On last week’s episode of FanGraphs Audio, Jay Jaffe welcomed ESPN senior writer and host of the Baseball Tonight podcast, Buster Olney, for a conversation about the upcoming Hall of Fame election and the effects of modern ballot-tracking. This transcribed conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Jay Jaffe [3:03]: For FanGraphs audio, this is Jay Jaffe. It’s Hall of Fame election season, with the results set to be announced on January 25. Against the backdrop of the current lockout, it’s been a contentious election cycle, particularly with a quartet of controversial candidates — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, and Curt Schilling — in their final year of eligibility, and Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz in their first. The topics of performance enhancing drugs and the character clause have loomed large, and at times the din of the debate has been overwhelming. Earlier this month at ESPN, Buster Olney penned a piece asking about whether this prolonged discussion and the daily drip of ballot reveals is good for the Hall and the electoral process. I took issue with a couple of Buster’s points, and after a friendly exchange on Twitter, it seemed natural for the two of us to continue our conversation on a podcast.
With me today is ESPN senior writer and host of the Baseball Tonight podcast, Buster Olney, whom I’ve been reading for longer than I’ve been writing about baseball, which is to say a long time. Buster came to my attention back when he was covering the Yankees for the New York Times, and he’s been at ESPN now for a long time. We’ve crossed paths in conversation once at a Pitch Talks in Toronto in 2016. So it’s really great to have him on the show. Welcome, Buster.
Buster Olney [4:19]: I appreciate it. Jay. Yeah, I follow your work all the time and, you know, love everything you’ve done with the Hall of Fame reporting. So yeah, this is fun.
Jaffe [4:28]: Yeah, thanks so much. So what I wanted to talk about, mainly, as you know but our listeners may not, is earlier this month on January 6, Buster wrote a piece called “What We’ve Learned From Early Hall of Fame Returns and Whether Their Release is Good for Baseball,” and it’s about Ryan Thibodaux, his Ballot Tracker, and the way that that has changed the Hall of Fame, election season dialogue, and the pros and cons of that. Buster and I had an exchange on Twitter that I think stimulated this further discussion here.
I’m going to read a couple of passages here, just to give you the flavor of where we’re going, and then we can talk about this here. It starts off:
“At its conception, the Baseball Hall of Fame was meant to be a shrine to former players and their achievements. But over time, the Hall’s election process has become one of the sports’ most reliable sources of vitriol with a tabulation and dissection of individual ballots dragging on for almost two months, and often angry debate further stoked by social media.”
And then further down he writes, “it’s possible that this gradual bloodletting has drained some of the joy out of what is supposed to be a celebration.” So Buster, I think when I when I read this, it occurred to me that you’re addressing a lot of things here that seem to me like they’re coming together in a perfect storm that can make the average bystander — and I think now you would might consider yourself a bystander because you no longer actually vote for the Hall even though you’re qualified — to throw up their hands in despair and say, “Oh, I can’t take it anymore.” Would that be a fair way to characterize it?
Olney [6:03]: Yeah, for sure. It comes out of a lot of conversations with writers who do vote, and watching the evolution of the process. I’ll never forget the first time I voted, I think it was in 2002 or 2003, and how much fun it was. And then in the last six, seven years in particular, as we’ve gone along in this process, and Ryan Thibodaux, whose work I admire, you know, it’s tremendous, and it’s detailed to the degree that you and I, as we sit here today talking, we pretty much know, because of Ryan, who’s getting in the Hall of Fame. We pretty much know where the numbers are gonna land. But I do wonder if knowing how the sausage is being made is necessarily a good thing for the conversation.
Jaffe [6:48]: Right. And as you know, I think it’s a fair question to ask because the process has changed so much. I actually started covering Hall of Fame elections at my blog, the Futility Infielder, that was the 2002 election in fact, so it probably would have been the first one you’re voting in. And then Baseball Prospectus invited me to do something for the 2004 election. That was when I came up with the system that soon was renamed JAWS. And so I’ve seen how this whole conversation has changed, how advanced statistics and social media and grassroots outreaches have all played their part, also the changing electorate, with the sunsetting of older voters no longer active within the BBWAA, and the emergence of I guess what we would call outsiders like myself, who have made inroads into the industry without coming up through the newspaper system.
