Immortality On The Brink
Any remnants of my illusions of youth faded into bronzed history January 6, when two stars I followed my entire youth – whose swings I tried, futility, to imitate—were voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The elections of Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mike Piazza are seismic in their meaning, for varying reasons.
I am not going to begin to catalog Junior’s belonging. To have seen him in his prime was almost indescribable – my greatest memory was watching in person his mano-a-mano showdown with Juan Gonzalez in the 1993 Home Run Derby in Baltimore. He is as certain a Hall of Famer as I ever saw play live, and that includes Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Kirby Puckett, a young Barry Bonds, and Randy Johnson. He was the greatest natural player of my lifetime, period. Sadly, the “natural” distinction matters.
Junior’s being named by 99.3% of the electorate – all but three of 440 voters – should (hopefully) signal a shift towards a better appreciation that true stars of the 80’s and 90’s are every bit the equal of their counterparts from the 1930’s to the 1970’s.
And this doesn’t even factor in the over-representation of stars from the 1910’s-1920’s; the Veteran’s Committee’s nepotism of the 1970’s swelled the ranks with some fairly average players. As statisticians will tell you, this can actually hurt the candidacy of deserving Hall of Famers like Tim Raines and Alan Trammell. While sabermetrics will show them as meeting or exceeding “average” Hall of Fame standards, proponents of old-school counting statistics and intangibles can also point to \ borderline selectees as “watering down the average.” So, supposed defensive stalwarts like Ray Schalk and Rick Ferrell – nowhere close to Hall of Fame caliber at the plate – crouch immortalized in bronze, while the likes of Ted Simmons – with true, measureable hitting excellence in the 1970’s and 80’s, and sabermetric credentials that should make him a Hall of Fame backstop – faded off the ballot with marginal vote totals.
Griffey’s election may help to highlight the relative greatness of a former teammate, Edgar Martinez, who is the victim only of injuries early in his career and specialization. The arguments of relative merit, both by era and by specialized positions developed over the last 30-40 years, deserve more words than I have to devote to this article; I will cover it in brief later, but I will simply put as my position that evolutionary greatness is still greatness. Great short relievers can and should be considered in the same way as great one-dimensional players, such as Bill Mazeroski on defense or Hack Wilson on offense. Designated hitters should be considered for how far above and beyond their contemporary fellow DHs (and offensive players overall) they stood.
With this year’s balloting, three names jump to the top of next year’s list.
One is an all-around great, like Griffey, but with the muscular build that plagued Piazza: Jeff Bagwell.
By sabermetric measures, and given his reputation as a hitter, fielder, and baserunner, there’s an argument to be made that Bagwell is the best all-around first baseman since Jimmie Foxx. I have considered him Hall of Fame material since the first ballot, and it’s only his physique that has kept him out. But Peter Gammons, who saw Bagwell play in the Cape Cod League in college in the late 1980’s, remembers a young Bagwell as one of the strongest players he’d ever met. As we’ll note with Piazza later, it is not unimaginable that a college player of the 1980’s would use steroids. However, there’s never been a whisper campaign or smoke beyond the simmer of bulging biceps to haunt Bagwell. To me, that’s not enough, especially with the precedent of Piazza’s election.
The second is an all-around great who suffered the sad fate of contemporary greatness. Tim Raines, by sabermetric measures and traditional ones, alike, is a Hall of Famer.
I caught the tail end of his career, largely – his last prime season, 1987, was right before my baseball renaissance. But the Tim Raines I saw on video, and the scouting reports I read from the late 1980’s, read like that of a Hall of Famer. He was an on-base machine with doubles power and the most efficiently prolific stolen base ability of anyone outside of Rickey Henderson. And therein lies the problem. He was the National League’s answer to Rickey Henderson in the same way Carlton Fisk was the ALs answer to Johnny Bench – there was no answer to Henderson. Fisk was lucky – through longevity, he outlasted Bench by a full decade, putting him at the top of the list for catching HRs and games played, even if he was never Bench’s equal.
But Raines, despite starting at roughly the same time as Henderson, was a piecemeal contributor to the White Sox and Yankees, mostly, for his last decade; in his prime, he played far above the spotlight, in the frozen confines of Montreal. He got on base at a solid clip, and played replacement-level defense, but had none of the flair or showmanship of Rickey, and stopped stealing bases. So, his prime was shorter than Rickey’s—he was arguably one of the best players in the National League for six straight seasons, 1982-1987—but for the rest of his career, he was merely an above average major leaguer contributing at a level that took sabermatricians to appreciate it.
