The 2016 Hall of Fame inductees will be announced later today. Ken Griffey Jr. will be voted in; Edgar Martinez will not be. Other ballots have included former teammates, of course, but rarely have two figures up for simultaneous consideration been as thoroughly, undyingly beloved by their fan base as Griffey and Martinez. Especially interesting is how they occupy tail ends of the fan Bell curve now that each one’s place in history is legislated.
Griffey’s march to a first-ballot induction is the highest of highs. He was what happens when everything goes right and comes together in a crazy package of irresistible, irrepressible cool in a baseball uniform. He was a broad grin and a swagger, lithe and powerful. To baseball fans in Seattle he was nothing short of a miracle. We thought he was the best, and somehow he was. And for the part of his career that anyone really cares about, he was ours. Sure, other fans lingered around the edges, hoping for some connection to our good fortune. As with all greats, they clung to the notion he was taller than the mountainous geography that surrounded him, as if blowing the roof off the Kingdome with every leap and swing to play for every team. He’s a local guy. I saw him blast one over the fence in Spring Training. I have his video game. He’s The Kid. But deep down, we believed: This one is ours, and you can’t have him.
Edgar’s mire is, in some ways, the lowest of lows. He’s what happens when you can't quite overcome, when you can’t quite break through circumstances beyond your control. When being a designated hitter, and playing for a Seattle team that couldn’t win a World Series, and not being David Ortiz, all combine into something inexplicably fringy and controversial. We all knew how we expected his career to be recognized—after The Double in ’95 it seemed like there was only one option. But then, as with so many things in baseball, it didn’t work out. His name is literally synonymous with excellence at the designated hitter position, yet he remains fringy and controversial, the deserving sort who somehow only merited 27 percent of last year’s vote.
Hall of Fame candidates become proxies of what we think we deserve as fans: to win, to be recognized, to be able to lay claim to a great thing much bigger than ourselves, because we’re told we have to for it to matter. And in the absence of getting exactly what we deserve, we become critics. Mockers. Strategic voting might be the latest fashion to grip the BBWAA, but single-issue voting is the modus operandi of the fan, and we stand prepared to invalidate entire ballots because of the absence of a single player. We are determined to bend the Hall to our collective will so these players’ recognition, their just desserts, becomes ours as well.
We know too much now to be placated by purported expertise. We know Edgar’s career WARP. We’re able to gauge his performance relative to every player who has come before him. We can parse his statistics and determine his value. What’s more, we know how Edgar is doing. We know his endorsements. With work like Ryan Thibodaux’s excellent ballot tracking allowing us to agonize and scrutinize, we are prepared to dole out praise or derision with every inclusion or omission. We feel we deserve, are almost desperate, to see our guys there. We’ve enshrined Edgar and Griffey and others in the Mariners Hall of Fame, but that isn’t enough because it isn’t as important. We want them there. Not merely for our cities but for our causes. We've been told the Hall is important and we want to be important. We want our specific view of baseball greatness to rise above the din. If you’re a fan of Edgar, you’re a constituent of Seattle, and likely sabermetrics, and maybe the designated hitter. We take stands against PEDs or for not caring about them. We thump pulpits for and against the various manifestations of Character. We make our little camps, based on ideology and especially on geography, and hope we can wait out the voting lifespans of the gatekeepers.
Randy Johnson was a first ballot Hall of Famer. He entered the 1995 ALDS to “Welcome to the Jungle” blaring while the entire Kingdome chanting “RANDY, RANDY.” But he went in as a Diamondback. That was his camp. Griffey will go in as a Mariner. Despite flirting with ballot unanimity and being one of the most universally beloved athletes of his generation, his camp will travel with him because we insist on it. Baseball deserves to enshrine Griffey, and Mariners fans think they deserve to have his bust permanently identify that bit of baseball greatness as ours. The Hall acknowledges a generalizable view of greatness. That’s what it accomplishes. We try to fight for our own views of it, which is why despite the local not being at all the point, we insist on it being there.
But maybe assessing the validity of the Hall in terms of satisfying our own fandom is silly. Not because there aren’t great baseball players, or because it is impossible to conceive of criteria by which we might identify them. But because if what we are looking for is the validation of our own local stories, we’re likely to be disappointed. Fandom is random. It’s an accident of birth, of proximity to a place, and a team, and a time. It’s good fortune and bad fortune in their turn. It all blends together into something that feels preordained. But if we’re honest, it could have just as easily have been different. If our parents celebrated different teams, or we hadn’t been perfectly impressionable and burdened with memory for The Double, who knows? The Kid was ours, but he might have been yours. It doesn’t change the emotion behind our stories, or diminish the play of our greats, but it might require us to think more critically about how universalizable they are, and how much of it just feels that way because of chance.
There’s nothing intrinsically good about being a Mariners fan; indeed, the cynical among us might question what good there is at all. Success in sports isn’t a virtue we have very much to do with. With rare exception, other people are making the plays. We are just the observers who, between beers and innings, mistake the luck of being there with being good for being there. Baseball is an important cultural touchstone, or it can impart lessons. But the lessons we are able to glean, its pedagogic value, exist on the scale of the small. It’s right here, within throwing distance of the other lucky folks set down in the right place and time. We harken back to Little League; we take what we saw on the field from one small stage to another. We try to be better co-workers, or wives and husbands; we try to raise our children not to be monsters.
We learn all sorts of lessons. One is that institutions are often flawed and unfair; that people’s hard work and excellence will be misunderstood or underappreciated. That the high highs of Martinez aren’t enough to overcome the low lows of circumstances beyond his control. That our camps often won’t win. If baseball’s lessons operate on that scale, it is perhaps no surprise that the marriage between the exemplars of our own little greatness and their elevation to the Hall of Fame would be an uneasy one. I don’t think the Hall is devoid of merit or importance. And I suspect that to the men who played the game, it matters a great deal. But with Griffey at one end of the curve and Edgar at the other, I think much of being a fan is the gross slog in the middle. It’s making peace with the Hall never being able to perfectly represent anything. It is important for what it is but it will never be our platonic ideal. Edgar deserves to be there but maybe what we deserve is smaller. Maybe all we deserve is a beer, and the knowing astonishment that The Kid was ours, and the luck of recognizing that to the members of our camp, Edgar overcame the low lows at the tails, to end up where he belongs.
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