I love sports. I love passionate discussions about sports. I love highly controversial debates about the best players in sports........and the annual discussion over who belongs in baseball's Hall of Fame is nothing short of a marquee example of just such a spirited conversation. This post was inspired by an offering of just such a conversation from my good friend Brian over at his great blog, 30 Year Old Cardboard. Thanks for the fuel, buddy!
This year's ballot of potential honorees is a big one. Yes, the list is long.....but it's big in terms of how the baseball world (or at least a chosen few of us) will view a very controversial issue in comparison to the criteria by which they cast their votes. This ballot includes several great baseball players who were, in one way or another, tied to the use of performance enhancing drugs - steroids, HGH, etc. Not the first time an accused player has been up for election, but this is the first LARGE grouping. And the grouping is as notable as they come! These players were compiled very impressive stats over many years. For the most part, these players were sluggers - known best for their prowess at the plate. Their strength to display such prowess the very skill supposedly warped by poor decisions to break the rules of the game. At the time though, we all cheered and marveled and followed....and then cringed in dismay as we were shown that gods could bleed. The exact knowledge of when, where and to what extent will never be known for sure. The exact contribution of the cheating towards results on the field can never be known for sure. It is not an exact science.
|This could only hurt...forever.|
Fortunately, neither is the criteria for being selected for eternal enshrinement amongst the game's greatest players in the Hall of Fame.
At best, we have ourselves an annual challenge. At its worst, we must be subjected to a very subjective nightmare.....and one that has some very objective outcomes; for the players, their fans and the sport as whole.
What could possibly go wrong, right?
So, where do we start? Well, let's look at two key facts: WHO is responsible for making these very subjective selections and HOW they are supposed to be making them.......
|Wait a second...|
The "who" are "...active and honorary members of the Baseball Writers Association of America". Okay. So, who is that? Well.......it's these guys and gals. I'll let you dive into the history, purpose and current existence as much as you dare. Basically, the BBWAA is a bunch of sportswriters (OR former sportswriters). There are, according to the BBWAA site, over 700 current members. They not only vote for Hall of Fame selection, though. They determine the winners of other annual awards such as the League MVP's, Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year and the Cy Young Award Winner.
Pretty cool right? I guess so. The system is just too ripe for......subjectivity.
Can you place faith in a journalist who had previously decided that a particular player was the Rookie of the Year or Cy Young Award winner to be as objective when considering that player's body of work for the Hall of Fame against another player for whom that writer did NOT consider worthy of that same award but is hypothetically just as worthy based on their the rest of their career accomplishments? It can quickly become a self-fulfilling effect. But is that wrong? Perhaps.
Let's say a BBWAA member was really taken with a particular pitcher one year. Maybe that writer was a journalist for the pitcher's hometown newspaper? Maybe that writer was fortunate enough to attend a home game where that pitcher tossed an extraordinary complete game. The kind of game that united the fans and produced an electric feeling amongst the spectators....the likes of which that said writer had never felt before, even though he/she had followed that team their entire life.......that's an epic moment! Maybe that kind of moment can be combined with a pretty solid season of stats for that same pitcher. And maybe that single-season body of work elicits a confident opinion from the very astute sportswriter that the pitcher is, clearly, the Rookie of the Year for his league.
|Not a Pitcher, but...|
Those feelings, those impressions, that compiling and consideration of the facts and images and "eye tests" from the entire season would have been (and should be!) taken into account by the writer and their vote should be considered no less relevant or honorable than any other voter. Right?
But what about the vote from a writer in another town, for another player, with a similar body of work for that season........they both count. Heck, they ALL will count - all 700+ of them, if everybody always voted. Statistically, there is the effect of cancelling out individual biases with larger sample sizes, right? So, there's nothing to really, truly complain about. Right?
What if I told you that a BBWAA member could continue voting even if they retire from the profession? They would no longer be obligated through their employment to follow the sport. How can we guarantee that they'll remain as objective and engaged in their analysis as they were? What if they move to south Florida and become an objective fan of a different team? What if they spend more time on the golf range in their new life than they do scouring the box scores every morning? Doesn't matter. The BBWAA utilizes an honor code, whereby they can bestow lifetime membership with the expectation that their members maintain an adequate following of the game.
|...nothing wrong with that...|
Heh. Okay. Well, in between their 6 iron and 7 iron......HOW will these writers be asked to make their selection? This is my favorite part! In the words of the Board of Directors of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Incorporated:
"Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."
Isn't that something? We always talk so very much about the statistics compiled by potential candidates, comparing and contrasting with tremendous vigor and spite. But the statistics of any particular player can only really lay claim to two, maybe three, of the criteria specified above. A player's record and playing ability can be easily substantiated from the empirical evidence of the player's career statistics. Career average, home runs, fielding percentage and other benchmarks are black and white. They are what they are - and can't be disputed.
