How We Remember Baseball Players

In my last post, I mulled over Bernie Williams‘ Hall of Fame chances.  The conundrum I have is this: do we evaluate players based on a certain performance standard and if so, is that standard defined by those players who are already in the Hall?

I proposed that last year’s induction of Jim Rice, who, by all accounts was a good baseball player but quite comparable to a number of non-Hall of Fame players in baseball history, inevitably created some problems for the Hall of Fame.  After all, using the “well if player X is in, then player Y must be in” argument is rather common, and I think you may have saw that this year.  Andre Dawson: good player, hit for power, could run, played good defense, but was not able to get on base consistently.  Again, good player, but there are lots of good players in baseball who were just as effective at helping win baseball games (and that’s what everyone is trying to do, right?) yet who are not in the Hall of Fame and never will be.  And those players probably shouldn’t be.

Clearly, I think the HOF voters this year made some terrible choices.  They elected only 1 player and that player wasn’t even a top 5 player on the ballot.  Hell, he wasn’t even the best player at his position on the ballot, so it’s not like there was difficulty in comparing players with different roles.

So why does this happen?  Why do the Jim Rices and Andre Dawsons of the world get in, while a guy like Tim Raines, who was a demonstrably better baseball player, can’t even get 50% of the vote?

Well, memory is a funny thing.  I’ve read a lot of stories about how Andre Dawson was (and presumably still is) a great guy and how he battled through bad knees and maybe he didn’t get on-base a lot, but baseball players weren’t trying to do that back then.  The bad knees thing makes for a great story, but why should that have any impact on his Hall of Fame votes?  It shouldn’t of course – much like we shouldn’t care that Jim Rice was the most “feared” hitter of his day.  And how could a baseball player with Andre Dawson’s experience NOT know that making outs is a bad thing?  I realize that statistical analysis back then surely wasn’t as detailed as it is today.  But Hall of Fame caliber players of ALL eras got on base.  Babe Ruth was one of the greatest players ever at doing so – if not the greatest – and he essentially helped define what it means to be an elite offensive player.

Right now though, the HOF isn’t about voting for the players who were the best at baseball; it’s about voting for players who we (and by we, I mean voters) remember as being great; and of course that very word – great – comes with many different definitions.

I’m not saying that this is necessarily a terrible way of doing things.  Baseball is a story and those who follow baseball like to it fit into a particular narrative.  Mark McGwire was once the man who saved baseball but now his career is meaningless because he used steroids.  Neither of those statements are true, but they fit into a nice narrative.  Sure, Jack Morris‘ numbers can’t compare to those of Bert Blyleven‘s, but we remember Morris being an “ace” and winning big games.  Again, meaningless words and that aren’t really true, but they fit into the storyline.

Who really loses in all this is the players, because evaluating them in such a manner is patently unfair.  Andre Dawson was not nearly as good of a baseball player as Tim Raines.  It’s pretty much impossible to argue otherwise.  But people remember Dawson better and in this case, that makes all the difference.