Getting to Cooperstown

Now that the whole Michael Cuddyer/Josh Willingham drama is resolved, we wish Cuddyer well in Colorado and move on to other things. Today, for me, the “other things” include a discussion of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I’ve never been to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I guess you’d say it’s on my “bucket list”, but I can’t honestly say it’s high on the list. It seems like it’s one of those things you should do with your dad, especially when your dad is primarily responsible for having instilled in you a love for baseball. Anyway, my dad’s been gone for over 20 years now, so I guess that ship has sailed. I’d like to visit the HoF with my son someday, though.

There has been no shortage of Hall of Fame chatter around Twinsville this offseason, with former players Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat and Luis Tiant being considered for, but ultimately falling short of, selection by the Veterans Committee. Going forward, we will continue to discuss the likelihood of Jack Morris getting the votes necessary to be selected for enshrinement.

One of the things that makes discussions regarding HoF credentials fun is that there’s very limited formal criteria established. There’s a pre-screening process for players to be placed on the BBWAA ballot, but once a player is on the ballot, the voters get just the following guidance with regard to how they should evaluate candidates: Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

That leaves an awful lot of room for debate with regard to whether this player or that player “deserves” enshrinement.

There was a lot of discussion about Bert Blyleven’s credentials over the past decade-plus. A number of writers have held up Blyleven as an example of the dilution of the Hall of Fame resulting from election of players who were very good, but didn’t measure up to the level of excellence that some felt the standard should be. How many times have we heard, “it’s not the Hall of Very Good”?

That’s a good point. Then again, it’s also not the “Hall of Statistical Excellence” either. In fact, a player’s “record” is just one of the listed criteria for voters to consider. Yes, “playing ability” can arguably be measured statistically, but such “ability” can extend beyond the numbers, whether certain statistic-bound segments of the baseball community want to admit it or not.

My criteria for judging whether a player should be in the HoF is as much art as science. It’s not just an “eyeball test”. It’s more of a memory test. Certainly, statistical excellence over a period of a player’s career should be a consideration, but not the sole consideration.

It’s the Hall of FAME. So tell me what these players accomplished during their careers that stood out, that was remarkable, that made an impression on baseball in their era, that made memories, that fans of that era and beyond still talk about and recognize, that made the player famous or added to the general level of fame bestowed upon the game of baseball itself.

My personal memories of Big League baseball go back just over 50 years, to 1961, and when I think about players from that era who stood out for remarkable careers, I think of Killebrew and Mantle and Aaron and Mays. They and many of their peers have been rightfully elected to the HoF.

But the specific memories that leap to mind include Roger Maris and his “61 in ’61”. I think of Denny McLain and his 31 wins. I think of Carlton Fisk waving that ball fair in 1975, followed by Reggie Jackson’s three home runs in the World Series a year later. I think of Kirk Gibson’s pinch hit home run in the ’88 Series one year after the 1987 Twins’ World Series heroics. I think of the night Cal Ripken moved past Gehrig.

And I think of Jack Morris’ ten-inning shutout in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.

It bothers me that so many of the players that made my greatest baseball memories are not recognized for what they did. You could certainly argue that a guy like McLain fails the “integrity” and “character” tests, but baseball’s FAME has been built just as much on the unforgettable performances of Maris and Gibson and Morris as it has on Fisk, Jackson and Ripken.

Why shouldn’t players that found something in themselves that allowed them to rise above their otherwise good-but-not-excellent career performance levels to give the baseball world something remarkable to remember for a lifetime be recognized for their contributions to baseball’s fame?

I’m happy for the family of Ron Santo and for Cubs fans everywhere that Santo was chosen by the new “Golden Era” Veterans Committee to be honored with HoF enshrinement. It’s sad that it didn’t happen while he was alive to enjoy the honor. I hope some day Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat will live to realize the same honor. I think they deserve it.

But what I can not understand is why Roger Maris wasn’t even on that ballot. With all due respect to Santo, Oliva, Kaat and the others, there was NOBODY on that ballot more worthy of recognition… more famous… than Roger Maris. Yet he wasn’t even on the ballot?

And then there’s Jack Morris. This may indeed be his last best chance to be voted in to the HoF by the writers, as pointed out in North Dakota Twins Fan’s excellent blog post this week. It’s his 12th year of eligibility and there aren’t many truly statistically exceptional players on the ballot this year, so maybe writers who feel they want to vote for at least one player will choose Morris. But it’s not likely he’s going to gain enough votes to make the grade and in the remaining years of his eligibility, we’ll see several more famous players qualifying for consideration for the first time, meaning Morris could actually see his vote total slip after this year.

But I don’t care what anyone says, what Morris accomplished makes him Hall of Fame material in my book. On baseball’s biggest stage, with fans around the world tuned in, he gave the most remarkable pitching performance I’ve ever witnessed and, in the process, delivered a World Series Championship to the Minnesota Twins. It’s not like it was a fluke. Morris was not a mediocre pitcher who got lucky one night. He was an accomplished starting pitcher who had produced in big moments before… and would do so again after… that night.

But that performance made him famous. It added to the greatness of Major League Baseball… to its lore. And it should make Jack Morris a Hall of Famer.

If there isn’t room for Jack Morris in Cooperstown, then I propose they rename the museum the “Hall of Statistical Accomplishment over the Course of Many Years of Playing Baseball” and see how many fathers and sons bother to visit the place.

– JC