Sunday, January 06, 2008

Fame & Infamy, Part I

We're just a few hours away from Roger Clemens and Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, a couple of days away from the Baseball Hall of Fame's announcement of the BWAA class of 2008, a couple of weeks away from the Mitchell Report clown show going to Washington, and just over a month away from pitchers and catchers. So now looks like a decent time to take on a few topics of interest, starting with the Hall of Fame.

It's been a bad few years with me and the Hall of Fame, ranging from them accepting the Mark Ecko Asterisk Ball, to the failure to induct Buck O'Neill while he was alive to enjoy it (a mistake everyone seems willing to repeat with someone who's even more obviously qualified for induction, Marvin Miller), down to petty crap like the fiasco when the Hall's president canceled a 15th Anniversary presentation of Bull Durham in an attempt to muzzle Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins's views about the war in Iraq.

Don't get me wrong. The Hall of Fame is still a great institution. When you say "Hall of Fame", without any modifiers, people assume you're talking about the one in Cooperstown, New York (unlike other sports where you have to be very specific in your identifications, like the "Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio," which, I suppose, distinguishes it from the Flag Football Hall of Fame, in Mentor, Ohio). Unlike other sports, which sometimes induct ten people at a shot, the baseball Hall of Fame is pretty exclusive.

But I'm dreading the announcement of the Hall of Famers come Tuesday. I have the distinct feeling that it's going to be upsetting--there are four people on the ballot who are amply qualified to be in the Hall of Fame, and three of them are unlikely to get in for bad reasons. Saying that Bert Blyleven's a Hall of Famer is a trope by now, an argument that's been had over and over, and there's not much more to say. Mark McGwire's case hinged on a single bad day in his life, where the negotiated terms for his testifying before Congress were that he was "not there to talk about the past," an unfortunate lawyer-scripted phrase that's come to signify pathetic chumpitude nation-wide. Onetime Yankee Goose Gossage is the best reliever not currently in the Hall, and arguably better than the relievers who've already been inducted. And then there's the new guy, former Yankee Tim Raines, who's probably the third best left fielder I've seen play, behind Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds.

All these men had long, distinguished careers. Each helped teams to championships, and were respected by their peers. But I don't think Raines, McGwire, or Blyleven have any chance of making the required 75% of BWAA votes to get inducted. For McGwire, the flames of indignation over the use of PEDs were fanned during the voters' prime time by the Mitchell Report. Even though Mitchell had nothing new to say about McGwire (indeed, precious little new information about anything) the Report politicizes Big Mac's induction possibilities beyond "we'll punish him by not making him a first-year inductee." The longer McGwire waits, the more alternate rationales--beyond the suspected-but-never-proven steroid use--for denying him the vote his detractors will conjure. It's a downward cycle. Blyleven's case was made by my fellow stat-heads; it's a compelling argument, but the movement already peaked without Blyleven getting in--there's no reason to think that he'll suddenly start to pick up support again. And Raines? He suffers by direct comparison to Rickey, since Henderson was the one with the MVP and stolen base records, while Raines fell short on both counts. When you get labeled the "poor man's version" of anything, it diminishes you--not enough people pay attention to the fact that Raines is the poor man's version of an inner circle Hall of Famer--what I like to call a member of the Broom Closet of the Immortals. The fact is, you can fall short of Immortal and still be Hall-worthy...but it's not expected that the BWAA will get that idea, either.

If I were a betting man, I'd think that the writers will elect a slate in honor of the 30th anniversary of the 1978 pennant race, inducting Gossage and fellow AL East antagonist, Jim Rice. At this point, Rice has been on the ballot almost as long (14 years) as he played in the major leagues (16 seasons). I can't fathom why it's a good idea to consider someone's candidacy for anything that long--sure, maybe it's not all love at first sight, but what, exactly, could have changed in the last 10 years that Rice has been eligible that wasn't so for the first four? The new thing that seems to be driving the Rice lobby is revisionism--a repackaging of Rice as the last "natural" slugger (a claim which is far more presumptive than anything else), and using the steroid controversy to retroactively boost his bona-fides. Sadly, nothing about current or recent steroid use changes the fact that those bona-fides, were simply not good for long enough to merit induction.

I could be wrong, but the election of a Goose/Rice slate would be bittersweet--a happy recognition of one of the most dominant pitchers of the last 40 years, but a decision that would leave a bad taste in the mouth both because of the many worthies who were excluded.

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