January 5, 2007
My Hall of Fame Ballot
Next Tuesday, the Hall of Fame will announce the results of the 2007 BBWAA balloting. Unlike last year, when just one player earned induction and no newly-eligible players made a dent in the voting, this year's voting will certainly honor two first-time eligibles and could see at least one other elected.
There's also a minor controversy about a player on the ballot for the first time.
Thirty-two players are listed on the ballot, including 14 newcomers. Let's start there: 11 of those guys were good ballplayers in their day, making some All-Star teams, winning MVPs and Cy Youngs, and have no business making the Hall of Fame. Thanks for the memories, Harold Baines, Dante Bichette, Bobby Bonilla, Scott Brosius, Jay Buhner, Ken Caminiti, Wally Joyner, Paul O'Neill, Bret Saberhagen, Devon White and Bobby Witt. Of the 18 holdovers, I've covered the candidacies of most in recent years, and I haven't changed my mind on any of them: put Albert Belle, Dave Concepcion, Andre Dawson, Steve Garvey, Orel Hershiser, Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Jim Rice, Lee Smith and Alan Trammell into this category. I'll take a look at some of these guys in a piece next Monday, but none will be getting my theoretical vote.
That leaves eight players to discuss. First, the three who I would not vote for, but who deserve a bit more coverage:
Eric Davis. Davis isn't a serious Hall candidate, but I felt weird about lumping him in with the Bichette/Brosius class of first-timers. Davis was even less available than Canseco was, peaking at 135 games played in any season, his game a constant battle between what his body could do-amazing things on a baseball field-and what it could handle.
There are people who will hold up Pete Reiser as an example of a player whose potential Hall of Fame career was derailed by his style of play and what it did to his body. Davis, a greater talent, replaces Reiser as the archetype for this player. Remember that Davis suffered a career-altering kidney injury while helping the Reds to the 1990 world championship. That's the kind of thing we should celebrate. Let's also remember his comeback in the late 1990s, which is one of the great forgotten baseball stories of that era. Eric Davis was a great, great player.
Tony Fernandez. Alan Trammell with better defense and longevity. That's not quite right, but it illustrates one of the problems with Trammell's candidacy, that he's not superior enough to peers like Fernandez and Barry Larkin to make him a strong candidate for the Hall. Those two players, and not the ones who came after them, are Trammell's problem.
G AB H 2B 3B HR SB CS BB AVG OBP SLG EqA WARP Fernandez 2158 7911 2276 414 92 94 246 138 691 .288 .347 .399 .273 105.4 Trammell 2293 8288 2365 412 55 185 236 109 850 .285 .352 .415 .283 123.3Fernandez wasn't as good as Trammell. He was essentially as valuable as Dave Concepcion, and I don't think he'll do nearly as well in the voting as Concepcion has over the years. Take this with a grain of salt, but Fernandez hit .327 in 43 postseason games and .395 in his two World Series. That's the kind of point that often is used as a marker for borderline cases, and I suspect a Keltner List would treat Fernandez very kindly.
For the first time that I can remember, my fictional ballot would include a whopping five names. Two are holdovers from last year: Bert Blyleven remains the best starting pitcher in history not enshrined. It may be that no player's career has been so analyzed, and despite arguments that his won-loss record reflects a mix of underperformance and poor chance, I come back to first principles: a pitchers' job is to keep runs off of the board, and he bears little to no responsibility for his run support. Blyleven did that well enough in his career to warrant enshrinement.
The election of Bruce Sutter makes the inclusion of Rich Gossage on the ballot a necessity. Gossage was Sutter's superior during their careers, and his effective career was basically twice as long as Sutter's. Sutter may be in the Hall due to an accident of history-he had the highest vote total of any returning player on a very weak ballot-but he's there now, and his presence opens the door to arguments for a dozen or more closers over the next decade. "He was better than Bruce Sutter!" is going to be the rallying cry for fans of Lee Smith and Billy Wagner and a number of other pitchers whose candidacies would have seemed silly 18 months ago.
Two of the three new players on the ballot are obviously going to be elected. Cal Ripken Jr. is one of the two greatest shortstops in history and may be the all-time leader in media-awarded character points. If any player is going to be a unanimous selection between now and Greg Maddux's eligibility, it will be Ripken. This is a terrific opportunity to identify the voters who should have their privileges revoked.
The other automatic is Tony Gwynn, who fits the classic mold of a high-average hitter who didn't contribute as much in other areas, leading him to be a bit overrated during his career. That doesn't mean he doesn't belong in the Hall-he absolutely does-just that he's not really an inner-circle guy. Gwynn had a five-year stretch in the middle of his career in which he slugged .415, .424, .415, .432 and .415. You won't find many corner outfielders in the Hall of Fame who did that in any era. On the other hand, his career WARP of 124.3 is almost a dead match for a borderline Hall of Famer like…well, Alan Trammell.
I make this point about Gwynn not to denigrate him or his candidacy. I don't know him personally, but what I do know about him aside from his stat line I like a lot. He was an analytical player, one of the first to use video to improve his game. He's impressed me as a broadcaster, although his path there may be curtailed by the lack of a velvet throat. The idea of "loyalty" is an overwrought one, but there is something...attractive…about a player who spends 20 years in one uniform. Well, six or seven uniforms-this was the Padres, after all-but all for one team.
