Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

By whose rules are we playing?

Posted by digglahhh on 5 May 2007

The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY is an entity unto itself. It is certainly not affiliated with any legal system within the United States. It is not even operated by Major League Baseball. It governs itself and sets its own standards.

Barry Bonds is now a dozen or so homers from becoming the all-time leader. At his current pace, sometime around the All-Star break, he will overtake what is allegedly the most hallowed record in all of professional sports.

Bonds is a surly figure and his ongoing feud with the media has included tactics just as low as those of his chemically-induced assault on the record books. His antics have included bringing his son to the podium of a press conference to show the media “what they are doing to his family” and telling sports reporters they should be writing about cigarettes when they questioned the effect his steroid use might have on the health of our children. The media, for its part, has played dirty too, neglecting the omnipresence of cheating in baseball’s history, releasing confidential testimony, and painting Bonds as a racist super villain.

An article in today’s New York Times that initially seems to be about the upcoming investigation into steroid use in Major League Baseball, lead by Senator George Mitchell (D-ME) , quickly turns to the subject of Barry Bonds and his pursuit of Aaron’s record. This is where the media perpetuates the witch hunt. The act of deceit is in the intent, not in the outcome. I don’t doubt that Bonds has taken myriad performance enhancing drugs, but he, unlike others, has never failed a test. Those who have actually failed tests face nowhere near the scrutiny that Bonds does. And why? Because on their best days they aren’t remotely similar to Bonds on a baseball diamond. It is predictable, but categorically unfair, that Bonds is at the center of this whole issue, not because he is the only player involved, but because he is the most successful player involved. For all the labeling of the media as “liberal,” they are primarily concerned about the bottom line when it comes to steroids and baseball being launched into orbit, giving dishonesty a pass if it doesn’t translate into performance.

The grand irony is that Barry Bonds is an immortal of the game, while many of those who failed tests in the past were fringe Major Leaguers. There’s a place in the game for Bonds regardless. It is some borderline middle reliever’s use of performance enhancing drugs that is keeping him in the bigs, and in turn keeping a talented, young kid in the minor leagues living a pedestrian lifestyle in comparison those in “the show.” Funny how the morality crusaders never bring that one up…

The unproven, but credible, allegations of cheating, combined with Bonds’ self-entitled, tempermental and diva-like attitudes have inspired a substantial base of fans who lobby to keep Barry Bonds out of the Hall of Fame. I offer no opinion on that vital question here. But the two common arguments of those who rally for his exclusion seem to be lacking, confused, and even paradoxical.

The first argument against his inclusion is offered in response to the idea that that Bonds has not been convicted of anything and that he is afforded the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The anti-Bonds crowd are fond of noting the Hall of Fame’s independent standing, and that, as such, no conviction in a court of law is needed to exclude him. The Hall-of-Fame voters are well within their rights to not vote for Bonds simply because of their suspicion and presumption of guilt.

Got it. No argument from me there.

Another point of contention is that steroids were not deemed illegal by Major League Baseball until 2003 (The authoritative book, Game of Shadows alleges Bonds began using in 1999). Some people argue that even if we assume that he was taking steroids, they weren’t illegal and Bonds has not failed a drug test since they began testing for them. Those who would like to see a Bonds-less Hall are quick to point out that the rules of the United States trump that of Major League Baseball and that steroids are illegal in the country. This argument usually takes the form of ridiculous hyperbole like “murder isn’t specifically against the rules of baseball either, but you can’t kill your opponent.” Well, that is true. The problem with that argument is that the two cases are no different in the sense that MLB doesn’t have the jurisdiction to prosecute either.

What does the legal status of any substance Bonds may have taken have to do with his Hall of Fame candidacy? Even if Bonds were convicted of a crime, say, using a criminal substance, and thrown in jail, the Hall is not obliged to keep him off the ballot.

The anti-Bondsians can’t have it both ways! They can’t say that what Bonds did was implicitly against the rules of baseball because it was against the rules of the United States and then turn around and say that the Hall of Fame voters aren’t required to adopt the legal standards of the same body that is solely responsible for the contention that he was cheating (meaning, breaking the rules) in the first place.

