TORONTO – Far more than usual, submitting a 2021 Hall of Fame ballot was a struggle this year and like some of my fellow voters, I did so only after a considerable amount of consternation.
After all, an important side story in the voting process that is just beginning, rather than ending, is the way typical debates about a candidate’s merits have branched off into new arguments about how a player’s off-field behaviour should impact one’s viability.
It’s a significant development since at the heart of the matter lies the ultimate question – What do we want our Hall of Famers to represent? – even if it isn’t often articulated as such.
Should a spot in Cooperstown be based solely on what happens on the field? Or are we compelled to consider a person’s entirety before awarding the sport’s greatest individual honour?
At the crux of things in this voting cycle was Curt Schilling, who continued to spew vile, divisive and dangerous political rhetoric. An important Exhibit B was Omar Vizquel, who in a Dec. 16 story by Katie Strang and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic was revealed to be facing allegations of domestic abuse by his wife, Blanca.
In recent years, the primary off-field consideration for voters has been links to steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs. But Schilling and Vizquel demand an accounting that’s deeper than merely the usual objective, stat-based considerations, and that’s where some voters, myself included, got stuck.
The Hall of Fame’s selection criteria given to eligible members of the Baseball Writers Association of America says that, “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.”
But integrity, sportsmanship and character are all subjective, sure to be mean different things to different people. Then there’s reconciling one’s own qualification to pass judgment on someone else’s character and integrity, a lack of sufficient clarity on what the standards should be, and the bigger picture of where are society’s standards are headed.
Little wonder then that Rosenthal, for example, began his piece about his ballot by writing, “I hate my Hall of Fame ballot. It might be my last.” BBWAA president C. Trent Rosecrans, meanwhile, agonized over his ballot too and detailed his deliberations in a lengthy Twitter thread.
These are hard issues and, frankly, both the Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball have been fine using the BBWAA as human shields for years, offering little guidance on how to frame some of the game’s messiest issues into the permanent record, while writers take all the heat for it.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but in the absence of a better process – remember, it was a 16-person panel of Hall of Famers, executives and media that selected Harold Baines in 2018 – I decided to simply do my research objectively and vote my conscience this time.
Whether you consider that flawed or not, the 75-per-cent threshold for selection is an effective check-and-balance, since wide-scale consensus is needed to meet such an exacting standard in a roughly 400-vote ballot.
No player can fluke selection, and while outlier votes are often ridiculed – first-time voter David Skretta drew scorn for submitting a blank ballot, for instance – dissenting opinions should force us to reconsider and defend our own positions.
If I’m outside of the consensus, I need to understand why, and make sure I have conviction in my choices.
Sometimes, that introspection can be enough to shift the consensus the way it did for Larry Walker, who was elected last year after at one point getting only 18 per cent of the vote.
Sometimes it won’t be, and that’s OK, too.
So that’s where I was at when I filled out my ballot, which included holdovers Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jeff Kent and Scott Rolen from last year, plus new additions Mark Buehrle and Billy Wagner. I also made the conscious decision to drop Schilling, whom I voted for last year.
Why the change on Schilling?
In the past I forced myself into an objective evaluation of his career, which baseball-wise is pretty compelling, and overlooked my discomfort with the things he was saying and the way he was using his platform.
But I just couldn’t do it again amid his ongoing demonization of political opponents as enemies, frequent insertion of three Ks in place of the 'C' in Democrats and his spreading of conspiracy theories, not when the consequences of such a poisoned discourse have surfaced.
Unless you’re all-in on Team #StolenElection, I can’t imagine how you defend Schilling’s integrity at this point, regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum. Even before the U.S. Capitol was stormed on Jan. 6, people like Schilling who whipped up their followers by shouting into echo chambers were creating a tinderbox.
When he tweeted his support for the insurrection, that was all the validation needed for my decision, which was made before ballots were due in the mail Dec. 31.
That take wasn’t surprising given that Schilling once tweeted a picture of a man wearing a shirt that read, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required,” and wrote, “So much awesome here.”
Even though he tried to justify it as a joke before taking it down, the path from there to scenes like the one below is a relatively short one.
— Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) January 8, 2021
When people with big platforms provide acceptance for someone who would wear a shirt like that, violence against journalists and photographers quickly become normalized, eroding societal norms that prevent such behaviour.
To reward Schilling with both Hall of Fame status and the accompanying megaphone would be irresponsible, just as it would be to reward Vizquel while he is under investigation by Major League Baseball for domestic violence.
Still, I did vote for Bonds, who has also faced allegations of domestic abuse, and that incongruity is where I failed on this ballot.
I’ve consistently voted for Bonds and Clemens because despite their ties to PEDs, they are two of the sport’s most historically significant players. But ignoring the unseemly parts of their past simply because of how talented they were is all kinds of problematic and I need to reconcile that.
Writer Britni de la Cretaz makes a compelling case here for how “when we choose to recognize these men in their full, complicated humanity, it leaves room to celebrate their baseball accomplishments without valourizing them or erasing their past mistakes.”
The Hall of Fame can help in that regard by making the inscriptions on the plaques of inductees tell a more complete tale. Baseball’s history shouldn’t be sanitized.
In the meantime, all conflicted voters like me can do is try their best to be just, defend our positions and see where we are in the consensus, arriving there both with an open mind to listen, and an intent to sway others about what the Hall of Fame should be.