Why does character matter now?

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.

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  1. Paul G. said...

    I’m not really sure how the election of Ty Cobb in 1936 has any bearing on how voters should act now.  I haven’t researched the matter, but I have a suspicion that there is not a lot overlap in the two voting pools, two circles passing in the Venn diagram night.  Or are you saying because the voters back then were willing to overlook the multitude of Cobb’s personal foibles that all future voters are now barred from making such judgments?  It is hard to gauge hypocrisy when there are no persons in common.

    I would tend to agree with the views other have expressed that the Hall of Fame honor should focus on baseball stuff.  Using steroids is baseball stuff.  Being a jerk is only baseball stuff as far as it relates to the performance of the team.  (This is probably the main reason Dick Allen is not in the HOF, though perhaps unfairly.)

    I will also mention that as to Gaylord Perry, Reggie Jackson’s bucket theatrics aside, appears to have the grudging respect of his fellow ballplayers.  Throwing a spitball is cheating.  Throwing a spitball (or other illegal pitch) and not getting caught is actually quite difficult to do.  From what (little) I have read the default view on this sort of thing is if you are skilled enough to get away with it, all the power to you.  And, if not, enjoy the suspensions.  PEDs is not really in the same category.

    As to our current voters, if a voter thinks that PEDs endanger the future of the sport – the Black Sox standard, if you will, though for different reasons – then they shouldn’t vote for Bonds and company.  If they think it does not rise to that level but they want to punish cheating, making the PED group wait is logical, though it could cause a serious logjam problem with future voting.  Of course, I suspect some voters are being more emotional than logical in this situation, but that is the case in all things.

  2. walt kovacs said...

    heard howard bryant say that were cobb and perry to come up for votes now…neither would make it in

    why is bryant still a member of the bbwaa?

  3. John Northey said...

    I get a laugh out of fear PED’s will kill baseball.

    In 2012 the NL had one team under 2 million in attendance, the AL 6. In 2004, the height of PED backlash (Bonds going for HR record, testing coming in the following year) 7 AL teams were sub-2 mil, 3 NL were.  In 1997, before McGwire/Sosa went nuts the NL had 6 sub-2 mil and the AL had 7.  If steroids were the danger some feel then those figures would not be improving but getting worse.  The raw dollars coming in today are crazy high, the TV deals are insane.

    No question what nearly killed baseball, to the degree of the Black Sox scandal, was not steroids but the missing WS in 1994.  So if anyone should be kept out of the HOF it should be Selig and Fehr, not Clemens & Bonds.

    FYI: 1919 saw ML teams range from 167k to 708k, 1920 with Ruth in NY saw a range of 162k to 1.2 million, but just one sub-250k vs 3 in 1919. and a low of 273k in 1921.  The Black Sox scandal actually didn’t seem to have a strong enough hit to counter the Ruth factor.  A shame the two hit at the same time otherwise it would be possible to see just how hard it did hit.

  4. grizzly said...

    this article is a totally false premise.  its not simply about a lack of chaRACTER—ITS ABOUT CHEATING! if i cheated in college i would have been expelled-not given a scholarship to grad school!

  5. Bob Twining said...

    The only objective standard for character is did the action or behavior impact their performance on the field or influence the performance of others.

    This is a permutation of the 1919 standard.

    Personal character flaws does not impact the quality of the game.

  6. Jason Linden said...

    Paul G. – Cobb was just the most obvious example.

    Paul G. and Grizzly – The BBWAA has never cared about cheating either. There are tons of cheaters in the hall (Posnanski did an extensive post about this a few years ago). So no, the article isn’t based off a false premise. If it were about cheating, the cheaters would have been kept out. Never mind that the players on the ballot now didn’t actually break the rules of the game (even if they did break the law). If the writers thought PEDs were endangering the game they should have written about it 15 years ago. This is just a bunch of people standing on their high-horses.

