The joy is gone from Hall of Fame debates - NBC Sports

The joy is gone from Hall of Fame debates
With players' accomplishments doubted, the fun of Hall of Fame speculation is no more

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July 25, 2013, 2:00 pm

Frank Thomas decided not to talk for this article.  He thought about it, apparently, but finally came to the conclusion that it wasn’t prudent. See, this article will be about the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Not too long ago, it was great fun to talk about the Baseball Hall of Fame. Everybody did it. The Baseball Hall of Fame was the best of the sports halls, the one with the richest history, the one with the clearest mission, the original. It was in this beautiful New York village, Cooperstown, which had a mythical connection to the birth of baseball (if there is one thing we know for sure it is that baseball was NOT invented in Cooperstown) but myths and fables have always been good for baseball. And the Hall celebrated baseball in a joyful way that captured the things so many people love about the game: The numbers; the Americana; the history; the folk stories and struggles and scoundrels and heroes and all the arguments about who was legendary and who was not quite legendary.

Yes, Don Sutton won 300 games, but was he dominant enough?

Yes, Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in a season and he was a fantastic player for four or five seasons, but was that long enough?

Yes, Tony Perez’s career numbers were on the Hall of Fame borderline, but how much credit did Doggie deserve for being at the heart of the dominant Big Red Machine?

Yes, Phil Rizzuto played spectacular defense and won an MVP and was the shortstop for seven World Series champions, but did he hit enough? Was his career long enough?

The baseball arguments would sometimes get heated, of course, but even those arguments honored the game. Sandy Koufax’s brilliance lasted only five or six seasons, but he was so fabulous that the Hall of Fame would have seemed empty without him. But what of his teammate Don Drysdale, whose stretch of excellence lasted longer but did not climb as high?

Jim Rice’s career numbers (fewer than 2,500 hits, fewer than 400 homers, not quite a .300 batting average) left him in no-man’s land. Some advanced statistics argued for a player who was superb but perhaps not quite a Hall of Famer; memories triggered the image a singular slugger who was as feared in his own day as Orlando Cepeda or Billy Williams had been in theirs. Then again, if fear was the prerequisite, certainly few players have ever been as feared as Dick Allen, who crushed the ball like few others when pitching dominated the game. Should Dick Allen be in the Hall?

Right now, in Kansas City, there is an intensive effort to have the Hall of Fame case of second baseman Frank White heard. White was a spectacular defensive player (eight gold gloves) and a limited but occasionally terrific offensive player (double digit homers seven times when that was a rarity for middle infielders). His career compares eerily with Bill Mazeroski, who was a spectacular defensive player (eight gold gloves), an occasionally terrific offensive player (double digit homers six times) and is in the Hall of Fame. This may or may not be a compelling Hall of Fame argument for White, but for a group of fans who grew up mesmerized by White’s breathtaking plays, it is a way to cherish the man.

On and on, the Hall of Fame filled countless empty hours for baseball fans. And it was fun. So much fun. It was even fun talking about Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, the outcasts who were banned for life (and, in Jackson’s case, an outcast in death too). There has been spirited debate about Rose’s crime against the game -- betting on baseball while managing the Cincinnati Reds -- and whether or not it should permanently disqualify him from the Hall of Fame. I can tell you from experience: Everyone has an opinion on it. Almost everyone loves talking about it.

But, now, talking about the Baseball Hall of Fame isn’t any fun at all.

* * *

Frank Thomas will go into the Hall of Fame next year, unless he doesn’t. Such is the riddle of the Hall of Fame these days. This year, there were six or seven or eight players whose numbers – statistics have long been the lifeblood of baseball fanhood – signaled a direct flight into Hall of Fame enshrinement. The players included:

-- The All-time home run leader.
-- A seven-time Cy Young winner.
-- A guy with 3,000 hits and 500 homers.
-- Another with 3,000 hits and four Gold Gloves.
-- A catcher with more than 400 homers, most for the position.
-- The all-time leader in home runs per at-bat.
-- A player who hit 600 home runs in his career – three times hitting more than Roger Maris’ 61 in a single season.
-- A legendary pitcher with the second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio ever who also once won a postseason game while blood soaked through his sock.

None are going in this year, of course. Some of them will never get in. Why not? You know why not. It’s no fun to talk about. Some cheated by using performance enhancing drugs back when the game looked the other way. Some might have cheated, it’s hard to tell because, you know, the game looked the other way. Some probably didn’t cheat, but to be perfectly honest, the baseball writers as a group (and I am one of them) seem to have simply lost the energy or enthusiasm or momentum to put baseball players into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Think about THAT for a minute.

