Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Is The Hall of Fame "Just For Men"?

Most discussions about the baseball Hall of Fame are devoid of reason and logic. Few topics of discourse are decided ultimately on "gut feeling" or "something indefinable" or what somebody "looked like" than the subject of who should or shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame.

Most people look at a Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, or Joe DiMaggio and say, "That's a Hall of Famer." The reality is, however, that those guys have never been the standard for the Hall of Fame. They're the absolute cream of the crop even in the Hall itself. To look at the top 10% of the guys who are in the Hall of Fame as the standard for the Hall of Fame is simply not a valid way of going about the process. It might make for a nice imaginary, ideal, Platonic Hall of Fame, where only 20 guys are members, but the real Hall of Fame has never been limited to the Ted Williamses and the Stan Musials.

So in discussions about the Hall of Fame, we need to look at the real Hall of Fame rather than some figment of our imagination, and see how a proposed player fits into the real one. We need to look at what a player actually accomplished, as opposed to indefinable, subjective criteria (e.g "He didn't look like a Hall of Famer to me.")

With all that having been said, I want to propose someone for the Hall of Fame who ought to be there but doesn't even get serious consideration. Indeed, he recently dropped off the ballot altogether. That player is...(drumroll please)...Keith Hernandez. Yeah, you heard me. Keith Hernandez.

"But wait a minute, John. Keith Hernandez was a fine ballplayer. But he didn't look like a Hall of Famer to me." As I said before, I don't know what that means. It doesn't cut it. Facts and logic must rule the day (though, of course, they haven't).

Here are the facts. Keith Hernandez may well be the finest defensive first baseman of all time. Is there any other position in baseball (except for pitchers, who only play every five days and thus are not evaluated on their hitting or fielding) in which the finest defensive player ever has been excluded from the Hall? Hernandez made all the routine plays at first base, and he also made plays I've never seen any first baseman make before. "Aha!" you might object. "Now you're arguing for a player based on what he looked like." Fine. Let's go to the objective facts. Hernandez won eleven gold gloves at first base. There are only five position players in baseball history who have won more Gold Gloves than that, and all the eligible ones are in the Hall of Fame (with Ivan Rodriguez still in the process of winning more). If we admit that baseball is a two way game, and if we are willing to put power-hitting, zero-fielding first basemen in like Harmon Killebrew, how do we keep the best defensive player at the position out of the Hall?

Presumably, if we were going to try to keep such a player out, we'd have to strongly penalize him for his hitting. He'd have to be an unusually subpar hitter in order for us to negate his tremendous fielding achievements. Is this warranted in Hernandez's situation? No; to the contrary, he was an excellent hitter. He won the NL batting title (as well as the MVP award) in 1979 with a .344 average, finished in the top 10 in the league in average seven times, and won two Silver Slugger awards at first base (awarded to the best offensive player in the league at each position--and he did not win the award in his MVP year).

But we're not done yet. What else did possibly the best defensive first baseman of all time accomplish offensively? He was in the top ten in the league in runs scored five times (including leading the league twice), finished in the top ten in doubles eight times (including leading the league with 48 in 1979), and was in the top five in on-base percentage seven times (and in the top two five different times!). He drove in 90 or more runs in six different seasons. He finished a 17-season career with a lifetime .296 average.

In addition to all this, he played an integral role on two different World Series championship teams (including as captain with the '86 Mets) and was a five-time All Star. And he played an integral role in one of the greatest "Seinfeld" storylines ever.

So how does a guy like this not even get considered for the Hall of Fame? I think two things are at play. First, Hernandez's position has come to be considered a power position, and Hernandez was not a big power hitter (though he had some respectable pop in his bat: 162 lifetime homers in the pre-steroids, pre-bandbox ballparks era, playing the majority of his career in cavernous Busch Stadium). But this is arbitrary at best. Where is it written that a power-hitting, poor defensive first baseman like Hank Greenberg is better than a great defensive, excellent doubles and average guy like Hernandez? It's utterly arbitrary to single out home runs as the main criteria for first basemen and give no credit for great defense and otherwise excellent hitting.

Second, I think that Hernandez's drug problems, brought to light in the infamous Pittsburgh drug trial probably torpedoed any real chance he ever had. Heck, one might even think I'm arguing for Hernandez because he was a Cardinal and I'm a homer, but I've hated Keith Hernandez for years, ever since his drug involvement came to light at about the same time that his Mets were the Cardinals' fiercest rival. If even I feel that way, I have no doubt it influenced Hall voters. (Also, those "Just for Men" commercials with Walt "Clyde" Frazier can't be helping.) Nonetheless, the members of the Hall of Fame would never comprise an ideal citizenry. They should, as I've argued all along, be judged for what they did on the field. And by that standard, Hernandez is a legit Hall of Famer.

A knowledgeable baseball fan will say, "Well what about Don Mattingly, then? He has very similar qualifications." To which I say: That's correct. Donny Baseball belongs in the Hall of Fame too. Both of these guys are more deserving than at least 1/3 of the people who are currently in the Hall of Fame.

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