The Selective Memory of the Baseball Hall of Fame

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown welcomed four new members this week, as Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, and Mike Mussina were elected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Rivera became the first player to be elected by unanimous decision.

Measured solely by their stat lines it’s hard to find arguments against any of the four new inductees. Mariano Rivera was statistically the greatest closer in all of baseball, compiling 652 saves over a 19-year career. His career 2.21 regular season ERA is impressive, but his 0.70 postseason ERA over 96 appearances is otherworldly. More people have walked on the moon than have scored an earned run against Mo in the postseason.

mariano rivera

Roy Halladay was a two-time Cy Young Award winner, claiming that honor in both the National and American Leagues. He compiled over 200 wins with a 3.38 ERA, and got a reputation as an innings-eater, pitching over 2,700 innings in his 16 years in the Majors. He also threw the first postseason no-hitter since Don Larsen in 1947, blanking the Cincinnati Reds in the 2010 NLDS.

Edgar Martinez was a DH, but his prowess with the bat is unquestioned. He won two batting titles in Seattle, and compiled 66.9 offensive bWAR in his career. His career batting average never fell below .300, and he is one of few players in the Hall with a .300 batting average, a .400 on-base percentage, and a .500 slugging percentage.

Mike Mussina

Mike Mussina falls short on some of the classic pitching categories–his career ERA of 3.68 is somewhat pedestrian for a Hall of Famer–but recent sabermetric advances have put Moose’s value on full display. Mussina pitched his whole career in hitter-friendly ballparks in the AL East; his ERA+ is 123, one above fellow Hall of Famer Bob Feller, and his bWAR of 83.0 is above Nolan Ryan and just one behind Pedro Martinez.

Yes, indeed, the stats prove that these four inductees are deserving inductees into baseball’s grandest inner circle. Except that there were other players on the ballot who were–statistically speaking–far superior to these four.

Barry Bonds has hit more home runs than any other baseball player in history, and more than double Martinez’s career long balls. Just the first half of his career accounted for more WAR than any other player on the 2019 HOF ballot. He is the only baseball player with 400 steals and 400 home runs…and the only baseball player with 500 steals and 500 home runs. Roger Clemens is, by bWAR, a top-10 player of all time. His ERA is lower than Halladay’s, and Clemens threw 2,000 more innings. Clemens is third on the all-time strikeout list. On stats alone, these two are sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famers.

But we don’t vote on stats alone, do we? We vote for stories.

bonds and clemens

Perhaps that’s because the community responsible for electing players to the Baseball Hall of Fame are the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Writers care about stats, yes, but they care more about stories. Every baseball fan does. I can’t tell you what Magglio Ordonez’s stats were in the 2006 ALCS, but I can describe in vivid detail what happened when Ordonez saw a 1-0 pitch from Huston Street in the bottom of the ninth in a 3-3 ballgame in Comerica Park.

Stats matter to the Hall of Fame, but what matters more is the player who compiled those stats, and the stories we tell about that player. And the stories of the four new inductees are why they are in the Hall, as much as their stats.

Mariano Rivera was a lanky kid from Panama, a converted-shortstop-turned-failed-starter. The Yankees left him unprotected on their roster in the early 1990s, and almost traded him to the Marlins. But on a backfield in practice one day, he started throwing fastballs with a late break so devilish that no hitter stood a chance of making solid contact. He had found his cutter, and he would ride that–and his indomitable competitive spirit–to the greatest career a closer had ever had.

roy halladay

Roy Halladay may not have been blessed with the most God-given talent of any pitcher in history, but no ballplayer worked harder. He would show up to the field bright and early to get his workouts in–the day after he pitched all nine innings of a complete game shutout. Never flashy, never cocky, Roy was the ultimate workhorse. His story became painfully poignant after he died in a plane crash in November of 2017.

Edgar Martinez was the patient one, finally getting elected into the Hall in his final year on the ballot. Seattle produced baseball heroes in that generation, but they all left. Ken Griffey, Jr. went to Cincinnati. Alex Rodriguez went to the Rangers, then the Yankees. But Edgar stayed, playing his whole life in front of Mariners fans. His humility and patience, both at the plate and after his retirement, are a testament to the game of baseball.

edgar martinez

Mussina’s story is the most statistically-driven. Fifteen years ago, he would have stood little chance at being elected to the Hall. But as the voting bloc has gotten younger, Mussina’s case became a beacon for the sabermetric community. His induction is a coup for the new generation of baseball statisticians.

Humility; patience; hard work; dedication; competitiveness. These are the features that drive the narratives of the new Hall of Fame inductees. And these traits are why Bonds, Clemens, and the rest will never make it to Cooperstown. Their narratives are driven by one word: steroids. Despite the greatness on the field and the memories they gave to fans of the game around the world, looking back at their careers brings up unanswerable questions to a thorny problem.

What is the purpose of a Hall of Fame? It’s to remember greatness. We capture the players and the moments that make our sport great, the memories we want to pass on to a new generation of baseball fans. Stats make up a part of that, but they are always subservient to the greater narrative of “the game of baseball.” Rivera, Martinez, Halladay, and Mussina were great players on the field who captured that spirit, players who the BBWAA want the next generation to remember fondly. Bonds and Clemens, despite their prowess on the field, don’t fit that narrative off of it. They will become victims of a selective historical memory that highlights the heroes of the game of baseball while trying to hide its villains.

Perhaps they’ll make it one day through the Veterans’ Committee. Perhaps we’ll decide that they have paid fair penance for whatever sins they may have committed. Until then, the Baseball Hall of Fame will remain a shrine to a notion of the game of baseball that is pure and good, but not entirely lifelike.

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