Friday, January 13, 2006

The Hell of Fame

These shoes are made for evaluatin'

There's this white heat burning in the pit of my stomach. It wouldn't be there if I would just quit listening to sports radio. It's eating away my soul. Yet on my way to work Wednesday I went ahead and twisted that damned dial, and -- nibble, nibble -- I lost another small but cherished piece of my eternal self.

On Dan Patrick's show on ESPN radio, the topic of the day was the baseball Hall of Fame. Specifically, why Bruce Sutter was voted into the Hall this year and Goose Gossage was not. A typical topic for sports radio. Patrick thinks Goose should be in. (I think so, too, for what it's worth.) Jeff Blair of the Toronto Globe and Mail, one of the Hall voters, thinks he shouldn't. They went back and forth on it, and it got a little testy. Sports radio "debate" is mostly detestable, manufactured B.S., but I was doing OK up to that point. Then they opened up the phone lines, and my head cracked wide open.

I couldn't tell whether the first caller was pro-Goose or anti-Goose, but it was clear he was anti-Blair. I'm quoting from memory, so it's not word for word, but he said, essentially:
"I heard some writer say, 'These are my criteria.' This writer kept talking about 'his criteria.' The Hall of Fame shouldn't be up to some writer's criteria. There should be Hall of Fame criteria."
I nearly drove off the road, because I was shouting at the top of my voice, "HOW GODDAMN STUPID ARE YOU?"

Let's set aside for a moment the fact that this caller views the ability to write (and, likely, read) as deeply suspicious. What infuriated me about his argument was its stark, even disheartening, ignorance not only of sports, but also of the very nature of democracy. Look, I think we can all agree that not everyone can be in the Hall of Fame. At some point, we have to make a decision on who gets in and who gets left out. That decision has to be in someone's hands. We call those people voters. And voters select their preferred candidates based on their own, personal criteria. Whether the people voting for the Hall of Fame are writers, broadcasters, players, fans or functionally retarded sports radio listeners/callers, their decisions are made based on experience and bias.

Funny enough, this is also how we choose our leaders, from the school board up to the president of the United States. The reasons why I voted for Bush, Kerry or Nader are probably different from yours. I may have made my choice based on terrorism, the war in Iraq or health care. You may have decided based on the economy, the environment or the price of gas. We all applied our own priorities when casting our votes.

In the Hall of Fame voting, one writer may have gone for Sutter because he had more saves than Gossage. Another writer may have preferred Gossage because when the Goose pitched, a save actually meant something, unlike now. Hell, one writer may have voted for Sutter because they preferred his Grizzly Adams look to Gossage's American Chopper mythos. Doesn't matter. This was an election, and in an election a candidate has to appeal to a broad range of voters with a broad range of tastes. Otherwise, you don't get elected. What do you do then? You spend some time building your case and then try again next time around. Worked for Ronald Reagan.

Some would prefer we do way with voting altogether. When Patrick's idiot caller declared that some unspecified "Hall of Fame criteria" should determine who gets in and who doesn't, what he meant was: There shall be no voting. The Hall will set statistical standards, and only those who meet those standards will be eligible. Under this ingenious system, the Hall might set 500 home runs as a standard for first basemen. But that would leave Lou Gehrig out of the Hall of Fame because he caught a nasty bug that ended his career at 493 home runs. Well, we can't have that, so we'd better drop the threshold to 493. In doing so, we've suddenly let in Fred McGriff, who dragged down his entire career by groveling for 500 dingers and yet fell short. At 493. And no, you can't provide exceptions, because who's going to make such a subjective decision? Some writer? In short, this kind of system would eliminate all semblance of choice and make "election" to the Hall of Fame utterly meaningless. Fidel Castro, after all, wins every election because his is the only name on the ballot.

Whether we're talking about the Pro Football Hall of Fame or the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, you can't make the selection an objective process because there are no objective criteria for "Fame." It's an entirely subjective concept. Regardless of what some moron says on the Dan Patrick show.

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