On Wednesday, July 7, the day after the Detroit Tigers' designated hitter/outfielder scraped out his 2,500th career hit, followed by a game-winning home run, Americans awoke to the reality that some of us have been aware of -- and worried or horrified by -- for quite some time: Johnny Damon is going to the Hall of Fame.
Obvious caveats -- such as premature injury or a sudden desire to quit baseball and take up leper tending -- aside, to say that the 36-year-old Damon is going to reach 3,000 hits is merely to make an observation of fact.
Assume that Damon runs up as many hits in the second half of this year as he has in the first. That would leave him 423 hits shy of 3,000, and needing to average 141 hits from ages 37 through 39 to do the deed within three years. Six post-integration players have hit safely at least as many times at each of those ages, including the hardly immortal likes of Steve Finley and Omar Vizquel. Another 17, including Jeff Conine and Otis Nixon (really) have turned the trick twice.
Damon is going to do it, and then he'll make the Hall. (Every eligible player with 3,000 hits has done so.) This is a man most famous for not shaving, a two-time All-Star who, aside from leading the American League in runs scored, stolen bases and triples one time apiece, has never led or come near leading the league in any other significant category, and whose signature accomplishment --playing for championship teams in Boston and New York -- has more to do with where he has played than with the man himself.
Really, that Damon is especially famous at all is largely testament to the vast narcissism of the Acela corridor. He has never been, or been thought of as, one of the best players in baseball and may not even be one of the 15 best outfielders of his own generation. His 48 career Wins Above Replacement not only puts him well back of Kenny Lofton, Andruw Jones and Bobby Abreu, it essentially ties him with J.D. Drew and Luis Gonzalez. It's true enough to say that Damon has been a terrific, durable player and that wherever he has gone, his team has won, but you can say just the same of Mike Cameron, who has been about exactly as good a player.
That said, should Damon make the 3,000-hit club and the Hall, he'll be no disgrace to either. He has already had a better career than Lou Brock, the worst member of the former -- note that "worst" is a highly relative term here, lovers of Lou -- and there are many, many worse outfielders in Cooperstown. Some weren't even good players in any sense that we'd recognize, and very few had anything resembling Damon's fame and odd aura. Surely a decade from now there will be people getting embarrassingly worked up about his inadequate WAR numbers, but everyone else will shrug and move on.
The most interesting thing about Damon's steady lurch toward history, actually, is what a vivid example it provides of just how irrelevant traditional standards for career value are becoming.
Take Edgar Renteria as maybe the best such example. Because he started his major league career at 19, and because he has often been good, and because he has played in a great hitter's era, the six-time All Star has already run up 2,227 hits. Eight shortstops have surpassed that total without making Cooperstown. Of them, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Larkin are locks for eventual election, Alan Trammell should be, and Dave Concepcion, Tony Fernandez and Omar Vizquel all have quite convincing cases.
Another way to put it would be that should Renteria, just 33, manage to make it to 2,500 hits, he'll join Rodriguez, Vizquel, Jeter, Rabbit Maranville, Luis Aparicio, Luke Appling, Honus Wagner, Robin Yount and Cal Ripken Jr. as the only shortstops to have done so. All save the first three are already in the Hall of Fame; clearly the 500-home run mark is not the only hoary measure of excellence to be cheapened during the grand carnival of Seligian excess that we've enjoyed over the past two decades.
Or, take Adrian Beltre. While it seems as if he has been around forever, the Red Sox third baseman is still just 31, and has 262 home runs and 1,806 hits to his credit. Should he put up another six years' worth of hitting equal to his career rates -- no given, but no impossible feat between his immense natural talent and the fact that he has spent his entire career until now hitting in graveyards -- he'll end up surpassing 375 home runs and 2,500 hits. The entire list of non-Hall of Famers to do so consists of A-Rod, Harold Baines, Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, Rafael Palmeiro, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Barry Bonds, not one of whom was a truly spectacular defensive infielder, and only two of whom ever had a season as good as Beltre's 2004 (48 homers, 1.017 OPS).
Of course, should Renteria and Beltre end up cracking these distinguished lists, they'll simply linger there as curiosities. But just as Damon will, they'll also stand as fine representations of three important points about the modern game.
First among these is that money has not, in fact, changed everything. In days of yore, one argument commonly made against paying players a lot was that it would spoil them and lead them to early retirements. That a player of Renteria's mildly dubious stature has hung around long enough to move as far up various leaderboards for his position as he already has is as perfect a refutation of this idea as one could hope for.
Second is that changing standards aren't just the result of PEDs leading to lots of home runs. One reason that Damon, whose main attribute may be his ability to avoid injury, is almost certainly going to reach 3,000 hits is just that there are so many more players now in the majors than there once were. There are twice as many teams now as there were through most of baseball history, and as a matter of odds, it was inevitable that someone who wasn't all that great would reach the mark.
Third is that the devaluation of old standards is a good thing, because they do little but distract us from real excellence. If Damon, Renteria and Beltre are players no one thinks of as Hall of Famers who are nonetheless putting up Hall of Fame numbers, what of their counterparts, players who are also putting up such numbers without anyone noticing?
Tim Hudson, for example, right now has the same winning percentage and adjusted ERA as Sandy Koufax did in his entire career, in just 150 fewer innings. Jim Edmonds, a true Gold Glover who slugged .593 over a five-year period spent with the best team in the National League, is probably behind only Mays, Mantle, Speaker, Cobb, DiMaggio and Griffey among the best center fielders ever. And were Scott Rolen to retire after his brilliant first half of this year, he'd do so having essentially enjoyed Ron Santo's (eminently Hall-worthy) career.
Having nothing against Damon, an effective and entertaining player, his march to 3,000 will probably do less to convince anyone of his greatness than it will to convince them to ignore such crude measures as raw hits totals as markers of the kind of excellence deserving of a bronze plaque. If for no other reason, wish the man health over the next few years. The likes of Edmonds and Rolen need his help.