In my dotage, I find myself at the heart of Major League Baseball’s core demographic. After all, I still watch playoff and World Series games in their entirety — not later, online, via some highlights package. I get choked up when Henry Aaron and other icons from my youth pass from the scene. I even cut MLB slack in small-but-meaningful ways — like this summer, when I pointed out that COVID-era baseball doesn’t suffer so much for the lack of fans, because we’re already used to watching extra-inning games where pretty much everyone has gone home.
But count me out of any and all Hall of Fame melodrama.
Yet another episode of this embarrassing, annualized hall pall descended last week when Trump toady and erstwhile World Series hero Curt Schilling was denied his piece of immortality, along with steroid poster boys Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. Ho fucking hum. Would-be inductees might be dicks, or saints, in the superficial and cynical ways these traits are communicated to the sporting public. But I am determined never again to invest emotionally in such constructs — the Hall of Fame being the greatest construct of them all.
What a sorry collection of misplaced sentimentality and tradition. Because of its Hall of Fame, MLB’s entire relationship to the past is a maudlin self-congratulatory muddle… The NFL? Worst sport coats I’ve ever seen. It’s as if new inductees are all guest-hosting Monday Night football in 1973… The basketball Hall of Fame is located in Springfield, Mass., in a nod to inventor Dr. James Naismith. As a Bay Stater who covered Travis Best in high school, I should stick up for it. But the place isn’t affiliated with the NBA, and so folks like Wilt Chamberlain and Alexander Belov and Pat Summit are honored side by side, with nothing at all to connect them… The World Golf Fame in Florida is absurd — and needy. Players need not retire from competition in order to gain entry. Phil Mickelson was inducted — in 2012! They invited Tiger Woods; he told them, “Not yet, thanks.” Whatever… As for the NHL Hall of Fame: Is there one?
Award rituals in this country are unusually dependent on murky interpretations of phrases, term and ideas that feel dated or misplaced. “Hall of Fame”, for example, is a phrase that does not mean anything. What sort of “hall” are we talking about here? Like that place dead Vikings gather, if they should die holding a sword? In what other context do historic figures convene in this way, so as to honor them for all time time? It’s like a museum that is also an exclusive club — but only if you never gambled or did drugs?
The bizarre trappings of hall induction politics have become an anchor around the neck of Major League Baseball, in particular. Pete Rose pioneered this particular shit storm but let’s be clear: On-field greatness cannot effectively be withheld — not by a bunch of sports writers, based on something so amorphous as lapses in “character” or “integrity.” This is a level of caprice that is simply impractical.
The Baseball Writers Association of America, members of which vote on Hall of Fame induction, delineates HOF criteria this way: “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.”
Pretty wide open to interpretation. It is, I suppose, some type of “injustice” that Barry Bonds has been denied entry based on his steroid use, but here is my solution: It does not matter to me, as a matter of will. And I would urge readers to join me in worrying about something else. It would frankly matter more, to me, had the juice won Barry and the Giants that World Series in 2002. Same with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa — the juice won them nothing. So who cares. I’ve consciously turned myself off to the potential for outrage.
Now, if Bucky Dent or Aaron Boone were juiced, I’d be pissed.
Hall of Fame induction outrage gives me a pain for other reasons related to terminology: The ridiculous lengths to which baseball writers (and some baseball fans) pore over “award” language, as if it had been lifted from some passage of sacred text.
Case in point: The BBWAA criteria detailed above. I’m not sure when those 23 words were written down, but their study does not stand up to the close scrutiny some insist on applying. Is drug use or gambling a contravention of “sportsmanship”? Do fascistic political views belie a demonstrable lack of integrity? People (mainly other sportswriters) have labored over these questions for 30 years now, nearly all my adult life. But the imprecision and schmaltz of the language in question is, upon examination, too low-concept to invite even the most superficial hermeneutics.
And so, we detach further.
Ron Cameron turned me on to that word, hermeneutics: the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts. Ron taught religion at Wesleyan and had a pretty spectacular lisp. “Gweat word!” he’d growl to us with giddy gravity, each time he got the chance to say hermeneutical. He got excited about all things hermeneutical. He got excited about spending 90 minutes examining a single sentence in Matthew’s parable of the Mustard Seed. He was, in short, excitable.
Up till then, I’d never used the word hermeneutical. Haven’t used it much since, to be honest. But here we can agree: Deploying hermeneutics to argue how valuable Andre Dawson’s gaudy stats from 1987 may or may not have been — to a mediocre Chicago Cubs team specifically — is weak hermeneutical sauce. Which is why sportswriters and run-of-the-mill, middle-aged baseball fans (which to say, most baseball fans) should be loath to engage in the exercise.
And yet, overwrought discussions of “Most Valuable Player” awards persist. The pedants ask, “Well, what made him so VALUABLE to his team? They must have used that word specifically, for a reason. To emphasize the team concept.” No they did not! We’re talking about a group of uneducated duded in fedoras, who worked as sports writers late in the Hoover Administration! The acronym “MVP” has since taken on a life its own, but it was never intended to be anything other than another way to communicate, “Player of the Year”.
Player of the Year awards, one for the American League and another for the National League, were first bestowed in 1911. They called it the Chalmers Award back then — because an early automobile maker sponsored it and provided a new vehicle to each winner. In the 1920s, the AL and NL took over. In a foreshadowing of the imprecision that plagues us to this day, each league honored “the baseball player who is of the greatest all-around service to his club”. There were no repeat winners allowed, incidentally; Babe Ruth was so honored only once. But we can see how this language morphed in “Most Valuable Player” awards starting in 1931.
That is the history. That is all the perspective one needs. There is no additional insight to be gathered — and yet we continue to invest in and interpret these words, Most Valuable Player, as if we’re constitutional scholars. Was this language meant to reinforce the team concept? There is no evidence of this. Surely a player cannot be that valuable to a team that finishes dead last, or even middle of the pack. There is no evidence of this. How can a reliever be an MVP? How valuable can any reliever be if he only appears in one third of a team’s games? There were no relievers in 1931.
Such hermeneutics require subjects of actual stature and intrinsic meaning. Whether Mark McGwire let Jose Canseco stick a syringe in his ass simply does not cut it.
Let me come clean on a few things before we close:
First: I’ve never liked Clemens. He was, by all accounts, a dick. More important, when he left Boston in 1995, the aging Texan went to the Yankees — one of the truly great teams in baseball history — and bit-played his way to a ring and a modicum of playoff success. Before that move, he was disturbingly ordinary when it came to beating good teams, in the post season. Clemens won the 1986 Cy Young (“pitcher of the year”) but Bruce Hurst was the Sox best starter throughout that postseason. In 1988 and ‘90, Clemens piled up more wins and plaudits but couldn’t beat Oakland ace Dave Stewart in a game that mattered. So it matters not, to me, that he’s being blackballed.
Next: It gives me no joy to shit upon old-time sportswriters, even if their word choices are the root of our Hall of Fame ambivalence. These are my spiritual forebears, after all. In retrospect they seem a pretty fun and colorful lot, on the whole. Unlike the current crop, they didn’t preside over or otherwise live through the decimation of daily newspaper and magazine journalism. But Grantland Rice would laugh out loud — in expository fashion, not via acronym — if he could hear us today, debating whether gambling devalued one’s sporting integrity.
Last: Every time the MLB Hall of Fame refuses to allow anyone in, its brand is strengthened. And that is probably the most practical way out of the mess MLB and the BBWAA have created for themselves. Another decade of bagels and the American baseball-watching public might just muster the will to give a shit. Provided enough of them are still alive.