The Baseball Hall of Fame has a Curt Schilling problem.
Well, the problem goes beyond Curt Schilling himself, a player whose on-field Hall of Fame case is definitive if not overwhelming (think of it in terms of Joe Biden’s margin of victory in the presidential election, if you aren’t intimately familiar with Schilling’s career but would like an analogy that would surely annoy Schilling himself), but whose off-field decorum, which ranges from obnoxious (yelling at people on Twitter) to toxic (promoting violence against the media, espousing Parkland school shooting conspiracy theories, a whole host of problematic -isms) makes him divisive. The problem is one that has been legislated throughout Hall of Fame discussions throughout the years—how important is character in assessing whether a player is worthy of the Hall of Fame?
Although a historical correction of Ty Cobb’s much-inflated legacy, from “cartoonishly evil and psychotic proto-Klansman” to “kind of surly but not universally detested and actually fairly progressive on racial issues”, has robbed Hall of Fame discourse of its hallmark example of an enshrined monster, plenty of less-than-reputable men are in Cooperstown. Cap Anson refused to play against Black players. Kenesaw Mountain Landis used his position as commissioner to further enforce segregation. Jack Morris, who was inducted just two years ago, harassed a female reporter in the locker room, saying that he doesn’t talk to women when he’s naked unless they’re on top of him or he’s on top of them, and he doesn’t even have a particularly good statistical case for being in Cooperstown! Hall of Famers have served time in prison and committed plenty of personal indiscretions, and reciting a laundry list of Hall of Famers who have in some way sullied the reputation of the sport could get endless.
I don’t think “there are bad guys in the Hall of Fame, so we should let all of the bad guys in” is necessarily a great argument, just as I don’t think the presence of Tommy McCarthy means that we should put Nick Swisher in the Hall of Fame. If mistakes were made, that doesn’t mean the solution is to make more mistakes. But evaluating players on ethical grounds rather than statistical ones is considerably more complex. You can draw a line in the sand, even just using Wins Above Replacement as a rigid barometer—say, 70 WAR, or a JAWS score (the average of career WAR and the sum total of a player’s seven best WAR seasons) of 55. Do you draw a line on obnoxious Extremely Online poster (Curt Schilling or, if he had a credible playing case, Aubrey Huff)? Do you draw a line at actual criminal behavior? I don’t have a great answer.
This question is usually asked in regard to Schilling, who is certainly the most persistently and aggressively annoying of this year’s Hall of Fame candidates. A different question is typically asked in reference to Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who are statistically far and away the most qualified of this year’s Hall of Fame candidates. And I will say point blank that I absolutely do not care about steroid use that came prior to steroid testing in baseball, and that I only care about it post-testing to the extent that a loss of 50 or more games in a career seems like an appropriate amount of punishment to a player’s statistical record.
But Bonds and Clemens are getting off easily when it comes to litigating them as people. Treating their alleged steroid use as their great sin is like saying Bill Cosby’s greatest crime was Leonard Part 6. Barry Bonds has been accused by multiple women of domestic violence. Roger Clemens has been accused of committing domestic violence against a fifteen-year-old girl with whom he was having an affair. I think excluding Bonds and Clemens from your Hall of Fame ballot because they did a legal (in the sport) thing to make themselves better at baseball is silly. I think excluding them because they are scumbags is perfectly defensible.
Ultimately, I tend to take a somewhat laissez-faire attitude towards the Hall of Fame when it comes to off-the-field issues. If I had a Hall of Fame vote, which I do not, I would check the boxes for Bonds, Clemens, and Schilling, all of whom are seemingly bad people, and I wouldn’t check the box for, say, Shane Victorino, a player I found thoroughly enjoyable as a fan. Maybe you wouldn’t, and that’s fine. I would. But I don’t feel good about it. I don’t enjoy thinking about putting these men in a spot that is meant to evoke a sense of reverence. These three are the headliners of scumbags because they did have Hall of Fame-caliber resumes on the field. But they aren’t alone on the ballot. Andruw Jones and Manny Ramirez, borderline candidates on the field, have also been arrested for domestic battery.
