The Game's Greatest Honor

There is a small and perhaps odd point I’ve been meaning to make in one of these Hall of Fame posts but it has never quite fit. The point has something to do with how much easier this whole Hall of Fame thing would be if we didn’t spend so much time thinking of it as an HONOR.

Obviously, being elected and inducted into the Hall of Fame IS an honor. It is, most people would agree, the greatest honor a baseball player can receive. I’m not trying to detract from that at all. But I do wonder if sometimes the honor element gets in the way of a great Hall of Fame. An example: I was talking to a pretty prominent person in baseball. He was saying that he believes, absolutely, that Barry Bonds should be elected to the Hall of Fame. But he CANNOT get past the image of Bonds up there, on the Cooperstown stage, receiving baseball’s greatest honor, all the acclaim, listening to the cheers, talking about his career proudly. “I know I shouldn’t care,” he says. “But he doesn’t DESERVE that.”

The question of the Hall being an “honor” comes up again and again. This year, for instance, there are a bunch of people on the ballot who are absolutely, positively not Hall of Famers. On such an absurdly loaded ballot like this one, there’s simply no value to having Jacque Jones or Todd Jones or Mike Timlin or J.T. Snow or Sean Casey or similar players on the ballot. They were good players, they really were, but nobody believes they belong in the Hall of Fame. They are just gumming up the works.

But, it’s an HONOR to be on the ballot. Nobody would want to deny good but not great players the distinction of being on the ballot for a year. It’s a cool thing for them. So they go on the ballot. Every so often, someone will vote for one of them as a lark. And, yeah, it’s pointless and it gums up the works. But, you know, there’s the honor part.

There are people who think Pete Rose should go into the Hall of Fame ... but only after he is gone. It’s a sort of cruel sentiment, but I take this to mean they believe he has EARNED a place in the Hall of Fame but he does not DESERVE a place in the Hall of Fame.*

*Often, people will say that because Rose’s ban is a “lifetime ban,” it should last a lifetime. But this is a myth. It is not a lifetime ban -- the word “lifetime” does not appear anywhere in the rule. It’s a permanent ban.

There are people so scared that they might, by mistake or through a brief and unlikely bout of generosity, vote for someone who used steroids that they will throw a blanket over just about everyone. This was put perfectly in a piece by blogger Murray Chass as he explained why he will not vote for people he suspects of PED use even if there’s no actual evidence supporting his suspicions.

“If I’m wrong on any particular player, so be it, but I’d rather err on the side of caution. I wouldn’t want to learn two or three years after the fact that I had helped elect a cheater. Anyway my one vote won’t keep anyone out of the Hall.”

I have to admit: I kind of want to put that quote on a T-shirt. It’s basically the opposite of Blackstone’s formulation -- 18th Century English jurist William Blackstone famously said, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Chass’ formulation is: “It’s better that infinite innocent players* suffer because they might prove to be guilty in three years.” But I think my favorite part of the quote is the last sentence. After saying, point blank, that he’s all for guilty until proven innocent he adds that it doesn’t matter because he only has one little vote anyway. He’s won’t keep anyone out. You know, unless he does.

*Save Jack Morris, This is the honor element of the Hall at work again. Chass -- and there are others who follow his logic at least for a while -- wants to do whatever he can to be sure that PED users never get the joy or feeling of triumph that comes with going into the Hall of Fame. Their entry into the sacred place would be an injustice they simply could not abide.

And this is the odd point I wanted to get at. Yes, the Hall of Fame is an honor for the player, we all know that. But is that all is is? Is induction really only about honoring THE PLAYER? Is it even mostly about the player?

See, I don’t think so. What would be the point if it was just to honor one person? I actually don’t think the Hall of Fame is much about the player at all. Sure, there’s the honor of getting in, the celebration weekend, the glory that goes with that for the rest of their lives. But that’s fleeting.

In the end, I think, the Hall of Fame is about the fans. I think it’s about the story of baseball. I think the Hall’s biggest role is to help people love the game more, to connect our own fanhood to the game’s history. Mike Schmidt? Yeah, I saw him play in Cincinnati once! Billy Williams! What a sweet swing! I shook hands once with Fergie Jenkins! I sat behind home plate and watched Tom Seaver! Was he great? Damn right he was great. He’s in the Hall of Fame!

Tens of thousands will come to Cooperstown for induction of the player they watched play much of their lives. Did people from Kansas City come to Cooperstown simply because they were happy for George Brett? Did people from St. Louis come to St. Louis because they were happy for Ozzie Smith? Will New Yorkers come for Derek Jeter’s induction because they are happy for him?

Sure, but more, they’re happy for THEMSELVES. Happy for all the joy that player brought them. Happy for their own association with greatness. It’s why people come to the Hall and have their photo taken with the plaque of their favorite player.

One of my favorite things is going to the Hall, going to the plaque room, and just watching fans and friends and families wander through. They point. They search for a specific player. One Dad (it’s usually the Dad) is talking a bit too loudly, too excitedly, pointing to one of the plaques and saying, “Look, there’s Ernie Banks. They called him Mr. Cub! He used to say, ‘It’s a beautiful day, let’s play two.”*

*And the kids, I must admit, look kind of bored out of their minds and are ready for the gift shop. Kids!

Is it a better Hall of Fame with Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds in it, not to mention Mark McGwire, player who have admitted or been strongly connected to steroid use? Is it a better Hall of Fame with many of the others who have only vague suspicions hanging over their heads? Reasonable people can disagree. Some would say, no, it would be a worse Hall, they cheated, their performances are invalid, they would sully the place.

I think it would be a better Hall. I think it would be a better Hall of Fame for fans who watched those players, who identified with their greatness, who cheered until their throats felt raw, who jumped out of their seats when they did something almost unbelievable.

Others would say they don’t deserve it. Maybe they don’t. Like I say, reasonable people can disagree. But I think the best Baseball Hall of Fame has the best baseball players in it. And I feel that way even if it means a few players who took steroids get to make a speech and hear the cheers one more time.