A Final Hall Thought
Got a text from a friend of mine Tuesday night, shortly after the announcement that David Ortiz was elected to the Hall of Fame while Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa, and all the rest were not.
“I don’t pretend to know the specifics of Bonds, Clemens and PEDs as well as the voters,” he wrote. “But to me, it feels like this whole process has lost the plot. Why does the Hall of Fame exist at all? In my opinion not to reward or punish players but to celebrate the game, give fans an amazing day out and maybe put the men who played it best in some context. Are we so incapable of that?”
My first reaction was an immediate, “Yes, of course we are incapable of that.” I mean, THAT has been made clear on an annual basis for a long time now. We have been in an endless loop for 10, 15, 20 years now — the same shallow arguments being lobbed back and forth over walls, those arguments rarely having much or anything to do with baseball or fun or celebration.
But as the night went on, something about my friend’s message hit me anew.
There is something about the Baseball Hall of Fame that baseball fans take immense pride in … and that is that we CARE about it in a way that’s just different from other sports and other Halls of Fame. We love that the Baseball Hall of Fame matters so much more to us baseball fans than the Pro Football Hall of Fame matters to football fans or the Basketball Hall of Fame matters to basketball fans or the Hockey Hall of Fame matters to hockey fans. Those fans care, certainly, but it’s on a whole different level, in a whole other dimension.
This has long been a point of pride, I think. The Baseball Hall of Fame is the best Hall of Fame! The Baseball Hall of Fame is the off-the-field jewel of the sport. Away from the field, the NFL has the impossibly popular draft, and the NBA has the lottery and slam-dunk contest, and hockey has the Winter Classic and the best trophy in sports. Baseball has the Hall of Fame.
And I always thought that was a good thing for baseball.
But, you know what? Now I’m not so sure.
“Why does the Hall of Fame exist at all?” my friend asked. Indeed — why?
Is it so that on a cold winter day in January, there can be a television show where people sit around a table and argue about just how bad it was for players to use steroids?
Panelist 1: “These players disgraced the game!”
Panelist 2: “Disgrace is not even a strong enough word! They tarnished the game!”
Panelist 1: “That means the same thing. You just used a thesaurus.”
Panelist 2: “Did not. Oh, by the way they also besmirched, blackened, debased, defamed …”
Panelist 3: “Well, I think they dishonored the game.”
Panelists 1 and 2: “Boo!”
We like to have fun here at Joe Blogs. Baseball. Football. Tennis. Chess. Family. Basketball. Music. Infomercials. Movies. Olympics. Hockey. Nonsense. Magic. In short, it’s an adventure. I hope you’ll come along.
It is incredible, every year, re-litigating the 1990s, what other sport does that? What other sport — what other form of entertainment — keeps going back every year to a contentious time a quarter-century earlier and keeps harping about it?
So is that the reason the Hall of Fame exists? Is it to scapegoat a handful of amazing but not-overly likable players so that we can just blame them for an era when nobody cared about steroids?
Is it to annually remind kids who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s that their era was terrible and their memories tainted?
Is it to drain as much joy as possible out of the experience? After all, it isn’t just PEDs. The Hall of Fame process can put a raincloud over even the sunniest day. Remember when Ken Griffey Jr. was elected? What could be more wonderful than Junior getting elected to the Hall of Fame?
And what did we talk about that day?
How he didn’t go in unanimously.
What is fun about any of this? Baseball already struggles mightily with fun. I’m not as big a fan of Tony Romo the announcer as many others are, but what I can say without hesitation is that the guy is having a blast in the booth, he’s gushing about the players, he’s predicting what’s coming, he’s getting giddier with every play.
And in baseball? You know this: So many (not all but so many) baseball broadcasts and baseball stories are grumpy, frumpy, filled with spoken and unspoken complaints about all the strikeouts, and how starters can’t go nine innings (or even seven), and the crawling pace and the diabolical shifts and, well, you know the lyrics to the song.
