I got asked a lot about the contrasts between sports and politics. Here’s one hard-to-believe truth: the elections are far more screwed up in sports.
Just when I thought a baseball vote could no longer surprise me, The Writers’ Association manages to confer the Cy Young Award on the guy who got the second most first-place votes. Now, I’ve seen a lot of screwy elections in politics, but a system which is designed to permit this to happen would never last in a democracy (or anything close to it).
I say this as a supporter of Tim Lincecum for the award: look, this is simple. Why is this archaic “top three vote getters” method still in use? Is there a particular reason each voter is not asked for a selection, and then the winner – you know – wins? Where if there is a tie, either you leave it as such and give out two awards, or perhaps you hold a run-off among the electors?
The “top three” is a variation of the older long-sheet ballots the writers began using in the ’30s when they took over the MVP voting, and a cousin to the ludicrous Hall of Fame ballots. They date to a time of inferior communications where the practicality of a run-off vote was far lower. They are anachronisms, and they produce shoddy results like this one.
The Hall of Fame, obviously, should just be an up-or-down vote on each nominee, not another top ten list and percentage thresholds. The NFL has this system down: its voters convene and argue their votes, and then reach consensus.
Even that kind of system is not fool-proof. There is the story of Rick Ferrell, the long-time executive of the Detroit Tigers and, before that, long-time slightly-above-average Hall of Famer. For years, the voters on the Veterans’ Committee would sit around and talk through – and even choreograph – their voting. They’d pay tribute to this beloved figure by throwing him “courtesy votes,” so when the balloting was completed they could truthfully say “You got three, you needed six, maybe next year, Old Sport.” One year signals were supposedly crossed and twice as many guys thought they were supposed to give Rick his courtesy votes and instead of three, he got six – and a man who hit .281, caught for eighteen years without ever backstopping a pennant-winner, and was out-homered by his pitcher/brother – got elected. Or so the story goes (those vote numbers are pulled out of thin air, incidentally).
Still, any method that permits the runner-up to win because of how few runner-up votes the leader got (Lincecum 2009), while not precluding a tie (Hernandez and Stargell, 1979), and still permits personal pique to decide (1947: one voter leaves Williams off the ballot and three leave off DiMaggio), has got to be improved upon.
Maybe the writers could leave a phone number at which they could be reached to cast a run-off ballot in the event of a tie. If that’s not too much trouble.