Cup of Coffee: December 31, 2020

Leaving the Hall of Fame behind

Good morning! Welcome to the last day of this annus horribilis. Which happens to be Free Thursday, so it’s even better! If you’re not a subscriber, today’s a great day to become one:

Because I wrote something that’s bound to piss a lot of people off, it’s also a great day to share Cup of Coffee with someone else:

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The thing that might piss some people off is a somewhat radical proposition: you don’t have to care about the Hall of Fame. You don’t have to pay attention to it. Really, you can pretend it does not exist. Which is exactly what I will be doing going forward. That may bake some baseball fans’ noodles, but I kinda don’t care.

We also talk about when ballplayers might get the vaccine, take the Cubs brass at their word, ask ourselves if we want to buy Ben Zobrist’s fake Victorian house, consider a newly public “The Great Gatsby” and say goodbye to Dawn Wells.


The Daily Briefing

Leaving the Hall of Fame Behind

On Tuesday Phil Rogers of Forbes Magazine created a stir with his Hall of Fame ballot. Or, rather, with his defense of his Hall of Fame ballot, in which he attempted to argue that only on-the-field things concern him and off-the-field things don’t, thereby justifying his exclusion of PED users but his inclusion of Omar Vizquel, who has been credibly accused of domestic violence. In the event he came off sounding like he was minimizing domestic violence.

It’s the sort of thing that I’d be all over in the past. And, in the event, many people were all over it, including my erstwhile colleague Bill Baer. But, personally, I could not find the energy to care. No, not about Omar Vizquel committing domestic violence — I most certainly care about that. And no, not even about a BBWAA voter who doesn’t get what the hell he’s talking about. I’ll point out ballwriters’ ignorance and tone-deafness until I die. I consider it sport.

No, I find myself not caring about the Hall of Fame. And have decided, definitively, that I will not care about it any longer. At least about the part of it that is concerned with inductions and plaques and the determination of whether or not someone is a “Hall of Famer” and everything that goes with that status.

Thinking about it now and it seems clear t me that I’ve been heading in this direction for some time.

I’ve long defended the inclusion of candidates who took PEDs on various basis and I stand by what I’ve said and written about all of that, but it occurs to me that each line one draws with respect to what is and what is not disqualifying for a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy eventually conflicts with or even obliterates others. Which sort of cheating is OK and which isn’t. Which specific off-the-field misconduct and misbehavior is disqualifying and which isn’t. The constant need to reconcile one’s consideration of one player vs. their treatment of another in the name of intellectual consistency. The drawing of all of these lines by people with disparate views and values is what fuels the Hall of Fame debates each year.

But drawing all of those lines is an exercise in the tail wagging the dog, is it not? It’s about making ethical and moral judgments not with one’s ethics or one’s morals as one’s lodestar, but with the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a given player’s inclusion in some club run by a couple of private businesses being that which drives the analysis. Why am I — and why should anyone — care about membership in that club?

The answer usually given is “it’s baseball, and induction to the Hall of Fame is baseball’s top honor!” Well, so what? I didn’t decide that. Neither did you. The Hall of Fame exists because a trust funder philanthropist thought it’d be good for tourism in his small, remote town. His heirs have maintained control of it for, more or less, the same reasons. Major League Baseball has supported it because it suits Major League Baseball’s interests to do so. Sure, the Hall of Fame has a pretty great museum as part of it, but functionally it’s no different than Leila’s Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri or the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin. It’s not some essential and organic part of society. Or, for that matter, an essential or organic part of baseball, which functioned quite well for nearly a century without a Hall of Fame. If it were to disappear tomorrow, everything I love about baseball would still exist, almost completely unchanged.

The Hall of Fame’s origins and essence would not concern me all that much if I felt like the process of being inducted into it served interests that were necessary or which I truly cared about, but as time has gone on, I’ve come to the realization that, no, it doesn’t. Not at all.

