Baseball Hall Of Fame Ethics: This 2016 Post Just Became Ripe And Moot At The Same Time

The sportswriters who decide who is admitted to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame voted in David Ortiz yesterday. The Red Sox and Boston icon (Carl Yastrzemski once said that while Ted Williams was the greatest Boston baseball player, Ortiz was the most important, and he was right) sailed into the Hall in his first year of eligibility, an honor few players have ever been accorded.

It was no surprise. In addition to having unquestionable statistical qualifications, “Big Papi” is also personally popular. That matters, a lot; the writers this year rejected Boston pitching ace Curt Schilling who also has impeccable Hall qualifications, because they don’t like him. Schilling is opinionated, combative, religious, and worst of all, politically conservative. Can’t have that. On the plus side, the writers also rejected steroid cheats Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, as well as almost certain steroid cheats Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Gary Sheffield.

In 2016, anticipating and dreading yesterday’s news, I wrote a post titled, “The Wrenching Problem Of David Ortiz, The Human Slippery Slope.”

Here it is again.

Ethics conflicts force us to choose when multiple ethical principles and values point to diametrically opposed resolutions.  Often, a solution can be found where the unethical aspects of the resolution can be mitigated, but not this one. It is a tale of an ethics conflict without a satisfactory resolution.

I didn’t want to write this post. I considered waiting five years to write it, when the issue will be unavoidable and a decision mandatory. Today, however, is the day on which all of Boston, New England, and most of baseball will be honoring Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, who will be playing his finale regular season game after a 20 years career.  His 2016 season is quite possibly the best year any professional baseball player has had as his final one; it is definitely the best season any batter has had at the age of 40 or more. Ortiz is an icon and a hero in Boston, for good reason. Ortiz was instrumental in breaking his team’s infamous 86-year long “curse” that saw it come close to winning the World Series again and again, only to fail in various dramatic or humiliating ways. He was a leader and an offensive centerpiece of three World Champion teams in 2004, 2007, and 2013. Most notably, his record as a clutch hitter, both in the regular season and the post season is unmatched. You can bring yourself up to speed on Ortiz’s career and his importance to the Red Sox, which means his importance to the city and its culture, for nowhere in America takes baseball as seriously as Beantown, here.

That’s only half the story for Ortiz. Much of his impact on the team, the town and the game has come from his remarkable personality, a unique mixture of intensity, charm, intelligence, generosity, pride and charisma. After the 2013 terrorist bombing of the Boston Marathon, which shook the city as much as any event since the Boston Massacre, Ortiz made himself the symbol of Boston’s anger and defiance with an emotional speech at Fenway Park. Then he put an exclamation point on his defiance by leading the Red Sox, a last place team the year before, to another World Series title.

Performance-based arguments against electing Ortiz to baseball’s Hall of Fame are, at this point, untenable. Entering his final game, Ortiz had 541 home runs, (17th all-time), 1,768 RBI, (22nd), and 632 doubles, (10th).  He is only the third player in history to have more than 500 home runs and 600 doubles.  He ranks among the greatest post season hitters in baseball history with 17 home runs, 60 RBI and 21 doubles. His postseason average is .295 with an on base percentage of .409, a slugging percentage of .553 and a .962 OPS (the sum of the two.) Most great players did worse in the post season than during the regular season, for the obvious reason: the competition was better. Ortiz was better, which informs regarding his character and dedication.

The one lingering argument against admitting Ortiz to the ranks of Ruth, Williams, Aaron, Mays, Cobb, Hornsby, Griffey and the rest is that he has spent most of his career as a designated hitter, the American League’s 1973 invention, much reviled by National League fans and baseball traditionalists, designed to allow real batters relive fans from watching pitchers make fools of themselves at the plate. This makes him “half a player,” the argument goes. No designated hitter has ever been elected to the Hall, so that argument has prevailed so far. It was always a weak one—how did being lousy fielders like so many Hall of Fame sluggers make them greater players than one who never hurt his team at all with his glove? Now that a designated hitter has shown himself to be in the elite ranks of all the greatest batters, the argument sounds more like hysterical anti-DH bias than ever.

I should also note, before getting to the main point of this post, that I love Ortiz. I am a lifetime Red Sox fan, Boston born, bred and marinated, and Big Papi is special. He is one of the most interesting and admirable sports figures of my lifetime, and what he has meant to my city and my favorite sport is beyond quantifying. Few great athletes demonstrate persuasively that they are also great and admirable human beings. Ortiz is one of them.

Nonetheless, it is crucial that David Ortiz not be elected to the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible five years from now, and that he never be admitted. On the matter of assessing the fitness for baseball honors of those who defiled the game by inflating their statistics, changing the outcome of games and harming players who abided by the rules, David Ortiz is a human slippery slope. Ortiz deserves to be in the Hall based on all admission criteria, including character and sportsmanship, but his admission will open the doors wide for players who are unfit, polluting the Hall of Fame and baseball’s values forever.

