Three things about baseball and sanctimony

Via Wikimedia Commons

All the baseball writers are very disappointed. All the baseball fans are mostly interested in something else.

1. Some Indignation is More Righteous Than Others.

The ideal, of course, is to experience and express no emotions at all, to be not just like the flinty fence-mending ranch dude in the truck commercial, but actually to be the truck itself. Action is where the valor lies, and to the extent that thoughts have any influence on action, those thoughts should be as simple as possible. "Is this The Right Thing To Do?" or, to the extent that this is not just a rephrasing of the previous thought, "What would an imaginary cowboy do in this situation?"

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To have a thought-shaped opinion on circumstances is inherently and immediately to overcomplicate and confuse things, and so in that way counterproductive, self-defeating. You have a fence to mend or a photogenic misplaced livestock item to locate or some opaque hauling-related construction task, so you do it. You have a vote for the Hall of Fame, and you use it. That means just and only what it means. Cast the vote as a truck would. Rest when the task is over, under un-ceilinged western skies. There is nothing to feel about it. The job is merely to be done.

But the people who vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame are of course not trucks, and not nearly as truck-like as they in some cases clearly aspire to be. Some of them think a great deal about which candidates should receive their votes and why -- look, for instance, at the work Jay Jaffe did at Sports Illustrated, or just know that a decent number of veteran voters doubtless read those columns closely -- and others will cast their votes or mail in righteously blank ballots in direct contrary response to those thinkers.

This is not a terribly democratic way of doing things, honestly: there are votes, sure, but they are given to a small and demographically narrow group of elites, who have in turn set some meaningless and arbitrary limits (why only 10 names per ballot?) and created a process defined by an opaque and contradictory set of righteousnesses. There's an irony in the fact that the voting elites are baseball writers. These are the same people whose stories have suffered for the lame just-gotta-stay-focused quotes proffered, with backhandedly hostile mildness, by the very players on their ballots. Those players were adhering to the same locker room omerta and performing the same willful anti-insight that the writers act out in their annual vote.

And the writers who presumably so dislike the dim, grumpy humorlessness of the players just absolutely leave it in the dust when it's their turn to play at it. These voters' day jobs demand from them a certain amount of insight or perspective -- not a lot, lord knows, but at least some feints in that direction and noises to that effect. The Hall of Fame vote is their time to be trucks. They drive over various abstractions and ambiguities and barely even notice it; they take on a heavy load of significance and then power through steep switchbacks on poorly signed roads, just drive on without expression. They go vroom-vroom.

2. Strong Men Get Disappointed.

"There's nothing more democratic than the voting process for the Hall of Fame," Tony Kornheiser sputters on ESPN's Pardon The Interruption. "One man one vote! One man one vote!" Although of course the poll tax here is that voters must be members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. In some extreme cases these voters must even be Murray Chass, which is to say a defective Philip Roth protagonist who spends his grim and scowling days muttering darkly about Mike Piazza's telltale backne and the awful lazy treachery of Today's Bloggers.

So not really that democratic, actually, but anyway it's a thing that exists and has for some time, and therefore is sacred and worth protecting. And then some voter turns around and sells his franchise -- well, gives the vote way for free for some reasons he clearly, like, thought about -- to the readers of a website? It's just so ... disappointing.

"It's so sanctimonious for Le Batard to offer up this gar-bodge," Wilbon fumed in response to Kornheiser's point that Le Batard's decision to let some members of the general public pick the names on his ballot was "vote fraud." Both Kornheiser and Wilbon, their bald pates abstracted and rendered matte and rubbery by stage makeup, agreed that this was the purest egotism on Le Batard's part. He can talk about his reasons all he likes, lay them out clearly in punchy columnist prose right there on Deadspin, but the real reason is clear: he did it because he wanted to be noticed. Also because the other BBWAA member to give Deadspin his vote backed out, but mostly Le Batard did it out of wild, look-at-me vanity. The guy wanted to be a hero.

Despite the fact that Le Batard's explanation is almost conspicuously un-sanctimonious, the word "sanctimony" pops up again and again in the responses to his decision from BBWAA members jostling to find some room to the right of Andrew Sharp's parody. It's not that they're angry at Le Batard, he's not worth that. It's just that they think what he did was tacky and vain and unbecoming. You know what it was? It was sad, tawdry. Ordinarily it takes a Frank Luntz talking points memo to get this many older white men to shake their heads at the same time and strike the same trollishly solemn tone, but this may just be the real thing -- a reflex that all these men share, and are acting upon in independent unison.

Last month, Tom Scocca wrote a widely debated essay for Gawker on just this impulse towards inauthentic superiority, which he called Smarm; he contrasted it to the more recuperative/guerrilla critical mode of Snark. It's interesting and artfully written, but in some ways muddies what was actually a clearer thing before he spent all those words on it. This is not a new thing, and maybe doesn't even need a name. Pretending to withdraw from an uncomfortable debate in disappointment -- my hope had been to have a debate on the issues, but clearly my opponent would prefer to focus on ad hominem attacks -- is the move of someone who has been defeated on the merits, but has not absorbed even a bruise on his superciliousness. A good example of this would be: "The BBWAA regards Hall of Fame voting as the ultimate privilege, and any abuse of that privilege is unacceptable."

3. Not All Problems Are Problems.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is a small part of a much larger and cooler museum dedicated to baseball history. Walk through the museum and you'll see artifacts spanning a century and more, see pictures and videos of moments in baseball history that inspire some surge in feeling, at least among those who care about the sport, even wrenched out of their original context. The Hall of Fame itself is a smaller space lined with nearly identical-looking bronze plaques with various players' images on them, and little bits of text beneath covering their various accomplishments. It is, in size and in terms of what it says to baseball fans relative to the museum next door, basically a gaudy broom closet that happens to have the grumpiest staff of bouncers imaginable.

The voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame has long been silly and stuffy and self-parodic: the refusal to induct anyone unanimously, the glibly punitive approach that lets some players get in on the first ballot and makes others wait a year or two or 10 years because of various hazy and inexplicit reasons. If the debate about all of this is louder now than it has been, it's both because there are more ways for people to make noise, and because the bouncers have gotten defensive and weirdly peevish and punitive and overzealous without really getting any more rigorous or insightful.

These men want to be trucks, but they are still men. They seem upset about all the fans still so steadily streaming past them, ignoring all that awesome revving and roaring so that they can get to the baseball stuff -- the good stuff -- that brought them up to Cooperstown in the first place.

More from SB Nation MLB:

Pedro, Big Unit, Nomar and Smoltz headline 2015 Hall of Fame ballot

Maddux, Glavine and Big Hurt named HOF class of 2014 | Biggio 2 votes short

Normandin: Why the Hall of Fame doesn't matter anymore

Goldman: Time for BBWAA voters to stop faking it

Death of a Ballplayer: Wrongly convicted prospect spends 27 years in prison

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