My favorite Christmas gift this year, as it has been in recent years, is the new Bill James Baseball Handbook, which will be my primary bathroom reading for the next ten months. Oh, it’s not as much fun as the old Bill James Abstracts, but in those days, three decades ago, Bill was revealing then-unknown nuances of the game that spawned the elaborate (and still developing) analytical tools that have changed how baseball is played, watched, and understood.
James typically writes a few long, Abstract-like articles for the Handbook, which has many contributors, and he is, as always, fascinated by the selection criteria for the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. My gift is especially timely, because his observations in the Handbook dovetail nicely with the recent voting by sportswriters on the latest entering class, including Derk Jeter, naturally, and perhaps others. The results won’t be announced for a while.
Bill did research this past year to determine who the public wanted to see elected to the Hall among players who had not yet been deemed worthy ( meaning that they hadn’t been listed on at least 75% of the ballots cast, or are not yet eligible for various reasons, including players who are still active. The results, as he explored the gap between public opinion and past voting, were disturbing, if not exactly shocking.
There were 14 players whose Hall selection was “overwhelmingly” supported by the baseball fans polled by James. Among them: Barry Bonds, the #1 villain of baseball’s steroid cheating scandal; Shoeless Joe Jackson, currently banned from consideration after participating in the 1919 Black Sox scandal; Pete Rose, also banned; Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, both proven PED users and ruled out by the Hall’s character criteria for other misconduct, and Roger Clemens, who was fingered by his trainer as a steroid-user.
There’s only one reason these results could occur: the majority of baseball fans, following in the footsteps of NFL fans and NBA fans, don’t care if their on-field heroes are jerks, assholes, or even criminals. The signature significance is Bonds, even more than Shoeless Joe or Pete. If you think Barry Bonds is worthy of the Hall of Fame—and he was favored by twice the support received by #2 on the list, Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander—then you literally don’t think character matters in baseball at all, and perhaps in any other field. It’s like voting for Donald Trump in 2016, Bill Clinton in 1996, Richard Nixon in 1968, or Hillary Clinton for President. (I do think character matters, because it does, and no, I didn’t vote for any of those candidates.)
It’s possible that James might have had different results if he chose another polling method for his research, which was all done on Twitter. The Twitter users represent a younger demographic than the public as a whole, and, based on my own observations, aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. That’s scant consolation, though, because this groups is probably representative of the majority now rising. Perhaps they will appreciate the importance of ethics more as they get older.
I hope so. I hope the baseball writers maintain the integrity of the Hall by keeping all six of those blots on baseball out, though as younger writers marinated in the “ends justify the means” indoctrination that is now the norm in American colleges replace the old fogeys, this seems like a long shot at best. I hope we find a way to reverse the cultural trend in the U.S. to excuse cheating with the Clintonian “everybody does it” rationalization, because if we do not, eventually everybody will do it, and then we have become Venezuela, Somalia, and Nigeria.