At face value, Bonds is at least the fourth-best player of all time. To vote against him you have to determine he cheated, which means you have to adopt the legal system’s definitions of legitimacy over Major League Baseball’s. In turn, you have to adopt their standards of proof, which means Bonds has to either fail a drug test or be convicted in a court of law. If the legal system trumps Major League Baseball, it trumps the Hall of Fame too.

So, you can get wrapped up in the complicated semantics of overlapping standards of proof and legality and fact and conjecture. Or you can keep it simple and realize that even before 1999, for a period of ten years Barry Bonds was far and away the best player in the game. You can notice he would have deserved first-ballot induction if he had been hit by a bus the day before he first touched anything more powerful than a greenie, and vote for him on the basis of that.

Okay, I lied, I did give my opinion.

8 Responses to “By whose rules are we playing?”

  1. iayork said

    I think it was Steven Jay Gould was said, There’s only one complicated, nuanced subject on which one can legiimately hold a black and white opinion, and that’s the designated hitter rule.

    Bonds and the Hall of Fame should be the second such subject.

    (My opinion: “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”, and clases 3, 4, and 5 rule out Bonds. People argue that these rules have been flouted many times before (hello, Mr Cobb!), but I don’t think that screwing up in the past, justifies screwing up in perpetuity.)

  2. I have the advantage of not having any opinion whatsoever here, so just to get into it a bit, if #s 1, 2, and 6 are disproportionately large, among the largest in baseball history, how much weight ought the Hall give to 3-5?

    Are they veto criteria, so to speak? Or are they all weighted, and if so, it seems possible that Bonds ought to be admitted, or at least, that this topic doesn’t meet the Gouldian condition.

    These questions are really questions. I really have no opinion either way. I’m not the relative who took Digglahhh to Cooperstown, in fact, I’ve never been there. (The fact that I can name the first five inductees without looking them up is a tribute to my ability to collect useless – to me – information.)

  3. digglahhh said

    Well, Meta hit the nail on the head.

    First of all, 3,4,5 are vague guidelines that can be interpreted by any voter in whatever manner they feel appropriate.

    Second, they only really come into play for borderline cases. If those clauses held anywhere near the weight as the first two, the HOF would grow in size, exponentially, tomorrow. Guys like Dick Allen who are borderline, who are considered borderline, are hurt by this. Warning, non-sequitur rant coming…

    Dick Allen, by the way, is in no way borderline. He is a slam dunk. He has an argument as the most deserving guy on the outside (with Santo, Blyleven and Minoso in the discussion). Those not drunk on pretty counting stats and who understand the offensive context of the time in which he played easily see his worthiness. Despite his unfavorable personal reputation, his managers had very good things to say about him. Not to mention, he was a take-no-shit black man who was shipped out to play his Minor League Ball in the Arkansas in the early 60′s. A chip on your shoulder is a given.

    Anyway, my argument here is not about whether Bonds should make the Hall of Fame as much as whether or not the legal system has any say in the matter. The Bonds on the outside crowd seem to imply that the legality of his action is determined by the legal system, but his guilt is determined by the public whim. It seems that the anti-Bondsians play to the legal system when it supports their position and deny the legal system’s role when it does not. That’s not to say that their opinion is invalid, per se, just that the logic they use to get there contradicts itself.

  4. You may be right that simultaneously claiming Bonds can be deemed guilty by the non-legal standards of the HOF/MLB, and that what he is guilty of is violating the law notwithstanding the otherwise permissive standards of MLB, is contradictory. (Although I’m not quite sure even that much is true. It could be argued that, as independent entities, MLB/HOF choose to adopt a standard of non-lawbreaking and employ non-judicial standards of proof for such accusations. I don’t know that I’d even condemn them for such a stance.)

    However, I don’t think that’s the argument anti-Bondians make, or at least I think there is a coherent anti-Bondian argument that doesn’t hinge on legal standards either of behavior or of proof of wrong-doing.

