The Pen: Let's boil baseball's Hall of Fame debates down to one sentence

Baseball’s Hall of Fame debates are tedious for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I find them dull and largely divorced from the most dynamic elements of the game. Unfortunately, my personal disinterest is not enough to keep them from dominating the news cycle, necessitating a column of some sort.

And rather than spend the entire time complaining about how the conversation surrounding deservedness of different candidates too often devolves into extrapolating the credentials of historic figures to form parametersyou must be this tall to ride the ride — or else repeatedly pointing out that if you just want to know who ranks among the top Pick-A-Number in cumulative WAR, Baseball-Reference is user-friendly … instead of all of that I am going to try to be additive to the process by suggesting a better way to not just frame these debates but also the entire Cooperstown institution. As a spoiler, it amounts to a radically small hall, although the size is a side effect of the governing principle and not the primary intent itself. 


(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

OK: Someone is deserving of induction into the Hall of Fame if it’s possible to make a compelling case that he or she had a unique and indelible impact on baseball in a single sentence that is more words than it is numbers.

Definitionally, someone is not that famous (which is the key metric here) if you can’t articulate what they’re famous for. And being really good at baseball isn’t enough if the whole point is to distinguish them from the other members of the top tiny fraction of a percent of people in the world when it comes to playing the game. In order to merit inclusion in what is quite literally a museum of the sport, it should be impossible to tell the history of baseball without mentioning that particular player’s contributions.

Sound arbitrary? That’s the point! I think the role of the Hall of Fame and by extension a Hall of Fame voter should be to evaluate the ineffable and bestow an honor that is specifically and meaningfully different from anything quantifiable.

Maybe some examples will help: 

Derek Jeter: The face, captain, and frequent best player of a star-studded, era-defining New York Yankees dynasty. 

In or out: In.

Barry Bonds: The best home run hitter in the history of the game.

In or out: In. (On the whole cheating thing? Bonds played in a performance-enhanced era when the baseline was skewed by the prevalence of steroids, and still his tremendous ability stood out. Plus, it’s hard to argue against his unique, named role in the history of the game.)

Longtime Rockies star Larry Walker, who memorably wore his helmet backward while facing Randy Johnson in the 1997 All-Star Game, is one of the closest calls for induction on the 2020 ballot. (Photo By Rich Pilling/MLB via Getty Images)

Larry Walker: One of the most complete players of his era. 

In or out: Out. (Unfortunately for the Colorado Rockies and Montreal Expos star, he’s exactly the kind of guy this New Hall would exclude by treating election not as an automatic honorific that kicks in above a certain talent threshold. Impact, not ability, would become the primary metric.) 

Mariano Rivera: Exemplified the importance of an elite closer on a championship team by being the most consistent reliever in history.

In or out: In.

Edgar Martinez: Very good DH, maybe?

In or out: Sorry, Edgar.

Mike Trout: Mainstreamed WAR as a way of articulating how much better he is at nearly every aspect of the game compared to both his contemporaries and also historical greats.

In or out: In, even if he retires tomorrow.

Sammy Sosa: Half of the 1998 home run race that saved the sport following the strike

In or out: In.

All of these qualitative evaluations are open to debate. The point is simply that if we adhered to a rubric that is admittedly arbitrary we could move the debates away from comparing statistics, which are already set in stone, to arguing about whose career had the greater impact on the arc of the game. 

I mean, it won’t actually happen. The long history of the Hall sets a strong example and it’s impossible to not trend toward translating known data into replicable formulas for the sake of expediency and order. It’s too tempting to have math on your side. Besides, the flaws in my system are inherently problematic — ascribing value independent of on-field measurables implicitly favors pre-existing biases. It can be harder to spot someone who was overlooked at the time if you’re only looking at their legacy.

The Hall of Fame doesn’t need to cater to people, like me, who don’t find the current structure compelling. But I still think it is useful to consider how a shrine to the sport might look without precedent or pressure to reward people just for playing well. It might not be better, and it won’t be more fair, but it would be different than anything you could look up online. If nothing else, now this column is done.

Notes from the baseball internet

As bushfires devastate Australia, players need to focus on action not reaction, by Howard Bryant at ESPN 

This unflinching column explores how, as Bryant writes, “The professional athlete as neutral humanitarian is a failing approach.” He uses the climate change-exasperated bushfires in Australia and the Australian Open in Melbourne as an opportunity to chastise athletes who engage with public disasters by offering relief aid while often refusing to call out the political forces that contributed to these disasters.

“By focusing on raising money after disasters have struck while being silent before, the players are indirectly taking the easy way out — appearing to be part of the solution while protecting their lane of being inoffensive,” Bryant writes. This is a fair, and likely unpopular, criticism of so many high-profile celebrities. The goal should be to prevent fatal climate events, and benefiting from the brownie points of being willing to part with a fraction of your wealth in the wake of them is not a substitute to throwing influence behind saving our planet. 

“You Guys Are Scaring Me”, by Daniel Engber at Slate

If you read 10,000 words on Band-Aid buzzer conspiracy theories and fake athlete burners last week, you can spare some time today for this thorough and harrowingly detailed account of an alleged rape perpetrated by three New York Mets in 1991. Engber takes you through not just a rigorous account of the accusations, but also the context of dangerous, often criminal womanizing around the team at the time and the misogynistic reception of rape claims in the public sphere. If the penultimate paragraph doesn’t knock the wind out of you, you aren’t paying attention.

We need to stop glorifying the 1980s Mets, by Craig Calcaterra at NBC Sports

And when you’re done at Slate, read this, which is the appropriate reaction and a reminder that, in characterizing those Mets as rough-and-tumble, writers and fans often gloss over just how abhorrent their behavior really was. The rose-colored effects of nostalgia should not be applied to misogynistic violence.

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