And then there’s obviously the entrance of performance-enhancing-drug linked candidates, which began when Mark McGwire hit the ballot, at least in terms of the way that we all understand it now. I think arguably we can point to amphetamines as being PEDs as well, but that was never a factor in anybody’s Hall of Fame ballot deliberations. So it really begins with McGwire. And you see the use of the character clause as a way around voting for these guys who quote-unquote have the numbers for Cooperstown. But you know, there’s any number of reasons to suspect that their numbers are not as authentic as we would like them to be.
So, there’s a lot going on here. And I think it struck me first of all, that a lot of the vitriol I think just stems from this pretty controversial set of 10-year candidates that in Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling and Sammy Sosa that have this collection… three of them are PED linked, everybody but Schilling, and Schilling is a force of self-sabotage the likes of which we’ve never seen in a Hall election. I think it feels to me like a lot of this vitriol is specific to those debates around them and the polarizing nature of their personas as much as their careers.
Olney [9:26]: I completely agree with you, and I experienced this. My mom passed away in the spring of 2006, and in the December before that, it was the first time McGwire was on the ballot, and my mom yelled at me when I told her that I was voting for McGwire. She was appalled. And I kept on saying to her, “Look, you have to keep this in context.” And you know, on subsequent ballots, I would vote for Bonds and voted for Clemens, I voted for Rafael Palmeiro. And you’re 100% right. The sort of inclusion, the graduation of the steroid era candidates really changed the Hall of Fame conversation. And so I think that where that led us to, in this moment, with Ryan’s great work, is that every time a writer posts his ballot beginning in early December through the month, you get this absolute deluge of response if someone votes for the steroid guys, for lack of a better way to describe them, or not.
And that’s where I see the bloodletting takes place. And I sort of pose the question, and I believe that it probably would be better if the voting were handled like the baseball writers handle their major awards, which is they turn their ballots in right after the end of the regular season. No one’s allowed to talk about it. And then in one fell swoop, we find out in mid-November who wins those awards, as opposed to this gradual drip, drip, drip of ballots, which illuminates all those things that you just mentioned.
Jaffe [11:00]: Yeah, I think it is interesting, the contrast between the way that the BBWAA does its annual awards, MVP, Cy Young, etc., with the way that this plays out. But part of this is the Hall’s own doing. The deadline to send off ballots is December 31, it’s been that way for as long as I can remember. I don’t know if it’s ever been differen,. I haven’t researched it that closely. But it used to be that the results were announced the first week of January. Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey Jr. were announced on January 6, 2016. And only in the elections since then have the announcements slipped into later January, generally the last week of the month, or, you know, anywhere from the 21st, the 26th here, and that’s the Hall’s doing more than anything else.
And I think I was told at one point that it had to do with scheduling the hotel ballroom for the post-election press conference, but I don’t know if that’s true. I may be conflating that with something else. But the Hall has created this extra slack, and we’re at the deadest spot of the baseball calendar. There’s no awards to be given out. There’s no pitchers and catchers reporting yet, we’re waiting for free agents to sign. This year, of course, we have a lockout that’s grinding things to an even more extreme halt. And the Hall has just sort of expanded to fill this space. And really, nobody’s changing any minds right now. We’re just all throwing spitwads at each other.
Olney [12:32]: You’re right. And look, the Hall of Fame initially included the writers because they knew that this was a vehicle for drawing attention to it. When I first started following the Hall of Fame voting, this would be something that you’d just write in late December, early January as transactions slow down, you write a Sunday column about it. That’s the habits of the writers. And so when you see the folks like Peter Abraham writes his Sunday column for the Boston Globe, etc., at some point, they’re using one of their Sunday columns or one of the columns during the week where they’re going to say, here’s my ballot, and here’s why I do it. But that didn’t have the jet fuel that social media has provided for this now, especially in the last 10 years or so, and certainly this is part of the reason why everyone is so interested in Ryan’s research.
Jaffe [13:28]: I think in general my read on this — and it’s tough to separate the aforementioned vitriol from all this — but I think this is also applicable to the annual awards. The BBWAA has made a strong effort towards transparency and accountability. I’m not sure how far back it goes, but the publication of every single voter’s ballot with the awards introduces a level of transparency and accountability that wasn’t there before. And the vast majority of ballots get published either before or after, I think it’s 83%.