It’s not worth the trade off. This is the ethics conflict: one cannot be fair and just to “Big Papi” without doing widespread harm to the sport, and I would argue, the entire culture.

As it stands now, the baseball writers who vote on Hall membership have refused to admit players who used or are widely believed to have used steroids and performance-enhancing substances. Among those blocked are the all-time home run leader, Barry Bonds; one of the greatest pitchers of all time, Roger Clemens; the man who broke Roger Maris’s single season home run record, Mark McGwire, a player with over 500 home runs and 3000 hits, Rafael Palmiero, and soon, Ortiz pal and fellow Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriquez.

I have written so much about why this is correct, and why baseball’s insistence that character and sportsmanship be among the core criteria for its Hall of Fame (while other sports look only to on-the-field achievements: O.J. Simpson is a proud member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame) is right for the sport and the country, that I won’t rehash it now. [You can read all about it here, here, here, here, here, and all the posts here (except one).] The conclusion, however, is an ethics no-brainer. Cheaters don’t deserve to be honored among a sports greats, and a sport that does so is an ethics corrupter on a grand scale. Honoring cheaters (and liars, for they all lied) sends the deadly cultural message that cheating can work, and that since “everybody does it,” there’s nothing wrong with you doing it too.

Bonds, Clemens and Rodriguez, to name the worst of the worst, don’t lose much sleep over the Hall of Fame: they are multi-millionaires, their records are in the books, nobody has taken away their awards, and not least of all, increasing numbers of sportswriters and ethically-obtuse defenders are chipping away at the cultural agreement that their presence in the Hall would constitute permanent and incurable defilement.

There is always an anomaly that challenges every ethics rule, and Ortiz is it for the principle that steroid use should preclude baseball immortality. In 2003,  as a prelude to determining what its stance would be on a proposed stringent drug-testing program in baseball, the players union asked its members to volunteer for a banned substances test to see how many players would test positive. The participating players were promised complete confidentiality and anonymity. In 2009, someone leaked a report that Ortiz ‘s test had come up positive.

Ortiz maintained that he has never knowingly taken any PEDs, and that he didn’t have a clue what substance it was that triggered the positive result. He insisted that it must have been the result of some supplements he was using at the time; especially in Ortiz’s then home Dominican Republic, supplements were often tainted with unlisted substances that could flag a violation. In an unusual statement, Major League Baseball backed Ortiz, saying that the leaked results could not fairly implicate Ortiz as a steroid cheat, and that the focus on him (a hundred other players had also failed the test,  but their names were never revealed) was unfair.

Ortiz has been vocal in condemning the clouding of his reputation by this incident, saying in 2009 in an interview,

“No one had ever told me I’d failed any test. Now six years later some documents get leaked and they’re saying I’m dirty. I called my agent and asked what was going on. He didn’t have any answers for me. I called the MLB Players’ Association and they didn’t have any answers for me. To this day, nobody has any answers for me. Nobody can tell me what I supposedly tested positive for. They say they legally can’t, because the tests were never supposed to be public. Let me tell you something. Say whatever you want about me — love me, hate me. But I’m no bullshitter. I never knowingly took any steroids. If I tested positive for anything, it was for something in pills I bought at the damn mall. If you think that ruins everything I have done in this game, there is nothing I can say to convince you different.”

The problem for Ortiz is that so many other players who were later proven to be cheaters and liars have made similar statements. Personally, I believe him. I have watched and listened to Ortiz since 2003, and I believe that he is an ethical, honorable and honest man because he behaves like one.  Is it possible that in this instance he violated his own principles and is covering up? Of course it’s possible. I think it’s very unlikely, however. Ortiz, unlike Bonds, Sammy Sosa and McGwire, showed no physical changes that are consistent with PED use. His progression as a hitter was consistent with the development of other great sluggers. Since the 2003 incident, he has been tested extensively, and never failed. As a CBS sportswriter commented last year,

“You never saw a mention of his name in the Biogenesis or any other scandal, either. He’s either clean or he’s the world’s best doper.”

Which doesn’t mean he’s not the world’s best doper, of course. And what happened happened: it is unfair to Ortiz, but the fact remains that no baseball player who failed a drug test had ever been admitted to the Hall of Fame, and Ortiz failed a drug test. When his is admitted, if he is admitted, he will instantly create a justification for unraveling the ethics consensus that the current group of outcasts don’t belong. People are incapable of making subtle ethical distinctions, and this one is especially difficult. Ortiz cannot avoid being a precedent, for both designated hitters and steroid cheats.

