Why I Still Care About the Hall of Fame
This is a post that’s kind of about baseball’s Hall of Fame in which I tell you how to think and how to act. It’s a post that I should have given a title with a colon or starting with the word “On,” or incorporating a Dr. Strangelove joke–in short, the kind of title I used to use for 70 percent of my baseball writing before I realized those tropes were more childish than profound. This post uses baseball to make a larger point about society and public discourse. It will be, in a word, insufferable.
This morning, Ken Gurnick of MLB.com posted his Hall of Fame ballot. I apologize in advance to the Dodger beat writer, because I’m going to call him Tom Grunick at some point and not catch myself–Broadcast News is one of my favorite movies and to be honest, I’ve spent much more time with William Hurt’s character in that movie (which is to say, any time), than I have with Ken Gurnick.
But the point is this: Gurnick voted for Jack Morris, and Jack Morris alone, for the Hall of Fame. And the internet blew up. I use the phrase “roundly pilloried” a lot, but it applies well here. I’ve made no secret of my own Hall of Fame rationale: I’m generally a big Hall person, I value peak over longevity, I make some allowances for qualitative or emotional influence on my evaluations (leading to, for instance, my preference for Larry Walker over Tom Glavine), and when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs, I am on the most liberal end of the spectrum: if a player is eligible, I’d consider him. That’s how I’d vote, and I believe it’s the best way to vote, otherwise I’d have some other opinions. I don’t believe it’s the only way–if a voter prefers a smaller circle, for instance, or if he or she isn’t so comfortable with PEDs and chooses not to vote for a player who tested positive, or who was credibly accused of wrongdoing, I’d disagree, but such a ballot wouldn’t merit the treatment Gurnick got today.
Gurnick’s ballot was so bad because, simply put, it didn’t seem to follow any particular rationale. Gurnick doesn’t say that Morris was the best pitcher on the ballot, only that he wouldn’t vote for any player in the so-called “steroid era.” That includes Greg Maddux, who was by orders of magnitude a better pitcher than Morris, and whose career overlaps with Morris’ by nine seasons and is held up as a paragon of clean living. It includes Roger Clemens, a better pitcher even than Maddux, whose career overlaps with Morris’ by eleven seasons. By any credible account, PED usage in baseball dates back to before Jack Morris even thought about turning pro, and reached epidemic levels by the 1980s, or before Morris acquired the folk hero status he has now. If there is a steroid era, it includes 1988-90, when the Oakland A’s of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire won three straight pennants, and during which time Morris went 36-45 with an ERA+ of 89 for the Detroit Tigers.
The voting rules for the Hall of Fame are nebulous, so Gurnick gets to set up whatever hurdles he wants, as does any writer. I wouldn’t deny Clemens a vote because of his alleged drug use, but if that’s a heinous enough sin to give Gurnick pause, that’s his prerogative–after all, I think you’d have to be incredibly naive to think Clemens didn’t cheat at some point in his career. If he wants to deny Maddux for playing alongside drug users, I’d call that draconian, but that’s his prerogative. But to deny Clemens and Maddux and not Morris, their relative contemporary, is indefensible.
That’s where Gurnick loses me. He set up criteria and applied them selectively. I don’t condemn him because his ballot doesn’t match mine–I condemn him because he’s intellectually dishonest. If there is a rationale for voting for Morris and not Maddux, I haven’t come across it, and that’s why Gurnick is getting so much shit. But that’s not anything you haven’t heard, and if that’s where the story ended, I wouldn’t be writing this now.
Shortly after the internet exploded at Gurnick, Ken Rosenthal came to his defense. I think Rosenthal is the most indispensable baseball writer working today. From what I know of him personally, he’s a good guy–earlier this year he came on the Baseball Roundtable and was candid, funny and forthright for way longer than he had to be, in a forum that was so far below his weight class I struggle to describe it. Because I think so highly of Rosenthal, I can say this: he completely missed the point.
I broadly agree with Rosenthal’s initial statement–Gurnick has earned his vote, and is entitled to his opinion, and he shouldn’t be denied either based on the ballot he submitted. I don’t, however, think the reaction was out of line. Gurnick invited a response when 1) he voted at all and 2) he made his vote public and explained his rationale. That’s the danger of expressing your opinions publicly–if they’re poorly constructed, you’re going to hear about it.
