Jeff Bagwell is Richard Jewell
Richard Jewell was a private security guard working at Centennial Olympic Park at the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996 when he discovered a pipe bomb. He was a hero, alerting the police to the bomb and helping to evacuate the area. And for a while, he was celebrated as such. But it later became known that Jewell was being investigated by the FBI as a possible suspect. The FBI never had any evidence against Jewell: he fit the profile of a potential suspect, and that’s all.
Bagwell, too, has been singled out for fitting a profile. He was a muscular first baseman who hit a lot of home runs in the mid-to-late nineties, so some consider him a “suspect” for use of so-called performance enhancing drugs. There’s not a shred of actual evidence against him, yet many of the writers, fully acknowledging this, have decided to withhold their Hall of Fame votes from the overwhelmingly deserving Bagwell based on their suspicions (the ones who have been gutsy enough to admit to acting on their baseless suspicions are called out by The Common Man here.
I’m sure it hasn’t ruined his life the way the media’s assault on Richard Jewell threatened to, but it’s the same basic treatment, and it’s just as inexcusably irresponsible and unfair.
Tony Womack is Nicole Richie
Remember Nicole Richie? Before Kim Kardashian there was a less attractive and even more confusingly famous version called a “Paris Hilton,” and before Kourtney and Khloe Kardashian there was something called Nicole Richie. Richie (who apparently has calmed down and done a lot of charity work in more recent years, so I feel a little guilty for what I’m about to say, but oh well) was essentially perfectly ordinary, except that she was really rich and kind of a train wreck, and she was friends (sort of) with Hilton. So: an untalented person who is famous only because of her relationship with another person who herself is famous for reasons no one can quite pin down. You’d see Richie on TV or a magazine cover and would just have to think: what the hell is she doing here???!
So it is with Tony Womack and the 2012 Hall of Fame ballot. Every year, a bunch of guys who played in parts of ten or more seasons and retired five years ago are not placed on the ballot. Whoever makes these decisions obviously includes a number of guys (like, this year, Javy Lopez, Vinny Castilla and Bill Mueller) who have no chance of being Hall of Famers and don’t figure to get more than one or two courtesy votes; nonetheless, the guys who do make the ballot stand out in some way. Mueller won a batting title, Castilla and Lopez both had 40+-homer seasons.
Womack, though? No idea. He stole a bunch of bases early in his career, but that’s it. He was generally one of the worst everyday players in baseball. There are literally dozens of eligible players not on the ballot (I’ll be writing a thing about those players Tuesday or Wednesday on The Platoon Advantage, but you can see a list of the hitters here and pitchers here) whose qualifications were better than Womack’s, and who had more interesting accomplishments. Scott Erickson won 20 games and threw a no-hitter; Edgardo Alfonzo’s 2000 would’ve gotten him MVP consideration in a lot of other years in baseball history; Carl Everett was a two-time All-Star and hilariously crazy; and so on. Womack was not only terrible and uninteresting, he also barely makes the ten-season requirement, having logged only nine seasons in which he played more than 30 games. Womack’s presence on the Hall ballot is completely befuddling, kind of like Nicole Richie’s whole career.
Jack Morris is Monica Lewinsky
She became famous for one thing — several different occasions, but all falling in the same general category, with the same fairly well-known guy — and it somehow carried her much farther than reason would ever have said that it should. Lewinsky remained in the public eye for a long time, and it didn’t all have to do with the facts of her situation. She appeared on Saturday Night Live. She started a line of handbags. She got an endorsement deal with Jenny Craig. She hosted a reality TV program. And so on. All because of that one, unrelated thing.
It’s not accurate to say Morris rests entirely on that one game in 1991. Morris was considered a superstar type of pitcher in the late 1980s and early 1990s; he always threw a lot of innings and won a lot of games. Then in 1989 and ‘90, he lost more than he won for the first two times in his career as a full-time starter, putting up an ERA of 4.65. He came back to put up a strong year in ‘91 and a pretty good one in ‘92, and that’s when you really started to hear the “winningest pitcher of the ‘80s” thing get thrown around. Still, though, he faded very quickly after that, and nothing about his numbers says Hall of Famer — his wins are low, his ERA high, his accolades (no Cy Youngs, five All-Star teams, five top-five Cy Young finishes) unspectacular. Were it not for that one great Game 7 performance in ‘91, he would’ve gotten some votes in the early going, but I think he would’ve faded out of the collective consciousness long ago. He’s had a long ride on the ballot and sparked a ton of debate, and this terrifies me, but he’s got a non-zero chance of actually making it into the Hall this year. And all because of that one game, which — while great, amazing even — just isn’t the kind of thing that’s ever gotten anyone else into the Hall. It’s not at all fair to compare his great pitching performance with the stuff that Monica Lewinsky did, but the effect was similarly disproportionate.
Barry Bonds is the Y2K bug
I remember learning about the “Year 2000 Problem” on day one or two of my intro to computer science class as a freshman in college. Older computer systems represented the year with two digits, which was going to cause all sorts of problems when 99 rolled over to 00, which many systems would read as “1900.” It was a real concern, one businesses spent millions and millions of dollars addressing. No one could be quite certain that their fixes had tackled the problem, but they did what they could, and that was that.
The media went nuts with it, though. There were some great TV commercials, but the news media created fear and panic wherever it could. People (to my recollection) hoarded food and supplies, and more than usual stayed in on New Year’s Eve ‘99, generally freaked out, as the news told them they should be. Nothing much happened, of course. Life went on. The media didn’t know what to do with nothing left to panic over. It was just kind of awkward.
Now and then you’ll see a writer doing some virtual hand-wringing over what’s going to happen next year, when Barry Bonds’ name hits the ballot (along with Clemens, Sosa, Piazza, Biggio and others), and how increasingly difficult the choices they have to make will become then and for the next several years. But like the Y2K bug, it’s a kind of fear and panic that is entirely their creation. All they’d have to do is take a reasonable, balanced approach to the issue — which means, in this case, doing exactly what they’ve been doing for the vast majority of the preceding 70 years, and vote based on what happened on the field without making undereducated guesses about character and morality and biophysics — and the issue, being entirely their own creation, would go away.
Of course, unlike the Y2K bug, which expired with the passage of time, this one is entirely dependent on the writers to make it go away. Which they’re not going to do any time soon. But the way they’re acting like they’re being inescapably drawn kicking and screaming to this unsolvable quandary — when, really, it’s kind of just a fake dilemma they’ve largely made up — is pretty similar.