Most years, that distinction, while subtle, provided enough ethical leeway for those who believe writers should not involve themselves in the affairs of the people and organizations they cover. But it could not erase the fact that, each year when results were announcd, some of the same journalists responsible for writing about the new Hall of Famers were also part of a major plot line in their stories. This has always been a problem. Now, in the wake of the most controversial election in the history of Cooperstown, it is a problem that needs to be addressed.
As you know, the BBWAA announced Wednesday that none of the players eligible for induction this year reached the threshold required for enshrinement - being named on 75 percent of the ballots cast, each of which can include up to 10 players. Players not honored include Barry Bonds, a seven-time MVP and MLB's all-time home-run hitter, and Roger Clemens, a seven-time Cy Young Award-winner. Both would be sure-fire first-ballot inductees had their careers not been tainted by substantive allegations of steroid use.
While the results were not entirely unexpected, the announcement capped a significant transformation in the role of the voters who rendered them. The writers were no longer part of the story. They were the story. And that just doesn't make sense.
You can look at this year's Hall of Fame results a number of ways. You can write about the ethical implications of the whole thing. Objectivity is a basic tenet of journalism, and because human nature makes it difficult to observe oneself without bias, it makes sense that journalists should take great care to avoid making themselves a part of a story they are covering. You can write about the lack of direction provided by Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame. Aside from the vague mission statement that includes a player's character as one of the considerations for enshrinement, both the commissioner's office and the Hall's board made it the writers' responsibility to decide how to factor alleged performance-enhancing drug use into the equation of what qualifies a player for enshrinement.
But the best view is often the pragmatic view, and right now it is difficult to argue that the pertinent question BBWAA members should ask themselves is anything besides, "Why us?"
I posed that question to Jack O'Connell, BBWAA secretary and spokesman, who joined Hall of Fame director Jeff Idelson on a conference call with reporters Wednesday.
"I'm going to use the phrase that Benjamin Bradlee, the fine executive editor at the Washington Post, used when he used to be asked how is that you're the one who gets to decide what's on the front page," O'Connell said. "And he said, 'Somebody gave me the job.' That's the way I feel. Somebody gave us the job. Our people wanted to do it in 1936, they wanted to do it in 1956, they wanted to do it in 1976, and they want to do it now.
"I think they do a good job, and I think the benefit is . . . self-evident: We're part of baseball history, and I think that we're doing a good job of assessing careers of people and deciding whether they get into the Hall of Fame or not. There are 300 members of the Hall of Fame, and we've elected more than a third of them. I think it says a lot about how we assess players, and the players that we put in, the 112 that we've elected, are the cream of the crop."
But personal satisfaction in the custodianship of America's pastime is not why writers are paid to do what they do. On what objective level does it make sense for baseball writers to keep participating in a process that for the foreseeable future will result in a story in which they play a central role? The honest answer is that it does not make sense. And while the notion that an electorate composed of writers is more objective about player performance than many other alternatives, the writers themselves are now in the national spotlight because of the immense subjectivity they must use when casting their ballots.
We can write several more columns on potential alternatives that do not require working journalists to render judgment - and bestow fame and fortune - on players they have covered. And once the BBWAA resigns its role in the process, its members can write about those alternatives objectively.
David Murphy is a member of the BBWAA, but is not eligible to vote for the Hall of Fame.
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