The Hall of Fail

This afternoon, we will see how the baseball writers voted, and it looks like it will be a very close call for the Hall of Fame to elect anyone (at last check, based on the publicly disclosed votes, it looks like Craig Biggio may be the only candidate in striking distance, with Jack Morris and Tim Raines trailing).
I don’t have a ton to add right now to what I wrote last year about many of these same candidates and the same issues – like steroids – that dominate the debate (follow the links in that post for more detailed arguments). But a few points.
1. The limitation of the ballot to ten names isn’t normally a problem, but this year, there’s such a backlog of qualified candidates that it presents a real dilemma. I don’t have a ballot, of course, but I divide my list of who I’d vote for as follows:
SHOULD GO IN WITHOUT DEBATE: (8) Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Tim Raines, Fred McGriff, Rafael Palmeiro.
To put Biggio in the simplest terms: 4,505 times on base (18th all time), plus 414 steals, while playing 1989 games at second base, 428 as a catcher, and 255 as a center fielder. That is a career. From 1992-99, adjusted for the fact that he lost 41% of a season over 1994-95 to the strike, Biggio’s average season was 160 games, 732 plate appearances, .299/.394/.460, 120 Runs, 73 RBI, 41 2B, 17 HR, 36 SB and only 11 CS, 101 times on base by walk or hit by pitch, and only 7 GIDP. And all of that while playing second base in the Astrodome and winning four Gold Gloves in eight years.
DEBATABLE BUT I’D VOTE THEM IN: (3) Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling.
I GO BACK AND FORTH: (2) Edgar Martinez, Bernie Williams. As noted last year, I do struggle with the fact that Edgar and McGwire have more similar cases than they seem at first glance.
CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR: (3) Alan Trammell, Larry Walker, Kenny Lofton.
BAD BUT NOT RIDICULOUS CHOICES: (3) Jack Morris, Lee Smith, Dale Murphy. As I’ve noted before, Murphy was good enough, but not for long enough; Morris, too, might deserve induction if his 1980 and 1988-90 seasons were of the same quality (plus quantity) as his 1981-87 seasons.
WORTH A LOOK BUT NOT A VOTE: (4) Don Mattingly, David Wells, Julio Franco, Steve Finley. Mattingly, of course, would have been an easy Hall of Famer if his back had held up.
JUST ENJOY BEING ON THE BALLOT: The other 14 guys, any of whom should be flattered to get a vote and honored by having had distinguished enough careers to be on the ballot. I mean that: if I was, say, Todd Walker, I’d want to frame my name on the Hall of Fame ballot. Only a tiny handful of the kids who start out dreaming on the sandlots get that far.
2. The postseason is an ever larger factor in modern baseball, and certainly a big part of what puts Bernie Williams and Jack Morris in the conversation, and Curt Schilling over the top. That’s as it should be.
There’s actually an awful lot of hitters on the ballot this year who struggled in October (not even counting Barry Bonds, who struggled the rest of his Octobers but made it up with a 2002 rampage). And of course, postseason numbers can be unfair to a guy like Raines who got a disproportionate amount of his October at bats in his declining years. We should not overlook, however, the value of Fred McGriff’s postseason contributions. Of the 16 somewhat serious position player candidates, five had somewhat limited postseason experience (less than 100 plate appearances); Trammell hit .333/.404/.588 in 58 plate appearances, Sosa .245/.403/.415 in 67 PA, and Palmeiro .244/.308/.451 in 91 PA. Mattingly and Murphy got one series apiece, Mattingly hitting .417/.440/.708, Murphy .273/.273/.273.
Here’s how the rest stack up:

Player G PA Avg OBP Slg OPS
Barry Bonds 48 208 0.245 0.433 0.503 0.936
Fred McGriff 50 218 0.303 0.385 0.532 0.917
Edgar Martinez 34 148 0.266 0.365 0.508 0.873
Larry Walker 28 121 0.230 0.350 0.510 0.860
Bernie Williams 121 525 0.275 0.371 0.480 0.851
Mike Piazza 32 133 0.242 0.301 0.458 0.759
Tim Raines 34 142 0.270 0.340 0.349 0.689
Jeff Bagwell 33 129 0.226 0.364 0.321 0.685
Mark McGwire 42 151 0.217 0.320 0.349 0.669
Kenny Lofton 95 438 0.247 0.315 0.352 0.667
Craig Biggio 40 185 0.234 0.295 0.323 0.618

