Why aren’t writers applying the ‘character clause’ to Curt Schilling?

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Ever since the likes of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and other “steroid era” greats have appeared on Hall of Fame ballots, voters have cited the “character clause” as justification for not voting for them. It has seemed that, over the last decade or so, performance enhancing drug use is the only issue for which the “character clause” is invoked.

According to a publicly-available collection of current revealed Hall of Fame ballots — curated by Ryan Thibodaux, Adam Dore, John Devivo, and Anthony Calamis — Curt Schilling is currently on track to achieve the necessary 75 percent of the vote to become enshrined in Cooperstown. Only 17.2 percent of the ballots are known, so a lot can happen between now and when the final ballot is counted. As it stands, it’s mystifying that Schilling has so much support from an electorate that has spent much of the past decade wringing hands over PED users and their purported questionable character.

Just considering his on-field performance, Schilling was a Hall of Fame talent. He retired with 216 wins, a 3.46 ERA, and 3,116 strikeouts. Baseball Reference credits him with 80.6 Wins Above Replacement over his career. He made the All-Star team six times, had three runner-up finishes in Cy Young voting, won a World Series ring three times, and won both an NLCS MVP Award and World Series MVP Award. Schilling is one of only 16 pitchers in the 3,000-strikeout club. As his awards illustrate, he was incredible in the postseason, boasting a 2.23 ERA with 120 strikeouts and 25 walks across 133 1/3 innings. Of his 19 postseason starts, Schilling reached at least the sixth inning in 17 of them and allowed two or fewer runs in 15 of them.

Had Schilling simply galloped off into the sunset when his playing career was over, there would be no debate about his candidacy. But in the time since he’s retired, Schilling has become very vocal about political issues both relating to and not relating to baseball. Once a broadcaster for ESPN, Schilling lost his job after sharing a meme on Facebook expressing anti-transgender sentiment. He later doubled down in a blog post. He compared Muslims to Nazis. Schilling also tweeted his support of violence against journalists, writing, “Ok, so much awesome here…” on top of an image of a man wearing a shirt which read, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.”

If nothing else, the anti-journalist sentiment should have hit home for voters since they themselves are journalists. (That this in particular, and not everything taken together, would be the thing that hits home illustrates why we need a more diverse electorate.) The idea that the media is to be distrusted and punished has been spread far and wide over the past two years, helping to result in the United States’ addition to the most dangerous countries for journalists for the first time, per NBC News. These aren’t just jokes — as Schilling claimed — when one has a sizable platform, as he does. Schilling has over 240,000 Twitter followers and hosts a podcast for Breitbart. Is this really someone Major League Baseball would want to honor and forever enshrine?

The Hall of Fame describes the criterion voters use in consideration of players on the ballot: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.”

Moral issues are difficult to quantify, but most reasonable people would agree that using performance-enhancing drugs falls much further down on the list of offenses than transphobia, Islamophobia, general xenophobia, and supporting violence against journalists. That baseball journalists willingly overlook Schilling’s character is disheartening. Baseball writing is an industry that should and commonly does ask for better from the players (and managers and coaches and other writers).

Schilling’s vote percentages, starting from the time he became eligible (2013) to last year, have been: 38.8, 29.2, 39.2, 52.3, 45, and 51.2. More than likely, Schilling will not reach the necessary 75 percent and he’ll be shut out of the Hall of Fame for another year. But even if his vote total comes in around 50 percent, as it has the past three years, that’s still way too much support and it reflects badly on the electorate. That is especially true considering writers every year have complained about a “crowded” ballot and being limited to only 10 votes per ballot. Some deserving players on the cusp, like Edgar Martínez and Mike Mussina, would really benefit from writers ceasing to vote for a former player with lacking character.