I certainly don’t need the Hall of Fame to validate a given baseball player’s greatness. I watch baseball. I read a lot about it. I know that Greg Maddux was really good. I know that he was better than Mark Buehrle or Dave Tobik. I know that Barry Bonds was really good. I know that he was better than Bobby Abreu or Buddy Biancalana. I can talk about that in about 100 ways, be it quantitatively, qualitatively, or in a manner than is rotten with nostalgia, and come out in mostly satisfying places without the aid of 75% of the BBWAA’s electorate telling me whether or not my feelings are somehow valid. I can likewise appreciate players who were merely good without my appreciation of them being somehow tainted by their not having been elected. Indeed, I can probably do that better without reference to the Hall of Fame, because the broad Hall of Fame discussion has the unfortunate byproduct of us unfairly discounting — often even erasing — the guys who don’t quite make it.

I sure as hell don’t need the Hall of Fame to inform my views on a player’s character or value as a human being. Indeed, the Hall of Fame is actually quite horrible at that. A players’ personal worth was almost uniformly ignored by the Hall of Fame and its voters until about 15 years ago, at which point the morals or ethics of some — and only some — became an outsized and distorted factor in the process. Only now, much belatedly, are some of the people involved with that beginning to appreciate that there are worse things a player can do than take some drugs. But only some of the people are appreciating that. And, as Phil Rogers’ example shows, that assessment is not often handled particularly deftly by a demographic as overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly older, as overwhelmingly white, and thus as overwhelmingly culturally blinkered as ten-year-veterans of the Baseball Writers Association of America tend to be.

So: if one does not need the Hall of Fame to assess baseball greatness, and if the Hall of Fame is hopelessly ill-equipped to assess the character of players, why should anyone care about an institution that not only tries to do both of those things, but tries to mash them together into a single assessment?! I mean, that’s downright preposterous, isn’t it? To weigh a guy’s athletic prowess against his moral or ethical failings and to ask whether the former makes up for the latter? Or to pretend that that’s not what they’re actually doing? Because make no mistake, the entire Hall of Fame process is an exercise in which baseball prowess and virtue are conflated in ways that do grave disservice to both baseball and virtue.

I’ve tied myself up in knots trying to rationalize all of that over the years, but I can’t anymore. And I won’t. I will no longer act as if a baseball player’s athletic accomplishments are legitimate and praiseworthy if and only if they succeed in some contrived election. I will, likewise, no longer engage with a process which often validates the idea that one’s athletic accomplishments make up for one’s poor moral standing or acts as if one’s poor moral standing makes them, somehow, less accomplished athletes. And I will in no way pretend that the most commonly counseled way in which to rationalize those conflicts — to simply ignore a player’s poor moral standing and pretend that the only relevant thing about him is what he did on the field — is anything close to a satisfying way to deal with that dilemma.

Here’s the thing, though: if you take the contrivance that is the Hall of Fame out of the equation, you realize that there is no dilemma. You realize that you can say unequivocally true things about baseball players without a “but” and without some need to reconcile or distinguish one’s analysis of other players or your views about their athletic exploits.

For instance:

  • One can say that Curt Schilling was a great pitcher but he’s a piece of shit of a human being;

  • One can acknowledge that Barry Bonds was a great hitter but an abuser whose first wife testified under oath that he locked her out of their home in the middle of the night while she was naked and that he kicked her to the ground and knocked her unconscious while she was eight months pregnant;

  • One can accept that there is no “debate” to be had about Pete Rose. He was a fantastic baseball player. He was corrupt in ways that compromise baseball in the worst way baseball can be compromised. If you remove the Hall of Fame from that equation, there is no tension to be found between those assertions.

  • One can note that Omar Vizquel played good defense, couldn’t hit very well, and has been credibly accused of physical and mental abuse of his wife;

  • One can agree that Roger Clemens has an argument for being the greatest pitcher of all time but, at the very least, carried on a long and emotionally manipulative affair with the singer Mindy McCready, who he met when she was only 15, and which, depending on when their relationship became sexual, would not properly be called “an affair” but, instead, would accurately be called “rape;” and

  • If, say, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, and Miguel Cabrera are one day found to have jointly run an illicit manatee meat/blood diamond smuggling ring, you can still talk about their baseball playing primes with awe.

