TORONTO — Let’s start with a simple idea: that baseball history is worth remembering and celebrating.
Especially at times like this, when no games are being played, the sport’s history has a lot to offer. For instance, consider these examples from the relatively recent past:
• Before 1998, only two players had ever reached the 60-homer plateau: Babe Ruth and Roger Maris. Over the course of the next four seasons, Sammy Sosa hit 60-plus homers three times. He averaged 61 homers per year during that stretch, hitting a four-year total of 243 — or more home runs than Roberto Clemente, Paul Molitor or David Wright hit during their entire careers.
• In 2000, Todd Helton led the NL in batting average, OBP and slugging with a ridiculous .372/.463/.698 slash line to go along with 42 home runs and a league-leading 147 RBI. At Coors Field, his home park, he batted .391 with a 1.242 OPS and 27 homers. But even on the road, Helton hit .353/.441/.633 that year. What a season.
• Speaking of under-appreciated first basemen, how about Mark Teixeira? He faced lofty expectations everywhere he went, starting his pro career as the Rangers’ fifth overall draft pick, getting traded in blockbuster summer deals two years in a row and finally signing with the Yankees as a prized free agent. At every turn, he delivered, hitting 409 career home runs on his way to becoming one of the best switch-hitters of all time.
• The first time Mark Buehrle threw 200 innings, Jose Canseco was his teammate. The last time Buehrle did so, he was in the same rotation as Marcus Stroman. Along the way, the left-hander won a World Series, made five All-Star teams and threw 200-plus innings 14 times in a row. Incredible production, especially considering the White Sox drafted him in the 38th round.
• While Buehrle gets credit for his durability, Tim Hudson somehow gets overlooked. Maybe it's because he set expectations so high as a young starter with Oakland, but Hudson doesn't quite get credit for all the success he had in Atlanta afterward. All told, he won 222 games with a 3.49 ERA and more career innings than David Cone, Dave Stieb or Dwight Gooden.
• Or how about Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins? Along with Chase Utley, they formed the core of the 2008 Phillies team that won it all. Howard averaged 50 home runs per year over the course of his first four full seasons while Rollins led the league in triples four times and stole 470 career bases.
• Their Phillies teammate, Bobby Abreu, sustained success for even longer. Selected by the Devil Rays in the 1997 expansion draft, he could have been Tampa Bay's first franchise player. Instead, the Phillies acquired Abreu from Tampa for Kevin Stocker and he rewarded them with seven consecutive 5.0-WAR seasons. The only players with more career doubles and stolen bases? Molitor, Barry Bonds, Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, Craig Biggio and Honus Wagner.
Now, you may have noticed these players have some things in common. All are eligible for Hall of Fame induction Tuesday, yet none will be inducted when the results are announced shortly after 6 p.m. ET. In fact, Sosa, Buehrle, Hudson, Howard and Teixeira may soon be off the ballot permanently.
That in itself isn’t necessarily a problem. Few would argue Howard belongs in Cooperstown and reasonable arguments could be made against the others. But that’s what makes the entire discussion around the Hall of Fame so tiresome: it often consists of making arguments against very good players.
As in: Sure, Sosa hit 609 home runs, but you know how, right? Or: Helton was good, but once you park-adjust his numbers he’s not nearly as impressive. And: How do you weigh Curt Schilling’s impressive career against the hateful views he now broadcasts loudly?
Valid questions, all of them, but there’s not necessarily much joy to be found by finding answers. And because the likes of Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez take up so much oxygen, there’s not much time spent celebrating the ways very good players like Tim Lincecum and Joe Nathan enriched baseball history.
By the time you’re done ruling out those who didn’t accumulate enough WAR and those whose off-field actions crossed various important lines, you’re not left with much. Most of the suspense is even gone now that Ryan Thibodeaux tracks voting results so thoroughly. And so, a disconnect emerges between the joy a generation of players brought us and the way we allow ourselves to remember them.
None of this is to say I consider all of those players Hall of Famers. Of course, I don’t — and either way, my personal views won’t change anything as I have not yet spent the 10 years in the Baseball Writers Association of America required to obtain a vote.
But when we reduce our appreciation of baseball history to those who met the highest standards of performance, longevity and conduct, we’re actually losing a lot. Players like Buehrle and Abreu are definitely worth remembering, and why stop there? Paul Konerko, Magglio Ordonez and Kenny Lofton were all teammates of Buehrle in 2002. Torii Hunter, John Lackey and Jered Weaver were teammates of Abreu on the 2009 Angels. None are in the Hall of Fame, yet all contributed something to baseball history.
Shouldn’t a time like this — middle of winter, middle of a lockout — be the perfect time to appreciate more of these former players? Instead, we’re left crossing lines through one after another.
Of course, the Hall of Fame is entitled to set its own standards. But for those of us who love baseball history, the collective discussion around this sport’s past doesn’t have to be so negative.
With that in mind, I have a suggestion. The next time, the discourse starts to spin out of control again, let’s expand our appreciation of past players beyond the very few who end up enshrined in Cooperstown. If we zoom out beyond the best of the best, baseball history may start to look a little more nuanced and become as enjoyable to reflect on as it was to follow in the first place.