Under normal circumstances, I am a fan of ESPN.com writer Bill Simmons. His non-magazine columns can run pretty long, he obsesses over his own perceived sports and pop culture genius, and the way he references “my buddy so-and-so” is an annoying literary device, but those negatives are far outweighed by the one major positive: every Wednesday and Friday, I look forward to his column and am disappointed if it doesn’t run. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention that all three of those faults that I just pointed out in Simmons’ writing pretty much apply to me as well.)
In the nearly ten years that Simmons has written a column, first for his own “Sports Guy” web site and then for ESPN.com, he has fathered and furthered a number of ideas that help deepen my own personal appreciation of sports. (The Ewing Theory, in which a team becomes more successful after an irreplaceable player suffers a serious injury or retires, is a personal favorite.) Recent months had seen a visible change in The Sports Guy, however, from the guy we wanted to hang out and talk sports with to the drunk dude at the end of the bar who spends his evenings tossing out opinons, often unsolicited, on anything and everything. Some of those thoughts are frustrating, such as his recent unhealthy obsession with “The Wire” (really, Bill, I want to see the show, but not for the $60 it’ll cost me at Best Buy) and Allen Iverson, but others make a surprising amount of sense, not least of all a recent riff on the quality of the announcing in professional sports.
With Wednesday afternoon’s piece on Mark McGwire his chances of making the Hall of Fame, Simmons covered the entire spectrum from knowledgeable sports fan to crazy old drunk man. He made a few very good points, including one where he pointed out the discrepancy that exists between objectionable incidents on television or radio programs and those that occur on the Internet:
“…[P]art of our country's problem is the shortsighted way we "protect" our kids from life's harsh realities. Janet Jackson's nipple slip was such a traumatic moment for Americans that some live sporting events now run on tape-delay, and Howard Stern fled to SIRIUS to escape the clutches of the increasingly fascistic FCC. Meanwhile, any kid can glimpse Britney's crotch if he or she is even remotely familiar with Google, and anyone can be slandered anonymously on a blog or message board."The last line notwithstanding (if the focus was truly on kids, it probably should have said something about chat rooms or Myspace instead of blogs or messages; in the current form, it reads like somebody was skewered on one or more sites and is taking it kind of personally. And before you call me insensitive to his feelings, please remember that I am the same person who once had a post referred to as “fucking terrible” by a Deadspin commenter, and I get paid a lot less than Bill Simmons to put up with that kind of criticism), this is an interesting thought. He’s not saying we should be more firm in our regulation of the Internet, but that parents should be the parties responsible for making sure their children don’t see content they shouldn’t, and if they do, that they aren’t scarred forever by it. Can’t really argue with that.
Simmons continued in that vein, tying the messed up nature of our country to the idea that Mark McGwire doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame:
“Look, our country is screwed up. Whether we like it or not, people will always gamble, use illegal drugs, drink and drive, cheat on their spouses, cheat on tests, lie and steal, ditch their families, swear and fight, use performance-enhancing drugs. Banishing Mark McGwire from Cooperstown isn't going to make any of that go away. Let's stop pretending that the Baseball Hall of Fame is a real-life fantasy world -- a place where we celebrate only the people and events we can all unanimously agree deserve to be celebrated -- and transform it into an institution that reflects both the good and bad of the sport. Wait -- wasn't that Cooperstown's mission all along? Shouldn't it be a place where someone who knows nothing about baseball can learn about its rich history? Isn't it a museum, after all?”Starts off well here, then heads down a dangerous road. As pessimistic as it sounds, I happen to believe that the first two sentences are pretty much dead on: no matter what we do to try and fix it, America will always have problems. The country is a reflection of who we are as individuals in that no one is perfect, but most people are basically good.
Simmons takes things to a bad place, however, near the end of the paragraph when he asks the question, “Shouldn’t [the Hall of Fame] be a place where someone who knows nothing about baseball can learn about its rich history? Isn’t it a museum, after all?”
Yes and yes. Cooperstown is baseball’s Mecca, a point on the map where pilgrimmages end with fathers pointing their sons to Stan Musial’s jersey or the ball from Nolan Ryan’s 7th no-hitter. The Hall of Fame has, in its long history, created innumerable fans, strengthened the love of the game for countless others, and provided a checkpoint for everyone to boost their baseball I.Q.
The problem with Simmons point here is that he is falling victim to the common misperceptions that the plaque gallery makes up the majority of the Hall and that if you aren’t an elected member, you don’t exist to Cooperstown.
“If that's the case -- and I say it is -- then how can we leave out Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader and most memorable competitor of his era? And how can we even consider leaving out McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, the three most memorable hitters of the 1990s? We're supposed to stick our heads in the historical sand and pretend these people were never born? Imagine if the rest of the world worked like this. Word is, JFK cheated on his wife. Should we change the name of the airport and remove all his memorabilia from the Smithsonian?”This argument is not new; it’s one of the same ones we see every time the question of Rose’s candidacy comes up. The problem is that Rose has not been “left out” of the Hall of Fame to the extent that most members of the media and casual fans would like to believe. “Charlie Hustle” is very much a part of the Hall of Fame (the organization’s web site states that he donated more than twenty items during his career, with many currently on display) – he just isn’t allowed to attain the highest honor, that of a member. By the same token, even if McGwire never receives a plaque in Cooperstown, he will always have a presence there. His accomplishments will always be mentioned, with his rookie record 49 homeruns in 1987 and the way he and Sosa helped bring the game back with the Great Homerun Chase of 1998 at the head of the class. If anything, players like Rose and McGwire get a good deal from the Hall of Fame for the simple fact that the bad points in their careers don’t have nearly as high a profile as the good times.
(Quick note: Sosa, a guy who exploded into superstardom in 1998, was one of the three most memorable hitters of the 1990s? Has Bill Simmons never heard of Frank Thomas or Ken Griffey, Jr.?
Oh, and that JFK analogy? Totally off-base. Pete Rose gambled on baseball, including games in which his team was involved. Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds allegedly took drugs that allowed them to develop from good or great ballplayers to legendary figures. Last time I checked, Kennedy’s extramarital affairs didn’t affect his presidency either way. The part about his memorabilia was also ill fitting, for the same reasons explained above.)
Personally, I’m on the fence regarding Mark McGwire’s Hall of Fame candidacy; I won’t be sad if he makes it or happy if he doesn’t. But if he does find himself on the outside looking in after the results are announced, I hope people are smart enough to realize that just because he doesn’t have a spot in the plaque gallery, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a spot in the Hall of Fame.