There was a vote taken at the Winter Meetings a few years ago, where 88% wanted it to be mandatory, like it is for the awards, but the Hall refused to allow that, they wanted to give voters cover if they didn’t want to vote, or if they didn’t want to have their ballots published. And it’s still that way. So it’s still voluntary. But I think in general, the accountability, the transparency has served the voting body well. Yes, you’re still always gonna catch the heat and the negativity on social media when you do publish it, because like you said, there’s always somebody who’s gonna disagree with it. Either you’re celebrating the cheaters, or you’re being too strict or whatever.
But I like that voters will explain their thought process. I think it shows that there’s not unanimity on how to handle the steroids issue or how to handle other character issues, which I think become part of the conversation as well. And you know, we see writers grappling with, well, should a domestic violence allegation be a disqualifier? Because that’s certainly — or probably, in most cases — more serious than any doping allegation. We’ve seen that play out in an unprecedented way with the candidacy of Omar Vizquel this year, who’s already down 40-something votes, tracking closer to 10% after getting above 50%.
So I think this process, it’s scary. I know from publishing my own ballot. I did a virtual process, a virtual ballot every year, and I would always get some attention when it came out, even when I was just going through the motions of it to show readers where my system leads, and the difficult choices any voter has to make. But boy, you put that out there, and you steel yourself for the worst, and the worst definitely shows up. People come out of the woodwork to call you every name in the book.
Olney [16:07]: There’s no doubt about it. And a couple of points you made… Derrick Goold, the great beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was on my podcast a week or 10 days ago. He mentioned the accountability and how he felt like that since Ryan began publishing and drawing attention to the individual results, as they are posted by writers, that has ratcheted that up. And I posed to him, I said look — and I’m curious, because you know a lot more about the Hall of Fame voting than I do, that’s the center of your work — I mentioned to him, you’re right in this regard, Mariano Rivera probably doesn’t get voted in unanimously if not for that. Derek Jeter doesn’t come so close if not for that. Because I do think it’s put writers on the front burner, so to speak, where you better back up what you’re saying. One of the points he’s gonna make though, you’re right, I find it astonishing that you have a union of – a brotherhood of, a brethren – of journalists who are somehow voting that they don’t want transparency, and that has always blown my mind. Like, I would wish that the Baseball Writers Association leadership would go to the Hall of Fame and say, look, if we’re going to participate in this process, not only do we want transparency, but we insist upon it.
Jaffe [17:31]: Right. Yeah.
Olney [17:33]: Like, I have an obligation to do that. And one of the things I was going to mention about the character clause, which you’re 100% right with your timeline, and I think it’s so important that when Mark McGwire’s name hit the ballot, that was really the first time that the character clause was anything but obsolete. Maybe it was in play for Fergie Jenkins because he’d had a minor drug bust at some point, but for the most part, that wasn’t even in play. And I always kind of chuckle that the character clause has now become such an important part of this conversation. And as you know, the belief is that the character clause was formed by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was a segregationist!
Jaffe [18:11]: Right? How am I going to take moral lessons from Landis if he was keeping the color line in place? That’s kind of my feeling about it.
Olney [18:18]: Right. And sorry to interrupt, but the baseball writers themselves booted Kenesaw Mountain Landis out, kicking him out of their major award, the MVP that his name had been on, they took that off. Yet, every year, we see a lot of voters following the words of a character clause, which was obsolete for 60 years. And now those are the operative words from a guy who probably didn’t have a lot of character.
Jaffe [18:44]: To underscore that, we talked about the extent to which it’s been used against players, why wasn’t it used against Bud Selig? Who got 15 out of 16 votes from the Era Committee when he was elected. I mean, he participated in collusion, which is one of the biggest scandals in baseball history, and then of course was presiding over this whole mess and arguably could have done more earlier. And I understand that it’s a player’s union, all this stuff has to be collectively bargained, it’s not something that could have been done unilaterally. But it’s tough to point to that character clause and feel like it’s being used fairly and uniformly. I try to avoid it with my ballot… even when I excluded Curt Schilling, it’s on the grounds that I don’t want to participate in honoring a guy who, to me, presents a legitimate danger if his platform is enlarged, because he’s spouting conspiracy theories and calling for martial law. I don’t think anybody, even Judge Landis, foresaw that as being a factor in Hall elections. So we’re sort of in these unforeseen ways that a candidacy can leak outside of the boundaries of baseball.