You can, of course, add in whatever you want to say about their PED use or anything else too. When doing so, you’ll only be stating your facts and your views, not trying to square it with some external bogey like “Hall of Fame worthiness” or with how some other player about whom we know less was treated in the court of public opinion. The discussion of the player’s athletic exploits — or their personal failings — will not be aimed at something. It won’t carry with it quasi-political weight. Like, say, if you really and truly think Barry Bonds is the greatest hitter ever and that his PED use doesn’t significantly sully that, you won’t have the nagging feeling that you’re soft-peddling his spousal abuse because, hey, you really want to see him make it into the Hall of Fame.

I won’t tell you what to do along these lines. I realize that The Hall of Fame is a Big Deal to people. That, for most people, it’s the ultimate baseball honor and ultimate baseball institution. That talking about baseball greatness without reference to the Hall of Fame is, for most people, unthinkable. That thinking about baseball itself without a Hall of Fame is, for most people, unthinkable.

I’m just saying that I don’t care anymore. The Hall of Fame’s existence obscures more than it illuminates and limits rather than expands the bounds of baseball discussion and understanding. That’s precisely the opposite of what a good museum should be doing.

I’ll note, as a news item, what happens with respect to the Hall of Fame when events warrant. I will no longer, however, give it much if any credence as an arbiter of baseball history and will not give it any power to shape my conception of baseball history going forward.

MLB says it’ll get vaccines when it’s “deemed appropriate.”

In a statement to The Athletic, Major League Baseball said that COVID-19 vaccinations “will only be made available to players when public health officials deem it appropriate.” Which, given that public health officials are bungling the vaccine rollout so thoroughly that some of the vaccine inventory is going to literally expire on the shelves before it can be distributed, references to their determination of what’s “appropriate” don’t necessarily fill me with confidence.

It would likely lead to outrage if healthy young athletes were to somehow get the vaccine ahead of other people in line, but if we’ve learned anything in the past year we’ve learned that public outrage is pretty irrelevant to those in power. As such, consider me to still be firmly in the “I’ll bet my children that ballplayers get the vaccine before a lot of people who need it more than them will” camp, with sizable side bets on “athletes can set a good example” or “the economy/national mood needs sports back” being the stated justification.

Jed Hoyer says report that Cubs are shopping Willson Contreras are “fictional”

On Tuesday Bob Nightengale reported that the Cubs are talking to other clubs about a trade for catcher Willson Contreras. Yesterday, during his press conference to explain the Yu Darvish trade — which was just a bunch of businesspeak interrupted by the word “future” a lot — he shot down the Contreras rumor, calling Nightengale’s report “fictional.”

Maybe it’s just semantics, in which it’s “fictional” that the Cubs are calling other teams offering to trade Contreras but, hey, they’ll take calls. Or maybe Bob Nightengale is on peyote and is making stuff up. I really don’t know which one is a better guess. I can see it either way, frankly.

In other news, my old friend Drew Silva reminded us yesterday that the Ricketts’ very ownership of the Cubs is premised on the notion that they can still make money on the team even if they lose. And that’s not just outsider cynicism. That’s straight from the mouth of family patriarch Joe Ricketts himself:

Wanna buy Ben Zobrist’s house?

Ben Zobrist retired from baseball after the 2019 season. He and his wife also filed cross-petitions for divorce that year. Those are both reasons to not need a big ass house in Chicago anymore, so Zobrist and his soon-to-be ex-wife are selling their fat pad on the north side.

They bought it for $1.84 million in 2016. It’s listed for $2.1 million. It was a new-build at the time, but it’s one of those new-builds in an older neighborhood that, at least from the outside, attempts to blend in in an older, Victorian style. Inside, though, it’s a McMansion-esque 4,800-square-foot, six-bedroom thing that I cannot imagine living in. Hell, even when I go on Zillow and fantasize about the sorts of exotic real estate I would buy if I won the lottery I set the limit at like 2,500 square feet. For real. Much more space than that would kinda creep me out and cause me to lose my gravity.

