Monday, December 26, 2011


As the Christmas goose reaches its final stages of dessication, we now face an off-season of punditry, what with all sort of folk weighing in on Yet Another Despicable Display of Abjection--henceforth acronymmed (sp.?) to YADDA--swirling around the pressbox. Bill Conlin, longtime media fixture in Philadelphia, has become the Herman Cain of baseball writers--and quite possibly worse. Allegations of child molestation and sexual abuse have surfaced, and seem to be multiplying at an astonishing rate.

We rush to write about this because the rush to judgment is already proceeding at a breakneck pace. Our old pal Rob Neyer, in the final stages of a transformation from proselytizer to pundit, is out front asking readers to vote on Conlin's fate. While this is a wonderful way to indirectly moralize (let's call it meta-moralizing), it's still part of a "peer review posse" mentality that seems to be overlooking one basic fact of American law.

Bill Conlin: a handsome devil
even with the extra chin...
Which is: innocent until proven guilty.

What ought to happen in America, away from the blatherings of a fractious but oddly insular sub-world of the press, is that Conlin should be indicted and tried.

Until then, we should not have any polls about what his "fate" should be.

Complicating this scenario, however, is the fact that Conlin's alleged acts occurred so long ago that law enforcement is stymied by statute-of-limitation issues. (Neyer, to his credit, references all this. But he can't resist imposing a "court of public opinion.")

Late meta-capitalist genius at work: commodification
of the hash-slinging slang of misfortune and dross...
Further complicating the process is the unfortunate timing of a BBWAA/Hall of Fame award that Conlin received for lifetime achievement as a baseball writer. To be blunt, most of the rationale behind all of the feather-fluttering over a piece of YADDA that's come right into the BBWAA's nest has to do with the turd in the punchbowl that currently floats in disturbingly plain view.

Rob's poll is really a referendum on the nature and limits of moralizing and how far it can be extended into action where legal remedies are unavailable. In essence, what 70% of the respondents to the poll are currently saying is that we can impose sanctions and penalties even if we have no direct evidence that someone has done something wrong.

There is something innately disturbing in such a result, but it is not especially surprising. Human beings want to impose order: after all, it was humans who invented the phrase "nature abhors a vacuum."

Rob's poll would be more interesting (and more potentially useful to the BBWAA) if it addressed this aspect of the question. Absent conclusive evidence of wrongdoing, what penalties can/should be imposed on an individual who's widely believed to have done wrong on multiple occasions?

Civil law often provides remedies in cases where criminal law cannot. Wrongful death, damages for pain and suffering, palimony: the signs of an age encroached upon by shades of grey.

One way for a judgment against Conlin to gain traction would be for his alleged victims to escalate their accusations into a civil proceeding. But such a proceeding would be problematized by the length of time that has passed since the alleged acts occurred.

So--what to do? Pundits will rush to judgment; radio call-in shows will seek to boost their ratings; the public will furrow up its brow a bit more. All part of the Human Frailty Industry and the cyncial news cycle in quest of the next YADDA with which to feed itself.

We should do nothing to Bill Conlin until some kind of legal matter is undertaken against him. An oddly timed leak of an investigation is not in and of itself sufficient for a rush to judgment. The sense of deflation in Neyer's article at the realization that the only real action possible at this time is to downplay Conlin's presence in the Hall of Fame exhibit should not distract from the fact that, for now, this is the only possible action that makes sense.

It is embarrassing, to be sure. It is ill-timed and "inconvenient." But mostly it is a sad commentary on how so many of those who enter into the world of the media find themselves caught up in the need to promote readership via premature punditry.

We need a poll question that addresses how we reign in those tendencies without doing any more damage to our democracy, but it's a subject that is thornier and a good bit more murky than the pointed fingers that surround Bill Conlin.

For what it shows is that human beings, hamstrung by their own need for self-esteem, can become overly obsessed with reward and retribution. The urge to strip an honor from someone sometimes seems to be more innate than the desire to bestow one. A few deep breaths--possibly from some of that (purportedly) fine product from the shores of Humboldt County--might help more than a few of the current YADDA fulminators to chill out and wait for the rest of the Conlin story to emerge before preparing the tar and feathers.