My Big Beef with Murray Chass

Apologies for the long gap between posts. I’ll have more of an explanation in my next post, which is nearly done. Granted, it won’t be a good explanation, but hey.

Anyway…

Former New York Times columnist and current blogger-who-doesn’t-want-to-be-called-a-blogger Murray Chass had some words about the Hall of Fame today. ‘Tis the season, after all. The kind folks of the Internet have already torn it apart. Craig Calcaterra wrote about it. Rob Neyer wrote about. Brett Taylor wrote about it. Pretty much every Internet baseball person wrote or tweeted about it.

Chass derision is nothing new. The Fire Joe Morgan guys were writing about Chass since before I knew what the word “blog” meant (Chass still doesn’t know).

And yet there’s still one thing from his latest opus that’s been sorta glossed over. Maybe because it’s old news at this point. It’s an argument that we’ve heard so much that we take it for granted. But there’s just something about seeing it spelled out that made my blood boil.

Let’s start from the beginning.

The Hall of Fame ballot sits on my desk, just to the left of my computer. Of the 36 names on it, three have the boxes next to their names marked with an X: Jack Morris, of course; Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine. A fourth box, the one next to Frank Thomas, may also get an X upon further review.

That’s the very first paragraph and we already have at least three major problems. Of course.

This isn’t my big beef, though. Let’s move on.

The boxes next to these 10 names will not get an X: Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Eric Gagne, Paul Lo Duca, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa.

These non-exes won’t get my vote because they were proved to have cheated, admitted they cheated or are strongly suspected of having cheated. I have not voted for any player in those categories and am not prepared to start doing so now.

Getting warmer. Craig Biggio was strongly suspected to have used PEDs, just in case you had literally never heard a single person say anything remotely similar to that ever. Also, Eric Gagne and Paul Lo Duca evidently deserve to be named in the same breath as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

For a particularly passionate breakdown of this, check out Dan Szymborski’s timeline from about 2:00 PM ET Thursday. Here’s a snippet.

 

As asinine as that is, that’s not what I want to talk about. Here’s what he says next.

Fans of these players and even non-fan observers will ask how I can consider someone a cheat if he has never tested positive. I have two answers:

  1. Some of them might have used steroids before baseball began testing for performance-enhancing substances and stopped before the tests could catch them.
  2. If I’m wrong on any particular player, so be it, but I’d rather err on the side of caution. I wouldn’t want to learn two or three years after the fact that I had helped elect a cheater. Anyway my one vote won’t keep anyone out of the Hall.

There it is. Point number two. There is so much irresponsibility in those three sentences. “If I’m wrong on any particular player, so be it.” If he is wrong about a player, so be it. If he, a man who is entrusted with helping to decide which baseball players receive the single highest honor a player can receive, is wrong about a player, his response will be… so be it.

Murray Chass doesn’t want to learn in two or three years that he had helped elect a cheater. By extension, that means he’s just fine, or at least more fine, with one day learning that he unfairly punished somebody who didn’t cheat. Either Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and others used PEDs or they didn’t. If that’s your deciding factor in whether or not they belong in Cooperstown, you’re going to either get it dead wrong or dead right.

Let’s say you’re of a mind with Chass, and you don’t want anybody who even once used PEDs in the Hall of Fame. You pour over your evidence, whatever it may be, and determine that Jeff Bagwell didn’t do PEDs. You give him a vote of yes and he’s forever enshrined into Cooperstown where he will be recognized as one of the best to ever play the game. Three years later, we find out that Bagwell used steroids during his career. Now there’s a cheater in the Hall of Fame, somebody who you feel doesn’t belong.

Now let’s look on the flip side. You determine that there’s enough evidence for you to believe that Bagwell did do steroids. You don’t vote for him, and in this scenario, most people agree with you. Jeff Bagwell isn’t a Hall of Famer. It turns out, in this scenario, that Bagwell never used PEDs. His numbers are au naturel. He’s more than deserving of being a Hall of Famer, one of the forty best hitters and five best first basemen ever. But because of people’s hunches, he’s not a Hall of Famer.

