Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What Do Voters Owe to the Past?

By The Common Man

Jim Reeves turned the Hall of Fame Sanctimony up to 11 today in describing his role as a voter, saying,
"Judge and jury? Moral compasses? Gatekeepers? Yeah, maybe so, because that's the responsibility we accept when we qualify to become a Hall of Fame voter. Because of the steroids issue, it's a responsibility that has become so charged with controversy, I have even considered rejecting that honor and asking that my name be taken off the rolls as an active voter. It was a difficult and often agonizing challenge before the steroids era descended upon us. You can only imagine what it's like now.

But I haven't quit as a voter -- not yet, anyway -- because I consider it a sacred responsibility to the great players of the past to keep their exclusive club as clean and pure as possible. And yes, I say that with full knowledge that there are already a few in there with questionable credentials and backgrounds. All I can do is the best that I can. I owe that to late greats such as Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig, Eddie Matthews and Roberto Clemente. I owe it to Nolan Ryan and Fergie Jenkins, to Alomar and Blyleven.” (h/t to Craig Calcaterra)
Really, though, here's what The Common Man can't figure out:  Where does this idea that BBWAA members "owe something" to past players come from?  Most of the players in the Hall of Fame are dead and gone, and a lot of them weren't all that great people to begin with.  What could Jim Reeves possibly owe to them, and why? Did he ever meet Joe DiMaggio or Lou Gehrig? Did he ever cover Eddie Matthews or Roberto Clemente? Does he even acknowledge that baseball was not clean during the careers of Nolan Ryan, Fergie Jenkins, Roberto Alomar, and Bert Blyleven? 

No, of course not. What Reeves means is that he owes it to his idea of what these players were, and how they supposedly competed. But that’s ridiculous. These are not great men. These are ballplayers. Yes, Americans love to watch them play and tend to idolize and glorify them. But, ultimately, they are only ballplayers, just as human as a typical doctor, teacher, engineer, or lawyer (well, maybe they’re better than lawyers). DiMaggio was, by most accounts, a jerk of a human being who was almost indescribably arrogant and unpleasant, and only got along with Lefty Gomez…because everybody got along with Lefty Gomez. If Reeves had to cover DiMaggio, he likely would have hated the chore of getting anything out of the reclusive great.

Clemente was a humanitarian, but he also punched an autograph seeker in 1966 (later calling it "a misunderstanding") and played on teams with known drug and PED users (such as Dock Ellis, who famously combined LSD and Amphetamine use).  Isn't that now the same evidence being used to hang Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza?  That they "associated with" PED users? 

And Fergie Jenkins was caught, during his playing career no less, with cocaine, marijuana, and LSD in his possession. Didn't Reeves want Ron Washington fired for testing positive for cocaine use?  Didn't he argue that Lawrence Taylor shouldn't be allowed in the NFL Hall of Fame because of cocaine use (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Jan. 30, 1999)? 

So what does Reeves owe to those players?  Nothing.  After all, they are in the Hall because their playing careers were more important than whatever personal issues they may have had.  If anything, Reeves should respect that these players were good enough to overcome those issues and apply that precedent accordingly to modern candidates.

But does Reeves owe anything to his forerunners in the Baseball Writers’ Association to keep the Hall “pure?” Well, it’s not like they were terribly concerned with keeping it pure to begin with. After the 1926 season, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, after all, had been jointly accused of throwing a ball game in 1919. Dutch Leonard alleged that he, Cobb, Speaker, and Joe Wood had arranged for Cleveland to lose the last game of the year, thereby allowing the Tigers to clinch third place (for which every player was awarded a bonus from the league). Leonard also alleged that the four had put money down on the game, since they knew the outcome, arranging to bet through a Tigers employee, Mark West. While Leonard’s testimony was scrutinized heavily, Cobb admitted something was afoot. Testifying to Judge Landis, Cobb reported that Leonard had come to him with help in arranging a bet on the game, and that he had set the pitcher up with West as “a man they could trust.” Joe Wood similarly admitted that he had knowledge of this, while Speaker denied knowing anything.

Nevertheless, there is at least as much evidence that Cobb and Speaker threw a game as there is that Jeff Bagwell or Frank Thomas or Mike Piazza used steroids, and they were ushered into the Hall in the first two classes by Reeves’ ancestors in the BBWAA. Indeed, while their rhetoric may indicate otherwise, writers have never had regard for the Hall as something sacred. They've always (except in the case of Joe Jackson) allowed talent to trump "purity."  So Reeves doesn’t owe them anything either in terms of keeping the Hall of Fame somehow "pure" and "above reproach."

What Reeves and today's BBWAA voters do owe is an explanation. Reeves, for instance, needs to explain how he can sit in judgment now while he, in his 40 years covering the Texas Rangers (one of the organizations most tainted by steroid and PED allegations), neglected to write a single article about steroid use in baseball until 2004 when he began arguing that Barry Bonds “should not be allowed” to pass Hank Aaron (Fort Worth Star Telegram, December 4 and 15, 2004).   (The Common Man doesn't often do this, but he is admitting he was wrong.  Reeves did write about steroids on May 31, 2002, when he wrote that steroid users "should all be wearing a scarlet 'S,'" and that Rusty Greer never saw steroids in the Ranger clubhouse.  He also defended Gabe Kapler against steroid accusations in August of 2000.  And on August 25, 1998, he said, wait for it, that the story about Mark McGwire's andro use "is overblown" and that "You wouldn't begrudge Nolan Ryan his Advil, would you? Troy Aikman his Met-RX? Popeye his spinach?"  He continued to write about steroids on occasion between 2002 and 2004, all excoriating steroid users, never questioning his profession's role in missing them for so long, and he did not, at any point in that time, seem to admit the Rangers' entanglement in the problem with the exception of Ken Caminiti.)  In 2005, he wrote,

“As a baseball beat reporter from the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s, I was always a little uncomfortable with that mantra. It was my job to see that what happened in the clubhouse didn't necessarily stay there.

Drug usage, for instance, wasn't something that was going to stay covered up.

There might have been a time when jars of "greenies" -- amphetamines -- sat openly on tables in the clubhouse, where players could grab them as they walked by, but either they were gone by the time I started covering the Rangers, or I was too green myself to recognize them. Same goes for steroids. If they were there, I didn't see them or recognize them, and players certainly weren't sticking needles into their bodies in front of snoopy reporters….I did my share of sniffing around, but not, if I could help it, in the bathroom.” (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Feb. 13, 2005)
This is part of an article that criticizes (without apparent irony) Jose Canseco for “violat[ing] the code of the clubhouse.” Reeves and other BBWAA voters owe you and the players they covered an explanation as to why they care so much about steroids in the Hall of Fame vote today, when they apparently couldn’t even be bothered to go in the bathroom to look for them 15 years ago.

1 comment:

The Ray Area - Mark said...

TCM! Lawyer jokes? Joe D. a better person than lawyers!?!?

I. I... I resemble that remark. Darnit!

Reeves might say he owes something to the players of the past but the person he is really protecting is the ten-year old version of himself who idolized those players.

He either has to admit that the ten-year old version was starry eyed, admit that the ten-year old version was normal but adult Reeves is a callous cynical old man, or find a way to rip down the current players to make it all make sense.