Most writers have a little bit of drama queen inside of them. It is part of our nature, part of the reason why we spend so much of our time living other people’s lives instead of our own. We are the original reality television producers. So the annual melodrama about the steroid era and the Hall of Fame is understandable. In addition to our infatuation with narrative, many of us have an unrealistic sense of self-importance, and when you combine those two characteristics with our ever-present need to meet deadlines and fill space, then the decision to make us the official selectors for the Baseball Hall of Fame has resulted in exactly what you would expect: a Grishamesque volume of stories that tend to over-inflate the ramifications and cultural significance of both election to the HOF and the writers’ role in facilitating that process.
But this is not a screed arguing against the inclusion of writers in the voting process. I have written plenty about that before. For disclosure purposes, the only thing that matters in this instance is that I am not eligible to vote for the Hall of Fame because I have not been a member of the Baseball Writers Association for 10 years (although I feel like I am getting frighteningly close to that threshold)...
Writers who view this election as some sort of existential dilemma, many of whom I respect greatly, do so only because they want to experience such a dilemma. That want is understandable. Many of these writers have covered the game for decades. They love the game, and they view the Steroid Era as having eroded the integrity of the game. No doubt, there is a little bit of projection going on; some writers harbor a bit of self-loathing at having been duped into mythologizing players who now appears to have been blessed more by science than by God (unless you attribute science to God, but we’ll save that discussion for another day).
The source of all of this angst is the so-called character clause included in the voting instructions that accompany each ballot. Those instructions read, “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.”
The instructions are ridiculous, as Joe Posnanski notes here. They are vague and abstract, bordering on meaningless, no doubt the work of some committee that spent too many hours attempting to accommodate everyone’s opinion on the matter… The truth is, the rules are completely open to interpretation. And when rules are open to interpretation—like, say, the legal code—then they are usually interpreted based on precedent…
The important case occurred in 1989, when baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti banned Pete Rose from baseball because of his involvement in gambling on baseball games… Rose v. Giamatti reinforces the right for the commissioner of baseball to make a player permanently ineligible from the game. It reinforces the status of the office of the commisioner as judge, jury and executioner for all matters pertaining to the preservation of the sanctity of the game of baseball. He is the one who metes out punishment to those whose actions he deems to have delivered long-standing damage to the integrity of the sport… In 1991, the Hall of Fame voted to make members of the “permanently ineligible list” ineligible for inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Their names do not appear on the ballot.
As of today, commissioner Bud Selig has not placed any players from the so-called Steroid Era on the permanently ineligible list. He has the right to do so. If he does, then that player is ineligible for the Hall of Fame. That player will not be on the ballot… Selig’s decision not to ban steroid users effectually labels them as fit to be judged solely on their on-field production. Every player that has been banned, after all, has been banned for issues relating to character, integrity or sportsmanship (mostly gambling, although auto theft and drug use are other sins that have resulted in bans). It stands to reason that, in the absence of specific instructions otherwise, every player who has not been been banned has been deemed by baseball as possessing sufficient character, integrity and sportsmanship to warrant continued conclusion in the sport, and, thus, potential inclusion in the Hall of Fame.