No, there’s nothing fun about any of it. This weekend, the Baseball Hall of Fame will have some sort of “induction ceremony,” where they will right the apparent wrongs of not electing 19th Century player Deacon White, umpire Hank O’Day and long ago Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert. How long ago did they play and umpire? None of the three were alive when World War II began. This seems to be the only type of person safe enough to induct into the Hall of Fame these days.

It will be called a Hall of Fame Celebration. Capital letters. It won’t, however, be much of a celebration at all.

* * *

In a few months, the new Hall of Fame ballot will be so ridiculously overloaded that there’s no guessing what will happen. This is why Frank Thomas did not want to talk for this story. There should be no doubt whatsoever that Frank Thomas is a first-ballot, slam-dunk, no-doubt, unconditional and absolute Hall of Famer. But there is doubt. There’s lots of doubt, and it is everywhere.

The case for a player like Thomas can be as simple or as complicated as you like it. For now, let’s keep it simple: Seven retired players have a career .300 batting average and 500 home runs. You really can’t keep it much simpler than that.

Six of those players are Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams and Mel Ott. Of course, they are in the Hall of Fame. All six would be in anyone’s Hall of Fame.

The seventh player is Frank Thomas.

So there you go, a clear Hall of Fame formula, a simple as you get … but, of course, nothing is clear or simple at all, not anymore. Because there are two more players, not quite retired, who also have a .300 career batting average and 500 home runs. One is Manny Ramirez. The other is Alex Rodriguez. One was suspended for drug use. The other is about to be suspended for drug use.

And so, Frank Thomas – who was openly against steroid use, enough that he was the only active player to voluntarily talk with investigators of the Mitchell Report – finds his career fogged up anyway. The numbers that used to leave people breathless now make many of those same people angry. The kind of hitting that once led people to write poems and songs, now sparks snarky Tweets and rolled eyes.

People used to look at the back of baseball cards, where the numbers were lined up in neat rows. The Steroid Era prompted people to look at the front of baseball cards, where they could study photographs and compare the head and neck sizes of a player as he grew older.

And so, nobody seems to know if Frank Thomas will get elected. Some people think he will get elected because, you know, he was one of the greatest hitters of all time and there’s absolutely no credible reason to believe he took steroids. I mean, look at this: In his first ten full seasons, Thomas hit .320/.439/.581, won two MVP awards, a batting title, walked 100 times every year but one, led league in OPS (on-base plus slugging) four times, in runs once, in doubles once, it was a sustained run of awesomeness like baseball had not seen in decades.

He declined after that, as players do, but he still hit 42 homers and walked 100 times in 2003, got some MVP votes as a 38 year old in Oakland (when he hit 38 home runs, many of them in important spots).

And some people think he will not get elected right away. Of course, people could point out that he spent more than half of his career as a designated hitter and he was a defensive liability when he played.

But, if you want to make a case AGAINST a player you always can. Ted Williams was a defensive liability too. Paul Molitor was a designated hitter much of his career. Reggie Jackson was a defensive liability (especially the second half of his career) AND a designated hitter AND he hit just .262 for his career. It didn’t matter. People understood their greatness. The only way to miss the greatness in Frank Thomas is to not want to see it.

But you wonder if we live in a time where some people don’t want to see it.

* * *

Next year’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony will definitely have at least one modern player in it. Greg Maddux seems more or less immune to the cynicism and seriousness that has made the Hall of Fame a rather joyless topic these days. Maddux was, in many ways, the antidote to the run scoring frenzy of the 1990s. He was not big. He was not muscular. He did not throw very hard. He wore glasses. And for many years nobody could hit him.

Even Maddux’s vote total will probably be dampened by this Hall of Fame dreariness. It’s hard to imagine ANYONE thinking that Greg Maddux – with his 355 wins and 3,300 or so strikeouts and four consecutive Cy Youngs – should not be in the Hall of Fame. But there probably will be ballots protesting what baseball became in the 1990s and those will count against him. There probably will be a disillusioned voter or two who thinks: “Hey, I can’t PROVE he didn’t use steroids.” There may be a handful of gatekeepers who think: “If Warren Spahn or Sandy Koufax or Tom Seaver did not get elected unanimously, nobody should.”

But, despite all that gloom, Maddux will get elected. That seems certain.

