Why does character matter now?by Jason Linden
January 11, 2013
This week's Hall of Fame result wasn't totally unexpected, but for many of us, it was frustrating nonetheless. The primary question that everyone has been wrestling with lately is, "what, exactly, is the Hall of Fame supposed to be?" Let me explain.
Since basically forever, the Hall of Fame has been a place to enshrine the best players in baseball. At least, that's what it was as far as the Baseball Writers Association of America was concerned. For the most part, they did a good job. Sure, the writers missed the boat here and there, mostly with players they didn't elect, but if the BBWAA voted you in, well, it meant you were one hell of a ballplayer. But suddenly, the narrative has changed.
The BBWAA has now decided that character matters. Never mind all the jerks and cheaters in the Hall of Fame. Racists. Spitballers. Players who spent their entire careers drugged up on amphetamines. Now, we have to start considering character. Whatever that means (the only thing more vague than the mention of character in the voting guidelines is the answer you get from many BBWAA members when they address that guideline). You'll hear lots of half-baked reasons why this is the case, but I'll tell you what I think is the real reason: It's the only thing the writers can still claim to knowing more about than the rest of us.
Think about it. For a long time, the writers were given the vote for a reason that makes perfect sense: They saw more baseball than anyone else. Of course they should get the vote. They see the guys play. No one else seemed qualified. But this simply isn't true now. In fact, it can be argued that the writers as a whole have seen significantly less of the players on the current ballot than many, many baseball fans. Why? TV.
Average fans can watch their favorite team as often as they want. That means that there are thousands and thousands of people who saw Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds and Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza play more often than any beat writer except for those covering that player's team. Why? because the Boston beat writer isn't waiting up to see Barry Bonds play and the San Diego beat writer is too busy getting ready for the Padres game when the Red Sox or Yankees are playing. And it's not as though writers have special analytical skills. They're journalists, not analysts.
So the question of who's qualified to judge performance has suddenly, over these last several years, come up for debate.
I don't know how you feel about the beat writer for your favorite team. I follow the Reds and we have John Fay. I think he's pretty solid. He's a reporter and he reports. He doesn't always ask the questions I want him to ask. Sometimes that's frustrating and sometimes I get that he has to have a relationship with Dusty Baker if he's going to do his job. Notably, Fay drew some attention to himself when he announced that he was not submitting a ballot this year because he doesn't know how to deal with the issues at hand (note that this is different than submitting a blank ballot, because it isn't added to the tally of votes cast and thus hurts the players less).
I respect that decision, but I still wonder why we're bothering with it in the first place. I mean, do the writers really want to make the character argument? Let's take an extreme example: Who would you rather trust with your kids, Ty Cobb or Mark McGwire?
Now, the absurdity of that question aside, unless the writers know something about McGwire that they have chosen not to report, I think the answer is fairly obvious. You take McGwire. Why? Because he did something wrong, but he doesn't seem dangerous or scary. He certainly hasn't shown a tendency toward violence like Cobb did.
Seems like McGwire has better character than Cobb, at least as I'd define it. So can we take Cobb out? No one wants that, right?
If you're a writer, you can make some argument about character having to do with the integrity of the game or something, but then you get back into all the other kinds of cheating, and I have yet to see anyone make an argument that resists even the most basic logical challenge as to why one kind of cheating is different from another kind.
That's why the character argument doesn't hold water and never will. However the writers try to make the argument, it's refuted by players they already voted into the Hall. So why can't the writers stop pretending the Hall is about anything other than honoring the best players, warts and all? I think it goes back to the argument I made earlier.
Like I said, I have no problems with John Fay the beat writer. But you know what? I don't go to John Fay for analysis about who's good and who's not. I got to him for news. When I want analysis, I go to anyone of the fantastic baseball sites on the web. It can be FanGraphs or somewhere on SBNation or right here at THT. There are a lot of sources, and they all do a better job of telling me which players are likely to help my favorite team win than the beat writers do.
And I wonder if they're starting to feel that. If they know that people don't buy the story anymore about the gritty player who didn't have the numbers, but was really the team's MVP. I wonder if maybe some of them find a need for a different story and so they've started to latch onto the character issue as something they can write about and still have readers take them seriously. This last part is conjecture. I really don't know.
I do know that the writers aren't the among people most qualified to judge the career of a ballplayer unless they followed him daily. If they know they aren't qualified and we know they aren't qualified and they still have the vote, then the election has to be about something else, doesn't it?
So, in the end, I guess the Hall has to decide what election means. For a long time it meant only that you were a great ballplayer. It doesn't mean that anymore. It means something else. Something that makes most of us (including John Fay) pretty uncomfortable.
Jason has too many irons in the fire. He fancies himself a fiction writer and also writes about the Reds at Redleg Nation, books at Elephants for Bookends, and everything else at The Winesburg Eagle. Email him at winesburgeagle *at* gmail or follow him on Twitter @jasonlinden