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June 17, 2003

Prospectus Today

Hall of Fame Dilemmas

by Joe Sheehan

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Just days after notching his 300th win, Roger Clemens is back to garnering bad press. Clemens, who spent his first 13 seasons with the Red Sox, claims he will skip his Hall of Fame induction ceremony unless his plaque shows him wearing a Yankee cap. Clemens, whose malice towards his first team is well known, became a free agent after the 1996 season and signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, with the Sox making just a token offer for his services. He's been largely disliked in Boston since then, and the feeling is mutual.

This could be a pretty good battle, if the Hall elects to pick a fight over it. I mean, Roger Clemens versus the Hall of Fame? These two are to public relations what the Tigers and Devil Rays are to quality baseball. By the time it's over, the Hall might be a burning pile of rubble, and Clemens on the lam in South America, a man without a country.

I'm inclined to side with Clemens. If an organization wants to honor someone by hanging their image on its walls until the glaciers melt, the person should have control over that image. Within reason, I think players should be allowed to choose their own cap or, as Catfish Hunter did, to have no team logo. Clemens has spent a significant chunk of his career in pinstripes, winning two championships, a Cy Young Award and No. 300, which is more than enough to warrant his identification with the Yankees.

The more interesting question is where the line between "reasonable" and "farce" is drawn. Even Hall of Fame players are prone to spending their career in two or more uniforms, and choosing how that player is to be identified in one of baseball's sacred spaces is a sensitive issue. The Hall is right to take its role as protector of the game's history seriously, and players are right to want their bronzed head to look the way they want it to.

Some cases are easy. Wade Boggs reportedly had an arrangement to have a Devil Rays cap on his soon-to-be-cast plaque. Boggs played his last two years with the Rays, and has since served the team in a variety of capacities. The Hall scoffed, and rightfully so. Expect Boggs' plaque to have a Red Sox cap on it.

On the other hand, Dave Winfield made it clear that his preference was to be inducted as a Padre, and the Hall acquiesced, even though Winfield played more games with the Yankees. Nolan Ryan's plaque depicts him as a member of the Texas Rangers, with whom he spent just five seasons, two of them injury-marred. While Ryan did become an icon in those years, winning his 300th game and crossing the 5,000-strikeout mark, it would be hard to argue that those years are representative of his career. In fact, the Hall's deferring to Ryan's wishes is the single best precedent that players like Clemens have for being allowed to choose their own cap.

Long before Clemens, there was Carlton Fisk, the decorated Red Sock who himself left Boston on unpleasant terms. Inducted in 2000 after spending the final 13 years of his career with the White Sox, and with more of just about everything worth counting for the Pale Hose, Fisk was nonetheless carved with a "B" on his cap, much to his displeasure.

This topic isn't going away. Let's look at some of the interesting cap questions the Hall will face over the next decade or so:

  • Gary Carter: The Hall has already made its call, denying the Kid's request to be bronzed with the interlocking orange NY and instead inducting him as an Expo. Carter was an All-Star seven times in 10 seasons for the Expos, a period that included all but one of his productive years. However, Carter was considered a leader of the 1986 Mets, the only championship team on which he played.

    The Carter case is a great example of what a lot of the legitimate debates will come down to: the team with whom a player had his best individual seasons, versus the team with whom he won a title or two. Clemens falls into this category as well. Choosing between the two isn't easy, and the part of the debate I find interesting is that the players who want to be associated not with their best individual performances, but with their championship teams--such as Carter and Clemens--are often characterized as greedy or selfish for expressing that desire.

  • Andre Dawson: Dawson probably shouldn't make the Hall, but the soft ballots coming up in the next few years will give him a chance. If The Hawk is elected, there will an interesting debate. He was by far at his best with the Expos from 1977 through 1986, but achieved his greatest fame as a member of the Cubs, including the extremely dubious 1987 NL MVP award. Without a strong association to a champion, Dawson should probably go in as an Expo. (Well, he shouldn't go in, but you know what I mean.)

  • Paul Molitor: This shouldn't be controversial, as Molitor spent 15 of his 21 seasons in a Brewers uniform, going to the World Series in 1982 and hitting in 39 straight games in 1987. Still, he's not as associated with the team as Robin Yount is. Molitor went on to win a championship with the Blue Jays and got his 3,000th hit as a Twin, so if he elects to make an issue of it, Molitor will have some bullets.

  • Mark McGwire: McGwire achieved his greatest fame by hitting 70 home runs in 1998 with the Cardinals. He played 4 1/2 seasons with the Cardinals, hitting more than a third of his 583 home runs wearing red. However, McGwire played in 12 seasons with the A's, was a key part of the mini-dynasty that won three pennants and a World Series. The A's success with him dwarfs what the Cardinals did.

