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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:

  • A guy who drove in more runs than Mickey Mantle or Joe
    DiMaggio
    .

  • A guy who had more hits than Ted Williams or Lou Gehrig.
  • A seven-time All-Star.
  • A guy who knocked in more runs from 1965-89 than anyone but Reggie
    Jackson.

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:

  • More Interior Room than a Lamborghini Diablo.
  • Better Gas Mileage than a Rolls-Royce Corniche.
  • A Longer Warranty than a Porsche Carrera.

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 huckabay@baseballprospectus.com.