Barry Larkin Ascends to Hall of Fame. Kurt Stillwell Snubbed Again.

Barry Larkin, four time Gold Glove shortstop for the Reds, was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame this afternoon by the BBWAA. He won the Silver Slugger at the position nine times and represented Cincinnati in the All-Star Game 12 times, including 1995 when he won the MVP award in the National League.

Congratulations should go to him as he’s being recognized for the greatest individual honor a player can receive after retiring.

The Hall of Fame.

It just sounds regal. Exclusive. Monumental.

And yet, more and more, year by year, I feel more indifferent about it.

I don’t want to disparage Larkin or his accomplishments. In the voting by the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, Larkin was among those players on my ballot for the BBA’s recommendation, but I also included ostracized candidates Mark McGwire, Rafael Pameiro and fringe candidates like Tim Raines and Larry Walker. The first pick for me was Jeff Bagwell who should have been in last year anyway.

I didn’t run regression models to try to determine what Walker might hit in the Polo Grounds or if  Palmeiro would have been worth a darn against Sandy Koufax.

My criteria was pretty simple. I considered that the players coming up for discussion now are the same players who were among the elite in the days when I was younger – that age when you owe it to yourself as a red-blooded American male (who still rode a bike as your primary means of transportation) to be a baseball fan. I usually lean more toward the statistical when forming my opinion of a player (or at least weigh it to that end), so yes, it’s a bit counter-intuitive for me to go with the “I know it when I see it” method of judgment.

It’s a method that ends up whisking me away to the days where I’d stay up late watching highlights or looking over boxscores pre-internet, or “coming down with the flu” on Opening Day and missing school. I want to remember that group as being as good as I thought they were back then. On that side of the argument, I think the Hall of Fame should be much more inclusive to honor the best of their era. That might mean that some players who might not fit the mold get it, but that doesn’t bother me as long as we’re talking about a Hall of Fame that features such names as Rabbit Maranville (.658 OPS, 82 OPS+) or even Bill Mazeroski (who was great with the glove, but never even average for his time at the plate).* If those guys get in, why not Larry Walker?

*I fully realize I’m picking one group to get in based on the eye test and excluding some by their numbers. I didn’t see the oldies play, though, so all I have to go off of are the numbers.

As it stands now, if you have a particular Hall of Fame hopeful who gets close one year, all you have to do is wait it out. Jeff Bagwell will get in, once all the other “shouldas” get in. Bert Blyleven was on that waiting list for a long time, as was Jim Rice.

Rice got into the Hall on his fifteenth try at the ballot, but not before floating in the mid-50% range of voters until a final surge of “it’s his last chance to get in” goodwill pushed him over the top. In his first few years on the ballot, Blyleven couldn’t even muster better than 20% of the voters support. So how does he suddenly get over the 75% threshold in the end to get elected?

I’m all for nostalgia. Baseball has a certain mysticism about it that allows you to see a game played today that isn’t that different from the game that DiMaggio and Aaron and Ruth played. It’s different, but not in the same way that basketball or football would be. The older a memory gets the more grandiose it becomes. That game winning homer goes a few feet farther each year. That last fastball a gets a little bit quicker each passing year. And in the case of the Hall of Fame, when it’s the last few chances to put a guy in, they end up putting him in, despite the years before of arguing against his case. That’s why Jack Morris will make the Hall of Fame, probably next year. It’s why someone like Bernie Williams – who was a great player and key part of a dominant Yankees franchise – will have a shot in a decade to make it. That’s why if you fret about Raines or Edgar Martinez missing out this year, they’ll have plenty of time to get the sympathy vote.

If a player gets at least 5% of the vote in a year, they’ll carry onto the next year’s ballot and as long as they get 5%, they stay on the ballot for 15 years.

To me, it seems that a Hall of Famer shouldn’t really take 15 years to be recognized. But if they’re just going to shuffle someone in for hanging around, they might as well ignore all pretense and let them in.

Think about baseball and you immediately think of the greatest players. Gehrig, Cobb, Mantle, Reggie, Ted Williams, and so on. Those are the players you’ll know as Hall of Famers without a doubt. That’s more how it should be. My preference would be to give a player five years to make it (and that might be more than necessary). If you can’t determine if a player belongs after five years of being retired and five years on the ballot, then they probably shouldn’t be in.

Shortening the timeframe in which to elect a player to the Hall of Fame forces a choice among baseball writers. Think Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer? You better make his case and vote him up, because you only have so much time to do so. Stuck with a choice between Player A and Player B? Normally, if Player B had more time available on the ballot, Player A could win the vote if it were a toss up. But with less of a drawn out period to make a selection, the hard-luck case might have to miss out. Maybe Player A is truly more deserving and gets in first because most writers want to ensure that they make it in. It puts them in a position to have to make a decision, rather than letting it slide until later one when others might catch up to popular opinion.

I don’t think any of this is a conscious effort by the writers. It’s just how it works out. Jay Jaffe and Ken Rosenthal have pointed to a sort of peer pressure, Jaffe says, “borne of not wanting to be the voter whose ‘no’ freezes a player out of Cooperstown.” They may say “You know, I’m starting to think he might deserve it after all” once a player gets to their 13th year on the ballot where the window is closing rapidly. Since the pattern is that those candidates who aren’t slam-dunk first-ballot selections can go in during their fifth year on the ballot (or somewhere in there), the votes go to that fringe candidate who’s picked up support from sources who previously had shut him out.

You know a Hall of Famer when you see it. Or you should. As the voting is structured now, they may as well vote anyone in with half a case, because over time, they’ll get in anyway. There seems to be an understood vetting period to make sure a player really “deserves” it before they start voting for them. But if on January 9, 2012, a player is worthy of election to the Hall of Fame in their 12th, they should have been worthy in the first year of eligibility. If voters had just a couple of years to make their choices, I think baseball would see less floaters and start putting in guys who should be in right away.

If they want to make the Hall hallowed, they have to vote as if it is.

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Tags: AL Central Barry Larkin Baseball Hall Of Fame Kansas City Royals KC KC Royals MLB Royals

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