  7. Jason Linden said...

    Bob – You know, Willie Mays was once on a team that apparently stole a bunch of signs and totally rearranged a pennant race. Pretty big impact on performance there. Should we yank Mays out?

  8. Chris Browne said...

    IMHO, it is not about character, and it is not about cheating, per say. The question is, did taking PEDs take a decent player and make him a HOFer or would he be a HOFer regardless. I think in the cases of Bonds and Clemens, their (allegedly) taking PEDs enhanced and extended what were already HOF careers.  To me, those cases are pretty clear cut.  I can understand the quandry over more marginal players.  Voters would have to assess, in their opinion, would that player been a HOFer without PED assitance. Personally, I’d vote worthy candidates in and demand that all players from that era be grouped together and such noted as a part of MLB history.  You can’t claim they never existed or didn’t display greatness when they played.

  9. GT Seaver said...

    The BBWAA decided this time not to vote anyone into the HOF. That does not preclude any of the players mentioned from getting in on subsequent votes. Maybe they wanted to send a message. Maybe they didn’t like the players personally.  Perhaps some of it has to do with the differences in technology and the ability to watch games 24/7 or hear about the latest indiscretions by various players within hours of the event. That could give voters more to consider. In the end, there is no set standard for getting into the HOF. If that were the case, Al Oliver would be in. But the mere mention of a player from decades ago creates arguments for and against him. Right now, the cloud of PEDs hangs over those coming up for vote over the next few years. I don’t know that blaming the voters for adding in a perceived litmus test is really where your focus should be. They have always had that right.  How about the players who used PEDs to stretch their career out a few more years to add a few more millions to their bank account? How about the players who didn’t use PEDs, but tolerated those that did? If the player who didn’t get in because of the taint of PEDs could never get in, I might find more to motivate me toward outrage, but find it hard to do so, given the way Oliver and Bob Meusel have been treated by the HOF.

  10. Paul G. said...

    @John Northey: There is an argument that widespread PED use, if not checked, could significantly harm the sport long-term, even if the excitement benefits the sport in the short and medium-term.  The idea that baseball players are a bunch of freakish drug users/criminals is definitely not a selling point, especially if there is a wave of major medical problems as the first PED generation gets older.  Fortunately, that danger is probably averted with the more stringent drug testing.

    And this is what I think is the best argument for refusing Bonds, Clemens, etc.  Yes, they desperately wanted to win but they threatened to destroy the sport to do it.  The fact that baseball survived does mitigate the argument somewhat.  The fact that said threatened destruction is mainly theoretical weakens it even more.

    As to blocking Selig and Fehr from the Hall of Fame, I couldn’t agree with you more.

  11. John Northey said...

    Yup, widespread PED use killed pro-wrestling back in the 1980’s when it went way over the top…oh wait, it didn’t.  Well, it sure knocked the NFL off the top perch when almost all their players became bizarre looking freaks who die very young…er…right.

    Now, I am glad they put in rules at long last, but it seems silly to punish those who used when none of the interested parties (media, fans, players, owners) cared in the slightest for years.  Remember, House said it was common in the 70’s, Canseco was known (or at least very strongly suspected) to be using in the late 80’s, and McGwire had a smoking gun in his locker in 1998 and NO ONE CARED.  Keeping Bonds & Clemens out is much like saying lets keep out white players who refused to play with black players in the pre-Jackie Robinson days.  Were they doing the right thing? Heck no.  But they were products of their generation and should be recognized as such.

  12. Phil said...

    America, in 1936 when Cobb was elected, was a segregated society.  MLB was segregated, as were the Armed Forces, most neighborhoods, and many public places.  A generation before, when Cobb played, the President of the United States sang the praises of a film (Birth of a Nation) which was an affectionate love letter to the KKK.  And lynchings were epidemic in the South.

    OK.  Imagine we have a Ty Cobb on the ballot in 2013.  A violently prone racial supremacist, albeit an incredible ballplayer.  Do we say, ‘well shucks, although we have advanced so much as a country with regards to race, Ty Cobb is already in, so who are we do hold it against this fellow.’

