Wife Susie and I visited New York in early June, sopping up the sights and sounds of the big city for a week and then heading west to Buffalo for a few days with son Andrew, who lives there. The trip reminded me that, despite its many pleasures, few places are more uncomfortable than Gotham when the temperatures top 90. I also learned that Buffalo is a lot more interesting than I suspect most people suspect.
Along the way, Andrew in tow, we stopped in Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. It was my third time there, the first coming as a 12-year-old with my parents in 1950 and the second, with my own children, in 1980. If the progression continues my next visit will come around 2040, but I’m not taking bets I’ll make it.
They say—correctly-- that you visit the Hall to relive baseball’s past but wind up reliving your own. It’s a wonderful place, full of the relics of the sport whose roots run deepest into American soil and soul. It’s in out-of-the-way Cooperstown—30 miles from any major road—because baseball is said to have been invented there, in 1839, by Abner Doubleday. That all three of those claims have been debunked takes nothing away from the red-brick shrine or its bucolic setting.
The place I toured last month was quite different from the one I’d seen 30 (and 60) years before. I recall the old Hall as a messy sort of place, its mountains of memorabilia unartfully arrayed in store-window-type enclosures along dim corridors. Now its displays are much-better lighted, labeled and framed—more “user-friendly” in the current phrase.
That’s good in a way, but in a way not. Unlike the updated Hall, which telegraphs its punches, the old place had the capacity to surprise and, in doing so, delight. I remember coming across, unaware, things like Ty Cobb’s cracked little glove or Shoeless Joe’s battered bat, and thinking how their haphazard display added to their allure. When something is too neat the “Wow!” factor dissipates.
The visit also clarified something I’ve been telling hardheaded Pete Rose fans for years-- that while their hero does not have a plaque in the Hall (baseball bars him from the sportswriters’ ballot for his crimes against the game) he is amply represented in photo and film, and his records are celebrated. No amount of grousing can obscure the fact that bad-boy Pete is getting his due immortalitywise, maybe and then some.
As one strolls the Hall, the current game naturally comes to mind, as does the question of which active players someday will be honored in its galleries. It’s fashionable to declare that today’s players lack the grittiness of those of days past, and that the game’s talent level generally ain’t what it used to be, but once it comes to list making many names present themselves.
A half-dozen of the current performers, I think, qualify as first-ballot shoo-ins when their playing days are done, if they can keep their noses clean. By my order of distinction they are Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Omar Visquel, Albert Pujols. Ichiro Suzuki and Pudge Rodriguez. That, of course, assumes that Visquel and Rodriguez eventually will retire as active players, which they may not.
After that comes some present and recent-day stars that might be called the asterisk group because of their links with revelations of steroid use, which is to say cheating. ARod is on it, along with the recent retirees Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez and Roger Clemens. There’s nothing keeping them off the Hall ballot when they are five years removed from the fields, but there’s also nothing to require that the writer-electors vote for them.
To date (and happily), juicers haven’t fared well with the scribes, with the bloated slugger Mark McGwire never topping 24% of the vote in his four years of eligibility (75% is needed to elect) and Rafael Palmeiro, a 500-homer, 3,000-hit guy who normally would have been an easy “yes,” getting just 11% in 2010, his first year. Some of the above-named fellas might fare better than those two; one could argue that Bonds was a Hall-caliber player before he turned to the needle. Chances are, though, that they’ll all have to sweat to get in no matter what their accomplishments were.
Finally, there’s a larger category of players who are still cooking, showing Hall potential but having borderline stats or lacking the large body of excellent work usually required for admission. Vlad Guerrero is on it, along with Jim Thome, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Joe Mauer, Ryan Braun, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum.
Before some of them get in—mainly the pitchers—standards might have to change. Halladay is the best current-day starting pitcher but checks in with 180 wins over an already-long career of 14 seasons. Lee, the second best, has just 111 in 10. Five-man rotations and managers’ quick hooks have changed the parameters for pitching greatness. Still, it makes you wonder how Greg Maddox and Randy Johnson won 300 plus, doesn’t it?