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July 21, 2000
Lowering the Bar
Tony Perez Becomes an Immortal
Bill James wrote, some time ago, that the Hall of Fame can't really honor players any more--it can only insult them. I don't believe that's true; ballplayers already in don't care too much who gets honored after them, and anyone who gets in is generally pretty damn happy to be there.
But what can happen is that the idea of the Hall can be devalued. That's what will happen this weekend when Tony Perez becomes a Hall of Famer.
A long time ago, when arguing about something or other on a Usenet newsgroup, I took the position that Kirby Puckett deserved to enter the Hall of Fame. He was a good ballplayer, if massively overrated on both sides of the ball, and was a tremendous asset to the game. Puckett signed autographs, gave a good interview, had a couple of rings and generally behaved as most of us believe a ballplayer should behave. And, truth be told, it is a Hall of Fame, not exclusively a Hall of Excellence. Puckett was surely famous, and certainly a good ballplayer.
Another person in the forum (whose identity escapes me; it could have been Ted Fischer or David Nieporent) made what I thought was a great and convincing point. It is a Hall of Fame, but it is a Hall of Fame Bestowed. That is, the writers bestow the honor of this immortal fame on the player by electing him to his ranks.
It certainly convinced me.
With that in mind, I find it disheartening as hell that Tony Perez has been elected to the Hall of Fame. Perez was not a great ballplayer; he wasn't even particularly close. He didn't hit for average or exceptional power, he didn't walk much and he didn't play defense particularly well. He racked up high career totals by hanging around long past his usefulness, breaking a .340 OBP only once in his last eight seasons while playing a bad defensive first base. In that season, he had less than 200 at bats.
What about leadership and clutch hitting? What about all those RBIs? Well, no one's shown me that Perez was a leader, aside from ex post facto, rose-colored glasses. And the RBIs? He played forever and hit behind guys who were really good at getting on base. Perez is certainly no better a player than Jose Canseco, a marginal Hall of Fame candidate himself.
Boiling a player down to one number isn't really that great an idea if you want to have pinpoint precision, but Total Baseball's Total Player Rating (TPR) rates Perez as 9.9 games better than the average ballplayer over the course of his career. Barry Bonds comes close to that in a single season.
Jayson Stark's piece at ESPN.com talks about Perez this way:
With all due respect to Mr. Stark, you can make almost anyone or anything look good using these types of comparisons. The people he's comparing Perez to accomplished other things. Perez isn't in their class, and that's the entire point. We've all seen bad advertisements like this:
Eventually, the car turns out to be a Suzuki Esteem.
Perez is a good ballplayer, and there's honor enough in that. The marketing campaign to get him into Cooperstown was disgraceful and classless. The behavior of his supporters, and those of another, extremely pathetic Reds alumnus, is really depressing. It's undeserving of the Hall of Famers from those great Red teams, most notably the very distinguished Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench.
200 years from now, visitors to Cooperstown will know who Morgan and Bench are before they go in the doors. They won't know who Perez is, and therein lies the difference between the deserving and the undeserving.
Gary Huckabay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.