When the Official Period of Hall of Fame Anticipation, Debate, Garment-Rending, and Chowder-Slurping began about a week ago, it seemed likely that we'd be in for another year of the same. Another year of holier-than-thou handwringing over votes, with the usual dose of pomposity from the Baseball Writers Association of America that imagine themselves as Gandalf gatekeepers shouting "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!" at perceived PED-era malefactors.
It's a lot to take, honestly, particularly in a presidential election year in which candidates are all playing some variation of that same role. If you're already exceeding your RDA of self-importance every 15 minutes, you really don't need another helping from baseball, which is supposed to be fun.
Given that, I contemplated writing this column with the certainty of another failed Tim Raines campaign in mind. I thought I might begin with a little Beatles parody:
When the Raines comes
They run and hide their heads
They might as well be dead
When the Raines comes.
Thing is, I did an extended John Lennon riff last time out, and, in a happier surprise, this year the voting wasn't actually that bad. Ken Griffey, Jr. was almost unanimously elected. The obsession with Mike Piazza's back acne was put aside long enough to allow him in as well; maybe the Gandalfs remembered that wizards are not dermatologists. Raines and Jeff Bagwell saw elevated vote percentages that should translate into election in 2017, a year with a slightly softer ballot. That's not guaranteed—Nellie Fox missed election by one freaking vote in his final year on the ballot. Still, it's progress; it turns out that even a fussy, conservative organization like the BBWAA can evolve. (About that, and in the interest of full disclosure: I was a BBWAA member for a couple of years, but chose to let it lapse like an unwanted magazine subscription.)
This was the first time in recent memory when the election was almost wholly enjoyable. To their credit, the BBWAA forced the issue by purging over 100 voters, all of whom had ceased covering the game for at least 10 years. This seems to have the effect of making the electorate slightly younger, hipper, and better informed, with a more progressive sense of player value. Even the BBWAA, it turns out, can be derailed by low-information voters. It seems to me this has implications not only for baseball's political system, but for our national political system as well. We should probably leave that for the demographers to sort out.
The BBWAA's purge was hardly perfect—Murray Chass remains, for instance, and he is not nearly done talking about Mike Piazza's pimples. (Chass' ballot was, uniquely so far, blank but for Junior Griffey) Nevertheless, there is hope, and not just for Raines and Bagwell, but for Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, and Curt Schilling too. I'm not going to tell you why these guys should or shouldn't be in, because by now you either know, or you don't know and have no interest in learning—there are people like that, and some of them still have Hall of Fame votes. Either way, sabermetrically-informed thinking now informs a large segment of mainstream baseball writing and fandom. It's a commodity product, and if you've avoided it to this point, it's because of a case of epistemic closure/head-in-ass so severe as to require surgical extraction.
The other reason not to rehash the debate is that there's no right answer. The Hall of Fame is the vaguest of heavens, inviting unresolvable substance-free how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-Phil-Rizzuto-style arguments. The answer is (A): All of them; (B) None of them; (C) 17.36; (D) Fish. Even the best "definitions" of what identifies a Hall of Famer are completely circular. They tell you how a guy who isn't in compares to those who are, which informs you of how some people, many of them long dead racists, defined the idea for themselves. It doesn't tell you anything about how you should judge things.
At best, this sort of definition provides a lower boundary for enshrinement, but so what? Who is to say where that line should be drawn, or if it should be drawn at all? Justin Bieber has more Twitter followers than Aphrodite ever had worshippers, but that doesn't mean we should label him a goddess—and if Aphrodite makes a comeback and passes him again, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't.
In the end, "fame" is an abstraction and a Hall of Famer is whoever you can believe in and can convince other people to believe in too. It's about the story you can tell and the best argument you can make. You need not be hostage to the voters or the standards of the past, nor any standard at all. If you believe David Eckstein's scrappy play makes him a Hall of Famer, more power to you. No one has to agree with you, but no one can say you're wrong either. It's a thing you believe.
Having said that, we now have many, many analytical tools by which we can fix a player's value with something approaching precision. We don't have to prostrate ourselves before big round numbers like 300, 500, and 3,000, which have little intrinsic meaning, because we now have better numbers. We don't have to guess anymore; the days of Schrödinger's ballplayer have been all but banished. Even if the Hall of Fame is an institution without definition, there is no excuse for voters just winging it. Your arguments have to be as good as our information.
And yet those improved numbers bring us back to a lower boundary for candidates, a qualifier which serves mostly as an alternative to thinking. If the argument swings so far as to become "the average Hall of Fame shortstop has 57.3 WAR and Joe Shlabotnik had 57.4, so he should be in," we're not in good place. The whole purpose of having people vote for a slate of candidates is that it allows for ideas that go beyond the purely mathematical, ideas that come from the world outside of the back of the baseball card.
We see Hall of Fame voters do that all the time, actually, when they bar PED types like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. They are saying, "Yeah, we see the numbers, but we choose to put them aside for other reasons." Thing is, somehow it's only acceptable to do that for negative factors, not for positive ones. Imagine a hypothetical player who has a decent career, hits .265 with a .330 on-base percentage, never leads the league in anything of significance, maybe wins a Gold Glove once. He's a 30-WAR guy over a long career. That's not normally a Hall of Famer, but this guy spends his weekends rescuing orphans from burning buildings, re-homing abandoned pets, and teaching underprivileged children how to use Microsoft Excel. That guy could and probably should be a Hall of Famer, assuming that "Hall of Fame" is synonymous with "House of Good Stuff" and not "House of Statistics."
Right now, orthodox thinking would have a guy shut out, and the irony of the post-purge BBWAA is that the new electorate, more progressive though it may be, will ultimately embrace the same old orthodoxy in a different form—WAR instead of W's. Me, I'd rather hear the argument, especially one that doesn't rely on numbers that merely repeat and amplify the hardened tendencies of the old school in 21st-century drag. That also means the three voters who didn't list Griffey on their ballots need to provide their rationale, subjective or objective, to the 437 who did. Maybe they'll sell someone, if not on their intelligence then at least on their integrity.
But this was a positive election, and we should take our victories where we can find them. Even better than anticipating an explanation from the Griffey deniers that is consonant with post-purge critical thinking—because, seriously, how?—is the case of the 133 voters who failed to list Raines, and what they were looking at. They'll have a year to convince the 307 that did vote for him that they were wrong to do it. I like those odds for Raines' side. When he's voted in a year from now, the purge will truly bear fruit. In this small corner of our lives, at least, rationality will at last Raines—er, reign, and sorry—and we can find something else to argue about.