getting it mostly right


It’s time, once again, for my annual Baseball Hall of Fame column. Many of you can stop reading right now and get back to your thrilling game of Poppit! or watching the stalker-feed on facespace update. Thanks for stopping by!

On Monday, the Base-Ball Writers Association of America–a cabal of sports writers so self-styled as vanguards of the game most of them never played that they, as a matter of purity, keep ‘base’ and ‘ball’ separated in their acronym, the BBWAA–announced that the association had elected long-time Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin to the Hall of Fame. He joins the late Ron Santo as the two entrants into Cooperstown this summer.

Larkin’s credentials are solid enough: over the course of 19 seasons, Larkin spent the first part of his career known as the best shortstop in the National League not named Ozzie Smith. 12 of those 19 seasons saw Larkin representing the NL in the All-Star Game. In 1995, he was named the league’s most valuable player. Many of those seasons in Cincinnati were spent on underachieving teams, but Larkin remained a model of consistency. He spent extended times on the disabled list: four seasons he failed to reach 100 games in a season. Given better health circumstances, along with the benefit of a full 1994 season, he would have almost certainly reached 3000 hits. It’s a great career, rightly recognized by the writers as worthy of the Hall of Fame.

So, the writers pretty much got it right this time. Though there’s still a deeper problem with the election system.

ESPN writer David Schoenfield nails it here but it’s worth mentioning again, especially since I’ve harped on this for several years now in the space reserved for the HOF conversation: the writers are allowed ten nominees to list on their respective ballots. Some use all ten, but it seems that many only seem to name a handful, and a few are rumored to return their ballots blank on an annual basis. NBC’s Bob Costas, a sports journalist I generally respect, has publicly given voice to this opinion, saying that he advocates a small Hall, even endorsing going so far as to yank some players enshrined in Cooperstown out in order to protect the Hall’s sanctity.

The problem, as Schoenfield notes, is that history is not on their side, and neither is the future: the Hall will get bigger because the game will continue to be played, and a few of those participants will do so in extraordinary fashion. Certainly, the game may not see another Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Bob Gibson, Hank Aaron or George Brett. Then again, it may not see another Anthony Young, who famously set a major league record for consecutive losses, or a Craig Paquette, whose uninspired career is etched into my mind after years of playing Strat-o-Matic (and having him ride the pine to fill a roster spot.)

The BBWAA seems to neglect the fact that there is a bell curve in place in baseball, as there tends to be anywhere metrics are applied: it’s not the elite and everyone else (though their ivory tower positioning would seem to indicate a level of projection here that I will hereafter let alone); it’s the elite, the middle, and those who just weren’t very good. For every Robin Yount, there have been a few Richie Sexsons, and those Sexsons, there has been a few more Geoff Jenkins, and for those Jenkins, a few Rob Deers, and for those Deers, a Glenn Braggs. And, as time marches along, the bell curve will only shape itself more and more. While, indeed, only a few deserve entrance into Cooperstown, that same bell curve is in place amongst the elite. While we have Ruth, Cobb, Musial, Young and Alexander, we also have Rizzuto, Mazeroski, Youngs, Brooks Robinson and Nellie Fox. The Hall is only as good as those on the latter side of the curve, not the former. On this point, I’m sure the writers would agree with me. Any actions which would demonstrate anything contrary–and it seems that these actions are most pronounced this time of year, oddly enough–to that is impure, adulterated snobbery.

The point is that, once there, there is no first or fifteenth ballot demarcation. Immortality is immortality. And while Barry Larkin is deserving, the idea that the writers felt compelled to make him wait three years after eligibility before granting him admittance is more becoming of grade school Red Rover than it is the supposedly serious and sacred winter liturgy of deciding who is worthy of being ‘well done, good and faithful servant’ and who needs to wait another year and who gets booted to Veterans’ Committee limbo.

None of this can truly be taken seriously as long as Buck O’Neil is not granted entrance the Hall of Fame, particularly in the light of the fact that baseball in post-O’Neil Kansas City has all but disappeared in the urban core.

There are other causes célèbre to champion–I firmly believe Pete Rose and Joe Jackson belong in the Hall–but a man whose encyclopedic knowledge of the Negro Leagues and sincere passion for African-American youth, both academically and atheletically, whose absence has left a gaping vacuum at Kansas City’s Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, demands to be immortalized more than just having an honorary seat at Kauffman Stadium. Admittedly, this isn’t an issue for the writers anymore, but warrants mentioning nonetheless. Someone who can should start a campaign to put Buck’s name on the regular ballot next year, just in time for the crop of steroid era stars to become eligible. Rather than dithering and bickering over the role of scientific engineering in players P, E, or D, take one slot of ten and make a protest vote for a man whose love for people was channeled through his love of the game.

(The likelihood of an actual member of the BBWAA reading this? About as good as me being able to join the BBWAA. Still.)

Before things get really cluttered in the next few years, let’s keep what good mojo we have going and get Jack Morris, Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell in there, too.

Congratulations to Barry Larkin, whose resume is certainly worthy of the Hall of Fame. And congratulations to the writers for doing it right in his regard. Don’t think you’re off the hook, though. Not yet, and not by a Mark McGwire-getting-elected long shot.

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