The first tweet I saw on it was this one:
Today's column: https://t.co/UDpzVQr1Ts Not only do writers owe Jeff Bagwell votes, but they owe him an apology. Plus news/notes/links.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) January 2, 2016
Now, I agree that is is wrong that Jeff Bagwell has been excluded from the Hall of Fame, apparently because he was a power hitter whose career happened to coincide with a period of suspected high PED use.
But this framing makes it seem like enshrinement is something players like Bagwell are owed or entitled to, rather than an honor they receive. So, the writers haven't merely declined to bestow an honor on Bagwell, they have wronged him and owe him an apology.
This isn't such a big deal in this case, but this type of thinking leads to some worse conclusions.
Olney has several tweets making this point:
OK, @dmorin67, then take this approach: Identify examples pre-McGwire of the so-called character clause being litmus test for the HOF.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) January 2, 2016
as well as this one...
MLB treats Clemens, Bonds,etc. as members in good standing; so does HOF. So why do writers act as moral gatekeepers? https://t.co/QspdlWGX87— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) January 2, 2016
And that is my basic disagreement.
It seems to me that the character clause was put in precisely to account for situations that had not been anticipated similar to the "best interests of baseball clause" in the commissioner's powers. As an acknowledgment that they have not anticipated all the possible criteria. Given that we've spent much of the past year renaming buildings and taking down statues, it does seem prudent to have some veto-points in place before giving someone a permanent honor.
In this case, the situation is use of substances by a number of known players and possibly a number of unknown players that enhanced players' performances in ways we still don't completely understand. It seems like this might be a valid time to apply a clause in an unprecedented manner.*
Again, I think it's important to remember that we're not talking about throwing people in jail or banning them from the game, here. We're talking about whether we want to grant them their sport's highest lifetime honor. Which is why I disagree with the Olney's second point here. By not banning them explicitly, but leaving the character clause in place, the Hall of Fame is allowing for a middle ground -- players like McGwire may not be declared anathema, but we're not going to jump at the opportunity to honor them, either.**
From there, Olney gets downright silly:
Ok, @datduderct, but remember when the media thought it was obvious Richard Jewell was a suspect in Olympic bombing? https://t.co/aqPr31sWiN— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) January 2, 2016
I believe the phrase "proves too much" was invented for things like this.
If the media can't be trusted to apply the character clause in filling out their Hall of Fame ballots, then we've got much bigger problems than some deserving candidates being left out of the Hall of Fame. Would that the primary impact of the Jewell frenzy (and other (social) media frenzies) was that their target was denied their profession's highest honor!
Look, I get that having to make these judgments is uncomfortable, especially without access to all the relevant facts. And I also understand that "judgement" and "common sense" can and have been used to cover up excluding people based on prejudice.
But that's part of life as a professional, as a grown-up. And so long as we have situations with some ambiguity, we will need human beings with the courage and wisdom to sort through the information and values at hand, and make the best decisions possible. They'll probably get it wrong sometimes, but I think that's better than just throwing hands up in the air.
And I think it's also worth noting that this same discretion is what enables the writers to enshrine people like Sandy Koufax, whose aggregate numbers would not meet ordinary Hall of Fame standards.
* You can read here on why I think the cases frequently cited as precedents are not quite a fit, at least to me.
** In my opinion, these middle places are an important part of a healthy society. We don't harshly punish people without rock-solid proof, but we reserve the right to withhold our highest honors. This may mean that occasionally some people are unfairly denied, but better that than either banning too many people or doling out awards we later regret.