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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Transcendental Preeminence?

I have no idea what Hall of Fame voters are looking for in their candidates.

A success investor I know once said that he looked for companies that "control the conversation with the customer." Translated, that means that their brand names are usually on the minds of customers in their targeted markets, which means they have a good chance of making a sale. Analogously, I think that Hall of Fame voters should try to re-visit the eras in which candidates played to determine whether, in fact, the candidates were preeminent. Did they inspire awe? How respected and feared were they?

Or, put differently, did their feats control the conversations of the fans?

I am happy for Bruce Sutter, who helped define the role of the modern closer and who was virtually unhittable for many seasons, at a time when closers didn't simply come in to pitch the ninth. I am remiss that Goose Gossage didn't get voted in, because, put simply, he controlled the conversation with the fan. Perhaps the first true "lights out" closer, Gossage was truly unhittable. A big, physical pitcher, Gossage came in and controlled a game. Period. He wasn't just an excellent closer, he really was the guy. And, as Eric of OffWing Opinion points out, he has good reason to be disappointed.

Rich Gossage helped define the term "closer." For that, he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Using the same analysis, Jim Rice belongs because for a ten-year span no one wanted to pitch to him. When you discussed the top hitters of his era, his name was greeted with reverence. Bert Blyleven doesn't belong despite his numbers. To me, like Tommy John, he was an outstanding pitcher, but not a Hall of Famer. Some, like Tim Kurkjian of ESPN, argue that Blyleven was on some terrible teams, so he doesn't have the won-loss cache that others do but has great numbers notwithstanding that. It's a good point, but I'm not sure it carries the day. About thirty years ago, the Angels weren't good, but they had a lights-out (at times) starter named Frank Tanana, who was virtually unhittable as a young pitcher. His career numbers are above average (240 wins . . . but 236 losses) but not quite good enough. Should Tanana get rewarded even though his teams weren't that good?

Teams who win get the lion's share of the Hall memberships. After all, you need great players to win championships. So, to an extent, even in baseball, the winners write the history books (in fact, the Hall overdosed on this precept, allowing its Veterans Committee to vote in way too many members of Giant and Cardinal teams from the '20's and '30's, precisely because alums of those teams populated the Veterans Committee). True, that premise -- winning -- could hurt some players, but suppose Bobby Abreu finishes his career with no championships and Andre Dawson-like numbers? Will he be worthy of the Hall? Phillies' fans appreciate Abreu's vast talents, but he's more of a #2 player than the leader who will take his team to victory. He's not viewed in the elite inner circle of National League stars -- he's on the outside looking in. That, in an of itself, should count for a good amount of the analysis. Which is why, upon reflection, I wouldn't have voted for Dawson, either. He was an excellent player, but on the outside looking in. While I wouldn't have voted for Dave Parker, either, the one-time rightfielder for the Pirates was in that elite inner circle for a while during his playing days for the "We Are Family" teams in the 1970's. Parker clearly dominated conversations of the fans -- but not for long enough.

So what is transcendental preeminence? You have to be in that elite inner circle, be among the first mentioned when the fans talk about great players during the time you play, and have a long enough career to warrant election. With few exceptions, a short but brilliant career (Pete Reiser) or a long but not quite great enough career (Jim Kaat) should not garner you admission to the Hall of Fame. The voters can look back and crunch all the numbers they want, but it's important that at the time he played, the player in question enjoyed a certain type of respect.

Bruce Sutter did. So did Rich Gossage.

If the Hall is to celebrate greatness, we need to look at the players who truly controlled the conversations of the fans. And that should make next year interesting. Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn are locks, but then there's the curious case of Mark McGwire, who controlled the conversations of the fans while he played and, sadly, after his retirement (regarding his alleged use of steroids).

Will McGwire get in?

It depends if the voters act like true guardians of the game or like fans who were grateful to watch a juiced-up Paul Bunyan. True, McGwire was preeminent. His home runs transcended, both in number and in manner (he hit some real shots).

The harder question is whether he was for real.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating post, Prof. You're posing an enigmatic sporting question: what defines a winner?

Isn't it possible to be a so-so player who catches on with a winning team, whilst great players labour in relative obscurity for perennial bottom feeders? Whilst individual games and seasons throw up winners and losers, how do you attach this tag to individuals and their life's work in a team sport?

My level of baseball knowledge isn't up to mixing it with you and your readers, but I'll throw some football players into the mix. How about Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, Larry Wilson? Their fingers are, after all, ringless. Meanwhile, gaudy rings adorn the fingers of countless players that would rarely have ever featured in fans' conversations, let alone have controlled them. Are they 'winners'?

Though it might not appear so at first glance, identifying winners in sports is not a much more fruitful exercise that doling out awards for such intangible things as literature, film, music, etc.

Maybe that's as it should be...

9:59 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for your thoughts.

It's great that you mentioned Dan Fouts, because he is one of my favorite QBs of all time, and, you're right, he didn't win a Super Bowl, but his teams did venture far into the playoffs.

My guess is that the voting should include guys who played, because they know who the real stars are, regardless of a team's record. Perhaps they're better equipped to know that sports writers, who don't necessarily get the exposure the players do.

1:35 PM  

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