Monday, January 8, 2018

Annual Hall Of Fame Rant And Hypothetical Ballot

“Voting shall be based on the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, their contributions to the team on which the player played.” -- BWAA's Hall of Fame Rules
Racists and segregationists who conspired to keep African Americans out of baseball are in the Hall of Fame.  So are players who regularly used amphetamines to "enhance" their performance on the field and others who took illegal drugs off the field.  Cheaters are in the Hall, from spitballers to sign stealers.  The Hall includes adulterers, sexual assaulters, drunks and batterers.  But some of the greatest players of the past couple of decades, including some of the greatest in the game's history, are denied induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame because they allegedly used steroids, probably used steroids or simply looked like they used steroids.

This wholly arbitrary application of the so-called "character clause" argues for its elimination as a factor altogether.  This would help dampen the sanctimony of many Hall of Fame voters -- and the self-annointed minister of morality, Joe Morgan -- and their misguided effort to prop up an idealized, idyllic view of the National Pastime that never was.  As S.F. sports columnist Ray Ratto put it:  The Hall of Fame is not a church; it is history, for good and for ill.

It is unquestionable that steroids were used by a large group of players --  hitters and pitchers -- particularly (but not exclusively) from about 1995 until 2005, when the baseball establishment, under pressure, finally began to crack down on the use of performance enhancing drugs.  During this time, when offensive numbers (and players’ heads) were suspiciously inflated, the fans cheered and the owners gleefully looked the other way while pocketing the profits.  The thrilling battle to break Roger Maris's homerun record in 1998 between two puffed up sluggers -- Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire -- was obsessively covered by the media and joyously celebrated by everyone (except Barry Bonds who learned that being the greatest ballplayer of his generation did not garner the accolades that being a PED-enhanced slugger did).  For better or worse, steroids were an accepted part of the game and unless we are going to disqualify everyone who played during these years, we simply have to accept it.  Moreover, with the exception of the few players who have admitted steroid use or where the evidence appears overwhelming, we have no way of knowing with any hope of accuracy who juiced and who didn’t.

Then there is the utter hypocrisy of the induction and reverential treatment of managers Tony La Russa and Joe Torre, who acquiesced while their star players used performance enhancing drugs -- not to mention former commissioner Bud Selig, who was recently voted in despite presiding over the whole debacle. 

Baseball writers who vote for Hall of Fame induction need to stop using their votes to impose their idiosyncratic view of morality on the game.  Voters should simply focus on the players' performances on the field.  Determining who deserves enshrinement is tricky enough without adding a whole other layer of subjectivity. 

And that goes beyond alleged steroid use but applies to other character issues such as offensive and hateful political speech.  Curt Schilling -- a borderline candidate in my view -- may be an intemperate and odious transphobic, anti-Islam, right wing clown, but that should have no bearing on his worthiness for the Hall.

At bottom, the best and most dominant players of every era should be Hall of Famers, period. Without Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the Hall of Fame's avowed goals of "preserving history and honoring excellence" will be greatly diminished. 

For what it's worth, my vote for the 2018 Hall of Fame class (without regard to real or imagined steroid use or other non-baseball issues) would include Clemens and Bonds.  I would also vote for Edgar Martinez, who was without a doubt one of the best pure hitters of his day, despite the fact that his achievements came from being almost purely a designated hitter.  Also deserving of my vote are  Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Ramirez -- two of the most dangerous hitters of their era.  For those appearing on the ballot for the first time, Chipper Jones is an easy call (one of only seven players with a career .300 batting average, .400 on-base percentage, .500 slugging percentage).  He was the leader and best offensive player of the great Braves teams that won their division just about every year -- the quintessential Mets killer, who beat them so often that he named his son Shea, after the Mets' stadium. 

I would pass on Omar Vizquel, an acrobatic, slick fielding shortstop who won 11 Gold Gloves and could field grounders with his bare hand.  But he was a below-average hitter in an era where the best shortstops could hit as well as field, and notably never started in an All Star game.  Then there's Jim Thome, who could hit but not field.  I wrote about him several years ago (see Damn Statistics) and I stand by my position that he is not deserving of the Hall despite gaudy offensive numbers that include more than 600 home runs.

There are strong statistical arguments for other eligible players, but the numbers don't tell the whole story in assessing the career of a baseball player and ultimately the Hall of Fame vote is a gut call.  And using my gut, I would not add to my hypothetical ballot any of the other players who seem to be getting the most attention from the real voters.  The closest calls are Trevor Hoffman, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling and Gary Sheffield.  Hoffman was a relief pitcher with a devastating change up.  After Mariano Rivera, Hoffman has the most career saves -- a statistic, however, that I believe is way overvalued.  (See Save It)  Sheffield, like Guerrero and Ramirez, was a feared hitter for many years but he is not quite of their caliber, in my opinion.  Maybe next year.  Schilling and Mussina were both excellent pitchers with stellar careers for whom a reasonable case for the Hall could be made; just not by me.

Finally, I would vote for Johan Santana, who appears on the ballot this year, for sentimental reasons.  For a five year stretch, from 2004-2008, Santana was arguably the best pitcher in the game.  He won two Cy Young Awards with the Twins in 2004 and 2006, and arguably should have won a third in 2005 over Bartolo Colon, who had more wins that year but was not nearly as dominant as Santana.  He was traded to the Mets in 2008, where I fell in love with him.  Santana led the National League in in ERA and won 16 games that year, and would have won a whole lot more had the Mets' notoriously porous bullpen not blown seven of his starts.  Most memorable was the three-hit shutout he pitched on the final weekend of the season with a torn meniscus in his left knee and the post-season on the line.  (The Mets proceeded to lose the last game of the season to miss the playoffs.)  Santana pitched well in 2009 and 2010, although both seasons were cut short by injuries, and he then missed the entire 2011 season while recovering from shoulder surgery.  And then there was 2012, when he appeared to be back to his brilliant self, pitching the first no-hitter in Mets' history, but requiring 134 pitches with his still fragile left arm to do so.  Santana still only 33 years old, declined rapidly after that, suffering additional injuries and pitching in only ten more games.  Maybe not a Hall of Fame career because of the lack of longevity but in his prime there were few better. 

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