In the midst of Hall of Fame season, hearing writers justify their ballots (or not), it seems prudent to revisit the actual voting criteria laid out on the BBWAA’s official website. It’s one sentence, located halfway down the page, that offers voters guidance on which names to check:
Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.
Clearly there’s approximately a high fantasy novel’s worth of uncharted territory in this description (here be batting averages). Writers still differ on which numbers, exactly, to use to examine a player’s record and playing ability, but this is at least theoretically an objective pursuit. “Contributions to the team(s)” becomes a little murkier, but this is where the postseason accolades are most often invoked, because apparently what you do as a player to help your team only matters if you’re doing it in October and what do you mean I’m just a bitter Mariners fan. Contributions are things that can be measured more broadly, however, in things like WPA, if you’re one kind of voter, and MVP votes, if you’re another kind of voter. The point is, the metrics exist.
But between the record, playing ability, and contributions is a thorny tangle of words: “integrity, sportsmanship, and character.” There is no Good Teammate stat, or Relative Character Index, or Integrity-Sensing Sonic Screwdriver you can wave over a player. In the past, voters were able to gloss over this aspect, as a player’s flaws magically receded over the time it took him to appear on the ballot. With the arrival of the Steroid Class on the ballot, however, writers have been forced to take up a space on the morality spectrum. Some refuse to vote for any player with even a whiff of steroid suspicion, nose held high in the air as they stride past Bonds’s name en route to Matt Stairs. Some others have dismissed character entirely, opting to rely on the numbers only in weighing their choices. Many have pointed out, rightfully, that the cloud of suspicion rained on deserving and undeserving players alike. Maybe Mike Piazza did just have the misfortune of playing before the dawn of Neutrogena Body Clear Body Spray (even sprays upside down!).
But in the furor over suspected PED users and what their inclusion might mean for the Hall, an important distinction is being lost between character questions for falling under the cloud of suspicion, and character questions, period. Manny Ramirez might have the numbers to be a Hall of Famer, but as far as “integrity, sportsmanship, and character” goes, he’s batting zero.
In case you aren’t aware, here’s a brief history of Manny Ramirez’s character concerns:
- 2001 - 2003: Admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs during this time. Failed a drug test in 2003, although players were not subject to suspensions at this time.
- 2003: Claimed to be too sick to play in a game; was later reported to be out for drinks with a friend.
- 2008: Fought teammate Kevin Youkilis in the dugout during a game.
- 2008: Flung the Red Sox’s elderly traveling secretary, Jack McCormick, to the ground in a fit of pique because McCormick wasn’t doing enough to accommodate Ramirez’s ticket demands.
- 2009: Suspended for 50 games for failing a drug test.
- 2011: Failed another drug test; facing a 100-game suspension, opted to retire instead.
- 2011: Arrested for striking his wife, Juliana, causing her to hit her head on a headboard in the couple’s bedroom.
Absent from this list are the trickier-to-prove claims of Manny offering less-than-stellar effort, faking sick or injured, and reportedly having attitude problems, especially where pinch-hitting was concerned.
There is a difference between a player who took steroids in an age where the drug policy wasn’t written in stone, thinking it would extend his playing career, and a willful, repeat violator of that policy once it was established. More importantly, there is a difference between taking steroids, and putting your hands on another person because you’re unhappy with them, especially if that person is a woman or a senior citizen. That’s not integrity. That’s not sportsmanship, when you’re fighting with fellow MLB players or club employees. That’s not the behavior of a Hall of Famer, at least not according to the Hall’s own voting guidelines.
Ramirez has apologized for his behavior, including—eventually—apologizing to the 64-year-old Red Sox employee he pushed over in a fit. He’s said he has grown, since his domestic violence arrest. He found Jesus. That’s all great. But it doesn’t wipe away his past actions. One might argue that there are already racists and abusers and straight-up terrible people in the Hall, and that may be true (Ty Cobb, for example, might have been mischaracterized by history). But we know better now, and it’s necessary that we try to be better. We want to make the Hall in our own imperfect image, but the Hall should be comprised of our greatest players, and that definition doesn’t end when the game does. Someone who played fair, who was a good teammate, who put others ahead of himself, and who gave back to the community should have an edge over someone with similar numbers who did not, and should definitely have an edge over the player—regardless of numbers—who actively harmed members of that community. “Playing the game the right way” is a phrase that has come to resonate with a specific morality judgment (often, “playing the game the white way”), but if you strip away the hysteria about bat flips, the core message is this simple, and this important: play fair, be kind, work hard, help others.
Character matters. That’s not an opinion; it’s right there in the voting guidelines. Yet several ballot explanations I have read start off “If it was the Hall of Good Guys...” before going on to explain why the voter can’t find space for Edgar, a paragon of character and integrity, as if that doesn’t add to his case rather than diminish it. It’s easy to cut out the morality clause entirely and rely on raw numbers alone to make one’s selections. It’s much less comfortable to grapple with the gray area and think about the player as a man, not just a jersey number. But in order to have a Hall that truly reflects the best of the men who played the sport, character isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity.