So the National Baseball Hall of Fame is going through its selection process again on the heels of a year where no player was chosen through the regular means, and it certainly seems that writers will again signal their disapproval of any player who competed at a high level in the 1990s and into the 2000s by avoiding the “Steroid Era” almost completely. Of course, this time of year also brings the annual arguments writers advance about a player being better-suited for the “Hall of Very Good,” and an increasing population of analysts who will point to numbers alone to determine a player’s worth, and it leaves me to wonder a little bit, what are they voting on, anyway?
It used to be that the Hall of Fame had certain golden landmarks that, if a player were to pass them, would surely get a plaque bearing their name put up next to Babe Ruth’s. Now, with steroid and performance enhancing drug suspicions, it’s like Home Runs vanished as an important statistic. Not only have Barry Bonds (762) and Sammy Sosa (609) not made it in, but let’s take the case of Frank Thomas. Thomas is entering his first year of eligibility, has not had any credible report against him for PEDs, and is a member of the 500 Home Run Club with 521. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen much publicity for that number from a man who is considered to be a “clean” player, despite the 500 figure being one of those golden landmarks.
Instead, the Baseball Writers have chosen to enshrine nobody in the 2013 season, and just three players in the last three years combined – Barry Larkin, Roberto Alomar, and Bert Blyleven. Larkin and Alomar were both middle infielders with career OPS+ values of 116, and just five combined seasons with an OPS+ above 140 out of 36 total seasons. In case you don’t follow that number closely, that 116 value falls in between the career marks of Jay Bruce and Ben Zobrist. Guys you don’t mind on your fantasy team, but not Hall-of-Fame caliber offensive players. Check in at 140 and you start seeing legitimate terrors like Vlad Guerrero, Andrew McCutchen, and Prince Fielder. Above-average offense is always nice from the middle infield but these weren’t once-in-a-generation bats that were being elected. These guys were voted in on their fielding values, too.
A lot of people might see this and say, hey, let’s just take the top players by Wins Above Replacement, enshrine them, and call it a day. I have a problem with this approach, too. One of the best parts of talking about the Hall of Fame is figuring out who’s worthy. We all get to talk about our favorite players, their defining moments, how they compare to already-honored players, and how we went to the park with our parents one day when we were kids and saw Our Guy Do Something Special. We get to share about Babe Ruth’s gregariousness, Ty Cobb being the kind of guy you don’t want to cross, Ted Williams never acknowledging his admirers at the ballpark, and Jackie Robinson’s dignity.
It’s too bad the Hall of Fame hasn’t set itself up to do this well. It seems to me that perhaps it worries so much about its numbers that it trips on the way of telling the story. Let’s use Hank Aaron’s plaque for an example:
Hit 755 home runs in 23-year career to become Majors’ all-time Homer King. Had 20 or more for 20 consecutive years, at least 30 in 15 seasons and 40 or better eight times. Also set records for Games Played (3,298), At Bats (12,364), Long Hits (1,477), Total Bases (6,856), Runs Batted In (2,297). Paced N.L. in Batting twice and Homers, Runs Batted In and Slugging Pct. four times each. Won Most Valuable Player award in N.L. in 1957.
Okay, clearly an all-time great player and inner-circle Hall of Famer, but what does that really tell you about Hammerin’ Hank? We get a lot of numbers here but nothing about his cultural impact. Nothing about how he played in the Negro Leagues. Nothing about his three Home Runs in the ’57 World Series where the then-Milwaukee Braves beat the Mantle-and-Berra Yankees. Nothing about the outward racism he faced in chasing Ruth through the 1973 and the very beginning of the ’74 season. I think the numbers tell you why a player made it, but not how, and that how can be just as important.
I never saw players like Freddie Linstrom, Kiki Cuyler, Ray Schalk, or Hoyt Wilhelm. Some of these guys I never heard of. In other cases, I don’t know how you distinguish a Cap Anson from an Eddie Collins just by looking at their numbers. I think the Hall is missing an opportunity here to talk about the importance of these players to the game, to their teams, to their cities, and to the lives of the people who watched them. Clearly, the voters think so too, because if it were all about numbers like Aaron’s plaque suggests, Bonds would have been inducted already.
Induction into the Hall of Fame is baseball’s highest individual honor. It’s an opportunity to tell the stories of players past. If we look at it less as celebrating numbers and more about celebrating stories, wouldn’t we want to tell the Curt Schilling bloody sock story with the 2004 Red Sox? Wouldn’t we want to talk about Edgar Martinez not being given a real opportunity to play Big League ball until he was 27, then hitting like one of the greatest right-handed batters in history for more than a decade? Wouldn’t we want to talk about the rise and fall (and rise again) of Mark McGwire, or the creator of a job and a statistical category like Lee Smith? Those are just four of the 17 players returning to the ballot this year, who might not make it in a sea of incredible ballplayers due to make an appearance in the next few seasons like Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Trevor Hoffman. Maybe we should make some room for these stories, too.