With the unveiling of the 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, there was nary a doubt in my mind that this class of candidates would be the most controversial in the game's history. Some of the players eligible for baseball's greatest honor are mired in sports biggest and darkest controversy.
This ballot will be notorious for being the one that opened the floodgate of players mired in the steroid controversy. Mark McGwire is making his seventh appearance on the ballot and Rafael Palmeiro his third. But this year they are joined by Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemmens and Barry Bonds. All players who greatly tarnished the image of the game.
With these firsts, there is a last. Dale Murphy is making his 15th and final appearance on the ballot. That's as many times as a player is allowed to appear. I could write a tome about Dale Murphy. I could give you his stats. I could describe the player who for years was the lone bright spot on a terrible Atlanta Braves team. I could talk about the kind of player he was, the leader he was in the clubhouse and how he lived his life off the field. But I cannot do that better than Dale's son Chad.
In mid-December, Chad wrote an open letter to the Baseball Writers Association of America, the voting body for the HOF. It speaks for itself.
My name is Chad Murphy. I'm Dale's oldest son. 'Tis the season for HOF voting, and this being the last year of my dad's eligibility, I'd like to begin by reiterating the voting criteria, as per the Hall of Fame's website:
5. Voting: 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. Next, let me just list a few of my dad's accomplishments in his former role as an active MLB player. Here goes:
• Back-to-back NL MVP 1982, 1983 (1 of only 12 players-and the youngest in history at that time-to accomplish this).
• 7-time NL All-Star (top NL vote-getter in 1985 and a starter in 5 of those games).
• 4-time Silver Slugger Award winner.
• 5-time Gold Glove Award winner.
• 6th player in MLB history to reach 30 home runs/30 stolen bases in a single season.
• Only player in history to compile a .300+ batting average, 30+ home runs, 120+ runs batted in, 130+ runs scored, 90+ bases on balls, and 30+ stolen bases in a single season, 1983.
• Led MLB in total bases during the span of 1980-1989 (2,796).
• 2nd (only to HOFer Mike Schmidt) in total home runs from 1980-1989 (308).
• 2nd (only to HOFer Eddie Murray) in total runs from 1980-1989.
• 1st in total home runs from 1980-1989 among all Major League outfielders (308).
• 1st in total RBIs from 1980-1989 among all Major League outfielders (929).
• 2nd in total hits from 1980-1989 among Major League outfielders (1,553).
• 2nd in total extra-base hits from 1980-1989 among Major League outfielders (596).
• Played in 740 consecutive games from 1980-1986 (11th longest streak in history at the time, and 13th today. Only missed 20 games total between 1980-1989).
• Reached base in 74 consecutive games, 1987 (3rd longest streak in Major League history).
• 398 career home runs (19th in Major League history when he retired, 4th among active players).
• 2,111 career hits.
• 1,266 career RBIs.
• .265 career batting average.
• Sports Illustrated's "Sportsmen of the Year" Award, 1987 (represented baseball as the "Athlete Who Cares the Most," along with U.S. gold-medalist Judi Brown King, Kenyan gold-medalist Kip Keino, and others).
• Lou Gehrig Award, 1985 (given to the player who most exemplifies the character of Lou Gehrig, both on and off the field).
• Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award, 1988 (given to the player who "best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team").
• Bart Giamatti Community Service Award, 1991.
• Jersey number "3" retired by the Braves, 1994.
• Inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame, 1995 (induction class with Roberto Clemente and Julius Erving. One of only 8 baseball players inducted in the Hall's history).
• Inducted into the Little League Hall of Excellence, 1995 (joining Mike Schmidt, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nolan Ryan, and others).
• Inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, 1997.
• Inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, 1997.
• Inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame, 2000 (joining Phil Niekro and Hank Aaron, among others).
• Founder of the I Won't Cheat Foundation in 2005, whose mission is to encourage character development among youth.
Next, I really want to dive into his sabermetrics, starting with his JAWS, WAR, and WAR7, and then moving on to his JPOS, WPA, OPS, and-last but certainly not least-the all-important holy quadrinity of VORP, GORP, SCHLORP, and THUNDERCORK.
Oh wait, no I don't.
