Hall of Nothing

The fine line between enshrining and enshrouning
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Seattle honors Edgar as it seems fit

Photo © KellBailey, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

The Baseball Hall of Fame will announce the members of its 2012 class on January 9. If all goes according to plan, one or a few inductees will get phone calls from some suit in Cooperstown and they will cry. Then word will be leaked our way. We will sing the praises of the chosen, pour one out for Edgar Martínez, and begin anew the cycle of arguing about what greatness is, how you measure it, and how you deal with the fact that sometimes greatness is built on a foundation of bullshit.

One of the players on the ballot is Jeff Bagwell. Bagwell is among my all-time favorites. As a kid I owned more of his cards than anybody else’s, and even somehow acquired a tin can with his face on it. An actual tin can. In part because he played during the steroid era and in part because his counting stats aren’t especially gaudy, Bagwell is unlikely to enter Cooperstown. In theory this should sadden me a great deal. After all, by some well-respected statistical measurements, Bagwell is the best player on the Hall of Fame ballot this year.

But I’m not saddened by the possibility that Jeff Bagwell will never be a Hall of Famer. What saddens me is seeing his career reduced to a referendum on steroids or on statistical analysis. What saddens me is watching everything that made people appreciate Jeff Bagwell—his stance, his glove, his huge goatee—get buried under the piles of moral and analytical shit thrown around in the debate over his Hall candidacy.

Ironically, Bagwell would be better served if we treated him like the guys lower on the ballot, the non-candidates. These are the players who, despite seeming blatantly inadequate, we remember in all three dimensions of fondness. Brad Radke who once gave up 732 home runs in a single season. Vinny Castilla, who in 1998 seemed like he might actually become a serious candidate for this office. Tim Salmon. Tony Womack. Jeromy Burnitz.

And then there are the real candidates, the Barry Larkins, who bring with them the air of boardroom caliber discussion, the season of high horse rides and vacant statistical argumentation. By Christmas things have heated to the point of daily newspaper columns, context-free tweets that make perfect sense, and rampant speculation over the air and radio waves. These days the big story is the drugs. You can lock Barry Bonds up in his mansion for months on end but you’ll never contain the hand-wringing Hall prose that he and his sacrilegious ilk wrought. But let’s look beyond that.

Incessant arguing about who is better is a fact of every baseball fan’s life. I’ve found myself yelling across a bar to strangers about Todd Worrell’s effectiveness more times than I care to remember. But arguing about who is better is different from arguing about who is X level of arbitrary, undefined Great. There is no official statistical barrier for entry into the Hall of Fame. A player need only be sufficiently perceived as worthy. And yet this time every year we turn ostensibly fun conversations into frustrating arguments about what a bunch of writers whose opinions aren’t any more valid than our own should or should not perceive.

So what if Edgar Martínez has a higher career WAR than Andre Dawson? What’s interesting about that conversation? What gets lost under all the ritual groaning about milestones and performance enhancing drugs are the interesting points. Edgar Martínez is more than a bundle of offensive productivity and more than the evidence or answer in an argument. He is the possessor of the most uniquely beautiful swing any right-handed batter has ever displayed in a professional baseball game. He is responsible for a double to beat the Yankees in the 1995 ALDS that stands as the single most important moment in Mariners history. Mariano Rivera supposedly called him the toughest batter he ever faced. And hell, he has his own line of mezcal.

Consider Tim Raines. He is the poster-child for Hall of Fame advocacy in the age of the internet. He was an undeniably great ballplayer. In Rock, he had a cool nickname. If I voted, Tim Raines would have been inducted inducted already. But for whatever reason—maybe because he doesn’t have those 3,000 hits—Tim Raines remains a long ways from that 75 percent threshold. Leading Expos nostalgist and 21st century baseball maven Jonah Keri has made a million compelling arguments in favor of Raines’ nomination and even helped create a website dedicated to his Hall candidacy. As if anybody outside of a Port St. Lucie hotel bar in March ever had a kind thought about the Baseball Writers Association of America, Keri has called Raines’ stalled candidacy a “damning statement on the cognitive abilities and biases” of the voters.

What’s obvious in all this is that it should not require high-level statistical analysis to appreciate Tim Raines as a special ballplayer. Nor should Raines’ legacy require the paternalistic approval of a bunch of writers who after a long season spent spinning melodrama from banality make it their business in the winter to draw sacred lines at some arbitrary point between goodness and greatness. Like all of the awards in baseball, induction into the Hall of Fame is purely subjective. The wall that Keri and company are banging their heads against on behalf of Tim Raines is invisible. And the best outcome of all that banging exists entirely apart from the Hall of Fame. The best outcome is that baseball fans are reminded—or even informed for the first time—about the dynamo that was Tim Raines.

It’s not lost on me that if the Hall of Fame stakes weren’t there, the Tim Raines appreciation society might not get the same amount of public attention. But that’s exactly the problem. Instead of appreciating baseball for all it offers and enjoying its stars for all they give us—which really is so much—we chose to give ourselves ulcers over the injustices committed by the BBWA. Yes, there is something to be said for tradition. Ballplayers emoting on the podium in Cooperstown in August makes for stirring television. Though not nearly as stirring as the thought that Ron Santo, who by all accounts wanted enshrinement more than anything, had to die before finally getting enough attention to merit entry via the backdoor that is the Veteran’s Committee.

For perspective, let’s turn back to Bagwell, who seems to have recognized that a bronze plaque does nothing to change anything:

Would I be honored to death to be in the Hall of Fame? Of course I would. But it doesn't consume me at all. I loved every single part of what I did as a baseball player. But I've got my kids, I've got my family, and getting in the Hall of Fame isn't going to affect my life one way or the other. And it won't make me feel any better about my career.

All that absurd moralizing about steroids. All those man-hours spent reducing careers into arguments for and against inclusion in an undefined statistical subset. All the agonizing Januaries for Ron Santo. All for a big nothing.

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