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Some baseball writers believe they are the morality police

Jan 3, 2011, 8:25 AM EDT

Jeff Bagwell AP

In the course of Michael S. Schmidt’s recent column on Jeff Bagwell, Ross Newhan, the retired Los Angeles Times writer and still-current Hall of Fame voter, describes what he sees as the role of the electorate:

“Somebody said we are not the morality police, but yet I think we are. If we aren’t, who is? Part of our job is that we are custodians of the game’s history.”

I get why someone can think that. The Hall of Fame ballot invites voters to weigh-in on the character of candidates.  But there’s a big difference between passing on a single player’s character and being “the morality police” or “the custodian of the game’s history.”

In the former instance, a voter is merely judging one player.  If limited to that, one must necessarily look at Bagwell’s record and note that there is not a single thing on his professional resume that could be viewed as a character deficiency. In the latter instance, however, voters give themselves permission to read all of baseball’s sins of the Steroid Era into Bagwell’s biography.  They feel they are protecting some sacred institution, not merely judging one man. In this case it’s easy, then, for a writer to explain away the injustice he might visit upon Jeff Bagwell. After all: he believes he is doing something more important than passing on Bagwell.  He’s protecting the Hall of Fame! Even though there is nothing on the ballot or in his marching orders that tasks him with this.

And why would there be? The Hall of Fame is capable of protecting itself. It does so by setting its eligibility standards. It could change them in five minutes if it felt threatened. It hasn’t done so in response to the steroids epidemic. That should tell the writers something. Sadly, it has not.

The Hall of Fame is not heaven, my fellow baseball writers, you are not St. Peter at the gate, and no one — not even Jose Canseco — has written baseball’s book of life.  Have a sense of humility about you. Understand that your role is not to be baseball’s moral arbiters, writ-large.  You are to look at one player at a time and judge him accordingly. If you have nothing negative to say about him, and if his accomplishments are sufficient, vote him in.

  1. phillysoulfan - Jan 3, 2011 at 8:36 AM

    “…Part of our job is that we are custodians of the game’s history.” Yes and the steroid era is part of the game’s history. You can not simply ignore it and pretend it never happened. You don’t get to choose which parts of the game’s history you want to remember and which you don’t. It would be like the United States deciding to remove from our history books owning of slaves. Not our finest hour, but one of our hours nonetheless.

    • adambuckled - Jan 3, 2011 at 8:51 AM

      Exactly. Mr. Newhan apparently has the definition of custodian mixed up. He has a responsibility to protect and maintain the history of baseball. Instead he’s just a euphemism for janitor, and he’s scouring the record books with the Ajax of idiocy.

    • paperlions - Jan 3, 2011 at 8:55 AM

      Uh, yeah, because US history books accurately record all of the atrocities visited on native peoples by the US government in the name of “progress”. Do the history books highlight repeated genocide?

      None of which has anything to do with anything. The problem is that writers are not basing their opinions are facts, and in the absence of fact they engage in rumor mongering. There is not a single thing in Bagwell’s record that indicates that he used steroids. The excuses (largely teammate affiliations, body changes) writers are using could be applied to other recent inductees such as Ripken, Gwynn, and (especially) Henderson. Nonetheless, these custodians of gossip engage in baseless accusation to justify who they choose whom to paint with the steroid brush.

      • paperlions - Jan 3, 2011 at 8:56 AM

        is it too much to ask for an edit tool?

        * that should have been “are not basing their opinions on facts…”

    • PanchoHerreraFanClub - Jan 3, 2011 at 9:05 AM

      Actually, many of the southern taxes, Texas for one, are doing just that, removing slavery from the history books.

    • Old Gator - Jan 3, 2011 at 11:57 AM

      phyllysoulfan: you ought to have a look at the new education laws regarding the teaching of history that got passed and signed into law by that hideous saddleleatherfaced hag in Arizona. Apparently, in the land of disappearing horned toads, you can indeed choose which parts of history you get to ignore.

  2. Jonny 5 - Jan 3, 2011 at 9:13 AM

    Journalists are in charge of voting for the HOF. What does that mean to you?

    They put Stargell in. Doesn’t that mean they must put Bagwell in??? Or is the fact Stargell played longer give him some slack with his numbers?

