A Farce in Cooperstown

Late last year, Tim Marchman of the muckraking sports site Deadspin announced a plan to "buy" the baseball Hall of Fame vote of a sportswriter. The logic of Deadspin's stunt was clear enough. For the first 15 years of a player's eligibility, the Hall of Fame vote is controlled by the increasingly small spectrum of the media represented by the Baseball Writers Association of America. The BBWAA's votes, wrote Marchman, had become "a way for an electorate dominated by neo-Puritan scolds, milquetoast handwringers, and straight-out dimwits to show how high its standards are" by rejecting recently retired players who vastly exceed historical standards for induction. A writer agreed to turn his ballot over to a fan poll of Deadspin readers. On Wednesday, as this year's Hall of Fame vote was announced, Deadspin revealed the identity of the writer: Dan Le Batard of EPSN and the Miami Herald. Not surprisingly, the BBWAA reacted by stripping Le Batard of his privilege to vote for the Hall of Fame. The reaction to Le Batard's actions by other sportswriters, however, very effectively illustrates the points that he and Deadspin were trying to make.

Of the many sanctimonious reactions collected by Deadspin in the aftermath of Le Batard's identifying himself, one is particularly instructive. Ed Sherman of the Sherman Report tweeted that he was in favor of stripping Le Batard's vote because he's a "rules guy":

As a reader noted in response, however, a rather obvious problem with this argument is that Le Batard—who did not take any money in return for outsourcing his ballot to Deadpin's readers—did not actually seem to violate any of BBWAA's rules. Sherman could not identify any rule that Le Batard broke, and instead retreated to an argument that Le Batard's actions were simply "wrong":

This sequence is perfectly representative of the more general problem with the BBWAA's drug warriors. Vastly overqualified players are being denied entry into the Hall of Fame based on self-righteous moralizing that is revealed as utterly arbitrary and incoherent on the slightest inspection.

The largest controversy surrounding the Hall of Fame voting is represented in two numbers from this week's vote results: 35.4 and 34.7. (75 percent is the threshold for election.) The former is the percentage of votes obtained by Roger Clemens, a seven-time Cy Young Award winner with a strong case as the greatest pitcher in baseball history. The latter is the tally for Barry Bonds, a seven-time MVP who has a serious argument as the greatest player who ever lived. The two are being denied the honor they manifestly deserve because both are strongly suspected of having used performance-enhancing drugs. I say "strongly suspected" because of one rather important fact: neither ever failed a drug test. And neither failed a drug test in large measure because during their careers there wasn't any drug testing. Just as Le Bertard consulting a fan poll didn't violate any actual rules, Bonds and Clemens weren't violating rules in any meaningful sense.

During the height of baseballs "steroid era" in the 1990s, it's impossible to argue that PED users were "cheating." The commissioner had issued a unilateral edict against steroids, but he lacked the authority to ban them. And, more to the point, since there was no testing or enforcement mechanism, there was no rule in practice—even if one wishes to completely ignore the collective bargaining process. As the baseball writer and researcher Bill James puts it, "if 80 percent of the players are using corked bats and it is unclear whether there is or is not there is any rules against it, is that cheating?" The argument is, to me, unanswerable. Cheating involves breaking rules. Violating the conveniently retrospective moral judgments of sportswriters isn't "cheating."

We can be fairly confident that Bonds and Clemens used PEDs. Even more ridiculous are the players—like Mike Piazza (the greatest hitting catcher in baseball history) and Jeff Bagwell—being kept out of the Hall of Fame although there isn't the slightest evidence that they used PEDs at all. Because PED use wasn't against the rules, we for the most part have no idea who was using PEDs and who wasn't. There's exactly as much evidence of steroid use against Piazza and Bagwell as there is against the three players inducted this week. And in historical perspective, the lack of rigor is even more glaring. There are people who enhanced their performance using illegal amphetamines in the Hall of Fame. There are pitchers who cheated by loading up the ball in a way violated actual rules (rather than the incoherent moral institutions of sportswriters) in the Hall of Fame. There are almost certainly steroid users already in the Hall of Fame. There's no good reason to single a particular generation of players out.

The context of this witch hunt makes the BBWAA's action against Le Batard even sillier. Le Batard, acting within the rules, used the input of fans to submit a ballot at least as reasonable as that of the median BBWAA voter, and lost his voting privileges. On the other hand, the BBWAA allows people to continue to vote even though they cover golf rather than baseball. It allows bitter cranks to keep their vote to carry out vendettas against other writers. As Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports puts it puts it, the organization "approve[s] of stupid protests of their own members, but not smart protests by their own members with the help of common people like baseball fans."

If nothing else, this farce should compel the Hall of Fame to question the BBWAA's monopoly on the Hall of Fame voting process. In the contemporary media environment, limiting to the electorate to the BBWAA excludes countless experts (not to mention fans who would take their vote more seriously than any number of BBWAA members.) The Hall of Fame does not belong to a self-selected minority of writers, and it's time to take the selection process from their control.

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