It was about a month ago that I was sitting in a large conference room in Dallas. It was tiered, futuristic even, and several men that came in made jokes about it. At the front of the room, Jack O’Connell, the longtime treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA.) In the front row was Bob Elliott, who would soon be named the Spink Award winner to rousing applause.
Around the room, people I respect and very literally grew up reading. Peter Gammons. Gordon Edes. Rob Neyer. Jayson Stark. Tom Verducci. I could go on and on and on, but it is a very surreal experience being in that room. We later discussed the new ways that the awards that the membership votes on will be shown on the MLB Network. We voted in some new members (and didn’t include some.)
Those same members, for the most part, make up the voting ranks that put men into the Hall of Fame. Whether you agree or disagree with the results doesn’t matter. I don’t have a vote - it takes ten years of membership - but Barry Larkin would have gotten mine and Jack Morris wouldn’t. Those two votes are in large part colored by the work of my friend and colleague, Joe Sheehan. (Yes, there would have been more votes, but those are irrelevant.)
In his newsletter on Tuesday, Sheehan took a powerful shot at the BBWAA and as I read it, I got angrier and angrier. I could see Joe’s head peeking in the room and lobbing a grenade, hoping to blow the room up rather than fixing the process, if it is indeed broken. The problem is that Sheehan continually decries the process without trying to fix it. He blames the BBWAA as a group, not as individuals. Trust me, I’ve been in enough meetings with Sheehan to know that he understands that everyone doesn’t agree just because they all sit at the same conference table.
You see, Joe’s not a member of the BBWAA. He could be. I’ve asked him to put himself forward several times. We both write at Sports Illustrated and were it not that I was already a member, he’d certainly have a better case for it than me. I realize there’s a bit more to it than that, but let’s leave it at the surface. It’s very literally Sheehan’s decision not to be a member and to be working towards a vote of his own. (In fact, I asked Joe to run this response on his newsletter and he declined. He says he’ll link to this, but the readership is bound to be a fraction of his subscriber base.)
When I was admitted to the organization, I can remember how proud it made me feel. It was validation not only for what I had worked so hard on, but for the organization I was with and to some extent, the community of writers that had popped up at nearly the same time. That day, four of us that had never written one word for a newspaper were admitted and be clear, the BBWAA has and still is a newspaper based organization, though that is changing rapidly. (Rapidly enough? That’s another discussion.) As I walked through the halls of the Bellagio after the meeting, I was congratulated by Peter Gammons, Tracy Ringolsby, Gerry Fraley, and Phil Rogers. I remember each and every one of those men shaking my hand like it was yesterday, the oldest of the old guard welcoming in someone new.
And it’s that feeling that always makes me work so hard for what the BBWAA stands for. At it’s heart, the BBWAA is merely a Union, a negotiating arm for the writers to make it possible to do our jobs. I’m in a unique position to understand why that’s so important. I’ve been told I was “banned” from ballparks in two sports, but in baseball, if I held a BBWAA card, I could have walked right in. In football, I still can’t even get a practice credential from the Indianapolis Colts. Maybe it’s not important to be at the ballpark early, talking to players, but it can be if used properly.
As time passes, there’s going to be a generational change. It’s not just people like Rob Neyer or Peter Abraham that will come in influenced by Bill James, it’s those people themselves that will be influencing the next generation. By advancing the discussion and making the organization stronger, things like the vote next year will be more informed — and believe me, the votes for the next few years will define the organization going forward. I don’t pretend to speak for the organization on this or any other issue, but I think most would be surprised at how forward thinking the group is, even if the pace of change looks slow. Believe me, I thought the same from the outside as well.
The BBWAA needs more Joe Sheehans, Craig Calcaterras, Aaron Gleemans, and Matthew Leachs inside the meeting, building the future, and making the vote they care so passionately about count. The system is hardly perfect and some of the changes being discussed around the sports world, such as open ballots, are ones I’d support. More importantly, they’re something I can bring up for discussion at our next meeting. Lobbing grenades is only going to hand the power off to something worse. Just look at All Star voting.
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