After that? Nothing seems certain. The ballot is a mall parking lot at Christmastime. You know all the players who are left over from last year: Barry Bonds; Roger Clemens; Jeff Bagwell; Craig Biggio; Mike Piazza; Sammy Sosa; Mark McGwire; Rafael Palmeiro; Curt Schilling, all of them no-doubt Hall of Famers based on Hall of Fame standards before the Steroid Era began. That’s, what, nine players?

And that doesn’t even include Tim Raines and Larry Walker and Edgar Martinez and Alan Trammell, all who have compelling Hall of Fame cases when you compare them with players who are actually in the Hall. So we are up to 13. And it also doesn’t include Jack Morris, who has been on the ballot for 14 years, has gotten so close, and is coming up on his final chance.

So that’s, what, fourteen players who, by the numbers, have a strong Hall of Fame case? And remember: The voters are not allowed to vote in more than 10. Now, you add Greg Maddux. That makes fifteen.

You can see the logjam Frank Thomas faces. He was one of the best hitters of all time by any measure you choose. He’s added to this oversaturated ballot.

But wait! Tom Glavine won three hundred games and won two Cy Youngs. He’s added to the ballot.

Mike Mussina won 270 games – including 20 in his final season – and was one of the premier pitchers of his era. He’s added to the ballot.

Jeff Kent hit 377 home runs – far and away the most ever for a second baseman – and he too won an MVP award. He’s added to the ballot.

In other words, it’s going to be a big mess and Frank Thomas – who is so obviously a Hall of Famer – could get lost in it all.

* * *

So you think: OK, well, sure, the steroid thing has kind of backed things up, but things will begin to clear out the next couple of years.

No. For the 2015 ballot, Randy Johnson gets added. The Big Unit won 300 games, five Cy Young Awards, struck out 4,875 batters and has a strong argument as the best left-handed pitcher in baseball history (there with Lefty Grove). He will get in, surely. Pitchers – Roger Clemens aside – seem to stir up less anger among the voters.

Oh, and Pedro Martinez will get added to the ballot. From 1997 to 2003 -- the height of the steroid era – Martinez dominated as perhaps no pitcher since the days of Old Hoss Radbourn dominating the early 1880s. He went 118-36 with a 2.20 ERA, a .940 WHIP and a 1761-to-315 strikeout to walk ratio. So he has to go in right away.

Oh, and John Smoltz gets added to the ballot – one of the few to dominate as both a starter and closer. Oh, and to just cloud the picture up a little more, Gary Sheffield gets added – he hit 500 home runs, won a batting title, and was one of the most feared hitters in the game for more than a decade. He was also one of the players named as a steroid user in the Mitchell Report – he has admitted to have a steroid-infused cream applied to an injured leg but said he had no idea it had an illegal substance in it.

Then Ken Griffey joins the ballot in 2016. And in a crazy 2017, Pudge Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez (assuming he doesn’t get back to the big leagues) and Vlad Guerrero join the party.

So this thing isn’t going to shake out for a long time.

* * *

To be honest: I wanted to talk with Frank Thomas about much more than the Hall of Fame. I wanted to talk about his life these days. He and a partner, Jeff Moses, have a company called Big Hurt Beverage, with the highlight drink being “Big Hurt Beer.” He’s also doing some broadcasting in Chicago, he has been running a record label, he’s tweeting a bit. It’s always fascinating to see how great ballplayers adjust to life after the cheers. I believe it was John Lardner who said that athletes die two deaths, one like all of us, and another when they find their body can no longer perform at that majestic level.

This would be especially interesting for Frank Thomas because Thomas, it seemed to me, always had an interesting point of view. I remember once, almost 20 years ago, hearing him talk at some length about signing autographs and the mixed emotions they caused for players. It was thoughtful and provocative and eye-opening. Thomas seems a man who has something to say.

But, Frank Thomas knows: This Hall of Fame thing is ugly. Hail is crashing down everywhere. They’re about to have a Hall of Fame induction without inducting a single player anyone living has seen play ball. There’s no value in poking your head out in this environment. It would be great if in December, the voters did the right thing and voted in Frank Thomas. He’s one of the 30 or 40 best hitters of all time. He had an amazing peak. He had a productive and long career. And there is every reason to believe he did not use steroids. It should be more than enough.

Then, nobody is really sure what is enough in this new and significantly less fun world. In the meantime, Frank Thomas will keep his head down, and sadly you can’t blame the guy.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski