Jan 29, 2024, 06:24AM

Small Halls for Small Minds

My take on sports halls of fame, particularly the oh-so-hallowed one in Cooperstown? Admit as many living players as you can—it’s good for business.

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The announcement of Baseball Hall of Fame's 2024 class, which features Adrian Beltré, Todd Helton, Joe Mauer, and three-time manager of the year Jim Leyland, has kicked off the annual debate about the criteria for induction into this storied institution. With the inclusion of Beltré at a towering 95.1 percent of the votes—his percentage of votes received exceeded even his staggering 93.5 career wins above replacement (WAR)—the discussion isn’t so much about his worthiness but about a broader philosophy that governs the Hall’s gates. Helton and Mauer, while perhaps seen as "borderline" by bratty fans who like to piss and moan about everything, embody the near-great careers that ignite passionate discussions about what the Hall of Fame represents, not just to the purists of the sport but also to the wider public.

The role of the Hall of Fame extends far beyond being a mere repository of historical achievements; it's a vibrant marketing tool, a beacon for fan engagement, and a living narrative of baseball's history. Its value lies in the nostalgia it peddles and the legends it immortalizes. The inclusion of “merely good” players such as George "Highpockets" Kelly and "Sunny Jim" Bottomley, as well as more contemporary choices like Harold Baines and Fred McGriff, serves as a reminder that baseball's tapestry is woven from threads of varying shades and strengths. Their plaques serve not to diminish the Hall but to enrich the mosaic of baseball’s past, but instead give these living almost-legends a fun induction weekend in which to wax poetic about their playing careers and Cooperstown visitors more vaguely familiar visages at which to gawk (“he used to play for the Orioles, right?”).

Face the facts: The Hall of Fame shouldn’t be an exclusive club for a pantheon of baseball gods alone, like Hank Aaron, Walter Johnson, or Babe Ruth. Such a limited view would result in a Hall that resembles less a grand cathedral of baseball lore and more a modest county history center dedicated to a local corn baron or Confederate colonel, quickly perused during a road trip stopover and just as quickly forgotten. Instead, opening its doors wider to include those who’ve made significant impacts on the game, such as Tommy John, not only recognizes their contributions but also perpetuates the game's lore for future generations.

John’s omission, even for those favoring some sort of Hall of Fame middle ground, is inexplicable. Consider both his statistical achievements and the cultural impact he's had on the sport. His career, which spanned an impressive 26 seasons and 61.6 WAR, speaks to both durability and consistency. With 288 career wins, he ranks 26th all-time, a testament to his longevity and skill on the mound. However, his influence extends beyond his counting statistics and into the realm of sports medicine thanks to Dr. Frank Jobe’s revolutionary "Tommy John Surgery." This procedure, a ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction that John underwent in 1974, not only saved his career but has since become a lifeline for countless pitchers, altering the trajectory of the sport itself.

But if you left it up to someone like longtime sports pundit and Washington, PA native Jay Mariotti, neither John nor this year’s four inductees would ever set foot on that holy ground. Mariotti's perspective on Hall of Fame inductions is rooted in exclusivity, favoring a "small hall" approach that elevates a select few above all others—he has famously submitted blank ballots to make the point, in the process consigning borderline players in their final seasons of eligibility to oblivion. While maintaining standards of excellence is crucial, the Hall of Fame must also reflect the sport's evolution and the varied ways players have left their mark.

Players like longtime Orioles and Angels second baseman Bobby Grich, whose career WAR of 71.1 reflects his exceptional defense and above-average hitting, exemplify the overlooked talents who’ve significantly contributed to the game. Grich's seven All-Star appearances, four Gold Gloves, and career-spanning mustache underscore a career worthy of Hall of Fame recognition.