But hey, lots of people with money seem to like very large houses, and who’s to say that people with lots of money are wrong about anything?


Other Stuff

“The Great Gatsby’s” copyright borne back ceaselessly into the past

On Friday F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby will enter the public domain. Finally. Under the old copyright laws it would’ve done so years ago, but extensions to U.S. copyright laws in the 70s and again in the 90s — mostly aimed at protecting big corporate media who, contrary to expectations a century ago, still wring massive profits out of nearly 100-year-old IP — pushed the date off.

Because I’m a wholly unremarkable white dude who studied literature in college and likes to pretend he’s more worldly than he actually is, I’ve cited “Gatsby” as my favorite novel, or at least one of them, fairly often. I suppose I could be more on-the-nose and cite “To Kill a Mockingbird” or something, but with “Gatsby” I’m squarely within the literary normcore, so it probably doesn’t matter. Which, hey, just being honest. I like the damn book, OK?

The consequences of “Gatsby” entering the public domain are likely to be amusing. Now that anyone can put it out for free — and, due to its popularity and perpetual placement on student reading lists, whoever does is likely to sell a crap-ton of copies — you’re likely to see a bunch of handsome and/or tacky versions of it on Barnes and Noble shelves. If you own stock in any companies that license art deco fonts or cocktail/spats-related clipart to the publishing industry hold that damn stock, man, because that’s where all the money is gonna go for the new editions.

Less flashy but possibly more tacky will be the countless derivative works authors can now pursue given that the text and the characters and everything else is fair game. You’ve heard of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?” Just wait until you get the inevitable vampire story set in East Egg. Even more scary: some guy is about to release a prequel to “Gatsby” focusing solely on Nick Carraway for some reason. There could be worse things, but I imagine we’ll be simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of what gets churned out for a quick buck.

For now I’ll reserve judgements as a matter of infinite hope and state that, in the long run, this will all be good. Over time someone thoughtful may very well come up with a derivative work of “Gatsby” of actual value, like Jean Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea,” which was a feminist/anti-colonial response to “Jane Eyre.” Maybe something dealing with Jordan or Daisy or Myrtle Wilson. I’m just guessing. I have no idea. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man — or a woman — will store up in their ghostly heart, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Even if that never happens, however, having great creative works in the public domain is important because copyright-protected stuff tends to disappear over time in ways that publicly available material does not. Maybe that’s not quite the concern for “Gatsby” that it might be for some lesser-known novel that is not popular enough to keep in print but the copyright of which is still protected by some heir, but the principle counts.

RIP Dawn Wells

Dawn Wells — who played Mary Ann on “Gilligan’s Island” but, for our purposes it must be noted appeared uncredited in a “Columbo” episode in 1993 — died yesterday morning due to complications of Covid-19. She was 82.

Almost no mention of her or her best-known character can be made without someone weighing in on whether they preferred her to Tina Louise’s Ginger. That’s a fun game to play, but at the moment I really don’t feel like playing it. All I can really focus on is how this is reason number 340-some thousand why we should be ashamed at what dismal and willing failure our nation’s pandemic response has been.

Just one more thing . . .

Do you know Lieutenant Columbo’s first name? If you think you know it because of some Trivia Pursuit clue, think again.

That’s all I got for 2020. Barring any major baseball news or uncontrollable impulse to write something non-baseball-related, I won’t be putting out a newsletter tomorrow morning. No, not because I plan to party tonight and will need to sleep in tomorrow. You know me better than that. I’ll probably be in bed at 10:30 tonight and up at 5am tomorrow. I’m just taking the day off.

We’ll start talking about 2021 on Monday. Things won’t magically be better because the odometer flipped — like the Hall of Fame, calendar years are artificial constructs — but we can hope that things will, by coincidence, get better all the same.

If you’re just visiting today, I hope you’ll consider joining us on a daily basis:

Have a happy new year, everyone!