Stand down, statistics nerds.
Look, I have no desire to get into some sort of cryptic mathematical argument for my dad's induction into the Hall of Fame. The numbers are what they are-maybe they're strong enough for the Hall on their own, maybe not. Whatever. The bigger issue, to me, is this: what happened to three of the criteria listed under the rules for election, namely, integrity, character, and sportsmanship? Gone but also forgotten? No doubt a player's stats (i.e., "record" and "playing ability") are a crucial part of the equation, but that's just the point: we're talking about an equation here, folks. And we've got a serious case of missing variables. Where'd they go, friends?
To be fair, I'll grant the nerds this: In most cases things like "integrity" and "character" and "sportsmanship" are mighty difficult to quantify. I get that. Other than, say, creating a variable along the lines of "number of arrests for drug possession" or "number of ejections from a game," it's not exactly clear yet how to go about measuring those attributes. As a consequence, this so-called "character clause" does a real number on our quest for objectivity, which makes us uneasy. And so it makes sense that collectively we've emphasized the part of the voting criteria that is easier to measure and largely beyond subjective interpretation, namely, on-field statistics. Fine.
But hold on, maybe not fine. The character clause isn't just totally MIA. In fact, it seems to come roaring back into the conversation every so often when certain players are mentioned, as if judging character weren't so difficult after all. And, mysteriously, this only seems to happen in cases where the point is to keep someone out (see: Pete Rose, Shoeless Joe Jackson, the 'Roid Boys). Indeed, then it gets easy: Gamblers? Out! Cheaters? Be gone! Vehement racists? Well, okay, you can stay (lookin' at you, Cap Anson). Of course, the obvious question here is from whence this biased, one-way application of the character clause?
Here's one possibility. In psychology there's a well-known and well-established finding known as the "bad is stronger than good" principle. In 2001, Roy Baumeister and colleagues reviewed a large number of studies and found overwhelming evidence that negative events figure more prominently in our minds-and are hence easier to recall-than positive ones. For example, the authors cite a 1978 study by Brickman and colleagues where they interviewed people who one year previous had either won the lottery (a supposed "good" event) or had been paralyzed in an accident (a bad event). What they found was that the intense negative feelings associated with being paralyzed had not abated a year later, while the positive feelings from winning the lottery had almost totally disappeared and the details of the experience entirely forgotten. The upshot here is that we, as human beings, adapt very quickly to good events, so quickly, in fact, that it doesn't take long for us to forget those good things completely. And isn't the uneven application of the character clause perhaps an illustrative example of this quirk in human memory and reasoning? Bad behavior (some of which-e.g., Joe Jackson-happened, er, nearly 100 years ago) appears to occupy a more central place in the minds of voters than the exemplary behavior of players like Dale Murphy.
These two facts-1) the difficulty of objectively quantifying qualitative characteristics about a player; and 2) our deeply-ingrained negativity bias as human beings-have led to a troubling scenario where we either ignore the character clause altogether, or we use it to keep people out, citing their public sins. But let's be honest: you can't have it both ways. Either we apply the character clause for all eligible players, equally, allowing for both negative and positive evaluations to count toward a player's HOF case, or we toss it out completely. If the latter, then say goodbye (probably) to my dad's HOF chances at the same time you say hello to Mr. Rose and Mr. he-of-no-shoes Jackson. Oh, and might as well roll out the red carpet for Mr. Bonds, too.
As the voting criteria currently stand, however, there's no doubt that a fair, holistic assessment of my dad's playing years would reveal that he is exactly the type of player we should want to represent the game of baseball for future generations. As the criteria suggest, HOF membership is not the equivalent of a career-long MVP award; rather, it's an honor bestowed upon players for the legacies they've left behind. In my dad's case, that's a dang near unimpeachable legacy indeed.
I know I'll be disappointed when the class of 2013 is announced. Murph won't be a part it. Too much time has passed since his playing days and the voters have too short of memories. I can only hope that he enters the hall via the Veterans Committee. Their unwritten responsibility is to fix things when the other voters screw up.
Here's a link to an interview with Chad from “The Bill Shanks Show” on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon. It's a great listen.