Saturday, January 05, 2013

The Hall of Character

This is the time of year when the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA) submit their ballots for baseball's Hall of Fame. Last week columns have been written, letters of support submitted, and players debated ad nauseum on blogs and message boards.

This year poses a dilemma for many voters: it is the first year that many of the "steroid stars" are eligible for induction- Barry Bonds, Roger Clemons, and Sammy Sosa join Mark McGwire who was on for the first time last year,and others like Jeff Bagwell are guilty by association. I could take up most of this blog listing off the pros and cons of these players, comparing their performance and their public image, ranking their statistics and advanced metrics. Then I could do the same for the players already on the ballot who are desperate for enough votes to stay on the ballot another year. But I'll spare you.

Instead I want to bring up an interesting dichotomy that jumped out at me as I read the endless articles from beat writers and columnists making the case for their favorite players- this is the first time on the ballot for Barry Bonds, arguably one of the greatest players in history and the last time on the ballot for Dale Murphy, arguably one of the greatest hitters in the 80's.

If you list their stats side-by-side there is no comparison, Bonds blows Murphy out of the water. In fact, Murphy's statistics fall on the "great, but not Hall-worthy" line that seems to shift every year, which has afforded him his longevity on the ballot (if you don't get enough votes you're dropped from the ballot and you can only be on the ballot a limited number of years)- there are just enough voters who think he belongs in the Hall that he's been able to stay on the ballot, but not enough yet to be enshrined.

What hurts Murphy is the argument that he played too long. In other words, he didn't retire as his skills were declining, instead spending his last few years as a journeyman getting spot-starts for the Philadelphia Phillies and Colorado Rockies (in fact I was at one of Murphy's last games as a Rocky).

The argument I've seen some make for looking past Bonds' steroid transgressions is that he was a surefire Hall-of-Famer prior to his alleged use. I remember debating, at the turn of the century when it was en vogue to argue such things, that I considered Bonds to be the best player who ever lived, better than Babe Ruth and neck-and-neck with Willie Mays. So if you discard the seasons after 1998, when Bonds says he began to use, you still have a Hall of Fame career.

But players who "play too long" (like Ron Santo who passed away never being elected by the BWAA, instead being inducted posthumously by the recently revised Veteran's Committee) are not given the same benefit of the doubt. Never mind that until Chipper Jones, Murphy held the record for most home runs by an Atlanta Brave. Ever hear of some guy named Hank Aaron? He hit most of his in Milwaukee. Murphy hit the most home runs of any player in the 1980's (or is barely behind Mike Schmidt, depending on if you go 80-89 or 81-90). But his career tailed off steeply after roughly 1988 and he continued to play until 1993.

I know all this because Murphy was one of my favorite baseball players as a kid growing up. I'm sure if I asked my mom, she could dig up my old powder blue faux jersey with Murphy's #3 on the back. Like I mentioned, I was at one of his last games and I was also at the game where the Atlanta Braves honored Murphy by retiring his number.

But that's not the only reason I bring this all up. It is hard to argue against Barry Bonds being in the Hall of Fame. But nobody likes him. He was a put-off by the media, surly towards fans, and even rubbed fellow teammates the wrong way. Meanwhile Murphy, on and off the field, was practically a saint (instant religion tie-in!). His Mormon faith was exhibited by the class he carried as a baseball player, as a father (his strongest supporters right now for the Hall are his own children, a testimony to his fatherhood), and in his off-field charity work (which is too numerous to list here, this blog is already too long).

If you want the numbers, the blog This New Geometry breaks them down well. For my own edification, I also looked up his stats on Baseball Reference, which lists him as a "probable" Hall-of-Famer based on "JWAR". But what stands out to me is the qualifications given by the Hall of Fame itself: "Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played." (emphasis added)

They say nice guys finish last. They say it is hard for men and women of faith to get ahead in their careers against peers who are more willing to take shortcuts or stab others in the back. We, as Christians, take comfort that our reward is in heaven. But every now and then, men of character get the recognition they deserve. Here's hoping Murphy gets his.

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