The Mercy Rule

Hall of Lame

By David Roth

“We don’t take sports seriously enough” has to rank behind “many dumb people are heavily armed,” “many of the people who are heavily armed are also popping pain pills like Mike and Ikes” and “Congress” on any list of the problems facing our culture. Pretty far behind all those, in fact. It could be argued, actually, that as a general rule we take sports entirely too seriously. Somewhere, a grown man has been on hold for hours so he can get through to some Beefer and the Squelch sports-talk radio show to ask his “question,” which is, “LSU is all faggots.” Somewhere else, there is an adult planning to walk around outdoors on Sunday in a big goofy nylon mesh football jersey with another person’s name on the back. There are—and I am sorry to remind you of this but it does us no good to ignore it—Philadelphia Eagles fans, and they’re already drunk.

But this type of unserious too-seriousness, the loud and backwards binge-drink-y kind, is not necessarily the problem. It is a problem, in the way that Adam Sandler’s movies and face are a problem, but it’s not a pressing issue; we can’t stop sports fans from behaving like peevishly entitled kidults any more than we can stop moviegoers from wanting to see Sandler's new film, Guy in Khaki Shorts Has Smutty/Heartwarming Gay Panic Misadventures on Vacation. We, ourselves, don't need to do either of those things. Under-reasoned overexuberance of that sort isn’t the reason for overly serious, fatuously righteous sport-idiocies like the Baseball Writers Association of America’s collective decision not to induct anyone into the Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this week, despite a ballot full of deserving candidates. But low-grade, high-volume too-seriousness—the superfan’s goonish arrogation of the first-person plural and the right to send dickish @-messages on Twitter to players after poor fantasy showings; the calculated stupidity of ESPN’s pretending-to-argue programming—has more in common with the high-minded too-seriousness of the Hall of Fame voters than those voters might think.

Superficially, of course, these are two different things. The doofs happily sitting on hold in hope that they might get to tell the world some 19-year-old they’ll never meet is a gutless loser are ridiculous—loud, simple avatars of dimwitted entitlement and misplaced priorities, casually making outrageous demands of strangers in the name of no-excuses toughness. The baseball writers who refused to vote for qualified Hall of Fame candidates—whether because players even flimsily connected to the sport’s steroid scandals of the last two decades should just have to wait a year because something something “the sanctity of the game” something something, or because the voter in question is huffily fighting a rearguard action against the last 30 years of human history—are… well, this part is complicated. Like talk-radio types, these voters are blithely holding others to impossible standards in the most self-righteous way possible, and define “getting tough” as “accusing people you barely know of being cheaters instead of dealing with a complex issue.” The difference between the two groups is that, on balance, the talk radio people are slightly more drunk.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is, while a pleasant enough place to visit, mostly bullshit—bullshit enough, at least, to cancel a 2003 screening of Bull Durham because Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon’s opposition to the war in Iraq “could put our troops in danger”—and certainly not something worth getting excessively exercised about. But we can’t ignore the Hall’s fundamental big-deal-ness: Being elected means a lot to the players who receive the honor, and if baseball’s tendency towards unbidden sentimento-boners is surely goofy, the game’s history nevertheless has real meaning. And so it’s a sensible and good thing that the process of selecting players for induction is meaningful to those casting the votes. It should be. They should take it seriously.

And many of those voters clearly do. That won’t keep them from casting votes that might look (or be) incorrect, which is fine—this is, thankfully, just a list of guys who played a game really well. A wrong vote here or there or a year-late induction of Mike Piazza isn’t going to tank the world economy, or commit the nation to a trillion-dollar war, or even inconvenience Mike Piazza all that much. That said, the present system and prevailing worldview aren’t working for anyone.

“It took me hours, days, I lost sleep over it, trying to come up with my ballot,” a weary-looking and clearly emotional Tim Kurkjian said on ESPN Thursday morning. “When I finally turned it in, I wasn’t happy with it. Because I realized: I can’t do this right, I can’t get this right anymore.”

Which is true enough, if maybe also a bit overdramatic. But what’s actually maddening in this objectively insignificant event is that it highlights the toxic fatuity of concepts like “seriousness” and “toughness” when they’re wrenched out of context and sapped of meaning.

Hall of Fame voters who respond to ambiguity with clenched, fearful sternness or retroactive moralizing are Getting Tough and Getting Serious without ever doing anything tough or serious. Uncertainty is difficult, compromise can feel bad, context creates its own uncertainties—in voting for the Hall of Fame vote as well as in more important circumstances. But dealing as best we can with all those challenges makes up the better part of the human condition. The voters who opted out of their Hall of Fame duties are not any tougher or more serious than the DC foofs hymning bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake. Not any less fatuous, either.

Values, in a vacuum, are just gaudy luxury goods—intellectual taxidermy, a conversation piece for people otherwise incapable of conversation. They matter, but they only matter in context, in action, in how they get used. Baseball is, lord knows, not the only place you’ll see desperate, puffed-up narcissism or blinkered, simplistic anti-thought being re-imagined as brave, principled toughness. But at least the goofballs on sports talk radio have the grace to be less grandiose about it. 

@david_j_roth

Previously: Taken

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