Wednesday, January 10, 2007

HoFfing Glue

Atom Ant - Not in the Hall of Fame,
Did Use Performance-Enhancing Substances

Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken are in, which is not a surprise. Nobody else is, which is also not a surprise. As ridiculous as it is, voters for the Baseball Hall of Fame tend to measure the candidates on a ballot against each other, rather than against the rather nebulous standard of what a Hall of Famer is. That means that in a year with a couple of no-doubters like Gwynn (whose baseball telecasts are an immense pleasure) and Ripken, everyone else on the ballot gets held against them, and found lacking. After all, voting in a Goose Gossage or a Bert Blyleven (or, if I keep going with the alliteration, Lois Lane or Atom Ant) the same year as Cal or Tony somehow means that they're equivalent to Cal and Tony, and we can't have that sort of thing.

This is, of course, arrant nonsense. A Hall of Famer should be measured against the standards of the Hall itself, not against the accident of timing that puts some new faces on the ballot one year and others the next. A Hall of Famer's accomplishments need to be measured against the meaningful context of what he did in his career, not against what names abut his alphabetically on a piece of paper.

For my part, I'm disappointed that Blyleven and Gossage didn't make it, and still on the fence about Jim Rice, Andre Dawson, and Dale Murphy. While there are compelling statistical cases as to why those three gents each fall just short, there's also an intangible that I do think needs to be considered, which is to say it is the Hall of Fame. Fame is a slippery thing, hard to define, but my feeling is this: the HoF should be a place to enshrine the game's immortals, the men whose mere presence made a game exciting, whose plate appearances or starts or rip-snorting rides out of the bullpen provided tangible buzz and awe. For all that Andre Dawson's MVP season with the Cubs isn't that impressive when you look at it with WARP, it was still the talk of that summer, the must-see at-bat, the achievement that kept eyes on the Cubs long after their other player had mostly caused fans to look away in disgust.

Yes, the Hall should be a shrine to achievement, and tools like Jay Jaffe's JAWS measurement do a fabulous job of putting all of that into a cross-era context that should be required reading for any Hall voter. But I also think that getting people excited about baseball is an achievement, and not an entirely unimportant one.

Which brings me, tangentially, to writer Paul Ladewski of Chicago's Daily Southtown, who turned in a blank Hall of Fame ballot rather than vote for anyone from the steroid era. His high-minded column noted that since he couldn't be sure about anyone in the so-called "Steroid Age", he wouldn't vote for anyone. It all sounds very noble, until you start thinking about it. For one thing, why this year? There were plenty of people on the ballot whose careers overlapped the "Steroid Era" who weren't first-time candidates. So to be true to his position, he would have had to have not voted last year...and the year before, and the year before, and so on back to roughly the 1990 election. For another, he bends over backwards to cover his derriere in case he changes his mind and votes for some of these guys later on - the precise quote is "Rest assured that I haven't written off anyone who played in the 'Roids Rage Age permanently".

So in all likelihood, we're looking at a one-year moral stand that just happens to coincide with the appearance of Mark McGwire on the ballot. On the other hand, it did introduce the name Paul Ladewski to a lot of people who wouldn't know the Daily Southtown from Luca Brazzi's fish wrapper. It may be cynical of me, but if I see an announcement that Mr. Ladewski landed a book deal any time in the near future, I'll feel entirely comfortable chalking this one up as nothing but a publicity stunt.

As opposed to right now, when I think it's only partially, maybe mostly, one.
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