I’ve never seen an issue in sports that stirs such passion and debate as baseball’s Hall of Fame, and I learned this week that the arguments rage over more than just whether steroid users, admitted or suspected, should be immortalized with a plaque.
I wrote a first-person article in yesterday’s Star Tribune about my approach to filling out my ballot — it seems to be the custom for first-time voters — and the response surprised me. I knew my position on Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa, and my votes for their induction, might disappoint many fans who earnestly believe steroid users have forfeited their claim on greatness. I respect that opinion — I once shared it, to be honest — but eventually realized that it felt nonsensical to promote an incomplete and sanitized version of baseball history, particularly since who used and who didn’t is so unclear.
What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was the avalanche of anger and distress that fans of borderline candidates would bombard me with. Well, perhaps not the numbers, but the fervor was particularly remarkable. It feels like every Mariners fan who was in the Kingdome the day Edgar Martinez doubled home Ken Griffey Jr. to beat the Yankees in 1995 wrote me to denounce my ballot. That a significant portion of those offended by Curt Schilling’s polarizing Twitter feed wrote to bemoan my ‘yes’ vote. And the Trevor Hoffman partisans, especially after the NL all-time saves leader fell five votes short of enshrinement?
To quote a succinct (and, I hope, tongue-in-cheek) email from a Padre-fan friend since college: “You’re dead to me.”
Yeah, he wasn’t alone.
Still, the emails and tweets were mostly civil and sincere, and mostly not at all what I had been warned to brace for. I enjoyed the give-and-take. I appreciate the opportunity to vote, especially since I know people far more knowledgeable and informed than I who don’t have a ballot. I researched the candidates and gave a lot of thought to how I would vote, but learned a lot from the feedback.
And since my essay didn’t go into my thoughts on many individual players, let me sum up how I responded to a handful of the most common complaints.
Curt Schilling: These were some of the most vitriolic emails, which I suppose isn’t a surprise because it reflects today’s political climate, and many (OK, most) of the objections to Schilling are due to his politics. He is an outspoken conservative who ridicules those who disagree, has characterized baseball writers as “scumbags,” and tweeted, “Ok, so much awesome here…” about a Trump partisan in Minnesota who wore a t-shirt that suggested lynching journalists.
I understand the objections to voting for Schilling, and I suppose if I truly thought he wanted me and my co-workers killed, I might share that opinion. But he said he was joking, and as insensitive and obnoxious as the joke was, well, I’ve said inappropriate things in an attempt to be funny, too. On the baseball field, though, Schilling’s credentials are certainly worthy, particularly his track record in the postseason — which has become more important in these days of championship-or-bust thinking.
As Jon Heyman wrote recently, “Casting a ballot for Cooperstown based on one’s politics would be like choosing a president based on who plays baseball better.” (Ironically, Heyman didn’t vote for Schilling.)
Edgar Martinez: I don’t subscribe to the thinking that a designated hitter cannot contribute enough to be a Hall of Fame, as a few emailers accused me of. Martinez was simply crowded out by players I believed were more worthy, since the ballot is limited to 10 yes votes. Had Edgar become a major-league regular before he turned 27, his career totals would certainly have carried him onto my ballot. I suspect they will next year regardless.
But I was struck by how many of his supporters took the time to write, and by the intensity of their opinions. Several expressed the certainty that “Edgar is the best hitter on the ballot, by far,” and some accused me of “East Coast bias,” claiming that I didn’t watch enough West Coast baseball to understand. (Having lived in Utah for a quarter-century and seen more than 30 games in the dank old Kingdome, it was an interesting argument.)
One emailer explained his ardor thusly: Seattle in the 1990s seemed in danger of losing its team, but was saved by the emergence of the “Big Three,” the three greatest players in Mariners history — Martinez, Griffey and Randy Johnson — who changed the city’s relationship with the team. Griffey and Johnson are in the Hall, and M’s fans who lived through that era are intent upon completing the set.
Trevor Hoffman: Like the DH argument, some accused me of discounting the value of closers, and there are some sabermetricians who insist that closers don’t pitch enough, especially as the job has evolved into a one-inning gig, to merit consideration, much less election. Closing is a role, not a position, the thinking goes, and shouldn’t be a shortcut to enshrinement. One emailer likened Hoffman’s case to “putting the best place-kicking holder in the NFL” in the football hall. I don’t agree.
Hoffman’s case, though, reminds me of one voting principle that may disappoint statistically inclined readers. As I said in my story, the Hall of Fame is a museum, and should reflect the history of the game. To me, that means that a strict, inflexible judgement based on numbers isn’t enough; there is room for some subjectivity, for considering how players were regarded during their careers. Closers, like DHs, are not minor players in the game today, and the best of them merit enshrinement.