Cup of Coffee Bonus: The Case Against Curt Schilling

Curt Schilling will likely be elected to the Hall of Fame in 2021. Here's why I would not vote for him.

Curt Schilling made a big leap in the Hall of Fame voting last year, and ended up being named on 70% of ballots cast. Since one needs 75% of the vote to be elected — and since there are no newcomers to the ballot worthy of election this year — it seems a pretty safe bet that Schilling will, in fact, be elected this time around.

I do not have a Hall of Fame vote. Like most baseball writers and baseball fans, however, I do weigh-in each year on who I would vote for if I did. Curt Schilling has been on the ballot for eight years before this one and, for most of them, I placed him on my imaginary ballot as well. I did so because, even though I consider him to be a vile human being, I believed that one should look solely at the on-the-field baseball merits of candidates and eschew looking at one’s character.

In recent years, however, I have changed my mind about Curt Schilling. Not because I have changed my view about the perils and futility of attempting to assess the character of ballplayers. To the contrary, I think that’s always a sucker’s bet. But, rather, because Schilling’s words and deeds have relieved us of the need to make such an assessment. His odiousness and unsuitability for baseball’s highest honor is plain. There is nothing of consequence left of his character to parse.

Given that Schilling’s candidacy is likely to take up most of the oxygen surrounding the Hall of Fame discourse over the next two months, I am writing this bonus edition of the newsletter as a means of publicly setting forth my position on Schilling and then, hopefully, forgetting that the man exists for the rest of my days.

Note: much of what follows is taken from various things I wrote at NBC in the past couple of years, but it’s not like I left my brain with HR when I left there, so I think it’s OK.

On baseball merits alone I think Schilling is a good enough pitcher to be in the Hall of Fame. He’s not some inner-circle all-time great like Pedro Martínez or Greg Maddux, but you don’t have to be inner-circle to be a Hall of Famer.

As I’ve noted many times in the past, while Schilling didn’t have the same hardware and narrative about him, he was about as valuable a pitcher, overall, as John Smoltz was, and Smoltz waltzed into Cooperstown. Like Hall of Famer Mike Mussina — and like a lot of other worthy Hall of Fame pitchers — he was (a) better than most of the guys of his era; and (b) his era was historically tough for pitchers. He was great at his best and above average most of the rest of the time, giving him a number of peak seasons, even if they were a tad scattered, with good overall career value. In light of all of that, in the past, I have said that if I had a Hall of Fame ballot I’d cast a vote for Schilling.

As noted above, however, I have changed my mind. Upon greater reflection — reflection in which I probably should’ve engaged years before I began to, but better late than never — I’d not vote for Schilling. But before I explain precisely why I have done that, I’d like to explain what I have not done.

I am not invoking the Hall of Fame ballot’s famous “character clause,” at least formally. As I’ve said when referring to any number of other Hall of Fame candidates, I tend not to put much if any stock in the character clause because of (a) how arbitrarily it can be and has been historically applied; combined with (b) how little, in reality, we actually know of most players’ true characters; and (c) how ill-positioned any of us are to judge such a thing. I don’t need a museum board of directors who serves at the pleasure of some old money and Rob Manfred of all people to tell me what to do with my conscience and I will refuse to do so out of any sort of obligation.

I am also, in saying I would not support Schilling for the Hall of Fame, not making this about politics, which is a thing people tend to say you’re doing when you say you wouldn’t vote for Schilling. The claim goes that Schilling detractors are liberals, he’s a conservative and that that’s why we dislike him and oppose his Hall of Fame candidacy. Such a charge is preposterous.

Most baseball players are pretty conservative. The clear majority in the modern game are, I imagine. I do not withhold my praise or admiration of any players because of what political party they support or their views on taxes, or abortion, or religion, or the proper role of the military, or government regulation or whatever else has been the subject of legitimate political discourse or controversy in this country over the years, nor would I withhold an awards or Hall of Fame vote if I had one.

