December 30, 2010

The Hall of Fame Ballot: Joe Posnanski's Humility, Suspicion As Evidence, And Jeff Bagwell's "Eyes"

Joe Posnanski, December 27:
You know how crazy I am when it comes to writing about the Baseball Hall of Fame. Well, this is Hall of Fame week -- the ballots are due by Dec. 31. And I have been writing ... and writing ... and writing. I really need to see a doctor or something.
His posts:
Monday: The Intro
Tuesday: The Easy Nos
Wednesday: The Close But Not Quites
Thursday: The Definitive Hall of Famers
Friday: The Borderlines Guys Who Keep Me Up At Night
Those four posts total about 15,000 words!

As usual, it's all great reading. His posts are solidly researched, funny, and filled with doubt*. Posnanski can be very persuasive in presenting a case -- calling Jeff Bagwell "one of the greatest hitters in baseball history", for example -- but if he is not sure of something, whether because he personally is uncertain or because whatever he is talking about is literally unknowable -- his section on Mark McGwire fits both categories -- he will freely say so. He is confident enough, and smart enough, to understand that not knowing something can often be a strength. It is a rare quality and a big reason why so many people admire his work.

A couple of weeks ago, SoSHer Dehere superbly captured the appeal of Posnanski:
When I read Joe I always get the feeling that I'm reading the work of somebody who believes he has something to learn from every person he meets and every experience he encounters. There seems to be a fundamental humility that informs all of his writing. Today's piece on Bob Feller is a good example. Here's a guy that so many people - including me at one time - have been quick to dismiss as a curmudgeon, a blowhard, or worse a flat-out racist, and yet Joe is able to go deeper to find the things that are honorable without whitewashing the disagreeable things that others focus on.

So many prominent sportswriters seem to work from a fundamental premise that they know better. They always have a quick opinion or a snide comment; everyone else is an idiot; they're always right. Pos seems like the one guy in the business who is always coming from a premise that maybe he doesn't know better, maybe his preconceptions are wrong, and that approach seems to always take him to places that are more interesting and more true than the places where lesser writers end up. He just seems like a guy who has never stopped trying to figure life out, and that sets him apart from other people who have become successful by telling you as loudly as possible that they know it all already. I will tell you in all honesty that reading Pos every day for the last several years has made me try to be less presumptive and more open-minded about the way I approach certain situations. While he's undoubtedly a great craftsman, I think it's that fundamental humility and searching nature that make him by far the best in the business.
Everything positive you can say about Posnanski's work - his deep curiosity and ability to write methodically and sensibly - can be applied to Bill James's stuff, as well.
Posnanski writes that Bagwell "looks like a first-ballot, slam-dunk, didn't have to think twice Hall of Famer", but he will likely fall well short of induction. Why?
2. Jeff Bagwell -- though he never tested positive for steroids, never was implicated in any public way, was not named in the Mitchell Report or by anyone on the record as a suspected user, and is not even on this rather comprehensive list of players linked to steroids or HGH -- seems to have become in some voter's minds a player who used performance enhancing drugs.

I can't even begin to describe my disgust at No. 2 ... it makes me absolutely sick to my stomach. This is PRECISELY what I was talking about when I said how much I hate the character clause in the Hall of Fame voting. I think it encourages people to believe their own nonsense, to stand up on high and be judge and jury. It's something my friend Bill James calls the "I see it in his eyes" tripe. ... Eyes are eyes. Some people look guilty when they're innocent, and some people look innocent when they're guilty, and most people don't look innocent OR guilty except when we want to see that something in their eyes. Oh, but we love to believe we know. It's one of the flaws of humanity. And the Hall of Fame character clause gives voters carte blanche to judge the eyes and hearts and souls of players. ...

I'd rather a hundred steroid users were mistakenly voted into the Hall of Fame over keeping one non-user out. I don't know if Jeff Bagwell used or didn't use steroids. But there was no testing. There is no convincing evidence that he used (or, as far as I know, even unconvincing evidence). So what separates him from EVERY OTHER PLAYER on the ballot? Were his numbers too good? That's why you suspect him?
(This "I can see it in his eyes" baloney also comes up in other debates. You will read a writer say a certain player doesn't "seem like a Hall of Famer"; never mind his actual stats, this player apparently never gave off a Hall of Fame vibe.)

