As I’ve said before, I’m not a real fan of sports hall of fames, including the revered Baseball Hall of Fame. I’m not adverse to the concept, and I understand any selection process is going endure unfair scrutiny. But I tend to enjoy the present and future of sports more than the past. And especially in baseball, it always felt like a self-important institution that uses arcane processes to determine if and when a former player might be recognized, where somehow the same group of voters might have a completely different view of someone one year to the next.
That said, it’s hard not to take notice of this year’s class for the Baseball Hall of Fame. And by class, I mean no one, since not a single eligible member got the requisite 75% needed from the voters of the Baseball Writers Association of America. That last happened in 2013, and only a handful of times prior. The person who came the closest this time is former pitcher Curt Schilling, who secured 71% of the vote in his ninth and penultimate time on the ballot. Schilling was best known as the Red Sox pitcher who won Game six of the 2004 ALCS with a bloody sock. That may have enshrined Schilling in the mythology of the sport, if not the Hall itself. But what seems to have earned Schilling equal attention by current voters is his work off the field – namely his brazen, often incendiary political rhetoric. It’s not simply that he’s an outspoken conservative. It’s that he seems to revel in bringing a blowtorch to a garden party. That’s why was fired as an analyst by ESPN in 2016 for offensive posts about transgendered people, a year after being suspended for offensive comments about Muslims. He’s also defended white supremacists on his podcast, and most recently posted support for the rioters at the Capitol on January 6 – which came after the votes had already been cast. All of that, which came off the field and after his playing career was over, seems to have contributed to Curt Schilling’s inability to get over the hump.
In character, Shilling has already asked to be removed from the ballot next year, which the baseball writers association seem unwilling to do. So in all likelihood, we’ll go through this exact same thing next year, although likely with far less than 71%. So baseball fans have that to look forward to.
I won’t get into whether I think Curt Schilling should or shouldn’t be in the Hall based on his on-field performance. Beyond the fact I’m not qualified, it seems well established that by today’s standards, he should probably be in – even if he’s no Mariano Rivera. And that argument is exactly what I dislike about the Hall in the first place.
The real question here is whether it’s fair that Curt Schilling is kept out of the Baseball Hall of Fame because of what he did off the field, especially as we navigate the guardrails of politics and democracy in the MAGA era of the United States. I’d suggest the answer is yes, but it’s complicated. And it doesn’t come without cost.
The Baseball Hall of Fame is not a static artifact. Like any museum, it’s evolutionary, as is the sport it represents. We know there’s a lot of awful people in Hall. Cheaters, criminals, racists, and so on. Such was the state of the nation, as reflected in its athletes. And today, baseball writers representing the Hall seem more aware not only of the interwoven nature of sport and social issues, but also what their enshrined icons should represent. Or at least what they shouldn’t. So by that account, it seems fair to me to keep Schilling out.
But, make no mistake, this is not a simple nor binomial decision. While Curt Schilling may have crossed a line, we have to recognize the imperfection with that delineation. For example, what constitutes an offense that renders one ineligible? And where’s the clear difference between abhorrent behavior and extreme partisanship? As we try to navigate towards our better selves, with sports a representation of that aspiration, when does it go too far. I know why Curt Schilling shouldn’t be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But what do we lose by his not being there?
I do have a solution, one that very few people would like, especially baseball fans. We could do away with the Hall altogether, or at least this antiquated notion of enshrining people. That would be fine with me. But then again, I’ve never been a real fan of the Hall in the first place.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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