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September 3, 2010

Manufactured Runs

Hero Worship

by Colin Wyers

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If you’ll indulge me for a moment, let’s take a step back and talk a bit about sabermetrics – not baseball, but sabermetrics… baseball analysis in general, I suppose. You won’t need to do any math for this, either.

This is a thought I’ve been wanting to express for a while, but the occasion was a conversation between the always insightful Patriot (of the site Walk Like A Sabermetrician) and myself on Twitter, about Dale Murphy and the Hall of Fame. Now you may be asking yourself, what does Dale Murphy have to do with the Hall of Fame? Well, one man is campaigning vigorously for his admission, and managed to get an article about it published in SABR’s “The National Pastime” journal.

A quick look at his numbers, in the context of other long-career center fielders, doesn’t make a particularly strong case. That is, if you’re looking at the numbers in a systemic way--asking the question, “Who is a Hall of Famer?” and going from there. It’s not perfect--I don’t think we’ll ever be done learning everything there is to know about baseball--but it’s honest and truthful. In Murphy’s case, what it mostly comes down to is how large you feel the Hall of Fame should be--a very inclusive Hall might see him slip in, a very selective Hall certainly wouldn’t.

But what if you go ahead and flip it around? The question Dan Schlossberg seems to be asking is, “How do you make Dale Murphy look like a Hall of Famer?” And in the course of answering that question, he selects the things Murphy was good at and finds ways to compare them favorably to players everyone would agree were sure Hall of Famers. The idea is to not so much learn about Dale Murphy as it is to proselytize for Murphy.

I don’t want to belabor Murphy too much--this isn’t about him in particular. No, what’s interesting to me is that for practically any player who plays long enough to get Hall of Fame eligibility, there’s a contingent out there willing to argue forcefully and passionately that he’s a worthy entrant of Cooperstown. Some followings are larger and more devoted than others (corresponding roughly but not entirely with a player’s merit) but even the fringiest candidate has someone out there cheering for him, it seems.

And for most of these cases, what comes first is the attachment to that particular player. What you find is that for any major leaguer able to stick around that long, they become somebody’s hero. Someone out there connects with that player at an emotional level. Typically, they see something of themselves--or more likely, the sort of person they’d like to be--in that player.

To be frank--most of us become baseball fans as young boy. Now I know that’s not true for all of us, and I don’t mean to exclude people needlessly, but I think there’s something in the way a young boy approaches baseball that is at the core of almost every baseball fan. We create heroes. To a young boy, a baseball star isn’t simply a well-paid entertainer, he is a titan, a mighty force made into flesh and blood. We connect with our heroes through tokens and abstractions--baseball cards and autographs and magazine pages. We hear their stories on the radio and see them on the TV, and they seem so much larger than life.

And this is one reason I feel really uncomfortable talking about things like the Hall of Fame, or the MVP awards, or whatever. Because in order to elevate some players above others, by necessity you have to lower some players below others. And it’s nearly a cliché but no less true for it--anyone who can make it to the majors, even for a September cup of coffee, is an incredible baseball player. Easily one of the top 1 percent of all baseball talent in the nation. Anyone who can stick with the majors for 10 seasons is likely in the top 10 or 15% of those players. So you’re talking about an extraordinary group of baseball talent.

And every one of them is someone’s hero.

To discriminate between them--to basically say that a certain person’s hero isn’t quite good enough to make the cut--is painful. Now, I admit that if we are to have a Hall of Fame--and I think that we are; it’s the sort of thing where if there isn’t one, people will build it--it’s the sort of thing you have to do. And I feel that if you are to have some sort of argument over a player’s worth, it should be grounded in those basic fundamental truths about baseball, at least as so far as we are able to discern them.

Because everyone’s heroes are equally meaningful and worthwhile, if that sort of heroism is being used. Your hero isn’t any more or less deserving than mine just because he didn’t happen to have his games televised on WGN (which, let’s face it, is how I ended up in the regrettable position of being a Cubs fan) or ending up in the New York sporting press.

When we talk about introducing “intangibles” to a discussion of baseball players, there are really two things we can mean. One is a consideration of the things a player does that are difficult to capture on paper, but are nearly universal among baseball fans. Everyone knows the story of Rick Monday, and I don’t care who you are, it’s a powerful story. (Don’t worry, it’s not the centerpiece of an attempt to convince you that Monday should be in the Hall.) But then there are the intangibles that are a deeply personal thing. It could be a matter of team allegiance--if you go down the list of people who think Don Mattingly is a worthy Hall of Famer, they’re almost all to a man Yankees fans. It could be some other way that a person forges a personal connection with a man he’ll probably never meet--I think all of us as baseball fans have had that experience at some point.

It’s the second category of intangibles that is frankly impossible to include in any meaningful way in a Hall of Fame discussion. To be blunt, the childhood heroes of Royals fans are not (categorically speaking) any less deserving of enshrinement than the childhood heroes of Yankees fans.

And that's the problem when you have analysts-- cold, objective, concerned with the facts--trying to discuss baseball players to which fans have an emotional attachment. This is why you'll hear accusations that certain analysts hate certain teams. (I think Keith Law has been accused of hating at least all 30 teams--it's possible he's been accused of hating more teams than that, once you include teams that no longer exist and the minor leagues.) And that simply isn't the case--it's just that it isn't possible for us to love those players as much as those fans do. Our jobs in fact require that we don't, at least to the greatest extent we can manage. (We are, after all, fans as well--that's how we got into this in the first place.)

Colin Wyers is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Colin's other articles. You can contact Colin by clicking here

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