Olney [20:03]: I’ll personalize it for you. I wrote an editorial about this for the New York Times in 2006, as the Mitchell Report was taking off, which I think you would agree with me was a joke. They had no chance of actually getting real information that they didn’t have subpoena power, and they wanted to throw in, what, 86 names to the mob, when they knew that the problem involved thousands of players. And you know, the former Senator Mitchell took $20 million or whatever the number was, it was a joke. The character clause doesn’t apply to the Spink award for writers, but should writers like me who covered this era and who did a lousy job in covering this issue – as I wrote about in that piece – should we also probably… You know, anyone who covered the sport in 1990s – other than, for example, Bob Nightengale wrote pieces about PEDs in 94-95 for the LA Times – besides that, there weren’t a lot of people who got to the heart of that story. Should we also be eliminated? I think it would be fair.
Jaffe [21:05]: I do remember that piece. And I think even in my book I mentioned that is, y’know, a significant point in the accountability of the writers and whatnot. If it’s not the book, it’s in one of my articles, but that did strike me as being a pivotal recognition because, as I say, when I make out my ballot, virtual or actual, I’m using the introduction of testing and penalties as kind of a dividing line between the wild west and the testing era. And what came before I call it a complete institutional failure. I think it may have been your words as well, or words to that effect. Owner, commissioner, players, union, media fans, everybody had a part in that the fans were cheering. The writers were vilifying Steve Wilstein, who found the andro in McGwire’s locker [on the grounds that he] shouldn’t be snooping like that. He was called out for that by fellow writers. I mean, there’s just so much blame to go around that depending entirely on the players just seems to be way off-base.
Olney [22:17]: There’s no doubt about it, which is why my stance up until the time I stopped voting was that we desperately need to keep all this in context of the times. For example, I always feel every year when we talk about Bonds and Clemens… Look, they made their choices and they have to answer for the choices, but let’s face it, they get more scrutiny merely because they were the best players. There literally were thousands of players, major league, minor leagues, college, who are trying to get to that spot, who were doing the same thing. And these guys get scrutiny merely because they were the best. They are already players who’ve been voted in the Hall of Fame who took steroids and everybody in the industry knows it, which is why when I see writers doing, you know the logic pretzel? Say I’m not going to vote for this guy because I think that he… – oh stop! We don’t know exactly who did what. And so why not defer to Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame and let them determine who are members in good standing. Bonds and Clemens are members in good standing. Alex Rodriguez is a member in good standing. They had employment contracts with teams, the Hall of Fame put them on the ballot, unlike Pete Rose, who has never been a member in good standing. And so stop doing retroactive morality on these players and just pick the best players because they don’t know. The writers don’t know who did what, and they have to remember the context.
Jaffe [23:50]: I agree. And I think that that is really the crux of it. So I don’t think we need to run through your ballot because you have, like you said, taken yourself out of this for the last several years. But so you had Bonds and Clemens on when they were candidates. With the positive testing guys, would you overlook Manny Ramirez suspensions and Alex Rodriguez suspensions if you had a ballot, or is it a hypothetical that you have opted out of as well?
Olney [24:19]: Yes, I would have voted for them, and as you know, I got to put in the qualifier with Alex. I worked with him on Sunday Night Baseball for four years, I really enjoyed working with him, we are friends. But I would vote for them because I got to a point with the whole question of who should you consider, who should not. What I mentioned before is if Alex Rodriguez can have a working contract with the New York Yankees in retirement, if Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens can have working contracts with the Giants and the Astros respectively, then you know what, then I’ll let that go. Because Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame have in the past discerned between members in good standing and members not in good standing. And so at that point, I figure if those guys are in good standing, then I would just simply get down to the numbers and say, I’m going to pick the best players.
I think that makes it simple, a much simpler equation for the writers, as opposed to trying to guess between who used and who didn’t. Because I think you would agree with me, if you’ve had conversations with anybody in baseball, there are a handful of guys who’ve already been voted in in the last 10 years who you just, it kind of makes you laugh. Like, how is it that Bonds and Clemens get scrutiny and these guys didn’t? They’re kind of to me no man’s land in World War I, where you’re wondering, “How did that guy get across without getting hit by the machine gun controversy over this when everybody in the sport knows they probably used?”