Which of those situations is worse? According to Murray Chass, it’s the first. He’d rather punish an innocent person than reward a guilty person. If he’s wrong, so be it.

You may recognize a parallel of this that exists in the world of statistics, specifically in the field of hypothesis testing. When testing hypotheses, there are four possible outcomes.

  1. We reject a hypothesis that is in actuality false.
  2. We fail to reject a hypothesis that is in actuality true (you never prove hypotheses, only fail to reject them).
  3. We reject a hypothesis that is in actuality true.
  4. We fail to reject a hypothesis that is in actuality false.

The first two are the most desired scenarios. If a hypothesis is false, we want to reject it. If it is true, we want to fail to reject it.

The bottom two are errors. The third scenario is called a type I error, a false positive. The fourth is a type II error, a false negative. Type II errors are typically preferred to type I errors. This comes from the belief that it is better to release a guilty person than imprison an innocent person.

Here are those scenarios in terms of our Bagwell example.

  1. Jeff Bagwell doesn’t go into the Hall of Fame, and he really did use PEDs. (Good if you agree with Chass and others that PED users shouldn’t be in Cooperstown.)
  2. Jeff Bagwell goes into the Hall of Fame, and he never really used PEDs. (Good!)
  3. Jeff Bagwell doesn’t go into the Hall of Fame and he never used PEDs. (Bad.)
  4. Jeff Bagwell goes into the Hall of Fame and he did use PEDs. (Bad if you agree with Chass.)

Again, we have two good scenarios at top and two errors on bottom.

Jeff Bagwell either used or he didn’t. We don’t know and we may never know. But since we don’t know, that makes it possible that we could make an error. If you believe that type II errors are preferred to type I errors, you would rather live in scenario four than scenario three.

Murray Chass would disagree. He would rather make a type I error, rejecting the hypothesis that Bagwell, et al, didn’t use PEDs even if they really didn’t, than make a type II error, failing to reject the hypothesis that they didn’t use PEDs even if they really did.

To reiterate, he would rather punish an innocent person than reward a guilty one. He might be wrong about the player, but again, so be it.

But which do we as baseball fans really view as worse? I think the answer’s obvious. Maybe the most beloved baseball movie ever is loosely based around the idea of Shoeless Joe Jackson being unfairly suspended from baseball for life. I don’t remember ever seeing a movie about how unfair it is that Cap Anson is in the Hall of Fame when he fought tooth and nail to keep blacks out of the game. Where’s the outrage over Ty Cobb when he’s almost as famous for being a jerk as he is for being great at baseball?

We tend to forget about the “underserving” people getting in and remember those greats who stay on the outside. I’m not saying people should necessarily ignore all of the PED connections if they have a personal zero tolerance policy. There’s a lot less uncertainty about Bonds, Clemens, McGwire and others than there is for Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and Craig Biggio (still can’t believe I’m even writing his name here). Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that belief, but that argument is a whole ‘nother animal.

But to leave people on the outside looking in just because of vague suspicions? Potentially leaving out the greatest offensive catcher ever, a top five first basemen ever and the best second baseman of his generation is better than potentially inducting somebody who used PEDs? Chass believes that baseball is better off leaving them out just to be safe. I feel the exact opposite. Put them in just to be safe. Baseball is better off with players that great being immortalized than “cheaters” not being recognized.

I think I’ve covered everything I wanted to from that piece. Let’s revisit the offending section.

If I’m wrong on any particular player, so be it, but I’d rather err on the side of caution. I wouldn’t want to learn two or three years after the fact that I had helped elect a cheater. Anyway my one vote won’t keep anyone out of the Hall.

I completely forgot about the last sentence. Chass is right. At the margin, his single vote isn’t going to make any discernible difference. Remind me to call my high school government teacher tomorrow. I’m going to tell him I’m not going to vote in elections anymore.

So be it.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s