The Race to 400

If there’s one thing that we baseball fans can agree on, it's that the process of determining who should and should not go into the Hall of Fame should be much more than a mere formula. Nobody I know wants baseball to go to an LPGA format, where a certain number of homers or RBIs or wins or WAR or anything else will automatically get someone into the Hall of Fame. The process must involve more than just stats, more than just data; we must also consider heart and soul, the power of memories created, the goosebumps, the depth of character displayed and the impact that a player had on the game of baseball.

So that’s obviously why I’m introducing another Hall of Fame formula.

I call it, “The Race to 400.” I’ll be using it a lot over the next few weeks, as we go up and down the Hall of Fame ballot, leading up the 2019 Hall of Fame announcement. And the best part is that you can play along. "The Race to 400" is not REALLY a formula. It's more like a mindset. A way to look at things.

What I mean is: Your Race to 400 will probably looking nothing like my Race to 400. But that’s OK. More than OK: That’s the whole point.

I'll wait until next week to explain R2-400 (as I just decided this will be called). Today, I just want to explain the inspiration behind it. When I was young, I was utterly fascinated by the fact that every single eligible hitter with 400 home runs had made it into the Hall of Fame. This was around 1987, when I was 20 years old, At the time, there were 21 such players.

Sixteen of the 21 were already in the Hall of Fame. (That year, Billy Williams had been elected; the year before, it had been Willie McCovey.)

The other five included four players — Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Carl Yastrzemski and Willie Stargell — who were obviously going to be elected on the first ballot.

That left only one: Dave Kingman.

I’ve written about this before: There was a lot of angst about Kingman, because there really had never been a player quite like him. He hit home runs. And that was all. There were other home run specialists, like Frank Howard and Ralph Kiner and Ted Kluszewski, but with Kingman, it really was EVERYTHING he did. When he wasn’t hitting home runs, he was striking out, playing subpar defense, harassing female journalists and getting traded. There was nothing Hall of Fame about him other than the majestic home runs he hit. I can remember there being a quiet resentment toward him for soiling the gold-standard 400-homer club (and some concern that he would keep going and blow up the even more prestigious 500-homer club, too).

[caption id="attachment_23826" align="aligncenter" width="483"] There was a time when Kingman presented a conundrum.[/caption]

But then it began to blow up on its own. In 1988, Darrell Evans hit his 400th homer. Evans was nothing at all like Kingman as a player — he walked a ton and he was a good defender and he was massively underrated — but because batting average was everything in those days, Evans and his .248 lifetime BA were thrown into the same pot as Kingman, a one-dimensional slugger with a low batting average. He got only five more Hall of Fame votes than Kingman.

You can see how the 400 club evolved from there:

1991: Dave Winfield (1st-ballot Hall of Famer)

1992: Eddie Murray (1st-ballot Hall of Famer)

1993: Andre Dawson (Hall of Famer eventually)

1998: Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire (You know the story)

1999: Cal Ripken Jr. (1st-ballot Hall of Famer) and Jose Canseco (You know the story)

2000: Ken Griffey Jr. (1st-ballot Hall of Famer), Fred McGriff (in limbo) and Rafael Palmeiro (You know the story)

2001: Sammy Sosa (You know the story)

2002: Juan Gonzalez (Fell off ballot second year)

2003: Frank Thomas (1st-ballot Hall of Famer) and Jeff Bagwell (Hall of Famer eventually)

2004: Jim Thome (1st-ballot Hall of Famer) and Gary Sheffield (You know the story)

2005: Alex Rodriguez (You know the story — and we’ll see) and Manny Ramirez (You know the story)

2006: Mike Piazza (Hall of Famer eventually) and Carlos Delgado (fell off ballot first year).

2008: Chipper Jones (1st-ballot Hall of Famer)

2009: Vladimir Guerrero (1st-ballot Hall of Famer) and Jason Giambi (You know the story — and we’ll see)

2010: Albert Pujols (will be elected 1st-ballot) and Andruw Jones (in limbo).

2012: Adam Dunn (won’t be elected), Paul Konerko (won’t be elected) and David Ortiz (You know the story — but I think he'll get in eventually)

2013: Alfonso Soriano (won’t be elected)

2015: Adrian Beltre (will be elected 1st-ballot) and Miguel Cabrera (will be elected 1st-ballot)

2016: Mark Teixeira (probably won’t be elected) and Carlos Beltran (probably will be elected)

OK, so let’s go back to the beginning — when I was 20, there were 21 players with 400 home runs, and 20 of them were sure Hall of Famers.

Now, there are 55 players with 400 home runs, and best I can tell:

— 36 will be Hall of Famers (I’m counting Beltran and Ortiz here)

— 9 will not be in the Hall of Fame (I’m counting Teixeira here, though it’s always possible that there will be a wave of support there)

— 8 are You Know the Story figures whose fate will rest on how PEDs are viewed by future voters. (I took Canseco out of this group and put him in the “will not be in the Hall” group, because he’s never going to the Hall.)

— 2 (Fred McGriff and Andruw Jones) are very much in limbo. I think McGriff gets in through the veterans committee -- I think Harold Baines' election makes McGriff a slam-dunk the second he gets on the veterans ballot. Jones will have an excellent shot as well.

So what’s the point? Well, there are two points:

  1. The 400-homer group, which was such a tidy and likable club just 30 years ago, is now a complete mess. This is one of the reasons why many baseball fans feel so much anger about the PED era. It muddied up everything. It complicated everything. There used to be great joy in looking up who had 400 homers — the club was small and manageable and inspired conversation. Now, it’s a mess of accusations and whispers and “Who’s side are you on, anyway?” arguments.

  2. As time goes on, the standards of greatness change. This is obvious, and yet we wish it weren't true in baseball. We love world records in track and field and swimming and the like — we appreciate that an 11-second 100-meter dash isn’t any good anymore, not on the world stage. But in baseball, we (many of us, anyway) want 60 homers in 1927 and 61 homers in 1961 to still be the standard in 2018. We (many of us, anyway) want 400 homers and 3,000 hits and 300 wins to remain timeless touchstones.

And we would rather not think that the reason why 400 homers was such a big deal 30 years ago is that for most of baseball’s history up to that point, there were only 16 teams. For most of baseball history up to that point, the game was played almost exclusively by white Americans. For most of baseball history up to that point, players did not play baseball year round. They did not work out. Much of the time, they played with dead baseballs that had been cut and spit on and fouled off a dozen or more times. Careers were shorter. Players fought in wars. And the widely used and illegal performance-enhancers of the day — such as corking bats and taking amphetamines — were not especially effective at helping a player build his power.

We (many of us, anyway) still long for the simplicity of the 400-homer club.

So that’s why I have come up with the Race to 400. I’ll explain it in detail in the next installment.