    The argument is simply that, like every statutory regime, there are loopholes and grey areas in the rules of baseball – the rules express ideals that are hard to define explicitly, but which are implicit in the “spirit”, rather than the “letter”, of the law. One of those, for baseball, is the ban on performance-enhancing drugs. Because some drugs, like caffeine, are widely deemed acceptable, and other drugs, like prescription medications, are necessary, baseball has taken the course of listing specifically which drugs are banned and trying to keep ahead of the evolving technology in order to ensure that their list is comprehensive. Inevitably, they fail to anticipate the fiendishness of their own players and invariably wind up in a situation where some drugs are discovered and widely used by players before the regulators get hip and ban them. But – and this is the crucial point – players are not supposed to use any performance-enhancing drugs, whether they find a loophole in the regulations or not.

    Thus, one can hold that pre-banned drugs are contrary to the spirit, at least, of the drug policy. Evidence for this is the lengths players go to to conceal their use of performance-enhancing drugs even when they have not been banned – clearly the players know that they are acting against the league policy, or at least that their actions would be banned by policy as soon as they became known – and are deliberately acting deceptively precisely to evade restriction under that policy. And one can argue that secretly taking an action that one knows is allowed only because no one else knows about it – an action that would be considered cheating if it was publicly known – is itself a form of cheating. This is especially so since players could easily avoid any criticism for using particular products simply by informing the league they were doing so and requesting confirmation that it was allowed. What prevents them from being honest about what they are doing is that they know they will not be allowed to do it if anyone finds out – and that is cheating whether or not the specific method of cheating has been explicitly banned. (For its own part, the league could close that loophole by simply issuing a ruling that all illegal drugs, and any non-FDA-approved drugs, are banned categorically.)

    Bonds certainly transgressed the general rule against the use of performance enhancers whether or not he used technically illegal drugs. His bullshit cover story – that he didn’t know he was using drugs, and that he – a world-class athlete – simply slathered on some weird “clear” and “cream” substances provided by his drug-connection trainer without ever asking what they were or what was in them – makes that obvious. He deliberately attempted to evade the drug rules, by using enhancing substances, by being secretive about it, and by being deceptive when challenged. From any common-sense perspective – though certainly not under legal standards of evidence or proof – he’s guilty, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable for HOF voters to hold him to the implicit standard of the general rule, or employ the common-sense standard of proof in determining that he violated it, even while admitting that he did not technically violate an explicit prohibition of baseball.

    A final note about standards for the Hall: I don’t think the various criteria need to be weighted equally, but I also don’t see why they shouldn’t be. What is important to recognize, I think, is that need not necessarily be viewed as the same kind of criteria. That is, one could regard the performance-related criteria as positive standards – things you must do to be eligible for the Hall, while the character-related standards are negative criteria – things you must not fail on to remain eligible if you do qualify on the other criteria. Viewing them in this light, I don’t think Digglahhh’s implication – that if the character-related standards were weighted equally with performance standards, the Hall would soon be flooded with mediocre-playing nice guys to balance out the great-playing bastards – is true. Instead, I think it would gradually fill up with great-playing nice guys, while great-playing bastards would be left out – and that seems appropriate. Great players who are obnoxious persons couldn’t get in because of the negative criteria (“don’t be an asshole”), but good persons who were not great players also couldn’t get in because of the positive criteria (“your batting average must be at least this tall to be in the Hall of Fame”). Granted, that scheme should have kept a lot of present members – Ty Cobb being first on everyone’s list – out of the Hall, but times were different then and maybe the voters didn’t care as much. As Ian points out, that’s no reason not to get it right today. From this perspective, I think neither Bonds nor Pete Rose qualify for the Hall even if they were great players – because they both acted contrary to the good of the game and the spirit of fair competition, while actively concealing their actions because they knew they were or would be banned, then lying about it. Technical niceties aside, they simply don’t have the character to be famed and respected as ball players.

  5. digglahhh said

    I agree with your stance on cheating. But, the waters tend to get murky really quickly when we travel down this path.

    I was hoping to avoid this area of the discussion, but that was probably naive of me. So, let’s first try to determine how “tough on cheating” we want to be. Let’s start with Whitey Ford, Gaylord Perry and the other notorious ball doctors with plaques in the hallowed Hall. What are your feelings there? Are we simply ousting cheaters, or are we introducing a new, entirely subjective and unquantifiable, variable in which we assign a level of severity to acts of cheating, attempt to determine how much it helped a player and so forth.

