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Opinion
Hall of Fame reflections

By Clark Booth
Posted: 1/29/2010

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Maybe it’s just a by-product of the crankiness of the times. We’re adrift in an era that much favors whimpering and whining about everything. But as never before, gripes mount not just about who does or does not get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame -- we’ve always had that -- but the process itself; who votes and why and whether they are qualified or even sincere. It’s getting nasty.

As it happens this year’s batch of freshly minted immortals -- Whitey Herzog, Doug Harvey and Andre Dawson -- are all to varying degrees ‘‘borderlines.’’ That’s a nice way of saying that maybe more people think they don’t belong in Cooperstown than think they do.

Defining your terms is the preferential option in any meaningful discussion but it doesn’t come easily in this one. No one has ever concocted a reasonable definition of “a hall of famer.” The “no-brainers” are no problem. But how many of them do you have; maybe 10-12 per generation? Would a pantheon restricted to the Ruth’s, Grove’s, and Aaron’s of the game engage and charm us as much as the one we now have which also finds room for Goose Goslin, Richie Ashburn, and Bill Veeck?

Some, apparently, would prefer more exclusivity. But the sheer worship of near perfection can get rather boring. Moreover, the more you restrict the ranks of the elect the more you end up gnashing your teeth over infinitesimal degrees of greatness. How much of a distinction might you divine between the worthiness of Honus Wagner and Napoleon Lajoie?

In this year’s elections, Herzog and Harvey were elevated by the newly revamped but forever controversial Veterans Committee while Dawson got the nod from that venerable marching and chowder society, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) which has richly enjoyed the immense privilege 73 years but seems less and less deserving of their precious role these days.

In the three weeks since Dawson was tabbed a number of writers hither and yon including heavyweights of the trade have criticized the works, motivations, and attitudes of their own colleagues. Some of the criticism is fierce challenging the competence of many scribes and questioning whether the association should continue to have the honor. Such heresy -- long considered unthinkable -- suddenly becomes rampant.

Realize that out of a group of 539 voters for anything you are going to have a few who haven’t got a clue even if they do spend half their lives in the press box, which is the essential requirement for having the right to vote. If it can happen in Congress it can happen in the BBWAA. The question is how many writers either never saw the likes of Alan Trammell and Dave Parker play or have forgotten what they could or could not do.

Cheap tricks further sully the process. Five writers submitted blank ballots for the sole purpose of making it tougher for anyone to get named on 75 percent of the ballots which is necessary for election. Many more deliberately wasted votes on the haplessly unqualified who haven’t a prayer. Votes wasted this year were for such as Pat Hentgen, Kevin Appier, Eric Karros, Ellis Burks, Andres Galarraga and the notorious steroid abuser, David Segui. Tell me the bozo who voted for poor Segui wasn’t thumbing his nose at the entire process.

Of the three newcomers, Harvey is the least disputable. Umpires must be included. It had been too long since one had made it. Harvey, a very able and classy presence on National League fields for a full generation, was easily the most deserving. Therefore, he had to make it. It was effectively a “no-brainer” once you accept the essential premise that umps should have a corner at Cooperstown.

Herzog was more problematic. Efforts to reform the Vets committee have been strenuous in recent years with the goal of eliminating the cronyism that sullied the process for 20 years. Sub-committees for each category were carefully composed with membership balanced among ex-players, longtime executives and veteran media folks. All involved have knowledge and stature. And what was the result? More “cronyism!”

Or at least that’s the only term that for me accurately describes the naming of Herzog, a good-old-boy baseball-lifer with tons of friends in the game who is universally liked for his salty yet amiable manner. Whitey was a good manager and he won a World Series once upon a time. But if Whitey belongs in the Hall so do at least a dozen other managers who instantly come to mind spanning the ages from Bill Carrigan to Jimmy Dykes to Gene Mauch to maybe (eventually) even Terry Francona or Billy Martin.

It is, however, the selection of Dawson by the BBWAA that will prove to have the most interesting implications. He was a nice player and a very brave one, enduring about a dozen knee procedures to hit 438 homers over 21 seasons of solid and steady play, especially on defense. Still, stats don’t lie and he hit only .279 lifetime rarely leading the league in anything with no more than ordinary production while doing nothing in stray post-season opportunities. In the Hall, he takes his place alongside the likes of Ralph Kiner, Bill Mazeroski, George Kelly, Enos Slaughter, Rick Ferrell, Elmer Flick and all the other better definitions of ‘‘marginal’’ enshrinees who might have been as much lucky as good. You could name upwards to 50 who fit the bill.

If Dawson makes it why shouldn’t Dave Parker, Dale Murphy, Harold Baines, Fred McGriff, Don Mattingly and Edgar Martinez, all of whom were also on this year’s ballot. Cases for each are every bit as solid as any that can be made in Dawson’s behalf. This is the problem with the “borderlines.” Every one that makes it raises the issues of a dozen or so chaps who were every bit their equal. For borderlines are drawn from the ranks not of the truly great, of which there are so few, but the very, very good, of whom there are many more. If you let Jim Rice in how can you possibly keep Dave Parker out?

Having a much more “liberal” (for the want of a better word) attitude on this matter I have no problem with any of the aforementioned being among the enshrined. More power to them, says I, for there was something special about every one of them. But I can understand the arguments of “hardliners” who yearn for higher standards that are observed more consistently.

Otherwise, there was plenty to chew over in this year’s proceedings. Much was made of Roberto Alomar not making it. But he’s an ultimate shoo-in. If Joe DiMaggio had to wait a year so can Senor Alomar. It seemed needlessly painful for Bert Blyleven to miss by a trifling five votes (or five blank ballots, if you will). But Blyleven is a borderline’s borderline. He’ll breeze in next year and when he does he should count his blessings. Tim Raines, surprisingly, lost ground despite some furious campaigning by influential media savants. Barry Larkin, oddly, got less support than expected. Lee Smith, inexplicably, got more.

The most pleasant surprise was the hefty surge of Jack Morris who finally cleared the 50 percent level which means his chances are now good although the fact that it’s been such a struggle for “Black Jack” is ridiculous. The best right-hander of his times and a commanding big-game guy on the mound, he’s more deserving than Dawson.

And then there is the testy, thorny, profoundly aggravating matter of Mark McGwire and baseball’s galling Gordion Knot; what to do about the performance enhancement cheats.

The fallen slugger actually advanced his cause a tad in this year’s balloting. But that was before his latest, lame attempt to extricate himself from the worst implications of the mess. It’s just the opening salvo fans. The agonizing over all that will go on until at least the year 2030.

All things considered I’d rather be bickering about “the Borderlines.”