As I’m currently confined to my apartment by the polar weather in the midwest, now seemed like a good time to make my first blog post of the new year. (I’m so glad that we can call this cold spell a “polar vortex” instead of just a damn annoying winter day.) And since the baseball Hall of Fame is going to announce its inductees (if any) on Wednesday afternoon, this seems like an opportune topic.
Now, I could go into who deserves to be inducted and who doesn’t—and I likely will do in the course of this entry—but there’s already plenty of that floating around. What’s more interesting to me than the debates over who should be admitted are the conversations about what the Hall of Fame even means. I would not be the first person to suggest that the Baseball Writers Association of American (BBWAA) has been damaging its credibility in recent years with the trend of excluding players based on PED allegations. I should note that there’s an important distinction to be made here: There are some players who have admitted to using PEDs (i.e., Mark McGwire) and some who have tested positive (Raphael Palmeiro). However, there are also players who have clearly been hurt by having been power hitters in the so-called “steroids era,” such as Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza. Writers who combine these two categories of players into a single debate do a significant disservice to the general conversation about HOF-worthiness, since they’re collapsing the debate about whether a known PED user could be eligible for the Hall with the realm of murky and unsubstantiated allegations about players who might have used. To wit: there is no credible evidence that either Bagwell or Piazza ever used steroids, but some writers have decided that they are tainted by association. They take evidence that by all rights should make both players automatic inductees to Cooperstown and turn that evidence on its head to argue that these players ought to be ineligible, just like their duly convicted brethren.
I’ll try not to get too polemical here, but this sort of argument stinks worse than (to use a Simpsons phrase) the south end of a north-bound mule. You don’t think that known PED users should be in the Hall of Fame? Fine. I don’t agree, but at least I can see that there is a rational argument there, one that is based (loosely) on the rules of baseball and the guidelines of the Hall of Fame. But it is remarkably arrogant of any writer to take it upon himself to be the moral police based on shady accusations and rumors. If we’ve learned anything from the repeated revelations of PED use over the last several years, it should be that there are a remarkable variety of reasons why players take these substances, and there is an equally great range of reasons why individuals might suggest that this or that player is on the juice. (And let’s not kid ourselves here—these same baseball writers who want to wag the finger at players when Hall voting time rolls around have a vested interest in reporting on PED users, whether or not those reports are credible.)
As a FanGraphs writer suggested a while ago (I think it was Dave Cameron, but I can’t recall), I do hope that we are living through a transitional period here, where the old guard of the BBWAA is breathing its final breaths and exerting its waning influence over a sport that has changed dramatically, in both analysis and performance. But I also wonder why we, as a culture, seem so hell-bent on building Halls of Fame. What is achieved by having a building where all of the “greatest” players are recognized? Yeah, there’s some cool stuff in Cooperstown, and the museum generally does a good job of curating baseball’s actual history (rather than the one the baseball writers are trying to inscribe). But what is achieved by saying that (for instance) Ryne Sandberg is HOF-worthy, while Lou Whitaker is not? (Go look up their numbers and explain to me how Sandberg is a Hall of Famer while Whitaker couldn’t even garner the 5% of the vote necessary to stay on the ballot.) What have we gained from the rather public campaign to get Jim Rice in the Hall while Dale Murphy’s eligibility expired last year?
I don’t mean to only apply these questions to baseball, either. I was recently thinking about these same issues with regard to the even more bizarre idea of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When the 2014 inductees were announced recently, Nile Rodgers was again snubbed. But I was even more surprised to learn that the acts eligible but not in the Rock Hall include: Black Flag, the Cure, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Joan Jett, the Smiths, and Sonic Youth. Again, I’m not going to argue that some or all of these should be inducted—particularly not in an arena where the mere concept of a “hall of fame” is even more bizarre and arbitrary than in professional sports—but it seems to me, and to many others, that Rock Hall voters are operating with a similar system of biases as are the BBWAA.
Ultimately, if we’re going to maintain these institutions, we need to accept them for what they are: a series of snapshots of the thought processes, biases, and prejudices of the gatekeepers who vote for inductees, rather than a group of the most elite members of a given field.by