It isn’t that those themes are wrong — they are not wrong, lots of people feel them — it’s more that they’re ever-present. They’re not a side conversation, they are the main conversation.
And it’s the same with the Baseball Hall of Fame, only more so. Two things come to mind. One, I keep thinking about the feeling I had last month when Buck O’Neil, Minnie Miñoso, Jim Kaat, Gil Hodges and Tony Oliva were elected to the Hall of Fame (also the great 19th century player Bud Fowler, though he’s another conversation). Of course, I was overjoyed. Of course, it was also bittersweet because Buck and Minnie in particular are not here to enjoy it and also help us enjoy it.
But more than anything, my feeling was: “See? Is that so hard?” We had a great day, a wonderful day, and at what cost? The Hall of Fame was not in any way, shape or form LESSENED with the addition of all these men who had spent many, many decades in Hall of Fame purgatory as people picked at every scab of their careers. Did Tony Oliva have enough hits? Did Gil Hodges hit enough home runs? Was Buck O’Neil’s life in baseball vivid enough? Was Minnie Miñoso a — well, I never really understood what held voters back on Minnie Miñoso. I guess they questioned his greatness as a player and his importance as a pioneer. It was, in so many ways, the biggest oversight in recent Hall of Fame history.
And look at me there — bringing more grousing into even that happy moment.
Point is, once they all went into the Hall, it was like: “Seriously, this is awesome! This should have happened 20 years ago! It felt so right and so easy and so fun. It was an unchained celebration of baseball and the people who played it. Baseball seems to have so few of those days.
And here’s another word that comes to mind: It was GENEROUS. So much about the Hall of Fame feels ungenerous, as if it’s more important who is kept out than who is invited in. Yes, you want it to be exclusive, you want it to be filled with the greatest players, but why can’t it be more big-hearted?
That leads into my second thought which is — what would happen if all these players we KNOW were transcendent just got elected? What if they inducted Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez and, on a different frequency, Pete Rose and Joe Jackson and Curt Schilling? What would happen?
Sure, there might be some awkwardness on induction day, and there would be some people who would turn away, and some who would hold their noses and some who would threaten to never visit Cooperstown again, and even some, I’m sure, who would say that they were giving up their baseball fanhood.
And then what? Would the Hall of Fame stop mattering? Of course not. Would baseball itself stop mattering? Of course not. Would the baseball discussions about future Hall of Fame candidates like Todd Helton and Scott Rolen and Gary Sheffield and Jeff Kent and, later, Carlos Beltran and Adrian Beltré and the rest be any less passionate? Of course not. Would Cooperstown itself be any less wonderful a place to visit? Of course not.
All that would happen is that there would be a few more plaques in the Hall of Fame featuring a few more flawed men who played baseball impossibly and gloriously well. Bill James decided on Tuesday to wade into the conversation when he tweeted this:
You can imagine some of the comments to that — I’m sure Bill made more blocks that day than the Chiefs’ offensive line did on Sunday — but you know what else I see? I see 2,124 likes. So many people just want to enjoy baseball, to love it, to talk about what it was like to watch Barry Bonds at the plate when he was so locked in that there was simply no way to throw a pitch by him, to watch Roger Clemens when his face was red and his eyes bulged and he didn’t throw a baseball so much as he blowtorched a baseball.
It’s a game, a fun game, the best game in my book, and yes, we want fair play, and yes, cheaters should be punished, and yes, rule-breakers should pay the consequences and all of that.
But that’s not where the heart of the game is. That’s not why we invest ourselves in it. That’s not why we care about a brick building in a small snow-covered town in the middle of nowhere. The Baseball Hall of Fame voting should not be an annual conference on morality and sportsmanship. It should be about doubles and homers and sliders that catch the corner and diving plays and scoops out of the dirt and rising fastballs and that moment when the runner rounds second and decides to go for the triple.
I so wish that we were capable of that.