It is hard to be fair around Hall of Fame debate time. It is hard to see through the frustration with a broken system that allows legacy voters to dilute the pool deciding one of baseball’s highest individual honors.
It is hard not to judge somehow who, after a minimum of 10 years as a paid baseball correspondent, believes Lee Smith is a transcendent figure in the history of the game. It is hard to find the balance between disagreeing with a position and the recoiling with an odious, self-interested “position” that is just straight-up wrong. Too often, one bleeds into the other and value judgments are made based on the marginal difference of opinion of a baseball player’s career worth.
At the same time, the arguments made by voters in favor of their selections are often specious at best. Showing willful disregard for their own actions and beliefs that throws the entire process into question.
Nobody likes being told what to do. Nobody likes being told what to is good for them. It almost doesn’t matter how much empirical evidence is shoved in the face of a non-believer – the very act of “shoving it” tends to invalidate that which is being shoved.
This is true of city builders and baseball writers. No matter how much empirical evidence suggests bike lanes and public transit benefit all citizens, promising to end “the war on the car” remains a great way to get elected. The internet equivalent of standing on a chair screaming “I KNOW WHAT’S BEST FOR YOU” at the established order – men and women whose greatest sin is is viewing life through a slightly different lens – is a terrific way to push folks away, not bring them into the fold. Information can always be delivered in a clearer way, supporting a greater point rather than used as little more than prelude to a mic drop.
We see a similar generation gap acted out over the over the great career of one Jack Morris. Held up as a beacon of greatness and consistency by the old guard, the sands shift beneath Morris. A very good pitcher with an incredible career behind him, the steadfast support of the Wild Hogs/Last Vegas set undermine his credibility in the eyes of those who might have missed his career. Instead of seeing the great man chosen to pitch Game One of four different playoff series, they see a durable league-average starter in the right place at the right time.
Jack Morris becomes the battleground. So much ink is spilled detailing the numerous shortcomings in Morris’ career misses the point. The votes for Morris are not really for Morris but the writers themselves. A vote for Jack Morris is an appeal to authority by those quite comfortable with the idea that they’re the authority on the matter until further notice.
Much has been made of where Morris stands, statistically, compared to other Hall of Fame pitchers. His numbers simply to not stack up. Other than the “winningest pitcher of the 1980s” thing and a great postseason record (if you ignore all the bad games), there isn’t a lot to suggest Morris was more than a good pitcher with a great reputation forged on a lot of good teams.
It isn’t that Morris’ intangibles are praised beyond their value, it is the praise for him amounts to little more than a dismissive “you had to be there.” And yet, these very same gatekeepers who promote the legend of Jack Morris didn’t seem to appreciate him when they were all there. Morris never finished in the top two of a Cy Young award vote, he never received more than three first-place votes. Those charged with appreciating him in real time never did so, despite swearing up and down that he was the best of his era.
On the other side of the coin sits Barry Bonds. For my money, he’s the best player of all time. Full stop. There are obvious questions and concerns with regard to his records and performance-enhancing drugs but the fact of the matter remains – he is on the ballot. He is eligible for election, making attempts to play judge, jury, and executioner ring a little hollow – especially since it didn’t prevent the same writers now damning him to pay the ultimate price had no problem voting for him during the height of his “drug year.”
In start contrast to Jack Morris, Barry Bonds was voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 2001, when he posted a .328/.515/.863 slash line with not-a-typo 73 home runs. They voted him the MVP that season and then the next year, too. And the year after that (unanimously) and the year after that, for good measure. Four straight MVPs for a man a majority of the Baseball Writers Association of America NOW believe to have besmirched the good name of baseball.
While “sins of the father” evidence used in Hall of Fame cases (number of awards is commonly cited in when citing HoF cases, especially when the career stats suggest otherwise), the Morris/Bonds attempts to rewrite history stand out the most. If these arguments were the exception rather than the rule, maybe they would be easier to stomach. But as part of an ongoing cacophony, the Hall of Fame starts to seem as petty as the guardians in place to protect it.
Does ignoring the Hall of Fame solve the problem? Does anyone have the patience to wait out the former baseball scribes as they give up the ghost and admit that they’re doing more harm than good? I certainly don’t know. I can’t imagine I have the patience for such a protracted battle against something that has no real impact on my life.
The deep rot in the Hall process guarantees one thing: when change eventually does arrive, it will be greeted with open arms and should spark a major uptick in interest from those embittered and alienated from the process long ago.
For now, there is too much opportunity to turn a writer’s ballot into an advertisement for their own brand, into a chance to grab a sniff of the spotlight as they tsk-tsk those who might doubt the credibility of a national hockey writer or long-retired scribe still checking boxes out of spite.
The Hall of Fame, the institution is purports to be, deserves better. That Deadspin bought a ballot is a symptom of a broken system, not the cause.
The middle ground is out there for those who seek it. For a topic as ceremonial as baseball’s Hall of Fame, aspiring to reach the middle ground isn’t a bad idea. It might stop the bleeding for a baseball institution rapidly slipping from the radar of young baseball fans. As distaste for this annual rite of annoyance grows with every passing year, it is harder and harder to find the safe space between uncheck outrage and utter indifference.
But is still worth trying. I cannot pretend I won’t be glued to the monitor come Wednesday afternoon when the results are announced. But rather than misanthropy, I’ll just hope. Hope the voters get it more right than wrong and hope that after a few more years of arbitrary punishment, the truly deserving players will be honored. There just might be some casualties on the way but a healthy approach and willingness to take it for what it is might just save it, even if it’s just in my own mind.
That Jim Rice is in Cooperstown and Dwight Evans is not doesn’t affect routing a road trip through upstate New York but knowing the legends of game are recognized in the museum and shrine to the sport offers more than just a little solace that my time at the Hall of Fame will be well spent.
If three or even four players get in this year, I’ll take time to celebrate those players rather than piss and moan over those slighted by a corrupt system. Too much time spent bemoaning Jack Morris and not enough time celebrating Greg Maddux suggests all our priorities need some recalibration. 2014 is just the time to do so.