As of this morning, Ryan Thibodaux’s invaluable Hall of Fame election tracker has the results of 44 ballots up, representing about a tenth the total number of ballots expected to be cast by veteran baseball writers this year. It’s a skewed and self-selecting sample—writers who make their ballot public and do so early tend as a group to have opinions closer to those of the average Deadspin reader than those of the average Hall voter—but one thing is very clear: Curt Schilling won’t be voted into Cooperstown this year, and probably never will be.
Just yesterday, Wally Matthews published a column about how Schilling’s candidacy has inspired him to stop voting altogether. Previously, as SI’s Jay Jaffe has pointed out, writers ranging from Susan Slusser to Jon Heyman to Jose de Jesus Ortiz to Dan Shaughnessy have, citing a stupid tweet in which Schilling applauded the idea of lynching journalists, proclaimed they won’t be voting for him. (“I shall invoke the ‘character’ clause this year,” wrote the CHB. “Schill has transitioned from a mere nuisance to an actual menace to society.”) They’re hardly outliers: Thibodaux already counts eight writers—from among just 44!—who have changed their vote on Schilling from yes to no. With only five years remaining on the ballot, it’s going to be nearly impossible for Schilling to overcome this kind of broad and deeply-rooted hostility.
If this isn’t as ridiculous as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens having not yet been voted in because of real or supposed ties to doping, it’s pretty close. Schilling is everything his critics say he is, a buffoon on his best day who by going out of his way to demean everyone from trans people to Muslims has fallen, in just over a year, from respected if obnoxious ESPN announcer to rat scuttling in the Breitbart sewer. He’s also one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived, which is, it should be remembered, the matter under consideration here.
One of the strange things about Schilling’s candidacy is that it’s not clear voters realize just how good he was, probably in part because he finished his career with just 216 wins and never won a Cy Young Award. The top line on his résumé, of course, is his postseason record: He went 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA, which doesn’t begin to describe what he actually did. In 2001, as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, when asked about the New York Yankees’ supposed mystique and aura, he said, “Those are dancers in a nightclub” and won the World Series MVP award as his team ended a Yankee dynasty. Three years later, with the Boston Red Sox, he held off the Yankees in Game 6 of the ALCS with blood seeping out of an open wound in one of the most famous games ever played, as the Red Sox mounted one of the greatest comebacks ever seen. He wasn’t a guy with a vague reputation as a big-game pitcher; he was the central actor in some of the most indelible moments in modern baseball history, an almost mythic figure. There’s no way to tell the story of the game in his time without him.
Past that, he was simply a dominating pitcher, year in and year out, for the vast majority of a 20-year career. The numbers speak for themselves: He’s third in career strikeout-to-walk ratio, 15th in career strikeouts, and 26th in career pitching WAR, essentially tied with Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton. He’s not any kind of marginal case, and by rights should have been elected in his first year of eligibility.
Against this, voters are setting his behavior since his playing career ended and especially lately, which has entailed everything from taking to the airwaves to defend his right to find young girls attractive to sharing the dumbest possible memes on Facebook to saying genuinely dehumanizing things about some of the most vulnerable members of society exhaustingly and depressingly often. He’s threatened to run for Senate, he’s been involved in the collapse of a video game company that cost Rhode Island taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, he’s displayed his curious collection of Nazi memorabilia to the world, and in all he’s become an embarrassment and a joke. This is what voters like Dan Shaughnessy are talking about when they invoke the character clause; they’re saying that Schilling has failed to meet the high moral standards of the Baseball Hall of Fame and its guardians, veteran baseball writers.
There isn’t any doubt that Schilling is a man of poor character, or at least incredibly poor judgment, and he certainly won’t find many friends on the Deadspin staff, but it’s unclear what any of this has to do with the Hall of Fame. The notorious character clause is found in the actual criteria for voting, which read, in their entirety, as follows:
Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.
While this can be interpreted any number of ways, historically it’s generally been held to deal with character as it affected a player’s team on the field, and used as part of a broader balancing test. There are any number of racists, abusers, dopers, cheaters, con artists, collusion masterminds, and general assholes in the Hall of Fame; in some cases that’s because they weren’t really judged to have bad character by the standards of their time, and in some cases that’s because what they did on the field was judged to have outweighed what they did off of it. Where it’s affected a Hall of Fame candidacy, it’s tended—recent, doping-related exceptions aside—to affect marginal candidates whose purported bad character actually impacted their team. Dick Allen, for example, was a staggeringly great hitter for a decade, and beloved by many of his teammates; he also got into fights with teammates, and failed to show up for games, and randomly retired, and in all got into so many controversies, some justified and some not, that they have to be weighed in any judgment of how he helped and hurt his teams.
During his career Schilling could be a blowhard, but there was never any question of whether or not he was helping his team; he was in fact the starting pitcher of his generation who could most be relied on to come through when it counted. So invoking the character clause is simply a way of saying that he has terrible opinions, to which the only response is, So what?
As the veteran writers who compose the Hall of Fame electorate know better than anyone, baseball is not a sport filled with players who hold opinions right-thinking people would want anything to do with. Your typical clubhouse is filled with funny, thoughtful people who are excellent at doing extremely specialized and impressive things with baseballs; it’s also filled with rednecks, spoiled rich kids, self-obsessed assholes, degenerates, drunks, and Bible-thumpers who have opinions that very few people who read the New York Times could agree to disagree on. John Smoltz—as a pitcher essentially a lesser Curt Schilling and, incidentally, rightly regarded as an uncommonly insightful and intelligent analyst, good enough to call the World Series—was elected to the Hall on the first ballot two years ago. He also compared gay marriage to bestiality not long ago. Baseball is tolerant of its contradictions, and in all better for it.
Curt Schilling has repeatedly crossed every line he can cross; it’s perfectly fair that he works for Breitbart and not ESPN; he richly deserves the scorn he generally enjoys; and if there were any player whose opinions were so bad that they should be read back onto his playing career, it would probably be him. For writers to do so, though—to mark a line that says that playing excellence is only worthy of recognition when the player spends his retirement meeting the arbitrary and arbitrarily-enforced standards of sportswriters—is essentially to say that baseball itself is about something other than baseball, which doesn’t follow. Any number of pitchers of Curt Schilling’s generation were less horrible than he is; you can count the number better than him on a hand, and there wasn’t one of them you’d rather have had going for your team if the game meant anything at all. If such a player doesn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, who does?