Jaffe [25:49]: It’s interesting. When I was doing my research on their candidacies, both Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza are on the record as having admitted to using andro at a time when it was still legal, McGwire era. And I think that hindered their elections, but obviously didn’t stop them. Piazza would have been a first ballot guy, I think, under most circumstances, although the 2013 ballot was a cluster, like no other in terms of the volume of strong candidates. But there are other guys that I think we could, quite rightfully, raise our eyebrows about both before and after. Like you said, how do they get across? It’s naive to assume that we haven’t already seen multiple ones go in. I know it was the point, as far as them being in good standing, it’s worth remembering that the same writers — maybe not exactly the same — but the same voting body that is wringing its hands about recognizing Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens now gave Bonds MVP awards even after the BALCO story broke.
Olney [26:59]: That’s a great point.
Jaffe [27:00]: We recognized him then, and yes, it was specific voters, it was still a vote and a process. The tide has turned as we’ve learned more about this, but it seems kind of disingenuous to pretend that suddenly we’re the gatekeepers that should be keeping Barry Bonds out when we’re the same voting body that gave him seven MVP awards. So…
Olney [27:27]: Yeah, and I must say that also, when we begin to have questions like that as journalists, this is part of the reason why I stopped voting. The number one reason was because I felt like that the Hall of Fame was angling some of the rules choices, reducing the the ballot years from 15 to 10, rejecting the idea that Derrick and others have had about a binary ballot, a yes-or-no on these candidates, which would allow the players to be judged on their merits rather than trying to squeeze them onto ballots. And the ballot limit of 10, which seems so arbitrary and was kind of ridiculous. But I also think when you start asking questions like that, then it’s important to ask the question, “Should the writers even be participating in this?” As a journalist I never was comfortable with the idea that I was making news. And that’s especially true when we got into the steroid era candidates. That’s what it’s become. You are making the news, you’re not reporting it. And that’s not a great place for journalists to debate.
Jaffe [28:24]: Yeah, I understand that. So were you allowed to vote when you were at the New York Times or had you not reached your 10 years yet?
Olney [28:31]: No, I was not. That was when I reached my 10 years, I think right after I left the New York Times. When I was at the New York Times you were technically not allowed to vote for any major awards. And when I moved to ESPN, which was in the summer 2003, that’s when I began to vote.
Jaffe [28:50]: Okay, so all that all kind of coincided then for you. I know that the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and a few other outlets don’t allow their qualified writers to vote, which strikes me as a convenient way out. And many of them do point to that as kind of a point of pride, like as if they had made the decision themselves, as opposed to grappling with it like the rest of us do, you know, one way or the other.
So here’s a question for you: if you could re-engineer this, how would you do it? Everywhere from like, who should vote on this? How many years? Should they get on a ballot? When should the announcement be? If you could brainstorm an idea, a way to do this, how do you think that would play out?
Olney [29:38]: Well, first off, if I were the BBWAA, I would not want to be involved in the process for the reasons that I stated before. But I will tell you that no matter what group they come up with, it’s going to be imperfect. You know, people will say, well just let the Hall of Famers do it. Now that’s not good either.
Jaffe [29:58]: That didn’t work at all in the 2000s with the Veterans Committee.
Olney [30:02]: That’s exactly right. And I think of the letter that Joe Morgan wrote, the greatest second baseman of all time, to writers a few years ago, where he talked about the Hall of Fame is sacred. You’re like, come on, dude, it’s baseball. It was a little “house of the holy” for me. And as you know, the players’ perspective changes. Bob Gibson talked about how he may have, if PEDs were available when he played, to be honest. He said, you know, maybe he would have done that as well.
People have talked about, you know, maybe staffers should vote. I’ll never forget when I was working at the San Diego Union, covering the Padres, how The Sporting News at that time did the Gold Glove awards, and so they asked their correspondents, and I was one of those to go into the clubhouses and ask coaches for their ballots. And literally, Jay, this is how the conversation went when I went into the room and I handed the ballots out. One coach says out loud in the room, “Hey, who’s a good second baseman?” And somebody would say a name, and then everyone goes, “Yeah! Yeah, that’s a good one.”
Jaffe [31:10]: Oh wow.