    The fact is we have advanced.  We recognize Cobb as a man of his time, and as flawed as he and this time might be, does this mean we assume we, and our time, is perfect?  Or might we turn a critical eye to ourselves, and our present-day problems, and wonder what future generations might think?  And perhaps take some forward-looking acts?

  13. John Northey said...

    Phil – so do you feel we should ignore what the standards of the day were and not put people into the HOF based on the latest mood?  Steroids are the current boogie man.  In the 80’s it was cocaine.  In the pre-Ruth days it was striking out.  In the 1800’s gambling on games was common for players but as of 1919 anyone caught gambling was banned for life thus we have Tris Speaker in the HOF but not Pete Rose.

    Basically, judge players by the standard of their day I say.  In the 1990’s PED’s were ignored…no, worse, encouraged to be used.  Players who didn’t use were at a disadvantage and it is impossible to know who did and did not use.  Since at least the 1960’s those who didn’t use greenies were disadvantaged.  So either we try to take Willie Mays and all the other HOF’ers who used stuff we now see as wrong to use, or we put in footnotes indicating what they did that was wrong along with what they did that was right.

    Bonds and Clemens will always be connected to PED use and be seen as the poster boys for it along with McGwire and Sosa.  Others are paying a price as well, but I’d be in 30 years if someone looks back at this time frame that is how they’ll see it – those 4 plus knowing many others did too.  And it will seem quaint vs the future of surgical enhancements and bionics and who knows what.

  14. Phil W. said...

    John – Consider this.  Due, it would seem, in large part to a public disgust towards the steroid era, the BBWAA chose not to enshrine some great players associated with these abuses.  And a day later, MLB announces, with management and labor together, significantly tougher drug testing.  Now, not for a minute am I suggesting that steroid abuse is anywhere as dangerous to our society as institutional racism was … but imagine for a moment what might have happened if voters in 1936 had revolted against Cobb.  Might have 1947 come a little sooner?

    My point is that sometimes a little anger towards the status quo is a good thing.  It can affect change, and maybe even progress.  We shouldn’t use Cobb as a ‘pass’ towards present-day problems, we should instead use him a lesson in how we might start correcting them.  Baseball can be a great teacher.

    Now, I do hope Bonds and Clemens get in.  Not immediately.  But, with the drug testing news, I feel a bit more forgiving.  I’d guess some BBWAA voters will too over the next few years.

  15. Jfree said...

    IMO, saber guys are asking all the wrong questions. At core, you all seem more interested in defending the stars of saber stats than in attempting to analyze the possible impact of PEDs on those stats.

    No one is arguing that Bonds/Clemens are mere marginal HoF’ers based purely on their stats. They are the best/only example of clear HOF players whose stats may well be the best way of identifying PEDs use – precisely because they aren’t marginal players (where even normal variance/decline in the 30’s produces sharp drops in playing opportunity).

    It is a copout to say “well then, it’s about “character” or something subjective”. That may be the case but it is irrelevant. If one is a statistical analyst, then one should ask questions that are actually amenable to objective statistical analysis. Such as

    What is the probability that a HoF caliber player has his 4 best years between the ages of 36-40? Do HoFers age differently than other players? What is the probability that a particular stat for a power hitter (say AB/HR) follows what appears to be a “normal” age curve up until the age of 33—and then from the age of 34 hits seven consecutive years that are all far “better than peak year”? Could a particular variance (between a “normal age decline” and the “Bonds Age Defying Cream and Clear Elixir”) be enough to knock out – say 4 of his MVP’s?

    How might PEDs cheating/use produce different results in a player like Bonds? He always had good plate discipline but why was a power hitter like him being thrown so many fastballs (67% fastballs in 2002)? Simple physics says that velocity in and velocity out are highly correlated. Was he able to use that known non-PED affected plate discipline skill to get ahead in counts – and then use the PED-affected power skill (unknown to other players) to knock the ball out of the park when the pitcher was forced into throwing a high strike % pitch like a FB?