What we need is a Hall of Fame candidate that we can feel good about. But I don’t want to find myself trying to talk myself into the groundswell of support for Omar Vizquel, an entertaining player and a good guy who isn’t one of the fifteen best players on the 2021 Hall of Fame ballot. I want to root for a candidate who merits inclusion based on stellar on-field play and is, if not a revered ambassador to the game, at least isn’t an embarrassment to it. I present to you Scott Rolen.
This will be Rolen’s fourth year on the Hall of Fame ballot, with his vote totals ticking up each year from 10.2% to 17.2% to more than doubling to 35.3%. His meteoric rise in voting is partly a byproduct of several worthy candidates exiting the ballot and thus creating a lane for him and partly a reappreciation of his excellent play. Either way, it is well-deserved. Scott Rolen should be in the Hall of Fame.
On the field, Scott Rolen is one of the greatest third basemen in the history of the sport. By FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, he is one of the ten greatest full-time third basemen in history. Excluding Alex Rodriguez, who played more third base than shortstop but who had his highest peaks at shortstop, nine third basemen are ahead of Rolen. Seven are already in the Hall of Fame, and the other two are not yet eligible but almost certainly eventually will be (Adrian Beltre and Miguel Cabrera).
His most celebrated skill was his fielding, with Rolen amassing eight Gold Gloves at the hot corner; by Defensive Runs Above Average, Rolen is the fifth-best defensive third baseman of all-time. But Rolen was a true two-way player; of the twelve greatest defensive third basemen ever, which includes some pretty solid hitters such as the aforementioned Beltre, Brooks Robinson, Graig Nettles, and Robin Ventura, Rolen has the highest career wRC+.
And Rolen wasn’t simply an accumulator—he also had a tremendous peak. His 2004 season is one of the great overlooked campaigns in baseball history—only eight players have had a better season at third base, and yet it wasn’t even the best among that year’s National League third basemen (Adrian Beltre) nor was he the most celebrated player on his own team (Albert Pujols was the St. Louis Cardinals’ primary MVP candidate, and Rolen was more often lumped with Jim Edmonds as worthy but definitive also-rans to the greatness of Pujols). A season with 34 home runs which was two-thousandths of a percent away from reaching the vaunted .300-.400-.600 BA/OBP/SLG level which concluded with a Gold Glove award is the sort of thing that only Hall of Fame-worthy players can produce. It shouldn’t be surprised that one came from Scott Rolen.
In Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series, Rolen was one spectacular Endy Chavez catch away from having the series-winning home run that instead has become the defining moment of Yadier Molina’s career, and in that year’s World Series, he led the Cardinals with a 1.213 OPS and very easily could have been crowned MVP ahead of David Eckstein. The gap between Scott Rolen being viewed as having a very good but somewhat understated MLB career and him having a “Jack Morris but with actually worthy Hall of Fame statistics” case is so vanishingly thin that it can make one’s head hurt.
If you Google “Scott Rolen arrest” (at least before this post becomes such a sensation that the algorithm is permanently impacted), you’ll find a story about an interior designer overbilling clients (Rolen was one of them), an STLtoday story that references Tony LaRussa’s recent drunk-driving arrest (that Rolen’s confrontations with LaRussa, an increasingly divisive personality, are one of the big “negatives” against his baseball persona might work in his favor at this point), and a story about Mike Leake’s 2011 shoplifting arrest that just kind of randomly name-checks Rolen. I don’t personally know Scott Rolen, so my judgment of his personality is largely based on interview clips, but there isn’t a long track record of complications sullying his image. That’s refreshing.
Being lost in the shadow of Albert Pujols already hurt the candidacy of Jim Edmonds, a player whose absence from Cooperstown I don’t consider itself a grand miscarriage of justice but a player who certainly deserved a closer look than “gets 2.5% of the votes and falls off the ballot his first year”, and at first, it looked like this might impact Scott Rolen. But his momentum keeps building, and with good reason. He belongs in Cooperstown. And we can all celebrate it.