Dale Murphy's back-to-back MVP awards in the 1980s speak to a peak performance that few have matched. Murphy was a beacon of power and skill in an era that bridged the gap between the stars of the 1970s and the steroid era that would follow, not to mention a clean-living Mormon who captured the hearts of an entire generation of New South fans in a way even his more successful successors, like Chipper Jones and Greg Maddux, could not. During the decade in which he was one of the few things worth watching on TBS, his influence and performance at the time brought attention to media mogul Ted Turner’s struggling Atlanta Braves franchise.

I suppose I could go on naming names, as notoriously long-winded Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun did in the prolegomenon to his incoherent and poorly-written 1972 Flood v. Kuhn decision that doomed Cardinals centerfielder Curt Flood (another man worthy of Hall of Fame induction, both for his fielding prowess and his willingness to blow up his career to try to achieve free agency for his fellow players) to an early retirement. And I will, because it’s the Baseball Hall of Fame and kvetching about it is what we’re supposed to do.

Consider, for example, Darrell Porter's career, marked by an MVP-caliber season in 1979 and a pivotal role in the 1982 World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals, demonstrates the impact of a player whose contributions aren’t entirely captured by traditional statistics. In spite of his many demons, he racked up 40 WAR and, all things being equal, was probably the best catcher of the 1980s when his head was right.

Meanwhile, Dwight Evans' arm and bat made him a cornerstone of the Boston Red Sox for two decades. His advanced metrics, particularly a WAR inflated by all the defensive runs he saved, have become a part of the modern evaluation of a player's Hall of Fame credentials. Evans, who remained a solid contributor well into my lifetime, suffered because of his consistency; men like him and fellow Red Sox immortal Johnny Damon were always there doing the work, so it’s like they never were.

Curt Schilling's postseason heroics, including an iconic, bloody-stocking performance in the 2004 American League Championship Series, have become part of baseball lore. His career, punctuated by over 3000 strikeouts and a .846 postseason winning percentage, showcases the type of impact that resonates with fans and historians alike—but his politics offended the voters, and he asked to be taken off the ballot in his final season. That’s fine, but he should’ve been inducted against his will. Imagine the induction speech!

Let’s rush through some more worthies: Kenny Lofton, with his electric speed and defense (68.4 WAR), was a catalyst for the Cleveland Indians throughout the 1990s. His 622 stolen bases place him 15th all-time, reflecting a game-changing talent that impacted the outcome of countless games. “Big Daddy” Rick Reuschel's advanced metrics, like his 69.5 career WAR, tell the story of an overweight and underrated pitcher whose contributions were as steady as they were long-lasting; his 1985 campaign with the Pirates was worth a Gold Glove and 6.2 WAR, but he didn’t so much as sniff a Cy Young vote (Dwight Gooden, another Hall omission, posted a staggering 13.3 WAR that season and was a deserving NL winner).

Lastly, the borderline candidacies of players like Ron Cey, Robin Ventura, John Olerud, David Cone, Jimmy Key, and Kevin Appier speaks to the diversity of baseball excellence. Each brought something unique to the sport, whether it be Cey's power, Ventura's glove and willingness to get his ass kicked by old-man Nolan Ryan, Olerud's silky swing, Cone's pitching artistry and “clubhouse cancer” reputation, Key's precision, or Appier's small-market dominance in the early-1990s.

The Hall of Fame, if it’s to serve as a true testament to the sport, must contain multitudes. It should enshrine those who’ve elevated the game, who’ve given fans moments of awe and years of loyal service—though not necessarily decades of grinding, as too much emphasis is put on long, injury-free careers and not on stunning, Eric Davis-style peaks shortened by injury. It should be inclusive enough to celebrate a wide array of careers, ensuring that its hallowed halls echo not only with the feats of the few but with the stories of many. And it almost goes without saying that Joe Jackson and Pete Rose should be there with bells on; give those guys their own bad-boy wing, and fill it to bursting with all the other malingerers and cheats who were magic at the plate or in the field, from “Prince” Hal Chase to José Canseco and Barry Bonds. I’m here for it. 


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