, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said the broadcaster is still in conversations with the White House around a traditional Super Bowl interview.

• International NBA fans can now access League Pass for 10 minutes at a time for $1.

• ESPN has hired former NFL Media VP Brian Lockhart to oversee ESPN+’s original content strategy.

THANK YOU, INTERNET…

...for bringing this Reggie Jackson interview-bombing to light, which hopefully will end the once-fun practice for good.

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