Had he stayed a starter for perhaps 3-4 further seasons, he would have collected the 400 hits that would have gotten him to 3000. But more importantly, had he changed his game late in his career – becoming less patient and sacrificing walks for infield singles, albeit fewer of them – he’d have been far closer to 3,000. Instead, he made himself a key contributor to the first years of the Yankees great 1996-2000 dynasty. He also got on base at a clip far greater than his contemporary, Tony Gwynn, with greater power and better outfield range. He is perhaps the ultimate answer to the value of walks. But it is that lack of excitement – the walk over the single – that will take him to his last ballot before a deserved election. In 2017, however, it should finally – and very belatedly – come. And the second-greatest leadoff hitter of all time (and second-greatest of both his time and at his position, thanks to Rickey) will finally be immortalized in bronze.
The third likely inductee next year bears some amazing similarities to Raines. He was the second-greatest ever at his position, but plied his trade on mediocre teams. In his limited post-season appearances – an ever-magnified spotlight for his position – he was average at best. And despite staggering numbers, he was upstaged by a contemporary who put up unassailable numbers in the other league, for a dynastic team. Thus is the plight of Trevor Hoffman against the comparison case of Mariano Rivera.
I won’t go into the statistical depths of Hoffman, except to say that he ranks in the Top 10 in categories like save percentage, all-time saves, and career WHIP. He saved the second-most games all time, and finished the second-most games of all time (both second to Rivera). His changeup was also legendary, but yet not somehow as legendary as Rivera’s cutter. In a world without Mariano Rivera, to put it briefly, we would see Trevor Hoffman as the standard against which every relief pitcher is measured – not just closer, but reliever. To Hoffman’s great fortune, the glut of steroid-suspected candidates on the ballot (Sosa, Bonds, Clemens) and a limited set of newcomers next year will likely push him over the 75% mark in Year 2 on the ballot and get him in before the larger- than-life shadow of Rivera covers every reliever considered once he is elected in 2019.
Hoffman is appropriately placed here because he will be elected due to unusual excellence in a very specialized role – the modern closer, who is a creature of late-and-close 9th innings alone. Players like Junior Griffey are truly all-around greats, especially in their prime; if they contribute equally to the likes of a DH, their relative value – and merit for Hall of Fame immortality – is higher by a good bit.
A DH, like the modern closer, is a specialist. It can be easily argued that the value of a great DH is higher than that of a great closer – free-agent dollars, if nothing else, prove this. But a specialist he remains. But like Hoffman and Rivera, there are DHs good enough to rise above specialization, to define their position. And, looking back at this year’s Hall of Fame class, it is through our remembrance of the likes of Junior that we more accurately reflect how monumentally great Edgar Martinez was as a DH.
It was Martinez, for years, who was hit behind Junior in the Seattle lineup. As a Rangers fan for the whole of Edgar’s Seattle career, I can tell you I always felt I was watching two sure-fire Hall of Famers on that team: one as the all-around superstar in center field, and once as the specialist par excellence at DH. I never let out a sigh of relief when Junior was retired, so long as Edgar was still to follow. As a hitter, he lacked Junior’s power but exceeded him in every other way. And while he lacked the speed for triples or the loft for many homers, he was a doubles and on-base machine.
So, simply put, greats born of the specialized roles of this era should not be discounted because of their specialization, but instead held to a higher standard because their specialization limited their overall contribution. I will argue that if Edgar Martinez had not torn up his knees as a minor leaguer and rookie, and had experienced a time as an average defender at an offense-heavy position – ala Paul Molitor, who had a solid 7-10-year window in the field before Soon, we will have to consider that greatness in relief is not measured in the 9th inning alone, but by dominant middle relief that we are only just beginning to quantify with capstone statistics like the “hold”, as well as save-independent sabermetric measures. With due respect to Paul Molitor and Hal McRae, before the rise of David Ortiz as a Boston icon, there was only one name on the tip of most tongues as the “greatest ever designated hitter” – Edgar.
The era, too, should not be held against Edgar and his contemporaries. If we are to do that, we must also begin a culling of the ranks of the Hall, because until 1947, every player in baseball was facing no better than 50% of the best players they might otherwise face. Before Jackie Robinson, a shadow far darker, far more pervasive, and far more disgusting than the gloom cast by PEDs hung over a game artificially watered down and racially segregated. The Hall has taken momentous steps to at least begin to balance the injustice with the election, via special committees since 1972, of Negro League greats, but the ledger will never be balanced.