  • McGwire's accomplishments in St. Louis placed him in the pantheon of baseball greats, and it's not unreasonable to see him cast in bronze with the letters "StL" on his cap. If that happens, though, his induction is going to be an important moment for all players who come after him who have a strong feeling about the image on their plaque.

  • Roberto Alomar: Alomar may eventually be regarded as the first Hall of Famer who could not be associated with any team. Close your eyes and picture Alomar; what uniform is he in?

    Blue Jays fans may disagree--he was on both of their World Championship teams in his five years north of the border--but I believe there is no lasting mental image of Alomar. He's never spent more than five seasons with one team, and the difficulty in drawing a bead on him as a player may actually hurt his Hall of Fame case. I guess he's a Blue Jay if he's elected.

  • The other Hall of Famer in that famous 1990 trade--Fred McGriff--has almost all the same attributes. He won a World Series with the Braves, but spent just 4 1/2 years in Atlanta. In fact, if you ignore his five at-bats for the 1986 Blue Jays, that 4 1/2-year stint in the South is his longest tenure anywhere.

  • Mike Piazza: This will be a very interesting case. Piazza had his best years in Los Angeles, and still has more of everything as a Dodger. Like Carter, though, he was on a World Series team with the Mets, albeit one that didn't win. This one will probably be determined by the balance of Piazza's career, or more accurately, whether he accepts a trade to a team that's not rebuilding. If he stays with the Mets, it will become a close call.

  • Randy Johnson: Had he retired over the winter, Johnson would have had just four seasons with the Diamondbacks. He also would have had four Cy Young Awards and a championship in those four years. His contract extension probably locks up his induction as a Snake.

  • Mike Mussina: Nobody thinks of him as a Hall of Famer because of the four legends he has as peers. Mussina will have 200 wins by the end of the year and not turn 35 until after it. He's still near the top of his game and will likely end up around 250-275 wins with excellent peripherals for his era. His career still tilts heavily Oriole, but with 3 1/2 years to go on his Yankee deal, he could have a distinct individual/team contrast before he retires.

While there will always be hard choices like Carter, McGwire and Piazza, the Hall of Fame can at least protect itself against abuses by adopting a two-line rule:

"For a team's cap to be depicted on a Hall of Fame plaque, a player must have spent at least five seasons with that team, or been a player on three of its championship teams."
It's simple, elegant, and leaves an out clause for what might be a legitmate exception. I cannot think of a Hall of Fame player, or even a lesser one, with a substantial career that would have him identified with a club with whom he spent less than five seasons. Had Clemens retired before the 2003 season, he would have had just four years as a Yankee; coming back for a fifth season and winning No. 300 in a Yankee uniform solidifes the argument for inducting him as a Bomber. McGwire presents a problem, but the Hall of Fame can interpret "five seasons" as "any part of five seasons," which would bring this rule in line with the one regarding Hall of Fame eligibility. That would help McGriff as well.

With this rule in place, fears that a player would "sell" his plaque to a team he had little connection to would be eliminated. With the possibility of egregious abuse covered by the rule, however, it then seems reasonable to allow a player's image to be what he wishes it to be.

--

There's a boy who lives across the street from us. To be honest, I can't recall his name half the time, and I don't know his family at all. He's just the neighbor kid, the kind I'm sure you all have: reasonably polite, impossibly skinny, seems to grow three inches a month.

He's 13, and he's started playing baseball again for the first time since T-ball. Last night, I was putting out the garbage and I saw him throwing to a pitchback. We exchanged "hellos," and I was on my way back inside when something grabbed me. I dug deep into the garage for my black Easton second baseman's mitt, which practically crumbled to the touch, walked down the driveway and stuck it up at him.

For the next 15 minutes, we didn't say much, just tossed a baseball back and forth as the evening grew darker. He asked if I played (I haven't since '95), I asked what positions he liked (left field), but mostly, we listened to the thwap-thwap-thwap of ball and glove.

It was the most fun I'd had outside in years. Before I ever wrote about baseball, before I'd ever heard of OBP or Bill James or Bud Selig, I loved playing ball. Standing out there, playing a simple game of catch with a ratty hardball and my even harder mitt, enjoying the cheap thrill of making the ball curve with a simple flick of my wrist, or picking a one-hopper clean off the asphalt, left me giddy. Just the feel of a baseball in my hand--it was every stupid cliché ever written about baseball all rolled into one.

I love watching baseball, and I'm ridiculously lucky to get to write about it for an audience. But the core of my attachment to the game is tactile. It's line singles to left and turning a double play and throwing the change-up on just the right count. I miss that; I knew that already, but it wasn't until last night that I realized just how much I miss it.

I'll spend half of today icing my elbow, but it was worth it.

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

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