Wednesday, January 11, 2012

If Jack O'Connell feels 'agonized' about future baseball awards voting he should quit

"“It’s going to be agonizing,” BBWAA general secretary Jack O’Connell said after Tuesday’s news conference, repeating the phrase for emphasis."...
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Suggestion to Mr. O'Connell: If it's going to be so agonizing, why don't you quit?

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This 2005 Tim Marchman article may help O'Connell. It mentions steroids and Palmeiro but focuses on the media's "unseemly sense of ownership of the game:"

"There has obviously been no shortage of commentary on baseball's steroid crisis this year, but with last week's revelation that Baltimore's Rafael Palmeiro had tested positive, matters got completely out of hand. This is understandable enough, as Palmeiro is the first star player whose drug use has moved out of the realm of leaked testimony, accusation, and innuendo, into the realm of verifiable fact.

Curiously, in the endless acres of newsprint devoted to the issue, it seems one point hasn't been addressed. It concerns the press, not athletes, and simply put it's this: Isn't it more than a bit presumptuous for sportswriters to talk about the damage players do to the game and to their legacies when they use drugs?

And if so, might a bit more humility be in order?

Baseball has always had a curious relationship with the press, which has, rather than merely covering the game, always intervened in its workings and altered the course of its affairs. This has been more true of baseball than other sports. There exists no football equivalent to the coverage - by the black and socialist press - that helped lay the groundwork for the integration of the game, no basketball equivalent of the activist coverage - by writers like the Times's Murray Chass - that helped make every labor stoppage until the last one a defeat for owners.

This is so largely for the same reasons that statistics are so much more important in baseball than in the other major American team sports. Much more than any other sport, baseball really is conscious of its history and legacy and role as a national institution, which leads to a notion of "the game" as something distinct from the players, managers, coaches, scouts, and executives who comprise it. Basketball is Michael Jordan; hockey is Wayne Gretzky; baseball is, simply, baseball.

In baseball, the press is traditionally seen as the guardians of the game. The longest-tenured journalists outlast generations of players, managers, and executives. It's a fact of baseball that is expressed in areas as basic and important as entrance to the Hall of Fame, which is mostly regulated by longtime baseball writers.

This is not wholly, or even mostly, bad.

Baseball writers have always tended, to feel their loyalty is to the abstract notion of the game and the civic ideals with which it is associated, rather than to the men who play it or profit from it. The tradition of honorable activism in baseball journalism cannot be divorced from this loyalty.

The downside of this state of affairs, though, is the unseemly sense of ownership of the game that you find in the writing of many of those who have covered it for a long time. This is no new phenomenon: Spend some time with members of the Sporting News from the 1960s (or the 1920s, for that matter) and you'll read more than you'd ever believe about the ungratefulness and loutish manners of the Young Turk ballplayers of the day.

Read up on baseball's labor history and you'll see that many longtime baseball writers came to identify with management, for the simple reason that they too were fixtures in a game whose players are essentially transient, and that their sense of ownership of the game too often curdled into a sense of bitterness towards players who just wanted their fair share of the money the game was making.

Often, the sense of ownership turns into outright resentment of the players, who after all just play the game but, apparently, don't really understand it.

This is the root of the stock complaint that such-and-such young player doesn't even know who Joe DiMaggio (or whoever) is. It shows up in all sorts of areas, and seems especially to show up in coverage of young black and Hispanic players whose manner of play and self-expression is alien to middle-aged and old white men. Again, this is nothing new - the veteran baseball writers of the 1890s had little good to say about the Irishmen who were increasingly coming to dominate the game - but it is an unpleasant fact that must be dealt with in talking about the way the game is covered.

In this light, the steroid crisis is in a way the perfect baseball scandal. The collective and long-standing sense of the press that the game needs to be protected from the ego, arrogance, and misunderstanding of the men who happen to play it has found its perfect expression, and thus we end up with a variety of stock locutions aimed at players who use, or are thought to have used steroids: They're dishonoring the game, tainting their legacies, bringing shame upon the game, and so forth.

From another angle, though, this isn't really possible. What is the game, after all, if not the sum of the actions of the men who play it? If the more preposterous estimates of steroid use among ballplayers (like the 70% figure bandied about from time to time) are to be believed, isn't there something of a consensus among players that steroids are just an accepted fact of the game,

  • something to which the rest of us have to adjust?

This isn't at all meant as an argument in favor of throwing up one's hands at the drug problem. Writers do have a responsibility to state clearly that drug use is wrong (if for no other reason than that it exerts pressure on clean players to risk their health) and criticize players who break the laws of the land and the sport by using steroids.

Still, the common arguments about how today's players should be ashamed to be compared to the players of yesteryear (many of whom, like Mike Schmidt, freely admit they'd use steroids if they were playing today) might be seen for the self-serving nonsense they are if writers and readers were more consciously aware of the historical bias among writers towards seeing themselves as the guardians of the game. They - we - aren't.

Excepting the occasional Sunday jaunt in Prospect Park with my cronies, I haven't played baseball since I was in grade school. Palmeiro has played over 2,800 major league games, and countless games in grade school, high school, college, the minors, spring training and the Olympics. Before he takes the field he - like all other ballplayers - goes through a pregame stretching routine

  • that would make a fair number of those reading this throw up.

Isn't it at least possible that I and my colleagues, while giving the man all the hell he deserves, should at least leave out the lines of attack that revolve around his love and respect for a game to which he's dedicated in a way

  • no one who doesn't play can really understand?"
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Ed. note: It's to Bud Selig's advantage that the media are overly involved. He sees them as his loyal army. In return they get to feel important and reap perks from Selig's prize locker. So nothing is likely to change.

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In 2006 I sent an email to Mr. O'Connell on the general topic of BBWAA awards:

"Ms. Mullen,
Jack O'Connell"
  • After being turned down by O'Connell, I noted on this blog:
I appreciate his prompt reply to my request, but I need this simple information. I've already asked the HOF & they said they have nothing to do with the Cy Young Award. For an award like this (AL Cy Young) where such a small number of selected voters determines an immortal and often financial outcome, it is important to know the bio and resume of voters, their voting history, and bio and resume of the person who appointed them. The public also needs to know disciplinary history of voters, ie which voters have been admonished or penalized (such as temporary suspension of voting rights) and all details involved. If you claim you are the 'conscience' or 'guardian' of the game, that's nice,
  • but who guards you (other than Bud Selig)?
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I asked then BBWAA president Peter Schmuck for the same information about the 2005 AL Cy Young voters. I posted his email response on this blog on July 24, 2006:

  • "That's not information I have at my fingertips, though it is not kept confidential. Those records are kept up in New York. Is there anything in particular I can answer for you? pete"
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It was interesting that Mr. Schmuck said the information was not kept confidential. O'Connell in effect said it was confidential, only available to BBWAA members.

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