Are Liberal Sportswriters Keeping Curt Schilling Out of Baseball Hall of Fame?

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If he can overcome sportswriters’ opinions of his past controversial statements, former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling could soon find himself in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

But can the sportswriters play honest umpire and call ‘em like they see ‘em?

Or is a born-again Christian supporter of Donald Trump with a penchant for irking too much for them to bear?

For the eighth straight year, the outspoken conservative and three-time World Series champion appears on the current Hall of Fame ballot, and while most votes are made public between mid-November and mid-January, Schilling will learn his fate on January 21, 2020.

Last January, Schilling received his highest vote share yet in the seven years he has appeared on the ballot, earning votes from 60.9 percent of Baseball Writers Association of America members. This was still below the 75 percent threshold needed to be inducted. Players are on the ballot for 10 years after they retire.

Precedent favors Schilling’s Hall of Fame case. Only one player in Major League Baseball history ever received more than 60 percent support and yet did not eventually make it to the Hall of Fame:  Gil Hodges (1924-1972), who played for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers and later managed the New York Mets.

What is the case for Schiling?

 Only three pitchers with more than 3,000 strikeouts aren’t in the Hall of Fame. One is Roger Clemens, whom many sportswriters are shunning because he is suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. Another is C.C. Sabbathia, who retired this past October and isn’t yet eligible.

The other one is Schilling.

Many sportswriters say they rate performance during the postseason more highly than regular season statistics. That also favors Schilling, who went 11-2 with a 2.23 Earned Run Average in 19 career starts in the playoffs. That includes two dramatic appearances – in 2001, when he was co-Most Valuable Player of the World Series while helping the Arizona Diamondbacks win their first (and only) championship; and in 2004, when he had unprecedented surgery on his ankle the day before starting and winning Game 6 of the American League Championship Series for the Boston Red Sox against the New York Yankees.

The Red Sox went on to win the club’s first World Series in 86 years, in large part because of Schilling, who won Game 2 of that series and had helped get them there in the first place.

In theory, Schilling’s chances should be decent even while he is on the baseball writers’ ballot and before his candidacy would become the property of players’ committees. In the coming years, for instance, Schilling could be the beneficiary of weaker Hall of Fame ballots than there have been in recent years. 

Last year, four players got inducted into the Hall of Fame, so none of them is on this year’s ballot. Another strong Hall of Fame candidate, Fred McGriff, who hit 493 home runs in his career and received support from 39.8 percent of members of the Baseball Writers Association of America last year, is out of eligibility, and so isn’t on this year’s ballot, either. 

The only sure-fire Hall of Fame candidate who is new on this year’s ballot is former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. He finished his career with 14 All-Star game appearances and 3,465 hits.

If Schilling doesn’t make it next month, the competition thins next year. Jeter will be in the Hall of Fame and thus off the ballot. Another contender, right fielder Larry Walker, a lifetime .313 hitter with a .965 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), is out of ballot appearances after this year.

With less Hall-of-Fame-worthy options on future ballots, there will be fewer alternatives to vote for, which could benefit Schilling.

 However, Schilling is in a unique spot. Some sportswriters invoke what is called the “character clause” to keep him out of the Hall of Fame. 

According to the Hall of Fame’s web site, “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.”

This means some sportswriters who have a vote may not pick Schilling because of remarks he has made after his playing career.

Schilling’s support for Trump isn’t popular in newsrooms. In addition, Schilling got fired from ESPN in 2016 for sharing memes on social media mocking transgender bathroom policies and comparing the threat of radical Islam to that of Nazi Germany, as CNN reported at the time.

That same year, he irked many sportswriters, including The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, when he posted a picture of a shirt which joked about lynching journalists with the caption “so much awesome”; he later deleted the tweet, according to Fox News.

Back in January Shaughnessy previously said he might vote for Schilling if he “stood in a corner for a year” and that he would “like to see him behave better.” However, Shaughnessy would not reveal if he would vote Schilling this year, as he did before 2016. He told New Boston Post this week that The Boston Globe told him he cannot discuss his ballot until January 20, 2020.

To be sure, Schilling is a borderline candidate for the Hall of Fame. So why think his politics might be getting in the way?

One reason is the case of former New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, a contemporary of Schilling’s who was inducted into the Hall of Fame this past July. Mussina’s overall career numbers are comparable to Schilling’s, though Schilling’s may be a little better.

