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Bud Selig’s election to the Hall of Fame is a disgrace

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OXON HILL, MD — As Bill reported last night, Former commissioner Bud Selig and Braves executive Jon Schuerholz were elected to the Hall of Fame by the Today’s Game committee, formerly the Veterans Committee.

As I wrote in my breakdowns of their candidacies last week, Schuerholz is clearly deserving as he is on of the top executives of the past half century and his success speaks for itself. As I also wrote last week, Bud Selig is arguably the greatest commissioner in the history of the game. I also wrote that, for several reasons, I do not think he belongs in the Hall of Fame, though it was clear he would elected anyway. The results of the voting are not at all surprising.

But that does not mean that they are not disappointing. Disappointing in that they clearly illustrate the complete lack of responsibility baseball leadership has taken for the Steroid Era and the complete lack of accountability it will ever be asked to assume. A responsibility that even George Mitchell, the man Selig picked to investigate performance enhancing drug use in baseball a decade ago, clearly stated belonged to the Hall of Fame’s newest member:

“Everyone involved in baseball shares responsibility,” Mitchell said during the news conference in which his report was released, “Commissioners, club officials, the Players Association and players. I can’t be any clearer than that.”

The Mitchell Report  itself — a document that engages in a lot of whitewashing and which only scratched the surface of drug use in baseball — talks of team officials openly discussing players’ drug use, even going to far as to say that maybe they should steer away from players who may have ceased using drugs. It goes further, however, obliquely but unmistakably holding Bud Selig responsible as well:

“Obviously, the players who illegally used performance enhancing substances are responsible for their actions. But they did not act in a vacuum . . . [t]here was a collective failure to recognize the problem as it emerged and to deal with it early on. As a result, an environment developed in which illegal use became widespread.”

Bud Selig has been credited with and has eagerly taken responsibility for every positive development in baseball under his watch. But he has never taken an ounce of responsibility for the “environment which developed” with respect to PEDs in baseball. Indeed, he has actively shirked it. Remember what he said in 2009, after Alex Rodriguez admitted he used PEDs?

“I don’t want to hear the commissioner turned a blind eye to this or he didn’t care about it. That annoys the you-know-what out of me. You bet I’m sensitive to the criticism. The reason I’m so frustrated is, if you look at our whole body of work, I think we’ve come farther than anyone ever dreamed possible. I honestly don’t know how anyone could have done more than we’ve already done . . . A lot of people say we should have done this or that, and I understand that. They ask me, ‘How could you not know?’ and I guess in the retrospect of history, that’s not an unfair question. But we learned and we’ve done something about it. When I look back at where we were in ’98 and where we are today, I’m proud of the progress we’ve made . . . It is important to remember that these recent revelations relate to pre-program activity.”

Beyond that he has only talked of baseball’s efforts to combat drug use from the mid-2000s on. Never once explaining why it took Jose Canseco’s tell-all book and not baseball’s obvious knowledge of PED use by players to act. Never once explaining why its initial response was so weak and why it was only ratcheted up in direct proportion to how much bad publicity baseball received in terms of players and PED use. Bud Selig did nothing for years and then only did the bare minimum he was required to do until it became untenable to do so. After that he used the Mitchell Report to change the subject from baseball’s drug problem as a whole to a decade-long parlor game in which naming names and scapegoating individual players for drug use became the order of the day, turning scrutiny away from MLB’s Park Avenue offices and shining the spotlight on players and players alone.

It has been a wildly successful strategy. Today only the players have paid the price in terms of their legacy and reputation. Only players associated with performance enhancing drugs — or even baselessly accused of performance enhancing drug use — have had the doors to the Hall of Fame barred to them despite their other accomplishments. Barred by the very language on the ballot which asks voters to weigh in on their character. A clause which the Hall of Fame, on whose board Selig sits, has made no effort to clarify or explain vis-a-vis PED use. As such, the Hall endorses the BBWAA’s continued holding of players responsible for the Steroid Era.

Yet Bud Selig, a man who held more unilateral power in baseball than anyone since Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis died, has ben allowed to get away with pleading ignorance and innocence when it comes to baseball’s greatest black mark since the game was integrated in 1947. He is allowed to accept baseball’s highest honor this week and again in July when he is inducted in Cooperstown. The loud and clear message this week and next July will send is that the buck only stops with the Commissioner of Baseball when the buck makes the Commissioner of Baseball look good.