    I don’t know what such analysis of Bonds would actually show. Nor is such analysis that relevant for Bonds’ HoF case. But such analysis may be the only way of isolating the PEDs impact on more marginal Hof eligibles.

    Of course, the saber community can instead decide to pee in the wind and spout anti-analytical nonsense like “Everyone else in the HoF may have cheated or been an SOB too” or “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” or “Why does character matter?” These are all essentially religious/“belief”/faith arguments. And I doubt the saber community has any objectively superior ethics to bring to bear.

  16. zp said...

    Issue isn’t character, it’s cheating. Also, the amphetamine era didn’t see 3 players shatter a 30-year old record beyond recognition.

  17. Paul G. said...

    John Northey: Pro wrestling?  Seriously?  Surely you jest… except the example you provide actually undermines your argument.  The steroid rasslin’ freaks of the 80s resulted in the steroid scandal of the 90s.  The legal proceedings came close to ruining the WWF (now WWE).  Short-term gain led to long-term pain.  As to the NFL, they have been stressing their new found dedication to safety and health recently for a reason: the real risks of legal action and alienation of the fan base.  The mighty can fall.  It may be swift, it may take generations, but the vultures are always ready to circle.

    @Phil W.: My opinion: judge players on baseball stuff only.  If the modern day Ty Cobb showed up on the ballot now I would vote for him barring his actions undermining his team.  Otherwise we end up in the world of political correctness where everything is secondary to the current political orthodoxy.  You don’t want to go there, even if it advances causes you champion.  Let baseball be baseball, not the corrupted playground of politicians.

  18. CK said...

    The fact is that PED’s gave these guys enhanced performance, Bonds would have NEVER broken Hank Aaron’s record without the PED’s. Clemens career was nose diving and then all of a sudden he is a pitching God again just about the time he is accused of taking PED’s. Sammy Sosa, well come on really, average player until he started juicing and all of a sudden he hits 60+ HR three straight seasons. That is the problem right there, at least I think and hope that is the problem for the writers who chose not to vote for those guys. If you are violent or a racist you are an a-hole yes but it doesn’t enhance your performance as a BB player. There is a lot of noise out there that Bonds and Clemens had HOF careers before juicing so they should be elected. Pete Rose has more hits than anyone in history BEFORE he bet on BB so thein he should be in, right? I don’t think amphetimines make you stronger and recover faster so the comparison there is like comparing a firecracker to a Tomahawk missle. I’ve never seen a speed junkie with huge muscles and a head like a watermelon like Barry Bonds, have you? Personally I hope none of these PED users get in EVER, period. If that means we go ten or fifteen years and don’t elect anyone or only a few players then so be it. I don’t think that will be the case though, Maddux, Glavine, Griffey and many others who have never been mentioned in the PED discussion will be elected and some of them on first ballot. As for John Fay, I lost what little respest I had for him, be a man and vote one way or the other, what a cop out! Never mind the fact the guy can’t spell his way out of a wet paper bag, for God’s sake he is a real jounalist? I thought he was just some blogging hack, seriously.

  19. John Northey said...

    CK: without greenies do you think Aaron would’ve hit 42 home runs at age 40 and up?  Or 245 from age 35 on?  Really?  What about Mays from 36 on hitting 118 home runs?  Records that stood for decades fell – only 1 guy with 535+ HR pre-1960 then 10 reached it over the next 30 years.  Could be co-incidence or there could’ve been reasons for that home run explosion despite a dead offensive period being in there.  Imagine if instead of a dead ball period in the late 60’s they switched to a live one to combat the NFL?  Aaron would probably still hold the HR record.  Ah, but those guys were ‘clean’ or ‘not cheating’ or ‘not as effective drugs’ even though they did stuff few had done before or since even with the ‘powerful’ drugs around today.

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