I would not withhold a vote because a guy was a Trump supporter like Schilling is. Mariano Rivera is an extraordinarily open Trump supporter, wearing the MAGA hat and attending Trump rallies and all, and I would’ve voted for him ten times if someone gave me a ballot to do so. Indeed, I’d guess that Trump support among ballplayers runs markedly higher than in the population at large and even higher than it does among Republicans at large, and my appreciation of a ballplayer’s career has never hinged on that. In light of all of that, the argument that I am discounting Schilling’s career and withholding my imaginary Hall of Fame vote from him because of “politics” is utter baloney.

My problem with Schilling is not that he’s got bad politics as such. It’s that he has gone out of his way over the past several years to show himself to be a demonstrably awful human being who has used his considerable platform to propagate hatred.

Schilling has spread conspiracy theories that survivors of school massacres were paid crisis actors and has voiced his support of the so-called “QAnon theory” which holds that a cabal of “globalist elites” — transparent antisemitic code —  are engaged in an international child sex trafficking ring and wish to commit a coup d’état in America. Schilling has espoused transphobiaxenophobia,  islamophobia, antisemitism, racism, and has promoted the idea that violence against those with whom he disagrees — particularly the media — is at best a laughing matter and, arguably, is a good idea.

I don’t know what Schilling considers himself to be, politically speaking, but such views are objectively extremist and could properly be considered fascist. I have no idea if Schilling is “joking” when he espouses these views. I do not know if, in his heart of hearts, he believes them or if he believes other things and thinks that he’s actually a good and compassionate person. But we are not what we believe in our heart of hearts. We are what we do, and what he has done is to use his considerable celebrity to spread lies, conspiracy theories and hatred, the sort of which have gotten people killed in the past and will get more people killed in the future. He has not done this as some dumb, one-off comment in an interview nor has he done it ignorantly in a way that might lead one to believe he’s simply uninformed, easily swayed, or perhaps not well, mentally speaking. He is an intelligent man who has consciously pursued the agenda he has followed as a means of making himself a media star or, potentially, a political candidate. It’s odious. And it’s dangerous.

We may live in a time in which people claim that even the most extreme views are legitimate, but that’s a lie too. There is still right and wrong in the world and that which Curt Schilling has made the conscious decision to stand for is wrong. It is evil. He’s free to stand for it as we have the freedom in this country to be wrong, but it in no way obligates anyone to nod at him and to say his views are just as good as anyone else’s. It certainly does not obligate anyone to say that he is entitled to the highest honor in what once was his field but which he has abandoned because he’s more interested in spreading toxicity than anything else.

I know there are those among you who will counter this by saying that the Hall of Fame should only be about baseball and nothing else. I almost always agree with that. But in Curt Schilling’s case I am making an exception. One I should’ve made long ago but one I am happy to make now.

Yes, he was a fantastic ballplayer. Yes, there are a lot of bad guys in the Hall of Fame. Indeed, there are even some bad guys on this year’s ballot who I would support despite the bad things they have done because, as is the case with almost everyone, we don’t know and can’t know everything about them. And, of course, even the worst among us are capable of redemption should we earn it. Just as not all bad acts are publicly known the redemption of bad actors may not be a matter for the public either. Sports writers simply don’t know enough about the players we laud as heroes or scorn as villains to say anything conclusive about their character and we shouldn’t be in the business of doing it.

But Schilling is not a hard case. My general distaste for making judgements about the character of ballplayers in no way requires me to support the candidacy of a guy who openly and gleefully spreads the type of poison Curt Schilling spreads. The type of poison that takes this far afield from just political differences or mere character deficiencies and makes it a matter of supporting evil or not.

I choose not to support evil. Especially when it’s not even a close case. Especially when not making such a decision is to agree to bestow the highest imaginable honor on the person in question. If it were up to me, the only way Curt Schilling would enter the Hall of Fame is if he bought a ticket. And if that were up to me, I’d probably refuse him admittance then too.