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This month Baseball Writers Association of America members with ten years or more of tenure will cast their ballots for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Many already make their ballots public with some writing columns explaining their choices. Next year they will be required to make their ballots public. Fans and non-voting writers like me lap all of this up. As a result, in baseball, December is the month for Hall of Fame arguments.
For some voters, however, it is the month for complaints. Complaints about the process for voting for the Hall of Fame and complaints about the arguments their very own votes set off
Some complaints are understandable. The rules and mechanics of voting are often silly — there is a frustratingly arbitrary limit on the number of players one can vote for — and often voters face dilemmas while deciding how to cast their ballots. What should they do with players who have taken performance enhancing drugs, for example? How does one make a hard choice between two very similar candidates? What should be done about a candidate who was a great baseball player but a terrible person off the field? I often take issue with the way some of these complaints are framed and argued, but I do, at the very least, acknowledge that they are legitimate sources of frustration for Hall of Fame voters.
There is one complaint many lodge, however, that I reject out of hand: That the act of voting for the Hall of Fame is unpleasant because it causes readers to criticize the voter. It’s a complaint that comes up year after year and it’s silly even when the complaining about it is well-crafted. For example, two years ago one of the best writers and reporters in the business, a man for whom I have a great amount of respect otherwise, characterized the blowback he receives for his Hall of Fame choices thusly:
The condescending diatribes. The uncivil debates. The arched eyebrows and spittle. The campaigning. The agendas. The disregard — no, the pointed hatred — for a contrary opinion.
After which he announced that he will quit voting for the Hall of Fame. The heat had become too great, it seemed, so he decided to leave the kitchen.
Obviously, abusive or offensive responses have no place in civil discourse, but this complaint and others like it are rarely if ever focused on abusive comments. Rather, they take issue with mere contradiction and criticism. Looking at even this reasonable writer’s list of complaints reveals that that’s what he was getting at.
“Campaigns?” Well, of course people will campaign for players they think should be in the Hall of Fame. “Agendas?” In this context, that word is synonymous with “opinion.” Hatred and spittle is one thing, but someone saying “your opinion is X, my opinion is Y, and here is why I think my opinion is better” is neither of those things. It’s the very basis of debate on any topic at all, yet it is characterized here as “pointed hatred of contrary opinion.”
I’ve been a baseball writer for over seven years and, because of the topics which interest me, my disposition and the sort of writing I do, I often find myself at odds with other writers. One thing I have learned in those seven years is that sportswriters hate to have their work criticized. Many seem to find such criticism illegitimate on its face. This isn’t mere speculation. Some have told me that directly. Many more have privately groused about me taking issue with their work, only to have that grousing find its way to my ears later. No one likes to have their work criticized, but sportswriters take far more offense to it than any class of professionals I’ve ever known.
I think there’s a reason for that: most of them were immunized against criticism for years.
The vast majority of sportswriters who are tenured enough to have earned a Hall of Fame vote came up the ranks at a newspaper in the print-only days or, at the very least, in the days before the advent of Twitter and social media. In those days, debate with readers was not a common or natural thing. In the pre-social media days, the only real way a sports reporter interacted with readers was if the reader wrote a letter or, later, an email to the paper (and if the writer cared enough to read it, which they had no obligation to do). Such interactions were extraordinarily small-scale and extraordinarily one-sided. The writer controlled the terms of the debate, such as it was, and could wholly remove himself from even having it if he wanted to. Writers were the authorities. Readers were, well, just readers. As long as people didn’t cancel their subscriptions en masse, they were customers to whom no customer service was required, at least from the editorial side of things.
In recent years the writer-reader interaction has been democratized. People who had no choice but to be mere fans and readers back in the day can now write or opine about sports themselves. Short of that, they can tweet or otherwise interact directly and immediately with the writers. With the authorities. With the reporters and commentators who work for the newspaper or its 21st century successors. And who, in the context of their Hall of Fame vote, are actually making news.
Just as we would never suggest that it was wrong for a reporter to criticize or critique the newsmakers he covers, it’s insane, in this day and age, to think that people are not going to disagree with reporters who themselves are engaging in the newsworthy act of voting for the Hall of Fame. This is especially true given the passion that sports and sports history inspires.
To be surprised that such things lead to criticism and argument is silly. To be so turned off by that that one complains about it annually, systematically seeks to avoid discussion by blocking out contrary voices through any available means or, as some writer have done in recent years, get out of the business of voting for the Hall of Fame altogether, suggests that, maybe, one is not well-suited for modern sports discourse.