  3. manute - Jan 3, 2011 at 9:16 AM

    Agree that the HOF is not heaven. In fact, even as a museum it’s not all that great. But it seems like it’s the pro-Bagwell guys – not those who want to keep him out – who are acting like the Hall is some divine place and that enshrinement is a sacred rite (and right). Way too heavy. I mean, even the usually-sane Joe Poz (or maybe it was Craig Cal) was dropping the “100 guilty men” line. Really, there was nothing more cringe-worthy than applying that principle to this little sports debate. Bagwell said it best – if they’re going to start accusing me of stuff I never did, screw ‘em. It’s a good attitude. Not to say “who cares?,” because we all care at least a little or we wouldn’t go to sites like this. But all the moralizing and fretting and browbeating is kind of weird. If a sportswriter wants to deny Bagwell this honor because he believes, without much proof, that Bags was a juicer, why do people have to act like they’re Barry Scheck, doing God’s work? Yeah, some humility would be nice – on both sides of the debate.

    • rrrii - Jan 3, 2011 at 10:46 AM

      Amen. The writers who are not ticking Bags name on their ballot are (largely) not supplying really good reasons why. But they don’t have to. By all means, call out the writers who are intellectually dishonest or whose arguments don’t stand up to basic fact-checking. Engage in debate. But let’s not say Bags is being ‘barred” from the Hall (like Shoeless Joe or Pete Rose) and let’s not call this a gross injustice. It’s not unreasonable or far-fetched to expect the “Steroid Era” to confuse people to the point of, well, confusion. I’d be surprised if they had clarity on how to treat players of that era. They’re human.

      So let’s not get too hysterical and hyperbolic. Bagwell deserves to the in the HOF. Eventually, he probably will be.

      • tigerprez - Jan 3, 2011 at 6:57 PM

        I agree. I’ve found the amount of hyperbole swirling around this debate to be utterly stunning. You’d swear that by voting to delay Bagwell’s induction for one or two years, the writers are voting to burn him at the stake (a metaphor Posnanski actually used). Gosh, I never realized that you could condemn somebody simply by choosing to *not* celebrate him quite yet. In the minds of steroids apologists, steroids are/were not the problem. It’s people judging the steroid users. No one realizes that the “he without sin casts the first stone” maxim is probably the biggest stone anyone can throw.

        What’s fascinating is that while everyone agrees that there’s a ton we don’t know about the steroid era (exactly who was using and exactly what effects the usage had on their careers), those driving this outcry are essentially demanding that no one waits for more info to emerge or for a clearer understanding of the era to develop. If you have doubts, screw you!! Vote now!! A “no” vote is akin to a political assasination! I wonder how long until Bagwell’s plight is compared to those who struggled during the Civil Rights movement. I fully expect a Nazi/Hitler metaphor to be applied to Bagwell no-voters soon.

  4. Kevin S. - Jan 3, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    “The Hall of Fame is not heaven…”

    Hell, it’s not even Iowa, although I suppose we should all thank our lucky stars for that bit of good fortune.

  5. BC - Jan 3, 2011 at 9:39 AM

    I still think Bagwell will have trouble getting in. Not for steroid use – there’s nothing documented and nothing really had been said until his name came on the ballot. I’d vote him in, but I think a lot of voters won’t. He kind of flew under the radar when Bonds, Griffey, McGwire and Sosa were going beserk during his peak years.

  6. JM Lattanzi - Jan 3, 2011 at 9:51 AM

    A lot of this is due to the writers’ growing lack of influence, and the Hall of Fame vote is one of their last vestiges. In the past, this wouldn’t have been as big an issue, but now they come off as petulant children who just don’t want to give up their teddy.

  7. Jack Marshall - Jan 3, 2011 at 10:27 AM

    But Craig, the Hall of Fame criteria requires voters to be, to some extent, if not morality police, certainly character and sportsmanship police. The standards say…

    “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

    That means that voters are asked not merely to decide if there is something “negative” in a player’s record, but whether he deserves to be enshrined BASED on his integrity, character, and sportsmanship. This invites a qualitative assessment, and suggests that players significantly deficient in these areas ought not to be admitted regardless of their other accomplishments.

    Especially in an environment where the admission of a player who is blatantly lacking in character will be used as a slippery slope by future advocates, I don’t see how one can avoid the fact that voters are making judgments regarding what is or isn’t a Hall-worthy human being—what kind of person the sport of baseball calls “great” or “hero”— and that by necessity makes them “morality police” as well as guardians of the sport’s integrity.

    And yes, that is something most sportswriters are spectacularly unqualified to do, but that’s a different problem.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Jan 3, 2011 at 10:32 AM

      I don’t disagree with that Jack. The problem I have is starting from the position of “we have to protect the game.” The ballot says you have to focus on the player. I think that completely changes a voter’s calculus. If you think your duty is to “protect the game,” you’d be willing to pass on a player even if he has no character issues whatsoever, because you fear what it means for game if yo’re wrong. If you think your duty is to judge the player, you should do just that and not bring in anything to the equation that doesn’t relate specifically to that player.