Olney [31:12]: So it’s very loose. And that’s the reality of it. You know that as well as I do. Some people will take it very seriously. Jayson Stark, my good friend, he just absolutely agonizes over this process, and some aren’t going to take it that seriously at all. So I don’t think there’s a perfect group. I would say, I totally agree with Derrick’s idea of a binary ballot, yes-or-no. I think players – I absolutely believe this – that players like Jeff Kent have suffered from the fact that they haven’t been able to be judged on their own merits, merely on how many candidates have stacked up on the runway, like jets. As these guys like Bonds and Clemens kept on being held over year after year after year, that guys like Jeff Kent suffered. And I think that stinks, and it’s a big reason why I stopped doing it, because I felt like it’s not fair to the players. It’s not respectful of the players and what they did during the course of their careers. That would be, for me, the number one change: go away from the rule of 10. Which is ridiculous, because why 10? Why not nine? Why not 12?
Jaffe [32:20]: Yeah, I was on a committee chaired by Susan Slusser that asked that, I think late 2014 or early 2015. And it took the Hall over a year to get back to us.
Olney [32:29]: Right.
Jaffe [32:30]: But e realized that they weren’t budging on 75%. They weren’t budging on the five-year waiting rule it seemed, and I think this was before they had trimmed the 15 years to 10. But we asked them to expand to 12 [ballot slots], which is a pretty lukewarm request to ask of the Hall of Fame. But when you consider that you were talking about 10 slots for players on 16 teams when this began, and now we’ve got players from 30 teams, it didn’t seem like an unreasonable request.
Olney [33:02]: No. The last year I voted, I left seven players off the ballot who I thought were Hall of Famers. And that included Curt Schilling, who I worked with at ESPN, who I think is a Hall of Famer, Mike Mussina, who I covered for three years, and Tim Raines, who I covered for two years. And it felt so ridiculous that that’s when I stopped voting. I’m like, “The rules are absurd.” And it was clear that, in my opinion, the Hall of Fame was aiming them at the steroid era guys.
Jaffe [33:32]: I agree with you. I like Derrick’s idea, I’ve talked to him about it. And I think he’s set a great example in terms of accountability, and Jayson Stark as well. He’s kind of the model for my geeking out on the Hall of Fame stuff. When I was researching the book going back and seeing who was doing this before I was, and Jayson was inevitably the guy I come across kind of stewing over his ballot and showing the hard choices and things like that. But the binary ballot is a great idea. And there’s a real cognitive dissonance when you say, okay, if I gave you this list of 30 names, who are the 10 best ballplayers here, and how different that list is from the 10 I wound up with on my ballot because of self-imposed rules, like I’m not going to vote for the guys who tested positive.
There are a couple guys that I think sort of need my help at the bottom of the ballot, because I think their candidacies deserve more exposure. I feel a particular way about relievers. I feel a particular way about starters, even though we’re talking about, you know, a thousand-inning gap here, and why am I giving the relievers the thumbs up or not giving the starters thumbs up? And I start asking my questions like, “What am I doing here? How did I back myself into this corner?” And y’know, I’ve chosen to keep going with it against my better judgment sometimes, but there really are some absurdities within this process, and it ends up being a very Rube-Goldberg-like contraption for an individual ballot, just to get us to those final 10 names. When you’ve got more than 10 candidates that I think are qualified for the honor and you’d look back, go back to Baseball-Reference, and you can see there are Hall of Fame ballots with 25 future Hall of Famers on them, or 20 future Hall of Famers on them dating back to, y’know, the ’50s or whatever once the Veterans Committee processes played out. So you know, asking somebody to choose 10 or criticizing somebody for choosing 10 when you’re sending in a ballot that has one or two names on it, it just seems kind of silly.
Okay, I think we’ve beaten that horse enough here. And before I let you go Buster, I know you’re as plugged in as anybody here, and we’re in this barren winter, where we’re awaiting any kind of news about whether there’s going to be a season starting on time. What do you think the situation right now is? Are we going to see the two sides come together in time to open camps on a reasonable schedule?
