Baseball Hall of Fame voters: it’s time to judge the judges

by Rafael Noboa y Rivera

Baseball writers in the Steroid Era had one job. And they failed at it.

Earlier this week, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) unveiled the newest Baseball Hall of Fame inductees. Baseball fans were paying particularly close attention to who made the cut, as they have the last few years, because many of the eligible players were star performers during baseball’s Steroid Era. Many of these writers show no mercy towards players like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa. Players they once laureled as Olympian heroes are now condemned as cheats, unworthy of the game’s highest honor.

What is interesting is that even as they stake out the higher ground, piously commenting on how moral standards must be maintained, these same writers are pleading with us as baseball fans to give them a break, cut ‘em a little slack. The judges are being judged, and they do not like how it feels. Bryan Curtis in Grantland tells their story in a nuanced, gripping essay. If you haven’t read it yet, read it now.

Curtis’s conclusion really made me think:

Everyone cares — that’s the scary part. It doesn’t require much of a leap to see that what the writers care about isn’t just the final judgment of an era’s worth of baseball stars. It’s the final judgment of an era’s worth of journalism. (emphasis added)

That last sentence absolutely leapt off the page to me. That’s the reason — at least for me — that I’m so disgusted with the sanctimony shown by so many members of the BBWAA. But what made Bryan Curtis’ essay so compelling is that he managed to temper my disgust with empathy for what so many baseball writers had to wrestle with. I get why these guys got into sports writing. They are fans of the game, just like me.

And yet, this quote also jumped out at me:

What Yesalis heard was a lack of scientific knowledge. “I remember one guy saying, ‘Yeah, Doc, but I don’t have all those degrees and scientific training,’” Yesalis recalled. “I said, ‘Bullshit. Even if you never lifted a weight, go to a hard-core gym and talk off-the-record to serious lifters. It’s not rocket science. You can literally learn everything in an hour of your time, counting the 10-minute drive to and from the gym.’” (emphasis added)

Just like that, my empathy for these writers is curdled into anger. For my part, it is profoundly hypocritical for sportswriters to plead for understanding; to ask that we forgive them because they were “naive and stupid,” or to say things like “I’ve never been an investigative reporter. I’m not really interested in that. It’s not what I got into this for”…and then turn around and righteously condemn the same players you were supposed to report on.

You had one job. You had one job! And you didn’t do it, because you were a fan, or because you actively abdicated your professional responsibility. There have to be consequences for this failure of responsibility, as well.

When being a fan directly conflicts with doing your job, as it did with Bernie Miklasz at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, then you have to make a choice between being one or the other. And way too many of these guys failed that basic test during the Steroid Era for me to be comfortable with them not just judging the players they observed, but by extension their own careers. No matter how you frame it, that is an incredible conflict of interest.

When a judge is faced with a conflict of interest in a case they’re judging, they have a professional and legal responsibility to recuse themselves. But these writers aren’t about to do that, as much as simple fairness dictates they should. This is why every year people talk about expanding the Hall of Fame ballot, expanding the electorate, and so forth.

So here’s my solution: if you were a baseball writer during the PED Era, which Bryan Curtis defines as 1988-2010, then you shouldn’t be allowed to vote for Cooperstown. I’d give a pass to reporters like Mark Fainaru-Wada, Lance Williams, and others who were involved in uncovering the rampant PED use in the sport, but other than that, you’re done. You had one job, you had multiple shots at doing the right thing, and you failed at it. Maybe you were failed, but at the end of the day, that’s really a distinction without a difference.

It’s the only fair solution. There are plenty of other writers that can pick up the slack, and you can take the chance to clear out some deadwood. If the BBWAA doesn’t agree, then just revoke their Cooperstown privileges and do it the way the NFL does it — 30 media representatives from each city with an MLB club, one representative from the BBWAA, and 13 at-large representatives.

If baseball writers won’t recuse themselves, then the Hall of Fame ceases to really fulfill its purposes. And that would be a tragedy.

Categories: Journalism, Sports