Want a break from the hurly-burly of contemporary squabbling? Long for the historical long view and the considered opinion of reasonable men and women who share devotion to a tradition far more important than their own parochial self-interest?
Yeah, me too, but then, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) released the names of three former players to be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame – Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez – setting off what has come to be an annual firestorm of second-guessing and recrimination. The issues are many and equally combustible, and, given the arcane complexities of the selection process (a snake pit into which I choose not to jump today), any outcome is bound to bring controversy.
I’ll start with Pudge, an iron-man who caught more games (2,427) than any other catcher, won thirteen golden glove awards for his stellar defensive skills, was selected as an All Star fourteen times, and was named American League Most Valuable Player in 1999. Beyond that, Pudge retired with a batting average of .296, 311 home runs, and the most hits (2,844) and most runs scored (1,354) of any catcher. In his MVP season, Pudge hit 35 home runs and stole 25 bases, the first catcher to hit more than 20 home runs and steal 20 bases.
Take anybody’s roster of the greatest catchers of all time, and you’ll find ten or twelve who land on every list. The order may change, and some fans take a longer view than others, including players from earlier days such as Gabby Hartnett, Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, or Josh Gibson, but virtually everyone who follows the sport names Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Roy Campanella, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Mike Piazza, and Pudge Rodriguez. By all measures, he is in the top ten, and by some accounts, in the top five.
OK, you ask,where’s the controversy?
Carping is inevitable, and almost always includes a certain amount of fan fervor. Rich Eisen, for example, highly intelligent, meticulously prepared, and uncommonly balanced sports commentator is generally above the fray until conversation includes the University of Michigan or the New York Yankees. From my point of view, his plumping for Michigan is entirely appropriate, but as a Yankee fan, he does occasionally lose his way, as he has in proposing that Jorge Posada’s career compares favorably with Rodriguez. Perhaps fans may not appreciate Pudge as much as writers have because he played with a number of teams (Rangers, Marlins, Tigers, Yankees, Astros, Rangers again, and Nationals). He’ll go into the Hall as a Texas Ranger, the first position player to go in as a Ranger, but a career with the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, or Cubs would have made him a far more highly visible star.
Then, he made it into the Hall on the first ballot, which, to some purists, is an unseemly departure from what they consider a standard to be maintained in welcoming individuals to the company of the most elite players of all time. The grumbling swirling around Cooperstown mostly gripes about the enshrinement of players whose careers were fine, fine, but not at the level of the first class of inductees – Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, and Walter Johnson. After all, Cy Young didn’t make it in the first round. Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, Carl Hubbell, Mel Ott, Jimmy Foxx, Dizzy Dean, Hank Greenberg, and Duke Snider all needed several tries. Joe DiMaggio was not a first ballot Hall of Famer. Hartnett, Cochrane, Dickey, Campanella, and Berra missed the first round.
By the 1960’s, greatness was more quickly rewarded as Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Sandy Koufax, Stan Musial, Warren Spahn, Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Brooks Robinson, Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Palmer, Rod Carew, Tom Seaver, Reggie Jackson, Nolan Ryan, Carlton Fisk, George Brett, Paul Molitor, Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken, Rickey Henderson, Tony Gwynn, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Ken Griffey, Jr. all came in on the first ballot.
Without question exactly right, and shame on the writer who did not vote for Hornsby, DiMaggio, Campanella, Berra, et al. Come on!
OK, then who has been left out? Every fan has his or her own list; mine includes Sweet Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, the best double play combination in the history of the game (Tinker, Evers, and Chance didn’t even come close!) and Jack Morris, who, I admit, are all Detroit Tigers and so may arrive with a fan’s bias. Edgar Martinez did his job (designated hitter) as the best pure hitter since Rod Carew and belongs in the Hall. Exiled are Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, of course, and, so far, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, each of whom has been touched with some form of scandal.
Ah, there’s the rub. The Hall of Fame is one section of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, leaving room for the contention that the Hall is part of the story of baseball, part of the chronicle of baseball at its finest, recognizing the players who took the game to the highest level during the time they played. Some are saints (Mathewson and Gehrig), some are sinners (Cobb and Ruth), and some got caught (Jackson, Rose, Bonds, and Clemens). If the Hall is to be a shrine to the finest and most high-minded elements of sport, we probably have to take a second look at Cobb, who certainly murdered at least one man and who went into the stands to beat a one-handed heckler; “I don’t care if he got no feet” Cobb is reputed to have announced when criticized. Hall of Famer Juan Marichal beat Dodger catcher John Roseboro in the head with a bat during a game; Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar spat in the face of an umpire. Babe Ruth and Wade Boggs were not entirely gentlemanly in their treatment of women; Tim Raines would likely have made the Hall sooner if not for his involvement in a drug scandal in the 1980’s.
Exhausting! The debates never end!
And yet, it’s what we do until we hear the clarion cry again next month: “Pitchers and Catchers Report for Spring Training”. Tigers pitchers and catchers report on Valentine’s Day, the rest of the squad on February 18th, and the distracting static of life outside the lines quiets, the sound of a high fastball hitting a catcher’s mitt restores balance in the universe, and the game begins again.
Those of us who saw Pudge Rodriguez play know the voters got it right this time. Let’s just see what smoke fills the air as the numbers for Bonds and Clemens continue to creep up among baseball writers, many of whom seem willing to forgive if not forget.