      Put differently, it’s one thing to say “Jeff Bagwell’s candidacy concerns me because of x, y, z related to Jeff Bagwell.” I can probably live with that. It’s another thing altogether to say “I worry about the Hall of Fame because of baseball in the 1990s; Jeff Bagwell was a player in the 1990s, therefore I am not voting him in out of an abundance of caution to the game.”

      • BC - Jan 3, 2011 at 11:41 AM

        Well stated, Craig.

    • adambuckled - Jan 3, 2011 at 12:48 PM

      “That means that voters are asked not merely to decide if there is something “negative” in a player’s record, but whether he deserves to be enshrined BASED on his integrity, character, and sportsmanship. This invites a qualitative assessment, and suggests that players significantly deficient in these areas ought not to be admitted regardless of their other accomplishments.”

      Except you (and voters who make this argument) fail to mention what the standard is for enshrinement in those areas. The Bible? The Constitution? Emily Post’s Etiquette, 17th Edition? Some voters are defiant that any cheating is grounds for dismissal. Others are at a loss to define it for themselves, begging the Hall to clarify or give some statement as to how to determine how to weigh integrity and sportsmanship.

      It baffles me. Just use the same methods employed in baseball statistics: compare the player’s record with the record of his peers and that of other HOF members. Are McGwire and Bonds lower forms of life than the untold throngs of their contemporaries who cheated in exact the same way and competed against them? Does a steroid user have less integrity and weaker character than the amphetamine users, ball doctors, and racists who are currently enshrined? Because that’s the precedent. That’s the slope that thus far has proved anything but slippery.

      If perfection is the standard, clear out the Hall. If being a really, really good person who never played a dishonest inning is the standard, There should still be dozens of ejections. But that’s not the standard. It’s not close to the standard. Anyone with an open and slightly functioning brain should be able to recognize the obvious standard: gambling is the only unpardonable sin baseball has ever formally recognized. Cheating successfully has long been greeted with open arms. The voters are changing that policy, and THAT is the slippery slope.

  8. giant4life - Jan 3, 2011 at 11:15 AM

    I agree with you. No sports writer who votes for the hall should have the right to impose there morality on others…There is no definitive answer on what is morality so says the 1972 supreme court….
    I doubt few would argue that George Washington was one of our greatest presidents or in the top 3 the Babe Ruth of American History……but he was responsible for giving small pox laced blankets to the Native American which wiped out thousands..and of course supported the institution of slavery…I hope no one agrees with GW’s methods or results, but understand the impact(stats) that he had…He was one of our finest and is enshrined in immortality.
    I feel like the thought police wish to create their special hall…baseball is not just for those self righteous bigots who feel they are above others and have earned a place in the proverbial glass house. ……even worse they make accusations without facts that have never been proved. The commish will get into the hall, yet he allowed the steroid era to flourish, because it was good for the game at that TIME…as was Washington and Ruth in theirs. We do not know who did or who didn’t and we shouldn’t care.

  9. Mark Armour - Jan 3, 2011 at 11:36 AM

    Honestly, I doubt there is much difference between Craig’s view and Newhan’s. I think this is just poor word construction and/or word parsing.

    I think Bagwell will be fine. For the past 75 years writers have been taking a “wait and see” approach on players for tons of reasons, players who eventually are enshrined. It is only in recent years that our obsession for vote totals has run up against this historical tendency. Personally, I would prefer private ballots and vote totals, so that our media frenzy would focus on the honorees rather than the also-rans. There were an order of magnitute more stories last year about Alomar and Blyleven than there was about Dawson, who became an afterthought in the days following the announcement.

  10. Jack Marshall - Jan 3, 2011 at 11:53 AM

    giant4life: 1. The George Washington smallpox story is completely untrue, and slanderous. Washington was respectful of Native Americans throughout his career. 2. Washington was notable for rejecting slavery later n his life, despite serious financial consequences. 3. There is a big difference between adopting the prevailing standards of one’s culture, and violating them. 4. The Supreme Court does not dictate moral standards. 5. You are just wrong. Making moral and ethical judgments regarding conduct is not “imposing” anything. A society, a culture and a sport must have standards of right and wrong. People set those standards by making judgments.

