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OC Register: Hoornstra: Hall of Fame voting has become a feedback loop


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We all write things in private that we would never share publicly, like a child secretly passing a folded-up note in class. Baseball’s Hall of Fame ballot is, for some voters, a secret folded-up note. We always discover the note eventually, but we don’t always learn who wrote it. In fact, we learn every year that the authors of some notes want to keep their identities hidden.

Of the 397 BBWAA members who returned a ballot this year, all but one checked the box next to Derek Jeter’s name. The dissident has so far remained anonymous. To some fans, the Jeter-less ballot spoke louder than the other 396.

Omitting Jeter was hardly a criminal act, let alone an affront to baseball tradition. Only Mariano Rivera has been listed on more than 99.7 percent of all Hall of Fame ballots since the first group was inducted in 1936. And there have been less sensible ballot omissions in history. Joe DiMaggio needed four tries to become a Hall of Famer, Yogi Berra two. Thirty-six voters left Jackie Robinson off their ballot in 1972.

Cooperstown has received many taboo ballots and will receive many more in the years to come. The BBWAA has called for total transparency, for an end to secret ballots. Yet the Hall of Fame continues to allow anonymity to the voters who request it. This “private option,” if you will, always leads to interesting results.

The ballots that fascinate me most are not those that omit Jeter, Robinson, Berra or DiMaggio. I’m more interested in ballots with checkmarks next to names such as Adam Dunn, Brad Penny, J.J. Putz, and Raul Ibañez. It’s a slightly more consequential version of the “Remember Some Guys” bit.

Dunn, Penny, Putz and Ibañez each received a single, anonymous vote this year.

Ibañez, a left fielder for the Mariners, Royals, Phillies, Yankees and Angels from 1996-2014, never led his league in a major hitting category. He made one All-Star team.

Putz was a closer for 4-1/2 of his 11 full major-league seasons. He retired with 189 career saves, one All-Star Game appearance, and no black ink on his resume.

Penny had his best years with the Dodgers, leading the NL in wins in 2006. He won 121 games before retiring with the Marlins in 2014, 14 years after his debut.

Dunn broke in with the Reds in 2000 and bounced around to the Diamondbacks, Nationals, White Sox and A’s during a 14-year career. He was a curious player by the standards of his day, combining a high on-base percentage with lots of home runs and even more strikeouts. (Dunn led his league in K’s four times.) By contemporary standards, however, his skill set is downright common.

Add it up, and these four players have six All-Star Game appearances among them. None won an MVP award, or a Cy Young, or was named Rookie of the Year. In 59 combined seasons, the quartet has garnered fewer accolades than Justin Verlander.

If social media wasn’t made for disseminating information, it was made for backlash. Tuesday turned Baseball Twitter into one big comment section for the Jeter-less ballot. The commentary overshadowed the usual vitriol reserved for the one-vote down-ballot darlings du jour. It’s not by coincidence that the Ibañez/Dunn/Penny/Putz voters haven’t outed themselves. They don’t need to read the comments section to know what’s coming. Who would voluntarily raise their hand and direct faux outrage toward him or herself?

I know of at least two voters in the past decade who were ensnared by the trap of giving sincere votes to a player who was named on no other public ballots. (In each case, their player was named on one private ballot.) Since the anonymous voters couldn’t serve as a lightning rod for public criticism, guess who did? Those two voters haven’t cast a public ballot since.

The BBWAA has pushed for transparency. Although I am a BBWAA member, I am two years short of receiving my first Hall of Fame ballot. There’s time for my perspective on this to evolve. In lieu of any first-hand experience, I can offer an observation: Hall of Fame voting has become a feedback loop.

There’s a reason the social media era gave birth to the first unanimous ballot. It’s the same reason the ballots missing Jeter, and those including Ibañez, Dunn, Penny and Putz, remain anonymous. The power of the secret ballot lies in the diversity of thought it promotes.

You can turn to the politics section of this newspaper and see the same phenomenon play out on its pages. When it comes to Hall of Fame voting, ostracizing the dissidents seems less consequential. Then as now, however, the three dozen voters who stiffed Jackie Robinson have some explaining to do.

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