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Thursday, January 07, 2016

Unanimity

As baseball fans know, no player has ever been elected unanimously to the Hall of Fame by the baseball writers. Not Babe Ruth, not Ty Cobb, not Joe DiMaggio, not Ted Williams, not Mickey Mantle, not Willie Mays, not Hank Aaron (DiMaggio wasn't even elected in his first year of eligibility). We can add to that list Ken Griffey Jr., who received a record 99.3 percent of the vote, it was announced yesterday. He will be joined at this year's induction ceremony by Mike Piazza.

The reasons for this shortsightedness--all of the players listed above are no-brainers, obvious Hall of Famers--is perplexing and mysterious, like trying to fathom the mind of a dog. Writers of any stripe, especially sports writers, are a weird bunch, given to grudges, stubbornness, off-the-wall opinions and, historically, alcohol. I've often thought it bizarre that they are the guardians of the gallery that requires them to judge players on their character and integrity.

But they do, and it seems that no one will ever be unanimous. The three writers who did not vote for Griffey haven't been outed yet, and we can guess at the reasons. One, a ridiculous one, has been that because no one has gotten in unanimously, no one should. I doubt Babe Ruth will spin in his grave if someone does get in with 100 percent (he missed by eleven votes), but some writers have used this defense as if they were protecting the sanctity of Ruth and Cobb and Walter Johnson like that old knight protecting the Grail in Indian Jones and the Last Crusade.

Second, there is a group of writers who are disgusted by the PED era. One writer, whose name escapes me, said he will not vote for anyone who played during the period, which roughly runs from 1990-2010. This includes those who have not even a whiff of suspicion, like Griffey. The theory seems to be that no one is innocent. This writer, and those that think that way, can be understood, but it's sort of like burning the village down to get one offender.

There's also simple dopiness. When Tom Seaver missed by five votes about twenty-five years ago one writer chalked it up to a brain fart. I guess that happens.

As for Piazza, this was his fourth time on the ballot, and the reasons it took him so long are also nebulous and stupid. He is the greatest hitting catcher of all time. Someone who is not used to the vagaries of the baseball writers may well ask, "Did he improve his statistics in the three years from the first ballot to now, even without playing a game?" No, but some writers, who take this little bit of power as if it were given to them by Zeus, have created a new category--the first ballot guy. Said writers, (one of them was Murray Klein of the Newark Star-Ledger) decided that some players deserved to get in on the first ballot and some did not. This is not something the Hall of Fame has determined, and there is nothing on the plaque that indicates what year they got in or what committee enshrined them. But writers, many of whom loathe and envy the players they write about, have decided to split hairs and make distinctions.

But enough about voting--let me talk about the players. As noted, both are eminently qualified. Griffey, in the steroid era, had 630 home runs, which ranks him fourth all-time if you take out the tainted (behind Aaron, Ruth, and Mays). He was a superlative centerfielder, often giving up his body to make the play.

Piazza was the only catcher to get 200 hits in a season, and was a better hitter even than Johnny Bench. He was an average-to-good catcher defensively, which cost him some votes, but was a team leader and will always be remember for having half of his bat thrown at him by Roger Clemens in the 2000 World Series.

I saw both of them play in person. I don't have any specific memories of Piazza, though I must have seen him many times while he caught for the Mets. Griffey I know I saw in game one and two of the 1995 ALDS, when he hit three home runs in losing causes (the Mariners would go on to win the series in Seattle, with Griffey galloping home from first on Edgar Martinez's double--as a Yankee hater it was a great moment).

Just missing this year was Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines. Both have hit percentage numbers that suggest they will get in next year (it will be Raines' last on the ballot, which usually means a bump up). The only other first-year player to get significant support was Trevor Hoffman at 67 percent, which suggests he will get in next year or the year after. This does not bode well for next year's new faces, the most prominent of which are Manny Ramirez, Vlad Guerrero, Jorge Posada, and Ivan Rodriguez. Ramirez will likely be spiked for his connection to illicit substances, and the other three are worthy but probably not "first-ballot" guys. It will be an interesting vote next year, and certainly no one will get in unanimously.

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