Who Judges the Character of the Character Judges?

No one in baseball has seemed able to get their minds off the endless debates surrounding the Hall of Fame ballot, the possible inductees, the PED “era,” and a dozen or more associated topics. Although I obviously have opinions on each and every topic, that’s not what has compelled me to write.

As I see it, what it comes down to is a pile of nonsense. Many see the Hall of Fame plaque as some sort of shrine, and I get that. Those guys hanging on the wall were – in many cases – superhumanly good at the sport we all love. They crushed it, each in their own way and their own timeframe.

Behind all of this, though, we have another level. The “character clause.” The idea that some great baseball players are just “not worthy,” as Wayne and Garth would say. Here’s my problem with that, and I’m sure someone before me has said the same things, but I haven’t heard them this year – or at least not enough.

If you go to court to be judged, you are judged by a group of your peers, overseen by a person who has been trained their entire life to, at least in theory, represent what is fair, legal, and right. If you go into your period of eligibility for the Baseball Hall of Fame, you are judged by journalists. Sure, some of them played the game. Others never did. Their character, in most cases, has never been under scrutiny – there is no law of the land by which they judge the worthy, and the not worthy. As they say, “power corrupts,” and I’m pretty sure it has corrupted this system beyond any real fix.

During the period of the juicer wars, those same journalists were waving their hands and cheering Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire as they raced to win the home run derby. They were talking about the legendary talents of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, and it wasn’t until the scandal became a better story with better ratings that they switched gears.

Coaches, managers, other players who were not using but were there – and yes, probably a lot of journalists with close team and player ties – knew full well what was happening. Argue it any way you like, unless they are all a collective of idiots, PED use was no secret, and was even being hailed in private over clinked glasses as the savior of the sport. Home runs sell tickets. Home run races bring in fans. Media attention raises the stakes. A lot of money was made.

If there is a character clause flaw in the PED era, it applies to everyone involved in the sport, including those reporting on it. If all of them aren’t going to step forward and say exactly what they saw, and what they know, they are as guilty as any player who ever took the drugs, and in many cases more so because in our society, if we know anything, we know that kicking a habit like that is not likely to succeed on an individual level. It’s a team and social effort, particularly if it’s a widespread problem.

Then there’s the entire issue of some things being worse than others. You can’t call it a character clause if the only thing you care about is whether that person cheated at baseball. Seriously. Almost every type of reprehensible human behavior is represented somewhere in that Hall, but the only thing we care about is a guy who gambled and some other guys who used performance enhancing drugs – likely at the suggestion of trainers, agents, other players, or someone else who told them they would not “make it” without them – and during a period when a thousand other guys also used, but are excused because no one will admit to seeing them.

I don’t like that some Hall of Fame voters try to limit the number of inductees to keep their ceremony a certain length – I’d call that a character flaw. I like even less that a group of writers who are not held to any similar standard get to sit back and judge the greats of the game, or that many of them use those votes for personal promotion, or to push some agenda of their own, instead of, you know, voting with character.

Personally, I think it should be entirely anonymous, and that they should have to either vote yes or no on every person on the ballot. Either you are, or are not, worthy. How many guys have to pass through and listen to endless debates about how they might or might not have done enough in their career to squeak by, only to come up short and see someone with lesser numbers hanging on the wall because the press liked him better?

The award doesn’t belong to the Hall of Fame, though they own the system and the building. It also doesn’t belong to the sportswriters, as much as they like to act as if it does. It belongs equally to the players, who are owed a fair judgment of their careers without the added step of living up to some ridiculous fabricated moral standard, and to the fans of those players. I feel badly for the fans who helped rebuild the popularity of the sport by discovering their love of the game while PEDs were heavily in play. Kind of like flipping them all off, I think, a collective dismissal. “Yeah, son, there were some great guys playing when I fell in love with the game. Come on over to the not-worthy room, and I’ll show you….”

Now we have the whole amphetamine thing – guys all the way back to Hank Aaron admitted using them to pep up their game. Although you can now be suspended for their use (as if MLB and the world just discovered something that has apparently been a daily thing for decades) there is no current uproar. Is that going to be the next issue for Hall of Fame candidates, or will it be glossed over? And just wondering – how many sportswriters might have had a little pick-me-up during their busy schedules of flights, parties, meetings, and games?

The entire process has a character flaw: pretentiousness. Put the guys in the Hall that played the game at a level that belongs there. If you feel the urge, put a secondary plaque beneath theirs explaining the situation of their career, or their time, but acknowledge that they accomplished what they accomplished, and that it was an amazing part of baseball history.

Without the great players and moments, those with and without PEDs, sportswriters would never make a living. They ignored the issue when it was happening, I don’t see how they get off judging it now.

Anyway, I’ll get off my baseball fan soapbox. That’s what I am, at the end of the day: just another fan. I have the opportunity to write about the sport I love here at Baseball Essential, and believe me when I say, I am absolutely certain all of my colleagues don’t share all of my beliefs on any particular subject, nor I theirs. I am a writer. I’ve been doing that professionally for more than twenty-five years, and words are what I have. And right now, I’m drinking “Death Wish” coffee – twice the caffeine, the strongest in the world (if the box is to be believed) – I hope you won’t judge me for it.

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