    • giant4life - Jan 3, 2011 at 12:49 PM

      Thank you for the reply…I am not wrong…You can sugar coat Washington any way You wish.The Small pox story is true….notable? Respectful? Washington did not free his slaves…Slavery was based on biblical teachings as is morality. I am glad a few independent thinkers did “violate” ones culture…..Are someone would still own Barry, Women still would not vote, and on we go….Baseball is a game played by men who are flawed like all of us…well, except maybe you.

      • Jack Marshall - Jan 3, 2011 at 1:56 PM

        I’m sorry, you are not just wrong, but irresponsibly wrong. The RUMOR that the US government distributed pox infected blankets to Native Americans small involved 1837, long after George had died…and that rumor has been thoroughly debunked, coming from the phony research of Ward Churchill, who was kicked out of his university’s faculty for stuff like this.

        And Washington did free his slaves. From the Mount Vernon website: “In his will, he arranged for all of the slaves he owned to be freed after the death of his wife, Martha. He also left instructions for the continued care and education of some of his former slaves, support and training for all of the children until they came of age, and continuing support for the elderly.”

        Washington was an exemplar of good conduct by the standards of the culture in which he lived. Using today’s standards to misrepresent his character is unfair and unjustified, and in the case of your claims, malicious.

  11. giant4life - Jan 3, 2011 at 1:16 PM

    Washington was a racist just like Lincoln and most of our founding fathers…..It didn’t make them evil, or did it deny them fame or a place at the top of America’s hall of fame..They believed liked the majority did, that slavery was justifiable.(bible) Just like the majority of American believe that drug use is acceptable today…How many stars shot up on Sunday….Yes, legal drugs do give an advantage. I like rules in sports. Rules are good. Baseball’s hall of fame is not a sport. It is their to honor that sports best. We can with hindsight, look at those already in…Ty Cobb was a racist, someone shot up monkey testosterone..and who knows what else…Did steroid use delineate of the feats that any of those accused had..doubtful…..Would Tommy John surgery be an automatic disqualifier?….We should not use hindsight anymore than we can uses guesses, or your moral time machine..I think we should strip Bruce Bochy of his awards…he does have a size 8 head…he just must have been a roider?

    • Jack Marshall - Jan 3, 2011 at 1:58 PM

      This comment makes no sense, and is hardly worthy of a reply. As with your nonsense about Washington, your representations about what Americans think is “acceptable” is misleading nonsense.

      • giant4life - Jan 3, 2011 at 2:02 PM

        I was thing that Washington was at Ft Pitt? 1763? Martha freed his slaves on her death, not his…please check your facts…What do you base your representation on?

      • giant4life - Jan 3, 2011 at 2:37 PM

        We could argue revisionist history all day, but the main point is imposing ones morality on others is wrong…This writer has a higher calling, then is own spiritual and moral beliefs… I tried to use men such as Washington and Lincoln as examples for men who behaved as men… ..I respect you and what you believe in……………just it should not be used as gauge in judging baseball greats or judging anyone.. especially players like Bagwell without any evidence…Baseball writers who vote for the hall, should leave their bible out of the voting booth.I find no fault in J. Edgar Hoover dressing in drag…What is wrong, is that he imposed his beliefs on the agency to be something…well he wasn’t…

  12. iranuke - Jan 3, 2011 at 1:57 PM

    I will grant the hall of fame voters good intentions, and then point out that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. By not voting for legitamately great players, the are damaging the Hall of Fame and all of baseball, perhaps.

  13. Jack Marshall - Jan 3, 2011 at 2:23 PM

    Oh, for the luvva..the alleged Fort Pitt incident (during Pontiac’s War) did not involve the U.S. Government OR George Washington, if it happened at all. The British General involved was Jeffrey Amherst. Go ahead, just make things up.

    • giant4life - Jan 3, 2011 at 2:42 PM

      Your right is was not the US government, Washington worked for the British Army….Agree, the story is circumstantial at best…Isn’t Bagwell using steroids the same Jack? Are not most clains unsupported? You cannot have it both ways

      • Jack Marshall - Jan 3, 2011 at 2:46 PM

        You are insane.

      • giant4life - Jan 3, 2011 at 2:57 PM

        Your most likely correct on the state of my sanity…but I AM NOT…a narrow minded self righteous bigot Jack!

  14. macjacmccoy - Jan 4, 2011 at 3:43 AM

    Come on Craig maybe the Hall hasnt changed there rules regarding letting possibile steroid users in bc they believe they dont have to bc the writers will do that for him.

    That notion is just as plausible as yours and probably makes more sense. Why go through all the trouble of changing the rules if you dont have to?

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