The results of the Baseball Hall of Fame voting, which made members of second baseman Roberto Alomar and pitcher Bert Blyleven last week, sparked all the usual debates about snubbed players, outdated balloting procedures and methods of defining greatness. If only the Hall had a gatekeeper, like St. Peter at the pearly ones, to make a final call on who gets in and why.
This is an article from the Jan. 17, 2011 issue
Consider this my application for the job. In a nod to baseball history, I would attempt to bring to the position the qualities of the sport's two greatest Rickeys, offering both the wisdom of Branch Rickey and the insistence on referring to myself in the third person of Rickey Henderson. Here's how the Gatekeeper would handle some of the thorniest Hall of Fame questions:
Q | Why hasn't [insert the name of your favorite candidate] been voted in? He has more career RBIs than 17.2% of the lefthanded hitters at his position who are already....
A | Stop right there, before you make the Gatekeeper doze off. He has nothing against numbers, either the traditional ones or the newer metrics, but he finds the endless parsing of stats to be an incredible snore. Make the case with words. Describe the unforgettable moments your would-be Hall of Famer created. You want to persuade the Gatekeeper that Jack Morris should be in Cooperstown? Talk more about his 1--0, 10-inning shutout for the Twins in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series and less about how his WHiP stacks up against Hall of Fame pitchers. The Gatekeeper is much more interested in whether a player created a lasting legacy in the sport. Ozzie Smith is in the Hall because he made plays that no one dreamed a shortstop could make, not because of his fielding percentage. Everyone who would even be considered for the Hall is impressive in some statistical area. So, enough with making a candidate's case by finding Hall of Famers with comparable stats. If the Gatekeeper wanted to discuss comps, he'd have gone into real estate.
Q | Doesn't that mean that some players with excellent stats will be kept out?
A | It does, and there's nothing wrong with that. The Gatekeeper believes the Hall of Fame has too many members as it is. In fact, don't get the Gatekeeper started, because he'll talk your ear off about how it's all part of the misguided tendency in sports to relax the standards of excellence. We don't just lock onto outdated milestones, like 500 home runs, we consider anyone who gets in the neighborhood, causing the bar to fall increasingly lower. The problem isn't limited to the Hall. Some people want to double the number of teams in the NCAA men's basketball tournament—or even worse, let everyone in. Loosening the definition of excellence is why we have expanded playoffs and expanded All-Star rosters. Does everything have to be devalued, diluted? The Gatekeeper wants a Hall that's harder to get into than his old high school jersey.
Q | Isn't it unfair to keep deserving players out when they don't meet subjective criteria?
A | Define deserving. The Gatekeeper believes that no one deserves enshrinement in Cooperstown. Induction is a privilege, and it's perfectly reasonable to put emotion into the analysis. Noted baseball thinker Bob Costas has said that the Hall should be limited to the immortals. The Gatekeeper couldn't agree more. How do we get such a Hall? By asking questions that can't be answered with a calculator. Did the player take your breath away? Is he someone to tell your grandchildren about? The Gatekeeper evaluates an artist by how a painting makes him feel, not by the number of brushstrokes per canvas.
Q | Are the writers being fair when they refuse to vote for players they suspect have used steroids, even when there is no concrete evidence they did?
A | The Gatekeeper believes the system would be infinitely better if he alone determined a player's worthiness. But since others have been entrusted with a ballot, shouldn't they be given exactly that—trust? The Hall of Fame doesn't just yank some fans off the beer line to vote. Only journalists who have covered the game for at least 10 years are eligible. If they don't feel comfortable voting for a player because, in their opinion, he is likely to have used steroids, the Gatekeeper respects their judgment.
Q | Are you also going to defend writers who refuse to vote for an obvious candidate in his first year of eligibility because they have arbitrarily decided that only certain players should have the honor of being first-ballot inductees?
A | That's where the Gatekeeper draws the line. The voters should not have the latitude to create a special class of Hall of Famer; there is nothing in the voting guidelines to suggest that. But it's not hard to understand the desire to make it clear that all Hall of Famers are not created equal. There is a huge gap in accomplishment between, say, Walter Johnson and Don Sutton, but they both carry the label of Hall of Fame pitcher.
Everything would be so much simpler if everyone would just listen to the Gatekeeper. If they did, Alomar, a maestro at second base, would still have been voted in last week. But Blyleven, who was a fine pitcher for a long time but a great one not long enough, would have been turned away. Hey, the Gatekeeper didn't say there wouldn't be tough calls. You have to bypass the very good to get to the best.
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