For instance, Schilling had a lower Earned Run Average than Mussina (3.46 vs. 3.68) and more strikeouts than Mussina (3,116 vs. 2,813). Schilling’s plus-4.092 WPA (Wins Probability Added) in the postseason is the highest in Major League Baseball history for a starting pitcher.

Still, Mussina drew 76.7 percent support from sportswriters with a vote last year – more than one-quarter higher in percentage points than Schilling’s 60.9 percent, and well past the threshold needed for election.

What’s the difference?

Unlike Schilling, Mussina does not have a Twitter account and maintains a low profile in retirement.

Not every Hall of Fame ballot is made public before the results are announced; 84 percent were public last year, so it’s unclear exactly how many Baseball Writers of America Association members voted for Schilling and not Mussina.

But there is evidence that sportswriting has a liberal tilt. An online poll conducted by The Big Lead found that in 2016, 80 percent of sportswriters supported Hillary Clinton for president. Only 4 percent said they voted for Donald Trump.

This left-of-center lens in sportswriting has been noticed by The RingerPaste MagazineThe Big Lead and The Week, none of which is a right-of-center publication.

A small sampling of the writers who supported Mussina and not Schilling — like Marcos Breton of the Sacramento Bee, ESPN’s Keith Law, retired sports columnist David Maril, and Christina Kahrl of Baseball Prospectus — gives this impression, too.

Breton is a political columnist for the Sacramento Bee in addition to his sportswriting. In a May 2016 tweet to one of his columns, he wrote, “A vote for #Trump is a vote for intolerance, discrimination, misogyny.”

Earlier this year, Breton wrote in one of his columns, “Denigrating Italy or Ireland doesn’t make for winning politics. Trump proved winning politics lies in denigrating Mexicans.”

Contacted by New Boston Post, Breton said that Schilling’s Trump support is not why he does not vote for him. “Trump hasn’t factored into my decision,” he said in an email message. “I respect that everyone gets to fill out his or her ballot independently. Initially, Mr. Schilling did not get my vote because of a backlog of players I found more worthy. But as time has gone on, his many divisive online comments certainly hasn’t helped his cause with me given that I’ve never seen him as a slam dunk Hall of Famer.”

“If Mr. Schilling is elected by my colleagues I would have no problem with that,” he added. “I would respect the vote and I would not say or tweet a bad word about it. But no, I don’t see myself voting for him for the reasons I have cited.”

Retired sports columnist Maril’s web site features anti-Trump columns with headlines like “There’s little difference between Trump working and being on vacation” and “Why won’t Trump release his tax returns to end ‘witch-hunt’ investigations of alleged Russian ties?”

Law’s Twitter bio features his preferred pronouns (he/him). An atheist, he previously got suspended from ESPN in 2014 for arguing with Schilling over evolution on Twitter. 

Law is no Trump fan, either. In November 2016, when asked about his craft beer brewing company preferences, he wrote, “if the beer is good and the owner isn’t supporting Trump I’ll drink it.”

And Kahrl, a male-to-female transgender, is also no fan of Trump.  When Trump announced the transgender troop ban in August 2017, Kahrl tweeted, “Trump’s actions about bringing back 2nd-class citizenship, for #LGBT Americans & #POC. Fundamental betrayal of this nation’s promise to all.”

Defenders of Schilling’s candidacy can point to his philanthropy or the non-enforcement of the character clause in some other cases. 

His charity “Curt’s Pitch for ALS” raised and donated more than $9 million for research on Lou Gehrig’s Disease, according to its official web site. For his effort, Schilling earned Major League Baseball’s Roberto Clemente Award in 2001. It is given to the player who, according to MLB’s web site, “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.”

In 2017, he also played an active role in hurricane relief in Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida through Operation Bullpen. Schilling traveled south from Massachusetts to these states and territories to help deliver 1.5 million pounds of supplies to those in need.

Then there are the cases where character apparently did not pose an insurmountable obstacle.

Currently, the National Baseball Hall of Fame features inductees from the ranks of domestic abusers (Bobby Cox), pro-segregationists (Cap Anson)tax evaders (Duke Snider, Willie McCovey)anti-Semites (Leo Durocher), and drug smugglers (Orlando Cepeda).