Olney [36:09]: I would be surprised, and I’m really concerned. I started covering professional baseball in 1989. It’s the most dysfunctional, least collaborative, or least-cooperative relationship between the union and Major League Baseball that I’ve ever seen. And the question that I keep on asking people as we go through this process is who or what is going to be the mechanism, the mechanic who’s gonna lead these two sides into an agreement in the past years. For example, Gene Orza was someone who, on the owners’ side, they thought he was too much of a firebrand. But there was constant dialogue, and that’s what’s so different about what’s going on now versus in the past, is that it just doesn’t seem like there’s that much dialogue. The last meeting, as you know, on December 1, less than seven minutes and it’s over, and not a single player spoke. Andrew Miller was the one player who was in that meeting. And you know, it’s very possible that that’ll change. Maybe the owners who hold the most practical power in the situation, they will step forward and say, look, we gained so much financial landscape in 2016 by the way we routed the players in those negotiations, maybe we give some of that back. Maybe the players who want to deal and are, you know, increasingly becoming concerned about losing paychecks… maybe they move. I just don’t know how that happens. And that’s what’s a concern for me, and that’s why I think we’re going to lose part of the season.
Jaffe [37:42]: Yeah, that’s discouraging to hear but the increasing sense that I get.I thought when this started that if they are doing this lockout, then they’re probably just going to end up squeezing, trying to squeeze the offseason into a two-week period which will work to the owners’ advantage just because players are going to be desperate to sign once business is back on. But to lock it out, say it’s a defensive lockout, and then go six weeks without any kind of exchange of ideas, just strikes me as ridiculous and counterproductive.
Olney [38:19]: It’s shocking.
Jaffe [38:20]: Yeah, and honestly I think I put this almost entirely on the owners and on Manfred for creating this I think. Yes, the players have to figure out what it is they want to prioritize, but you know, there was no need to do a lockout, they could have kept going, they could be negotiating while play continues. And this is just bad for baseball, this is bad for the sport at a time that we’re already fretting about the aesthetic product and about the ground that baseball is losing to other sports and things like that. So… it’s gonna be a long time, which I guess in some ways, I guess I’m glad. I’m glad this Hall of Fame dialogue gets dragged out, because then what else would we talk about?
Olney [39:06]: Yeah, and Jay, I’d say this, I agree with you about the owners in terms of holding the practical power, that the 2000 negotiation was such a complete wipeout, that that puts the owners in a position where they could be – for lack of a better way to describe it – magnanimous, and they could theoretically have more to give back. And I’m as surprised as I was in 2020, when we had all the arguments over the season, when they were going to do that, in the midst of pandemic, that was shocking to me some of the decisions made by owners.
And I would say this on the player side: I don’t think they’ve ever done a full reckoning as they should have for the debacle that was their side of the 2016 negotiations. And I wrote this at the time, it was so bad. And I had agents that night saying, “Oh my God, this deal is so bad.” I’m shocked that the players haven’t had a full examination of, “How did we blow this?” Instead the conversation has been, “Well, they took advantage of it.” You know what? There has to be some accountability there. Because I can tell you this: the refrain in the mid-90s, always, was, “Well, the union has the better lawyers,” and it feels like it’s flipped. And I’ve been surprised that there’s not been more discussion among the players of how can we strengthen our side in terms of the negotiating team.
Jaffe [40:32]: Right? Do you get the sense that the players are as united as they need to be for this?
Olney [40:37]: Now, you know, Max Scherzer was quoted in an interview with the LA Times a few weeks ago saying the players are more united than ever from his perspective. I gotta tell you, because I talked to players and I talked to agents, I think it’s a lot more scattered than that. And generally speaking, having covered the ‘94 strike that happened, I was covering the Padres the next day, I was in a golf outing with all the Padres players and the first day of the strike. The players then were far more engaged. They had a better understanding, I think, of what the core issues were. I’ve been really surprised that the union leadership has not drawn in Tom Glavine and David Cone and Todd Zeile, names of players who they won these battles in the past, y’know? Why is Gene Orza not in this group to coalesce the conversation? And Max may well turn out to be right, and maybe they hold together. But I think that’s a concern on the player side.
Jaffe [41:33]: Interesting. Well hey, Buster, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us here about the Hall and about the current situation. We really appreciate you carving out some time. There are things here we agree on, this was not a knock-down, drag-out, you’re wrong, you’re wrong type of conversation, and I think we’re coming from similar spots here. So I really appreciate you coming on. And folks out there can look for your work at ESPN, both your regular columns and also the Baseball Tonight podcast. How many times a week does that run?
Olney [42:03]: During the regular season or spring training? Whenever that starts, it would be five days a week, every weekday, and during this offseason we’re doing one a week.
Jaffe [42:12]: All right well, good luck with that. And thank you again.
Olney [42:15]: Thanks so much, Jay.