It did not take too long of bopping around the internet before I found Dan Graziano's explanation for voting "no" on Bagwell:
I don't know for sure that Bagwell took steroids or any other performance-enhancing drugs ... But I'm suspicious. ... I'd rather withhold the vote based on suspicion than vote the guy in only to find out later that he cheated and I shouldn't have. ...

This isn't about whether I believe what Bagwell says. It's about suspicions I harbored long before he spoke out on the issue. It's about where he played and when he played and the teammates with whom he played and a whole bunch of circumstantial evidence that I readily admit wouldn't hold up in a court of law. ... I don't feel I can vote for anybody I suspect, even if that standard casts an unfairly wide net. ...

The five players for whom I voted this year -- Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Barry Larkin, Jack Morris and Tim Raines -- escape my suspicion, and I admit I could be wrong about any or all of them, too.
Graziano's stance is deeply flawed from every angle, as every commenter on his story points out. He casts his vote for Raines (correctly, in my opinion). But he adds that Raines "escape[d] his suspicion" regarding illegal drug activity, even though Raines has admitted he was a cocaine addict and used the drug during games -- of actually sliding into bases head first so as not to damage (or lose) the vial tucked into his pocket.

Yet that fact does not register on Graziano's radar, but Bagwell is denied a vote without even so much as, in Posnanski's words, a whiff of "unconvincing evidence". Although Graziano says that refusing to vote for someone based on his race or religion would be "despicable", he also tell us "the only standards to which I am beholden are my own" and if he felt like it, he could exclude all players who "owned cats". Despite all of Graziano's disclaimers about Bagwell, I don't see his decision as any more logical than that.


johngoldfine said...

It would be ridiculous to say that this HoF series is particularly good Posnanski because he is never less than particularly good, but what a pleasure when someone opens a well-furnished mind, admits his doubts and uncertainties, and allows us to follow his thinking as he wends his way through them. Dehere nailed it exactly.

Contra Graziano, I particularly liked what Posnanski said about McGwire and steroids. That section moved me.

laura k (aka L-girl) said...

He is confident enough, and smart enough, to understand that not knowing something can often be a strength.

...So many prominent sportswriters seem to work from a fundamental premise that they know better. They always have a quick opinion or a snide comment; everyone else is an idiot; they're always right.

This applies to realms beyond sports. Most political bloggers and pundits are the same - most critics - most observers, period. The immediacy of the internet has only exacerbated this tendency.

It's terrific when you find someone who doesn't need to wrap her/himself in certainty. Even more terrific when this person becomes popular and people can learn by example!

laura k (aka L-girl) said...

he also tell us "the only standards to which I am beholden are my own"

This speaks of the contemporary confusion between facts and opinions - where "everyone is entitled to an opinion" is applied to, say, evolution - where people believe expertise is to be shunned as elitism.

If HoF voting is based on personal standards and hunches, why have a panel vote at all? If we can't count on the voters to maintain objective standards... well, you know the rest.

johngoldfine said...

Laura K--both your comments say something important: in a good writer's hands, everything is everything else. Blake says you can see the universe in a grain of sand, and Posnanski writing about sports is also Posnanski writing about "realms beyond sports" and "the contemporary confusion."

He seems so lucid and decent.

johngoldfine said...

I work with someone who is a lot like those other sports writers. He knows everything already! As they say about doctors, he's often wrong but never in doubt. That certainty can be very attractive to students looking for a road to travel--but it can also be oppressive and can work against genuine education as opposed to initiation into a claque.

laura k (aka L-girl) said...

in a good writer's hands, everything is everything else

Absolutely. I always say: good writers can write about anything. I love to read good architecture writing, good food writing, good sports writing, good music writing. Good writing is good writing.

laura k said...

I just read Graziano's post - and was heartened by all the excellent comments. Dumb sportswriters are no surprise by a whole lot of smart comments are!