No, I make the point about Gwynn to cut off one line of attack against the fifth name on my ballot. There's been some revisionist analysis of Mark McGwire that argues he was a one-dimensional player, a home-run hitter with little else in the way of skills. Now, a year ago, the BBWAA elected Sutter, the most one-dimensional player to ever be so honored. Sutter's case rested on two poles-he succeeded in a highly-limited role and he specialized in one particular pitch. The argument that a player is "too one-dimensional" to be elected rings a bit hollow the year after that.
To use that argument against McGwire-who drew 1300 walks and had a career .394 OBP-is laughable on its face. But to make a "one-dimensional" argument against McGwire while at the same time allowing Gwynn to pass through is just comic. Gwynn was a singles hitter, a batting-average specialist who was so known for slapping singles that the Padres drew a "56" on the infield in the last days of his career to represent Gwynn's favorite hole. Gwynn wasn't one-dimensional throughout his career, but you can point to swaths of it, such as 1990 through 1992, when his batting average was his entire value.
McGwire isn't the most one-dimensional player who's a deserving candidate on this ballot, and pasting that label on him while letting Gwynn pass is either ignorant or biased.
Of course, that's not really the issue with McGwire. McGwire has become the scapegoat for the media-anointed "Steroid Era," that period from 1993 through 2003 when offense reigned supreme and there was no enforcement of the game's policy against the use of performance-enhancing substances. Despite mounting evidence that the higher-offense/rampant-steroid-use connection is a fragile one, and the presence of many other factors driving power and run scoring up during that period, this notion that the statistics of that timeframe are to be discounted and the players suspect has been established as common knowledge. McGwire, the highest-profile player of that era, the guy who hit 70 homers, who hugged his kid on the field and won the approval of Roger Maris' family and millions more…he's the one to blame.
Why? The case against McGwire is based loosely on three elements. One is his admitted use of androstenedione during the 1998 season. Andro, a steroid precursor, was not banned by baseball at the time. After the initial controversy, this was rarely brought up in conversations about McGwire, and there's no way his use of a legal substance, one he subsequently stopped using and recommended against using, would be enough to keep him out of the Hall.
Jose Canseco's book, Juiced, did McGwire no favors, with its claims that McGwire used steroids early in his career. As I've written in the past, though, the idea that Jose Canseco is some kind of oracle is a bit difficult to stomach. He was considered a buffoon for much of his career, and only when he wrote a story that the media wanted to hear was he suddenly granted credibility. I take few of the claims in that book, and none of the ones about other players, seriously. Others do, but I don't think that would be enough to keep McGwire out, even for one year.
No, McGwire is going to be denied election this year for one reason, and one reason only: his appearance in front of Congress in March of 2005. He didn't grandstand the way players such as Rafael Palmeiro and Curt Schilling did. He didn't admit guilt and beg forgiveness the way many people wish he had. He didn't stand defiant of a Congressional committee less interested in public policy than in positive press for threatening people-major-league baseball players-who could cost it few votes and little money and who would be unlikely to publicly point out the cynicism and bullying rampant in the process.
In his testimony, McGwire held to a point-"I'm not here to talk about the past"-that was actually in keeping with the theoretical spirit of the hearings. After all, if advancing public policy was the desired effect, if preventing PED use among the youth of America was the goal, the actions of a retired player during his career would have little bearing on the matter. McGwire offered his name and his image to campaigns that would further the goals of education and prevention. He also showed a humanity and a vulnerability that had no place in an arena so vicious.
He didn't feed the beast. McGwire refused to participate in the dog-and-pony show by parroting the acceptable lines or by making himself a cautionary tale. He made perhaps the most accurate statement of the day: "Asking me or any other player to answer questions about who took steroids in front of television cameras will not solve the problem."
Since that day, McGwire has been held in contempt by the baseball media. The numbers we're seeing today-an ESPN poll indicates that he will receive approximately 25 percent of the vote in this year's balloting-are the direct result of that day in Congress. The voters have decided, based on the flimsiest of evidence, that McGwire not only took steroids, but that those steroids were responsible for his achievements, and that the connection between the two voids his claim to greatness.
Will Carroll has pointed this out, but it's worth bringing up again: how can McGwire be so vilified for steroid use that has never come close to being proven, while Shawne Merriman is perhaps the most celebrated defensive player in the NFL during the same season in which he tested positive for steroids? The hypocrisy in the coverage of steroids in sports has never been so evident as it is today, the gulf between the media's handling of MLB and the NFL wide enough to drive the truth through.
I would vote for McGwire for the Hall of Fame, because his accomplishments, his performance, warrant his induction. Whatever questions there may be about how he achieved what he did on the field are simply not answered well enough to void his claim to a spot in Cooperstown. But for the afternoon of March 17, 2005, we wouldn't even be having this discussion, and I'm just not willing to give a grandstanding Congressional committee that much sway over my thinking.
The steroids-in-sports story is an embarrassment to the American sports media. The shaming of Mark McGwire is just another point of evidence that this is really about creating a story, rather than covering it.