You consider the impact of our earlier issue, performance enhancing drugs. But this leaves the realm of black and white and quickly adopts a very solemn shade of grey. From here, any debate reaches a fork in the road. You can either go left or right. You can either say that you don't consider the use (or non-use) of PED's to be an issue or you do. There is no in between. Well......we could jump really far down the rabbit hole and begin to dissect the possibility of PED use before there were testing programs. We could say that testing programs are not absolute. We could say that every offending player was not caught or, in some cases, ratted out by other players. And our brains would quickly ooze out of our ears if we tried to ascertain any of this for any season prior to.....well, next season. We'll simply never know for sure. Which is a pretty strong argument for simply ignoring the PED issue in its entirety. IS PED use 100% responsible for a player's performance? Of course not. I could start injecting myself right now but I won't be slugging homers into McCovey Cove on a regular basis! But there are rules in life. Baseball is a game of rules. For the most part. Sometimes fallible humans screw the rules up and cause a tremendous and biblical gnashing of teeth......but if we had seen it.......well, the rules would RULE. You're out. It's a fair ball. Take your base. You trapped it. Get off the field. Your banned for life.
|Reasonable doubt, right Ray Kinsella?|
Ouch. It hurts. But so does life every once in awhile. And that's what baseball is sometimes - a beautiful parody of our lives.
So, you have the statistics. We can stare at those all day and average them out. We can extrapolate to simulate longer careers if a player's actual playing days were untimely cut short. We can argue over the greatness of a stolen base or save in comparison to total runs batted in, error-free innings or - (gasp) one of those subjectively voted-for awards! I won't even touch the issues with fan-based All-Star selections........I mean, many of us fans aren't even sportswriters! How lame.
Back to the criteria.
My favorite elements of the voting criteria are.....ironically, the least objective of the lot: integrity, character, sportsmanship and contributions to the teams on which the player played. How beautifully mysterious are these general qualifications? It doesn't even say that players must have honorable integrity or fine character or positive contributions to their teams in order to be considered. They must simply have them, right? I know, I know. I'll stop. OKAY - we'll assume that the spirit of the criteria for selection implies that players should meet these criteria in a positive light. Sound character. Exemplary sportsmanship. Steadfast integrity. If we do that, though - doesn't that make it impossible....in a black and white kind of way......for any of us to take the "other fork" in the selection road that we mentioned earlier? This criteria makes it impossible to vote for anybody who has been connected to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Yeah, they had the skills that may, MAY have been enhanced by some 'roids here or there....but they lost their integrity, right? They tried to gain an unfair advantage over the competition. Isn't that poor sportsmanship and character?
And what of the players who refused to partake? That is a clear example of integrity and honorable character and sportsmanship, yes? I tend to think so but I know that many others do not.
How about contributions to one team? What does that mean to everybody? I'll tell you what it doesn't mean to everyone - the SAME thing. A player's contribution to a championship team throughout a miracle season will live on in legends and highlight reels. A player's league-leading contributions to a losing team? Man, do I find that respectable and deserving of great admiration? It's easy to try your best to the roar of approving fanatics as they cheer their beloved winners......but to go out and dominate your competition as an individual while your team wallows in the cellar of their division and your fans heckle with scathing disappointment? That's legendary, too. In my opinion. But would that player have been able to perform and produce and dominate under the microscope and pressure of the sport's post season? We'll never know!
|Love ya, Murph!|
Does "contributions to a team" even make sense? The player's contribution to a team should be, uh, fairly quantifiable and identical to their statistics, right? If we go that route, then we really need to be careful when considering any importance being placed on a player's record when it comes to post season records, championships won, etc. A player does not make the post season. Teams win titles. But players are elected to the Hall of Fame........
|You had to see this coming...|
See! I love this stuff. Life is baseball and baseball is life for many of us. Life is also a philosophical cornucopia of thought-provoking conversations and debate. A beautiful disaster. A perfect game in a not-so perfect world. Ergo.......we chat about it from time to time.
Thanks for chatting about it here with me! I'd love to hear what you think and in the meantime....
Here we are! It's December of 2012 and the ballots for another year of consideration have been sent out. Who would you vote for?
One quick thing I'd like to add - please note that I do not harbor an unhealthy hatred for BBWAA members or even sportswriters in general (especially those that vote for Donnie Baseball......). Some of them have provided some of the very best things that I have ever had the pleasure of reading....they are responsible for Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest. Baseball Weekly. ESPN. The countless sports books that are scattered throughout my basement. The newspaper clippings that adorned my childhood bedroom. Basically........almost everything that makes life possible for us sports fans! So I am grateful for their talent and gifts - and understand that they haven't asked for the responsibility described above, established more than a century ago. But it IS theirs to protect.
And, in some small, minuscule way......don't we fans who have ever put pen to paper about the sports that we love......kinda sorta qualify as one? I've never been into self-loathing.