This does not lessen the greatness of Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth, but it must lead us to wonder what their numbers might look like had they faced the full weight of talent and skill embodied by an entire race barred from the game. Would Ruth have been passed by Josh Gibson long before Hank Aaron showed both how far we had come, and how far we had left to go, in April 1974? Would Ty Cobb have managed a .367 lifetime average with Willie Wells fielding slap hits at short stop, or Rube Foster facing him on the mound? We will never know what might have been. So we have done what we must – embrace greatness within a flawed era, while using the halls of history to tell the truth of a sad chapter as best we can.
Some greats, like Junior Griffey – as with Ruth, Cobb, Joe DiMaggio and Mays before him – transcend their era.
Some, like Mike Piazza, are indelibly linked to an era, for better or worse. His candidacy and election might have finally offered our first glimpse into how the most recent of Hall-eligible candidates might be handled.
The performance-enhancing drug (PED) era—the “Steroid Era”—is real, and ongoing, and has been pervasive. It has adjusted the hue of the game since at least the 70’s, truly colored the game’s image since the ‘80’s, and for nearly two decades now, it has far more than shaped a pastime: it has been the shape of the game.
What began with amphetamines has grown into human growth hormone. With every wave, minority became majority in staggering time—be they speculative or admitted, they are no less real. In the last decade, we have become first cognizant of, then resigned to, then staggered by, the depth and breadth of PEDs. Without confirmed, hard data, it can only be speculation, but let me be among the many to dare: users were not the exception, but the rule.
In 2006, we reached a crossroads. The man who would be king, and dared fall from the throne of public idolatry, reached the gates of Cooperstown. Mark McGwire, who defined power and awe for a generation, made his first Hall of Fame ballot. He never received even one-quarter of the writers’ vote, and fell off this year, on his tenth and final ballot. But his story says more than that. It illustrates a truth of a generation both cognizant of reality and yet unwilling to take a stand on it. For a man whose election, when he retired, was a foregone conclusion, and who, by any statistical trend you can devise, will now never come close to election, his Hall of Fame candidate bio offered one line to hint that the man is an admitted steroid user: “Mark McGwire’s story contains so much more than that. But on the field, McGwire was undeniably a star.”
Rarely has the phrase “so much more” carried quite so much with it. Within those few lines lies the incongruity and innuendo that threatens to hamper every ballot for the next twenty years.
And somewhere between McGwire and Griffey lay the likes of Mike Piazza. Let me state up front I believe Piazza was a Hall of Famer from Day 1 of his career. He was that transcendent as a hitter. He drove the ball to right field, as a right-handed hitter, with more skill and power than any player I have seen before or since. This was the result of immense hand and upper body strength, both of which were on display from his rookie year onward (and before – a 1986 high school scouting report from the Royals notes his “6” [on a scale of 8] future power, and cites his physical maturity as “Excellent”).
He came up at a time when it would not be unheard of for minor leaguers to use steroids. However, every scouting report I’ve read of him cites an uncanny strength, especially from his hands and upper body. Moreover, he was a child of privilege, Tommy Lasorda’s godson and the son of an automobile dealership magnate rich enough to build a batting cage for his son to use, even in winter, in Western Pennsylvania in the 1980’s. That, plus work ethic, will make up the gap even between a 62nd-round pick and the major leagues. I believe the likes of Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, as two examples, didn’t use PEDs. Rather, I suspect they were products of great genetics and phenomenal work ethics combined with coming of age at the true emergence of year-round advanced strength training. Jim Thome, who I have never heard mentioned as a likely user, and Frank Thomas, who was built like the football player he was at Auburn, are two others who I consider in the Piazza and Bagwell class – big, strong men who were victims of blessed natural genes combined with advanced training methods in a genetically engineered era.
The gap between the above – big, strong men who trained hard and big, strong men who trained hard AND used every advantage chemistry could offer – well, it’s honestly about as thin as the needles that epitomized the era. Before testing, and before a formal declaration of illegality by baseball, use of PEDs could easily be seen as just one more step the game’s greatest competitors were willing to take.
With clubhouse speculation rampant, there were likely just as many voices touting the responsibility of great players to “do all they could” to maintain their own and their team’s competitive edge. This same argument led to the proliferation of amphetamines in baseball starting in the 1960s, and more than a handful of Hall of Famers are already admitted users. But much like steroids and PEDs before 1991 – or, some would argue, before 2003, when baseball actually cared enough to begin testing – amphetamines were the elephant in the room; formally banned in 1971, they were well part of the clubhouse culture well into the 1990s. Coffee was plainly known as “leaded” and “unleaded”, depending on whether it was laced with amphetamines. Baseball turned a blind eye.