Looking at the postseason numbers also suggests that the case for McGwire over Edgar is even narrower; yes, McGwire played for a World Champion and three pennant winners whereas Edgar’s often-insanely-talented teams never reached the Series, but like Edgar’s teams, Big Red’s lost some big serieses to obviously less talented opponents, and McGwire’s overall postseason performance was terrible.
Anyway, looking at McGriff, in over 200 plate appearances in the postseason he has the best batting and slugging averages of this illustrious group, and the second-best OBP to Bonds (and Bonds drew 5 times as many intentional walks in October – leave those out and McGriff beats Bonds .374 to .369). Projected to a 162 game schedule, his postseason line produces 36 2B, 32 HR, 87 BB, 117 R, and 120 RBI. McGriff slugged .600 in a postseason series six times in ten series (including all three series en route to the 1995 World Championship), an OPS over 1,000 five times. If you’re giving points for producing with seasons on the line, the Crime Dog should get more than any of these guys. (Bernie Williams slugged over .600 in 8 series, but he appeared in 25 of them; he also slugged below .320 ten times.).
3. On the steroid issue…well, you have to ask whose Hall of Fame is this? It’s a question Bill James asked 30 years ago about the All-Star Game, and people tend to skip over it as if everybody has the same answer.
We know Major League Baseball is operated for the purpose of making money for the owners, but that (as James also pointed out in the early 80s) it exists to satisfy popular enthusiasm for baseball, and the maintenance and cultivation of that fan interest is something the owners, in their self-interest, have to attempt to respect.
If you’ve read James’ indispensable book The Politics of Glory, you know that the question – whose Hall is it? – has long been a complicated and fraught one between MLB, the players, the BBWAA, the owners of the Hall, the Town of Cooperstown, and the fans who visit the museum.
Honoring the players is certainly an important and honorable purpose; for most of these guys, getting the call and being inducted into the fraternity of the Hall is the highlight of their entire lives, and that’s not a small thing. And to the extent that we view the Hall primarily as a personal honor, it makes some sense to cast a jaundiced eye at least on those players we know for a fact to have cheated to win, whether by breaking the game’s rules or breaking the law (some of the performance enhancing drugs at issue were legal under one of the two regimes but not the other at various times).
But at the end of the day, to me, the Hall is bigger than the players for the same reasons as why the games are played in full stadiums in front of TV cameras, for the same reasons as why scores of visitors make the pilgrimage to sleepy Cooperstown each summer. The Hall belongs to the fans, too. There is one red line, in my view: Shoeless Joe Jackson and his co-conspirators belong outside the Hall because they participated in a conspiracy to lose games. But everything else is about guys who were doing their best to win. The fans paid the owners to watch those wins, the writers wrote about them; they belong to history now, and to memory. We can’t re-live the 1990s to change the memories we have. It’s the job of the game to enforce the rules while the games are being played; having failed that (failed badly enough that clouds of unproven suspicion linger over many players without the evidence to resolve them), we are cutting off our noses to spite our faces by keeping a generation of the game’s best players out of the Hall, in a way that ultimately degrades the whole point of the place: to be a commemoration of the best in the game’s history. The game survived segregation and wars and gambling and cocaine and spitballs and assaults on umpires; we can keep those memories alive too and try to remedy them going forward, but we still enshrined the players who won baseball games through all of them. Because it’s not just their Hall, it’s ours.
It’s not the Hall of Fame if it doesn’t have guys like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza (and, for that matter, Pete Rose). Their flags still fly over their stadiums, their records are still in the books, and their plaques should be in the Hall.

4 thoughts on “The Hall of Fail”

  1. One of the few instances where we’re not in complete agreement. Here’s my take on the obvious steroid cheaters: Imagine Lance Armstrong being inducted into the cycling hall of fame or Ben Johnson keeping his gold medal. That’s the way I see Bonds, McGwire, Palmeiro, Sosa.
    There’s cheating to get an edge (spitballs, amphetamines) & getting or not getting caught and outright cheating on par with playing poker using a marked deck (steroids). Someone taking an upper didn’t go from warning track power to the 18th row, they simply were given better focus (not that I’m excusing).
    No, I can’t prove in a court of law, but common sense tells me that Palmeiro starting using in ’93 when his gargantuan power suddenly appeared out of nowhere*, Bonds started using when he gained 30 lbs. of muscle in 18 months (at age 35), etc. Before ’93 (roids), Palmeiro was a poor man’s Bill Buckner & I have a tough time thinking that he’d have been a better player than Dale Murphy had he been clean, even if I can’t scientifically show how or when.
    *Yes, I know 27/28 are the beginnings of prime years, but he had over 2,500 at bats by that time & his power became not just better, but demonstrably better, almost overnight.
    My 2 cents. Maybe it’s because I’m into the weight lifting thing & can tell how much of a difference steroids makes: it’s huge, pun intended, and it makes people do things they would never – EVER – be able to even contemplate approaching if they weren’t using/cheating. It’s not just performance enhancing, it’s performance CREATING.

  2. No one gets in. I’m okay with that. I’m also okay with a compiler like Biggio getting in. I am not okay with Biggio in his first go round getting 91 more votes than Tim Raines in his, what, 5th or 6th? Craig Biggio couldn’t carry Tim Raines jock. I realize they played different positions and were different styles of players but who would you rather have? Raines is, in my mind, so unfairly punished for not being Ricky Henderson (or being a lead-off guy in the Henderson Era) that it borders on ridiculous at this point. Biggio hit more HRs and doubles and played in more games. Raines was a better hitter, got on base more often and stole 394 more bases while only being caught 22 more times than Biggio! This is some weird blindspot voters have. I don’t get it.

  3. No Bonds or Clements or Sosa or McGuire for me. The Hall is for guys who we want to look up to, not druggies.

  4. The writers do have egregious blind spots, which is one of the quirks of human nature I suppose we should enjoy, like umpires blowing calls because they’re, well, human.
    I despise the writers’ posturing, especially on steroids. Players who admitted their guilt can be blackballed, if that is what a voter believes to be necessary. I’m sick of the guessing games based on players’ appearance changes during their career. Unless there is proof that they cheated, they’re presumed innocent.
    The other problem with steroids is that the owners, the players, and the league colluded to ignore the use and effect of steroids in order to please the fans. In other words, they gave the people what they wanted, and now some of the people want to complain about how their entertainment was provided. Baseball careers have always been defined by on-the-field accomplishments. You can put an asterisk on every player from the so-called Steroid Era if you want, but you simply cannot ignore their accomplishments.

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