    See, if the heart of cheating is in disrespecting the game, the intent to deceive and being secretive about it, as you say (and I agree), we are in a world of trouble if we simply say that cheaters are ineligible for the Hall. Now, I understand that an emery board is not the same thing as human growth hormone. But that is precisely why this argument becomes so complicated.

    To determine the severity of cheating after seeing the outcome is problematic; the deceit is in the act. You can’t retroactively determine its severity – which is exactly what happens with Bonds and that is illustrated every time some middle of the road bench player tests positive, gets a 50 game suspension and the story disappears from the sports news in 48 hours.

    But, more importantly, there is no precedent for keeping cheaters out of the Hall of Fame. Where do you stand on the amphetamine crowd?

    An excerpt from “I Had a Hammer,” Hank Aaron’s autobiography, co-written by Lonnie Wheeler:

    “Actually the 1968 season wasn’t the best time to present my case. It was the first time since my rookie year that I didn’t drive in or scored 100 runs. I was so frustrated that at one point I tried using a pep pill-a greenie-that one of my teammates gave me. When that thing took hold, I thought I was having a heart attack.”

    Then let’s revisit Mike Schmidt’s comments on HBO’s Costas Now:

    “Let me go out on a limb and say that if I had played during that era I would have taken steroids… We all have these things we deal with in life, and I’m surely not going to sit here and say to you guys, ‘I wouldn’t have done that.’”

    Even Buck O’Neil, possibly the greatest ambassador the game has ever seen and the Babe Ruth of qualifications 3,4 and 5, brushes off the steroid scandal in, “The Soul of the Game,” by simply stating that players have always looked to try to get an edge.

    I’m not stating that I condone PED use, and I’m all for MLB going to whatever measures they need to in order to help rid the game of them, but there is absolutely no precedent to keep Barry Bonds out of the Hall. Pete Rose and Joe Jackson broke the cardinal rule of the game. Bonds continued an age old tradition and happened to do it better than anyone ever did. No institution without a plaque for Barrt Lamar Bonds can claim, with any legitimacy, that is honors the greatest baseball players of all time.

    On a final note, I hope the Hall of Fame never decides to close its doors to cheaters and assholes. That standard would probably dwindle the Hall of Fame to Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial.

  6. Tom Wilson said

    The Asterisk Party

    We make no attempt to single out Barry Bonds. Barry just happens to be carrying the steroid banner presently. McGwire, Sosa, Bud Selig etc… all of them may be guilty of drinking from the steroid trough. We do indeed protest the steroid era… and the efforts of Bud Selig. Like any good parent… we do not accept the “everybody does it” excuse… the integrity of the game is at stake. We know the asterisk will never be applied but at least we fans will have said to the future fans … we knew what was going on and we did not stand by and ignore it.

    Our asterisk is simply an acknowledgment that we the fans were not ignorant to the truth. Future baseball fans will certainly look back on this time… the steroid era… and they will wonder why no one took a stand and called foul. So this year, we stand up for the past, to show the future, that the now matters. And we will make our stand… in the stands… at the ballpark… for all to see. Our little piece of foam does not attempt to change the record book or right a wrong. That would certainly be beyond our ability and would only add to an already convoluted tangle of words and facts. This little foam asterisk simply allows the fans to demonstrate, in a peaceful simple way, that we were not blind. We were not fooled. And we did not stand by and look the other way while the integrity of the game was ground into the dirt.

    The Fans

  7. I hope the Hall of Fame never decides to close its doors to cheaters and assholes. That standard would probably dwindle the Hall of Fame to Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial.

    Anything that improves Edgar Martinez’s chances, I’m for.

  8. Ternary_complex

    Blatta Bizantia End Roll / Yume Miru Shoujo Ja Irarenai Copelatus CEG Webbs city Tempo shark Cyclone class Patrol ship Ciudadanos Agobiados y Cabreados Crookston, Minnesota Vágoy

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