In a few hours, the BBWAA will finally put us out of months of misery and announce the 2014 class of inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame. With that announcement, Twitter will become quieter, tempers across the land will cool, and everyone can get back to counting down the days until pitchers and catchers report (38, by the way). Nothing gets the world of baseball writing quite as frazzled as HoF voting, and it's worth wondering why. Why on earth does a museum five hours from anything get the pens and keyboards flying so furiously? Why do people care? After watching weeks upon weeks of snark, defensiveness, and general dopery, I think I've gotten it narrowed down to a few basic reasons.
The Hall as Proxy Battle
This one is of course the loudest and most obvious. Scratch the surface of many a Hall of Fame column, and you'll find a column about some larger aspect of baseball analysis. Jack Morris is the easiest example here, a perfect proxy for the "stats versus narrative" battles. By just about every objective way we've figured out to quantify a ballplayer's talent and contributions, Morris was a pretty good pitcher for a long time. To go beyond that and see a Hall of Famer requires serious devotion to the idea that Morris was a "winner," someone whose true value went beyond tangible stats. Where a writer stands on Morris says a lot about their stance on the importance of narrative to baseball.
Just as importantly, it says quite a bit about who gets to write that narrative. This is where the "I have a ballot and you don't" arguments come in. (I'm not exaggerating that, either: this and this are just beautiful.) It's hard to look at many votes for Morris and not see votes against the slow democratization of baseball writing. I don't think it's a coincidence that Morris's vote totals started going up around the same time that Bert Blyleven's did. You'll see it even among relatively saber- and blog-friendly journalists, although to a lesser degree, when they defend other voters from criticism (not their votes, but the voters themselves) because "they've earned their vote." A Hall of Fame vote is the one thing that not a single internet-first writer has yet, and that distinction still looms large.
The Hall as Moral Authority
Yeah, we've got to talk about steroids. Because of course we do. Big guys took steroids back in the '90s and Hulked into the record books. Little guys, too, but they just Ant-Manned into B-Ref. They're not as relevant to the Hall of Fame debate. Many writers have decided that this decade (or two decades, that part's still not clear) of juicing casts a pall over the game, and those who benefited shouldn't have their cheating immortalized in bronze. And that's fine, I suppose. The Hall of Fame does tell voters to factor in character and sportsmanship, so good. Well-read. The problem really is with consistency, and that's where the arguments start.
Primarily, this winds up with an argument about imperfect knowledge. Let's leave aside the fact that we simply don't know what steroids do to player performance aside from baseline assumptions. Let's accept that they make good players better and great players immortal. How do we know who's who? Should you vote for everyone, absent positive proof? Should you vote for no one, since the whole era is suspect? Those would each be logically defensible positions, if rather harsh in the second case. And yet that sort of logical consistency seems quite rare, which can be maddening.
Secondly: what makes steroids worse? Why is this a Hall-rending problem when decades of previous voters ignored spitballs, amphetamines, institutionalized racism, and a host of other sins? Why is this the hill upon which baseball morals will fight and die? And with all that prior behavior already bronzed, is it really the place of the Hall and its voters to make that moral stand? And this, of course, brings us to another reason people care:
The Hall as Historical Record
One of the things you'll hear most this time of year is the justifiably weary cry, "It's just a museum, who gives a damn? We all know Jack Morris is overrated and Jeff Bagwell not being in is a travesty, just let it be!" And there's something to this. For those who really love baseball, who spend hours thinking and talking and writing about it, the actual names in the Hall don't matter that much. Dwight Evans was a better player than Jim Rice, even though the voters didn't see it that way. A plaque doesn't change reality, so why worry about it?
Think about your high school history textbook for a moment. How much stuff was in there that turns out to be wrong, or at least oversimplified? Now, it doesn't really matter too much if you're really into history, because you'd have kept reading on your own and figured out that Jefferson was ethically flexible at best and the Soviets actually did all the heavy lifting in WW2. But for everyone who never cracked a history book after graduation, the simple version is what sticks. The Hall of Fame can be seen the same way. For writers and die-hards and everyone reading baseball blogs in January, it's Baseball 101. But most people never go past 101, so we might as well make 101 as honest and accurate as possible.
Those are the big three things you see this time of year, but let's take a moment, as Hall of Fame season once again comes to a close, to honor the other lights of these times.
The Hall as "Look at Me, Over Here, Lighting Fires!"
The guys who vote only for Pete Rose, because he's "done his time." The guys who decide everyone used steroids, except Jack Morris probably. The guy who uses a vote on an overcrowded ballot to vote for Mike Timlin because he's a huge Ram Jam fan. And, of course, the guy who sends in a blank ballot, then writes 1500 words about why he sent in a blank ballot. If we can agree on nothing else, can we agree not to be that last guy? That guy's a jackass.
The Hall as Excuse for Easy FJM Knockoff
The inevitable response to the above. The Fire Joe Morgan-style takedown of a badly-thought-out ballot is fun and it's easy to write. Also, with 600 or so ballots, if even 5% are fiskable, that's a month's worth of columns. There's laughing and pointing, and no one persuades anyone. Everybody wins!
The Hall as Cool Thing to Study and Care About
This is pretty much just Jay Jaffe. And he's awesome. In fact, go read something smart he wrote instead of this.
And finally, most importantly of all:
The Hall as Reason, God, Any Reason at All to Talk about Baseball, Seriously Why the Hell Is There No Baseball Right Now?
Winter really sucks, guys.