As I am sure many of you are aware, it was revealed on Wednesday – the day the Hall of Fame announced which players were elected to its hallowed halls – that ESPN’s Dan LeBatard had turned his ballot over to Deadspin. LeBatard answered Deadspin’s call to do so because he agreed with many of the site’s criticisms of the voting process and the clique of writers who control it. That subset of baseball scribes tends to be older, resentful of new media and often indifferent or hostile to sabermetrics.
Yesterday, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) announced that LeBatard was being suspended from the organization for a year and stripped of his Hall voting privileges permanently because he made a mockery of the process.
Lots and lots of folks have weighed in on this. So, let me highlight a few responses. MLB.com’s Richard Justice – a long-time Houston-based man and a really good one – took to twitter to defend LeBatard. Several tweets were devoted to highlighting writers who’ve filled out ill-informed or joke ballots and still get to vote. One, according to Justice, once voted Jim Deshaies, just so he could write a column about the soft-tossing lefty (he finished his career with an 84-95 won-loss record and an ERA+ of 91, 100 being average). Another asked fans Houston for help filling out his ballot. That writer, presumably because he didn’t criticize the process in doing so, still votes. Others, Justice says, don’t really cover baseball at all and put almost no thought into their votes.
The LeBatard affair has – and this was certainly part of his intent – heightened scrutiny of his colleagues. Why, for example, did sixteen voters leave Greg Maddux – arguably one of the five greatest pitchers of all time, off their ballot? Some who did so voted for guys like the immortal Jacque Jones. One writer, Ken Gurnick, said he wasn’t going to vote for anyone during the steroid era. Who did he vote for? Only Jack Morris who, as it happens, overlapped by nine years with Maddux and won 21 games at the age of 37 in 1992, which one could determine was “suspicious” if one wanted to. To be clear, I don’t have any reason to believe Morris used substances he wasn’t supposed to. But neither do I have any reason to suspect Greg Maddux of having done so. Also, as Craig Calceterra points out, by the time Morris retired, Maddux had already won three of his four Cy Youngs. So how do we determine ‘era’ in this case?
Mike and Mike, both critics of various aspects of Hall of Fame voting, supported LeBatard, and had him on yesterday to explain his thought process. LeBatard did express regret that he didn’t wait an additional day before announcing what he’d done, because it took away from the attention due the three electees – Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas. During that interview, LeBatard said that if it were up to him, more new media types, including Deadspin, would have a vote and that LeBatard himself would not. He also expressed frustration with the sanctimonious way in which writers have treated the steroids-era players, including Bonds and Clemens. LeBatard insists that many, many people, including voters would take a pill that was not being tested for if they new it would significantly enhance their performance (in whatever life endeavor they were pursuing). Elsewhere, he’s thrown up his hands about how we discern who used and who didn’t (apart from the cases in which someone admitted it or failed a test). For example, LeBatard has said, he has no idea whether Jeff Bagwell used or Frank Thomas used.
As a quick aside, I am also puzzled by the writers’ treatment of Bagwell. On the strength of his performance, Bagwell is easily Hall of Fame worthy, arguably one of the top 50 or 60 position players of all time. He never failed a drug test and was never implicated in any serious way by anyone remotely close to him. And yet, he keeps getting denied entry to the Hall, presumably because, as Josh Cookson put it, “Bagwell’s sister’s cousin’s nephew’s neighbor told a guy who told a sportswriter that he saw Bagwell using PEDs.” Cookson’s kidding, of course. But he rightly notes that the baseball writers, who said so little during the presumed height of the abuses in the mid to late 1990s, seem to be taking their own cowardice or whatever out now on guys like Bagwell.
Bagwell’s long-time teammate, Craig Biggio was also denied entry. On the merits, Biggio should have been a shoo-in. He racked up 411 career win shares – Bill James comprehensive measure of offensive and defensive performance. That’s more than Thomas or Maddux, two entirely worthy all time greats. Biggio has also never been meaningfully implicated in steroid use. But that didn’t stop writers like the New York Times’ Murray Chass from playing detective and refusing to vote for Biggio on those grounds (Biggio fell two votes short out of 571 ballots cast, the nearest miss in the history of the voting).
Keith Olbermann also hammered the existing structure, describing it as a “banana republic” style farce. He noted that Bill James lacks a vote, as does Vin Scully as does MLB’s official historian, the terrific John Thorn. Olbermann endorsed LeBatard’s decision to crowd source his vote which, it’s worth noting, was an excellent ballot, that included Biggio and Bagwell (as well as Bonds and Clemens) in addition to the three electees.
Olbermann made the interesting point that missing from Cooperstown include: the all time hits leader (Rose); the all-time homerun leader (Bonds); the guy with the third highest batting average of all time (Shoeless Joe Jackson) and the pitcher with the third most strikeouts ever (Clemens).
OK, I am spending a lot of time airing criticisms of the voting and Le Batard’s defenders because I agree with them.
But LeBatard took a ton of flak, mostly from other sports media types (fans seemed overwhelmingly to approve). Jon Heymann branded him a “sanctimonious attention seeker.” CBS’ Gregg Doyel said the ballot outsourcing was “insulting, pointless and stupid.”
And the PTI guys – Kornheiser and Wilbon unloaded on him. Wilbon sneeringly attacked LeBatard for “some massively lame excuse about the voting process being flawed.” Wilbon and Kornheiser both called for the BBWAA to immediately revoke Dan’s vote (which, as noted above, they did the next day). Kornheiser – a good friend of LeBatard’s – bizarrely argued that “there is nothing more democratic” than hall voting, since it’s “one man, one vote.” Of course, if there are 570 voters, and some undetermined (but perhaps quite large) number of equally or more qualified folks who *can’t* vote, which is a key point of much of the voting criticism.
The members of the Politburo got to vote for the next Soviet leader (more or less). That doesn’t mean that Soviet leaders were “democratically” elected according to most reasonable people’s understanding of the quoted term. While opining about what a great system the current one is – presumably because the existing voters are a unique font of wisdom and insight about who is hall-worthy – the PTI boys bashed LeBatard for *his* supposed outsize ego. The logic here, I must say, boggles. Elite sports media – like elite media more generally – tend to mock bloggers with all the dumb cliches we’ve come to expect – pajama wearing; living in their parents’ basements; ill-informed and so on. Nevermind that the Deadspin folks, and those at Awful Announcing, Baseball Prospectus and so on often run stylistic and analytical circles around the big boys. So LeBatard gives up his ballot to one of those frequently demeaned sites in part because he doesn’t think he knows baseball better than they do and *he’s* the guy with the ego. Incoherently, the DC insider pair also claim that LeBatard was doing this just to get attention (especially rich coming from Wilbon, the top name-dropper in the United States), *after* they angrily catalogued how big LeBatard’s platform already is. It’s “egotism run amok,” it’s “irresponsible” and so on.
Not their finest hour.