Baseball Writers Navigate Muddled Ethics

Host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Mike Pesca about baseball's Hall of Fame shutout. This year, the Baseball Writers' Association of America did not select a player for the game's highest honor.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin, and it's time for sports.

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MARTIN: Last week, the folks who decide who gets into the Baseball Hall of Fame decided to elect no one, or at least no one still living. The fact that no living player got enough votes to make it into Cooperstown was viewed as a statement by the baseball writers who cast their ballots. After an era of alleged steroid use in the sport, sportswriter and many fans, for that matter, are pretty darn mad. NPR's Mike Pesca spent last week combing through what those writers' columns said.

He is with us now to talk about it. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hello. Yes. I was combing. And if you listen to the music, I hired a new trombonist. I think he's working out.

MARTIN: He is pretty good. Let's keep him around. So what did you find? What have these folks been writing? I imagine they're defending themselves?

PESCA: Yeah. Well, they're writers, you know, so at least you get a new column out of it, right? I like it. I like it in the same way that I like really parsing anyone's decision-making. Even years after a Supreme Court justice retires or dies, sometimes they publish how he came to those decisions. So we get it in the case of the baseball writers with something, you know, just as important as Supreme Court decisions.

And if you go and look, there are 569 votes. Not everyone who votes writes a column about why they vote. But the ones that did often provided some insight. So there's one school of thought that just said, I'm not here to arbitrate morality, even though there is a character clause you're supposed to consider when voting for the Hall of Fame, but I think that's all right.

A guy like Marcos Breton who writes the Bee papers, Modesto and Sacramento in California, just said I want to be logically consistent. I want to note that Bagwell, Bonds, Clemens, Piazza, these guys were the best players in the game and I'm voting for them. And Ty Cobb was a racist and a bunch of horrible people are in the Hall of Fame and it's not for me to decide based on who I think is a good person or who isn't.

Now, that's kind of - once you take that stand and explain it logically, it's a little bit easier to defend. There's a clear line there. Then you have the people who were the parsers, a guy like Tom Verducci who writes for Sports Illustrated. A lot of people were thinking as he was. And he wrote a column called "Why I'll Never Vote for a Known Steroids User for the Hall of Fame."

MARTIN: It's clear.

PESCA: Guess what he explained, now, yes, (unintelligible). But still, you have to say, well, this guy is a suspected user, but not a known user and it becomes a little harder, but it can understand - and Verducci lays out how he made his decisions on individual players. So these two represent the very well thought out reasoning, but then you had a lot of voters, there's a guy named Phil Hersh, who doesn't even cover baseball anymore - he covered the Olympics - and a couple weeks ago, he tweeted about the joy he was going to have in snubbing the drugees.

And then there's Murray Chass, who's, again, a retired writer, who, in writing about one of these players, Jeff Bagwell - never been proved - this is what he wrote: When Bagwell was eligible initially a couple years ago, I voted for him. Since then, I was told he was a steroids guy. Trusting in the information, I haven't voted for him since.

The other side of that coin is Boston Globe writer Peter Abraham, who wrote: Excluding players like Bagwell and Piazza because you kind of sort of think they probably did steroids is McCarthy-ism.

MARTIN: Wow.

PESCA: Big range of information.

MARTIN: I mean, but it's hard for these guys, right? And women. But they're kind of flying solo when it comes to navigating the ethics of this because it's subjective, no?

PESCA: Do you know, you would think - and they are. Most of their columns were about how hard it is, but there was a vote, and Rick Telander, the writer, three or four years ago, said let's have a committee. Let's discuss how we're going to do this. Let's maybe consult with a steroids expert or an ethicist and other members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America voted that proposal down. So perhaps they maybe could have helped themselves a little more a few years ago.

MARTIN: Embrace any chance that Clemens and Boswell may get in in the future?

PESCA: There is and there's a great chance that Piazza and Bagwell will because they got over 50 percent of the vote. You need 75 to get in. And everyone who's ever gotten 50 percent on their first ballot gets in, but also with Bonds and Clemens, values change, mores change, information comes to light. We used to not be able to vote for someone for president or confirm someone to the Supreme Court who smoked marijuana. That's changed.

And it's not just that society's become permissive across the board. Look how attitudes towards racism have changed. So things change and values change.

MARTIN: You got a curve ball this week?

PESCA: I do, in fact. Last night, the Broncos lost in overtime to the Ravens, and a lot of their decisions will be picked over, such as not covering a receiver on a 70-yard touchdown pass at the end of regulation. But one of the things they did, was Peyton Manning, their quarterback, took a knee, didn't attempt to come back with 30 seconds left from his own 20.

I went - I looked at the last 10 years - every time quarterback was in a similar situation - and I found that no one with that kind of time was told to take a knee. I found that in 2009, Peyton Manning, with 24 seconds left on his own 19, went for it, tried something. It didn't work. I found that Brett Favre, in 2004, with 45 seconds left, drove his team into field goal range.

So that decision, not to let Peyton Manning try to matriculate the ball down the field, that should be called into question, too, I believe.

MARTIN: NPR's Mike Pesca doing the work, so we don't have to. Thank you, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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