It’s a bad look for baseball. It’s a disgrace that so many deserving players are denied induction because of mistakes they made while Bud Selig, a man who presided over the Steroid Era and is thus due the ultimate responsibility for its existence — not to mention his involvment in a criminal collusion conspiracy and his responsibility for the cancellation of the 1994 World Series — is gong to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Sports teams do not “heal” cities or nations

Associated Press
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Bob Nightengale of USA Today has a story today in which he talks to Cleon Jones, Ken Harrelson, Art Shamsky and others from the 1969 Mets about their Amazin’ World Series title run. The story is tied to the upcoming commemorations of the 50th anniversary of that phenomenally unexpected and improbable season.

And that’s fine as far as it goes, but as so often is the case with nostalgic remembrances, it goes too far:

They will gather together in New York later in June, rehashing stories from 50 years ago, reminiscing about the year they turned the baseball world upside down, becoming perhaps the most beloved team in history.

The 1969 Mets.

The team that helped revitalize a city in ruins and heal a nation in turmoil, showing the world you can turn the inconceivable to the improbable to the possible to the incredible, in a way only sports can possibly do.

Now would be a good time to remember that the city the Mets allegedly revitalized found itself on the brink of bankruptcy in the early-to-mid-70s and experienced urban decay and spiking crime rates for the next 20+ years. It would also be a good time to remember that the nation the Mets allegedly healed witnessed the Kent State shootings a few months later, among other bits of strife for the next, oh, 50 years and counting.

Yes, I am being flip and superficial here, but I do so simply to illustrate how flip and superficial “[Sports Team] healed [City/Nation]” narratives invariably are.

We see these sorts of things whenever a team from a down-on-its-luck place has a title run. Detroit. Cleveland. New Orleans. The idea is generally a broad-brush paint job in which the source of strife — poverty, crime, economic strife, natural disaster, terrorism, etc. —  is detailed with the local sports team’s subsequent title run cast as a spiritual balm. The words “heal” and “uplift” are pretty common in these stories. Back in 2002 I wrote about a classic of the genre, a documentary about the 1968 Detroit Tigers, who allegedly healed Detroit following he 1967 riots. Anyone familiar with Detroit from 1968-on may understand that the claims of healing asserted therein were . . . somewhat overstated.

Whatever the details, most of these narratives have the same sorts of flaws. At best they overstate the significance of sports in society, presuming that happiness among ticket-buying sports fans — who are usually better off than your average city resident who may be the one in need of healing — means broad-based happiness among the populace. More commonly they simply ignore the actual city or society beyond anything but its most superficial markers. The pattern:

  • Montage of the strife in whatever its form (bonus if it’s from the 1960s and you can re-use some existing “turbulent 60s” b-roll;
  • A chronicling of the sports team’s run; and
  • A declaration that everything was better after that.

It’s not even a matter of correlation and causation being confused. There’s very rarely ever any evidence presented that the sports made the underlying problems any better. All one usually gets from these things is a sense that, at least to the sports commentator/documentarian telling the story and to the people who closely followed the sports team, things were good. Unless, of course, I missed the part about how LeBron James solved Cleveland’s declining population problems and how the 2010 New Orleans Saints solved the ongoing mental, economic and medical trauma of those displaced by Katrina.

Which is not to say that sports mean nothing in this context. Sports success can certainly make a lot of people happy, even people hit hard by adversity, temporarily speaking. People only tangentially-connected to the strife in question may, also, decide that a sporting event “healed” a city. For example, if something bad happened in your city but didn’t affect you directly, you may believe that the trophy-hoisting put a nice bookend on the trauma that was more directly felt by others. And, of course, individuals directly connected with the sporting events in question, like Cleon Jones in the Mets piece, can experience a more lasting change in their lives as a result of this sort of success that they might see as general uplift.

That’s not the same thing as healing, though. Because while you or I can close that chapter on it all when the game is over, survivors of traumatic events and victims of systematic oppression or chronic strife cannot and do not do so that easily. There were people still hurting in Detroit after 1968, in New York (and the nation) after 1969, in New Orleans after the Saints won the Super Bowl, and in Cleveland after the Cavs won their title. The very best that can be said of sports triumph amid civic adversity is that it’s a pleasant, albeit temporary distraction. But not everyone had the luxury of enjoying that temporary distraction and a distraction is not the same thing as a cure.

Why do sports writers and commentators do this? I suppose it’s a function of people believing that the world in which they operate is, well, the world. The entertainment writer sees everything as a Hollywood story, the political writer sees everything as a Washington story and the sports writer sees everything as a sports story. It’s an understandable loss of perspective and we all fall prey to it sometimes.

It’d be better, though, if we spent more time appreciating that our perspective on the world is not the only one. I won’t speak for the entertainment or political people, and I won’t speak for the way in which any other person may prioritize the world as they observe it. But in my world — sports — I think it’d be better if we did not ascribe outsized significance to the beat we cover. Doing so asks far more of sports than sports is capable of delivering and erases the ongoing pain and suffering of people for whom sports is no sort of cure.