Reporting Dan Bernstein
By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) There’s fatigue, and then there’s whatever it is that’s past that, where it’s all just gray and endless, stretching out forever and meaning nothing.
I’m there, when it comes to baseball’s Hall of Fame. Something broke and disconnected, and that’s it.
That can happen when one struggles to reconcile heart and head, spending years convinced of being on the right side of a discussion for all the right reasons, only to recognize there is no such place. When there is no comfortable position on which to stand, it’s best to walk away.
Were I more self-perceptive, I would have known this point would come, after the early debates about steroid-era players included a push to purge the game’s history of known cheats, even correctly-suspected ones in some cases. Asterisks by numbers and entirely separate lists of career achievements were suggested, as was the frighteningly Orwellian idea of erasing some players and accomplishments from record and, presumably, memory.
No, I argued.
It’s not our job to decide what did or did not actually happen, just to understand and explain why and how it did. We look at other periods of statistical change in baseball with full awareness, be it the dead-ball era, World War II, pre-integration, the pitching-dominant late 1960s, or the post-Eckersley ascendance of the single-inning closer.
All we have to do is know. It’s up to us to explain to our children anything and everything we may feel about who is worthy of praise or scorn, our job to provide context and meaning. Not to make things un-happen for arbitrary reasons, even if well intentioned.
I had always stopped short of applying that line of thought to the Hall, however, believing that enshrinement was somehow sacrosanct – the last moment of judgment against those we believed ruined the game’s balance or obliterated cherished statistical standards.
This is when I could not be happier that I do not have a ballot, because the same logic that supports preserving the record books applies to “honoring” individual careers, I now have come to understand. One cannot hold both thoughts.
And that’s what this comes down to, the sickening dissonance of staring at the box next to the name Bonds, Clemens or Sosa, knowing I could not bring myself to put a checkmark in it, while knowing that it would likely be intellectually dishonest not to.
* * *
A significant misperception regarding baseball’s statistical revolution is that the use of mathematics, algorithms and formulas has mechanized the discussion and the game, creating a cold, bloodless environment of binary truths and robotic profiles while removing the humanity. This is a lazy, pernicious myth, perpetuated by fear.
As someone who has embraced the enlightenment, I must say that I have never been much for arithmetic. Never have I taken any enjoyment from it at any level of schooling, nor do I claim to have any real skill at it. It has always been work for someone far more comfortable navigating one’s way through the nebulous, glorious wilderness of words.
Truly, the real breakthrough in baseball analysis in the recent years has been not the numbers themselves, but the intelligence that has arrived alongside.
There is a rising tide of brainpower that shows no signs of abating, and that can only be a good thing. No other sport in the world is seeing such an influx of education both to the franchises themselves — with MBAs, law degrees and Ivy League resumes as valued in MLB front offices as they are in any industry — and to the democratized ranks of writers and critics with boundless Internet space to compose and create.
Baseball talk is increasingly the province of A-students, and it’s not confined to silly slide-rule stereotype.
There is real scholarly rigor applied now, and arguments are clearer, stronger, tighter, and more convincingly and immediately supported with hard evidence. There is better, more important writing to be found by better, more important writers than too many of those who have spent decades in press boxes, half-watching games and regurgitating folklore.
If you avail yourself of such modernity, you understand how the Hall of Fame conversation has changed.
Very smart people have successfully persuaded me to be open minded about how we view what it means to make the Hall. Reaching back to Bill James’s 1994 book “The Politics of Glory” and building from there, writers like Joe Sheehan, John Perrotto of Baseball Prospectus and others have worked hard to strip away legend and narrative, distilling the work to determining fairly the best players.
I understand more the statistical impact of rampant amphetamine use that began well before I was born, and how those drugs powered so many careers. I understand, too, that it is all but certain that a user of steroids or HGH has already given an acceptance speech in Cooperstown. I am now more uncomfortable than ever assuming that any one of my suspected “clean” players, one of the “good guys,” is indeed that. I had been more comfortable as a moral arbiter at the gates, but am far less so now after being confronted with well-reasoned cases.
Those disdainful and frightened of modern baseball analysis frequently claim that the game they once loved is somehow being ruined by the revolution that has catapulted smart people to positions of power and influence. Insecure fans (and some managers, coaches, scouts and broadcasters) feel something is being taken from them, when that’s just not at all true. The sunlight has caused baseball to sparkle and gleam in all kinds of new ways, if one only cares to see.
It will take time for me to see that glow on the Hall of Fame, however.
I guess it would be fair to say that some of the analysis has destroyed the Hall for me, at least temporarily. It’s not necessarily a fun process, this realization that my long-held beliefs are logically unsustainable, poring through extensive essays that conclude with me aware that I’m probably wrong and someone better educated than I am about the subject is right. It has all left me mentally weary and more than a little disappointed.
Time will pass during which I can reconcile some of these feelings, hopeful that I can eventually appreciate the pantheon that probably has to include people I loathe.
For now, though, I cannot feel at all invested in either the institution or the discussion. Indeed, nothing can be erased.
Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.
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