I started thinking about this after Ortiz reached 500 home runs last season. Before that, I was confident that he would fall short of the career statistics necessary to crash the first DH into the Hall, so the danger of his admission opening the door for miserable creeps like Bonds, Ramirez and Rodriguez seemed minimal; His amazing performance this season, however, made the threat real. Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy  talked to various sportswriters with voting privileges, and found that most agreed that Ortiz would and should be elected to the Hall…and that once he was, the cheats would come in too.

Then Ortiz has to stay out, that’s all. Everywhere, we see a growing cultural consensus, fueled by ethics corrupters like our two Presidential aspirants, our President and his supporters, popular culture, politics, social activists and the news media, that values and ethics are disposable and irrelevant. A United States that does not represent ethical values is not the United States, for this is the only nation founded to advance ethical values.

I gave a presentation about the significance of the “Seven Samurai” and its adaptations for the Smithsonian yesterday. The story has always been about a group of mercenaries who decide to help  a poor and oppressed village because it is the right thing to do, even though they receive little in compensation, and even though they are likely to die. In the 2016 remake of “The Magnificent Seven,” however, the “heroes” are not motivated by altruism, but by money, extortion, obligation, and in the case of their leader , a personal vendetta. This isn’t a fluke or an accident. This is this generation’s “Magnificent Seven,” and it should be no surprise that it’s an unethical one.

The cultural consensus that basic ethical values are intrinsically important for their own sake is rapidly falling apart. Millions see nothing significantly objectionable about Hillary Clinton’s dishonest handling of her e-mail, Obama lying outright to get Obamacare passed, Harry Reid lying about Mitt Romney to assist Obama’s re-election, Tom Brady conspiring against the rules to get an edge in a play-off game, journalists rejecting objectivity to elect whom they regard as “the best” candidate, civil rights activists using false narratives to advance their position, women using false statistics to claim workplace bias, colleges assuming the guilt of young men accused of sexual assault without supporting evidence, Congress being unconstitutionally bypassed by Presidential fiat as a solution to partisan stasis, and so much more, including the candidacy of Donald Trump, all applications of “the ends justifies the means.”

Baseball’s capitulation to this deadly mindset will be complete the day Bonds, McGwire, Ramirez or Rodriguez enter the Hall,(I am quite certain that many currently enshrined members will exit the same day. I would), and Ortiz’s election will make the arrival of that day a certainty.

The only conclusion in this ugly ethics conflict is that as unjust as it is, and unfair as it is, and as cruel to David Ortiz as it is, he must stay out of the Hall of Fame to protect and preserve crucial ethical values that are already under assault. This is one slippery slope that must be avoided, not just for baseball’s sake, but for all of us.

Maybe by the time Ortiz is eligible, the younger, more cynical, ethically inert younger writers will have already elected Bonds and the rest, making Ortiz’s election painless and automatic. In that case, however, belonging to the Hall of Fame will be no honor.

7 thoughts on “Baseball Hall Of Fame Ethics: This 2016 Post Just Became Ripe And Moot At The Same Time

    • My main thought is “Who knows?” I don’t regard any of Bonds’ records while juiced as evidence: it’s like saying Lance Armstrong was the greatest bike racer ever. Sure, if we ignore the fact that Bonds had an unethical edge that Jimmy Foxx, Frank Robinson, Lou Gehrig, Albert Puhols, Frank Thomas and others didn’t have, sure, he was better. Would he have been even as good as them without artificial enhancement? I doubt it, and Bonds doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.

  1. I disagree with your conclusion that Ortiz should not be in. I also happen to believe his explanation; and am convinced that if one believes the explanation, it would be wrong (unethical?) for him to be excluded. Slippery slope or not, he should be in. It is inevitable that others will make the argument to include those who were clearly “cheaters” now that there is a small crack in the previously closed door, but that does not convince me that Ortiz should be excluded — something I might call “moral unluck”

      • After re-reading my comments on the linked post from 2016, I stand by them more or less. One positive test which we can’t even prove actually happened (unless some documentation has since materialized, it was the claim of an anonymous leak and might not even have happened) should NOT be used against someone. In my opinion, doing otherwise is a far more dangerous slippery slope towards letting people with personal grudges make up claims to keep people they dislike from receiving rewards, or other sorts of cancelling. Even if it’s just a form of popular opinion, I do NOT want the general public to become even more likely to accept a single claim as if it’s true without. I also don’t think ‘Looking like he used roids’ should qualify, so if Bagwell still seems like the natural cutoff to me if he’s even in the running. I’m not a baseball fan myself and could not possibly comment on the player performance requirements.

        The Kavanaugh Nomination and the various events of cancel culture seem relevant.

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