Rosenthal wasn’t the only writer to defend Gurnick–Dylan Hernandez of the L.A. Times expressed his dismay that Gurnick, whom he called “the smartest and most thoughtful baseball writer I know,” was having such a rough day. This reaction, in addition to being an example of what Gawker’s Tom Scocca identified (correctly, if somewhat insufferably) as smarm, is where this stops being about baseball alone.
Gurnick’s intelligence and thoughtfulness are a diversion. Snark is a diversion. Smarm is a diversion. What’s at issue here isn’t ideology or manners–it’s the argument, and appeals to authority, or to Gurnick’s character, or to internet buzzwords only distract from the only important part of the conversation: that bad arguments, riddled with intellectual dishonesty, presented in opposition to–not ambivalence to, but direct opposition–to empirically provable truth–must be confronted and destroyed, no matter the source. If, when they’re among the electorate, Keith Law or Ben Lindbergh or Jonah Keri submits a Hall of Fame ballot as hand-wankily cheeky and philosophically unrooted as this one, I’ll spare no criticism just because I like those writers.
There was no lynch mob. Nobody credibly called for Gurnick to lose his platform or his vote. You’re allowed to change your opinion over time, even when later opinions directly contradict believes to which you once held fast. (Or at least I hope you are, because to my eternal shame, I once voted for a libertarian for statewide office before I knew better.)
What happened is that Gurnick put out, for public consumption and comment, an indefensibly stupid opinion, and the wages of stupidity is ridicule.
There’s a growing movement among my peers of conscientious objection to BBWAA voting, disavowing the Hall of Fame and MVP voting and so on because they represent values and evaluative methods that have been proven to be obsolete. If our institutions don’t reflect us, they say, then we should reject those institutions. It’s a movement that’s part John Locke and part scene kid, and it’s a movement that I can’t justify joining.
On the Effectively Wild podcast a few months ago, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller talked to MLB Network anchor Brian Kenny about his unusually aggressive approach to baseball analysis and pointing out faults in others’ analysis where he sees it. It’s a tone that was largely abandoned by the online baseball community sometime after the publication of Moneyball, and Kenny (not him alone, but him in particular) has been criticized for taking an inappropriately confrontational tone and fighting a battle that’s already been won. Generally, I’m on board with this line of criticism, that Kenny and others are right, but could stand to cool it a little in the name of not turning into the sabermetric equivalent of Internet Atheists.
But his response stuck with me, and I’ll paraphrase and adapt it for today’s controversy here: the reason we suffer arguments like Gurnick’s, and the reason Miguel Cabrera wins MVP awards and the reason Jack Morris is going to get more Hall of Fame votes than Mike Mussina, is that we’re choosing not to fight back against bad arguments. We might have won the war, but we don’t have the influence yet because when people with big platforms say things we know to be wrong, we’re not fighting back.
In that vein, I still care about these institutions because while they don’t reflect my values, I don’t have any other institutions to turn to, and while I don’t have custodianship of these institutions, the people who do are doing damage that my generation is going to have to repair. Ken Gurnick’s Hall of Fame ballot must be condemned because it still counts.
And while you can hand-wave to a certain extent because in the grand scheme of things baseball doesn’t matter that much, sports mirrors culture. Sports mirrors culture in the way we talk about race, gender, sexual identity, economics and mental health, and our society is worse off because we don’t confront and defeat bad arguments before they can influence people.
If you take nothing else from this post, take this: our society is determined to die on the cross of false equivalence. We think all opinions are valid, even when they carry no philosophical or empirical underpinning worth discussing, and often those arguments influence policy in spite of flying in the face of what we know to be true. It’s why children are dying of preventable diseases when their parents are swayed by patently fabricated claims that vaccinations cause autism. It’s why tens of thousands are disenfranchised by voter ID laws that aim to combat cases of election fraud that number so few they’re dwarfed by the margin of error. It’s why we cling to a healthcare system that shuts out those who need care the most because those who profit off our sickness are out to convince us not to use our collective bargaining power to bring costs under control. It’s why we don’t have gun control or marriage equality when such things would practically cost us nothing and would provide happiness and safety for millions. It’s why hundreds of thousands of Americans go without food and shelter in the name of the welfare queen canard.
We don’t have these things because we’re too jaded or too polite to set aside diversions and confront self-serving, cynical and intellectually unjustifiable arguments when we see them, whether in baseball, where the stakes or low, or in matters of public policy, where they couldn’t be higher.
We can’t be afraid of math. We can’t be afraid to learn. We can’t be afraid of context. We can’t be afraid of criticism. And most importantly, we can’t let others be afraid of those things, no matter the forum.