It’s pretty obvious that former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling is a couple of beers short of a six-pack.
Since retiring in 2007, Schilling spends a lot of his free time shouting into the void on the internet. Schilling has at some point said something you would find deeply offensive. I don’t know anything about you, but I’m absolutely sure of this.
Schilling shouted himself out of a good TV gig, and appears intent of shouting himself out of polite society altogether. But before he goes, there’s one thing left for him to blow up – the remaining integrity of Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame voting process.
On Tuesday, nobody hit the 75-per-cent threshold for inclusion in the 2021 Hall of Fame class. Schilling finished highest among the nobodies.
He got 71 per cent, putting him 16 votes shy. This was Schilling’s ninth kick at the can. In his first year, he got 39 per cent. Somehow, despite not pitching in the intervening years, dozens of voters decided that Schilling had turned himself into a Hall of Fame pitcher. Which makes no sense.
If Schilling could not talk and had lost his typing fingers in a lawnmower accident the day after he retired, he’d be in the Hall of Fame. But he can and he didn’t, so he isn’t. That’s hard to square, though MLB and its water-carriers devote hundreds of hours of airtime to doing so.
Schilling is object lesson No. 1 in why people can’t be trusted to stick to their mandate once social capital is involved.
Voting for baseball’s Hall is done by the members of the BBWAA (Baseball Writers’ Association of America). A few years ago, under public pressure, writers began revealing their votes. It’s gotten to the point where to not do so seems suspicious.
People zeroed in on the word “character” in MLB’s Hall requirements, as in, “voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character …”
If you were essentialist – inclined to look past Barry Bonds’s alleged steroid use, Omar Vizquel’s arrest for domestic violence and Schilling’s wing-nuttery – and judge players strictly on their play, you suddenly found yourself in the public crosshairs.
In your own mind, you may be casting a vote for Vizquel’s close-to-best-ever fielding ability. But in the minds of a lot of other people, you are voting in favour of beating your wife.
You could try drawing an intellectual distinction between the ballplayer and the person. Maybe you wouldn’t have dated Picasso, but you still like looking at Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
But that sort of debate has become fraught, especially if you choose to have it on social media.
So there are now two sorts of Hall voters – the ones who keep quiet, and the ones who make a show of rending their garments over their choices.
This has less to do with baseball than with a display of moral credentials. That’s where the social capital comes in – earning more of it, and potentially losing it.
Becoming a Hall voter used to signify that you’d made it in the business. Now it’s the entrance to a professional minefield. I have sympathy for all involved, though I’m not one of them. I decided a while back that sports awards would somehow survive without my input.
We haven’t even touched on how much sense it makes letting writers determine the entrants to a sports hall of fame. Do baseball players give out the Pulitzer? Just because you read a lot of top-drawer journalism, it doesn’t follow that you’re an expert in how it gets written.
They could allow the players to judge each other (and sort of do, through the back door of the Veterans Committee). But that brings us back to the usual fears of favouritism, back-scratching and score-settling.
The settled narrative is that Bonds and Roger Clemens aren’t in the Hall because they are tainted by performance-enhancing drugs. That’s part of it. They’re also blackballed because many of the writers who covered them hated them. At least in part, this is payback.
Would players be any better than writers at resisting the urge for revenge? If you consider it in familiarity/contempt terms, they might be worse.
The Hall’s current problems were once things people liked about it – its cliquishness, its open-door policy, its towering subjectivity. The voting process worked back in the days when writers existed to valorize the athletes they covered. The two professions existed in symbiosis – not quite equal, but in cahoots.
You voted for the guys who’d fed you quotes and tidbits over the years, which the new generation of stars understood, and the great wheel went round and round.
As a general rule, writers and players no longer like each other much. The sports-watching public is suspicious of them both. A difficult-to-rationalize 10-year process that looks from the outside like a Skull and Bones initiation ritual is no longer an easy sell.
The solution is easy – numbers.
If numbers don’t lie, they are especially enthusiastic truth-tellers in baseball. There are lots of objective ways of separating baseball’s great from its good – WAR, OBP, championships won, slugging, K/9, etc.
The numbers don’t care if you are a conspiracy-minded freak show, and neither should the Hall of Fame. Not unless it is going to require affidavits of good citizenship stretching back to grade school from every potential new member.
But if you are determined that PED use should bar a player from consideration, create a written framework that says that. Likewise for criminal convictions, criminal accusations, or saying a deeply unpopular thing.
If there is a line, it should be clearly articulated. If causing offence is enough to step over it, then put that in there – “… integrity, sportsmanship, character and tendency to do the done thing.”
Does the current wording eliminate Schilling from consideration? I don’t know and neither does anyone else. That’s the problem.
What does “character” mean, exactly? Fifty years ago, according to the mainstream mores of the day, the character argument would have been used to disqualify an athlete like Muhammad Ali from consideration. It fails the basic requirement of any good rule – that it is applies equally to all people in every situation.
The vagary of that word has forced the BBWAA to act as if it is endorsing a player’s politics, extracurriculars and/or anti-social behaviour along with his numbers. Like entering the Hall is a Good Housekeeping seal of virtue.
If you follow that chain of logic backward, being able to throw a ball 95 miles an hour somehow magically makes the thrower a good and decent man, a person worthy of admiration.
Believe me, if “admiration” is the bar, a lot of ballplayers you really like are going to disappoint you.
Once you’ve defined what excludes players from the Hall, you can work on what gets them in. Give the writers the toss, and let an algorithm do that work. Determine a baseline of career accomplishment that qualifies a player as a Hall inductee. Baseball is great at reducing a lot of inputs into one easy measurement. Once you hit your number, you’re in.
That’s one simple, fair way to do it.
But since this is pro sports we’re talking about, we’ll keep doing it the hard, confusing way for the foreseeable future.