The difference in the PED era was that the numbers became too large to ignore. Once the hallowed marks of the game began to fall – indeed, once they became so commonplace as to lose their hallowed nature – action was demanded. This, truly, is where Cooperstown came into play, first as a museum documenting and cataloging the artifacts of performance incredulity, and then, by the mid-2000s, seeing the first entrance on the ballot of players who put up the staggering – and illicit – figures of the steroid era.
The sad thing is, with nutrition and advances in training, this era was destined to be the most athletically gifted in the history of baseball without a single illicit sip or syringe. The election of Griffey, not to mention the recent selections of training fanatics like Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Frank Thomas, and Craig Biggio – and both their standout and diverse skillsets – speak to the amazing athleticism of the era, all amongst players with little to no steroid taint to them. The lithe athleticism and completeness of the early 90’s Barry Bonds stands as a sad testament.
I was fortunate enough to see Bonds play one of the more complete games I’ve ever been fortunate enough to see, on a chilly summer day at Wrigley Field in 1992. I’ve had to dig up the ticket stub and research the box score for details, but I remembered a leadoff home run, amazing speed, and perhaps most impressively, an incredible range and accurate arm from left field. He stood apart from every player on the field – including an in-his-prime Ryne Sandberg – by a wide margin. On that day – a full decade before he was to dominate a World Series and set regular-season on-base and slugging standards not seen since Babe Ruth – I was sure I was watching two Hall of Famers.
Sandberg already had the resume, and Andre Dawson, despite being a shade of his Montreal days, was still an amazing physical specimen and power hitter. But the second Hall of Famer I saw was not Hawk. It was Bonds. I am certain, had he done no more than continue to be that player for another decade, he would have been article 1b to Griffey’s 1a in the question of “Best Players of the 1990s”. He chose another way, and the fact that so many others chose that path altered history forever. It did so to such a degree that there are those – I am not among them – who have suggested the statistics from this era be stripped, or at least watered down, to reflect their perversion of baseball’s hallowed history.
The punishment of those of the steroid era – the guilty, the suspected, and the innocent, alike – is exclusion…not from immortality, but from measurability. Baseball is a game built, more than any other, on numbers. By putting up numbers beyond anything seen before – and refusing to dial things back until the numbers themselves became absurd – those of the steroid era are colored forever in shades of gray. The impartial measurable – the record book – is blurred beyond trust. So we must move beyond numbers, but not so far as to black out the shades of gray.
I suggest, instead, as stated earlier, that we tell the story, in whole and in full, as it should be done – in the greatest museum in all of sports. If the Baseball Hall of Fame can find a way – as both museum and body electorate – to address the greatest shame in the history of sports – the willful exclusion of people of color – it has it within itself to catalog the greatness of players from a flawed era without tarnishing the luster of its bronzed honorees.
Next year, they’ll be joined by the first Ranger to test the “suspected but unproven” barrier, as Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez enters the ballot.
The test for Pudge will be unique from Piazza, as Pudge had a definite body type growth over the course of his career. He filled out, and did so in an era where filling out was as good a reason for suspicion as any. Being named in Jose Canseco’s book, too, was an albatross. Finally, when asked if his name was among those who tested positive as part of MLBs anonymous testing, his strongest denial was a weak, “Only God knows.” I believe next year we’ll see Pudge Rodgriguez enter Cooperstown, if only because he’s simply the greatest all-around catcher since the retirement of Johnny Bench, with all due respect to Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, or the aforementioned Piazza. But his is a small boat in a large storm.
Baseball must do what every great society does in times of turmoil: evolve to the world around it, to the immovable reality of its situation. Write plaques that focus on greatness within the context of one’s time. De-emphasize the stock-ticker instability of records and counting statistics. Embrace sabermetrics; embrace your foibles; use the relative shade cast on tainted immortals like McGwire, Clemens, and Palmeiro to brighten the relative brilliance of both past bastions—Williams, Musial, Aaron, Mays—and modern heroes all-but-universally believed above the fray: Griffey, Jr.; Maddux; Gwynn. Put up a true, featured, and PERMANENT exhibit on this era, the “Steroid” era. Just as the Hall has come to glorify greatest he Negro Leagues, via enshrinement and special exhibits, it must both recognize in bronze and reconcile in black and white the reality of this era’s shortcomings.
Do not, as some have suggested, water down the tales in bronze. Those lines rarely speak without context; let them color themselves in the known, the verifiable: that the players in question, by number and peer testimony, alike, were truly immortal. Present the context, the truth of their choices and how it robbed the magic from their numbers, in the best way the Hall of Fame can: through exhibits and a true and unvarnished telling of the tale.