An Astros first!

621_craig_biggioHome sick today, but not so sick that I missed news that former Houston Astros’ great Craig Biggio was elected to the Hall of Fame—first player ever wearing my hometown team’s cap to be in the Hall.  Going in with first-time eligibles Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz.

Mind too cloudy to write so I offer my post from Biggio’s first year on the ballot, when I found myself actually caring about Hall of Fame vote results, and another look at a YouTube video poking fun at the Biggio hagiography that passes for news coverage in Houston.

Congratulations, Craig!

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Thoughts on the Baseball Hall of Fame election on the occasion of really caring about the results for the first time

As a kid I thought all the players in the Baseball Hall of Fame, by definition, National_Baseball_Hall_of_Fame_and_Museumwere great players and great guys. It’s not so, but I was just a kid; now that I know better I still want it to be true; I want things to be simple. For the most part, anyone who’s followed baseball for years just knows who’s a Hall of Famer and who’s not, and can make an elevator argument for their guys. And that’s fun, when people who love baseball talk about the shared past from their different perspectives. For what it’s worth, here are the only guidelines handed to the voters as they consider the choices.

Most of us who grew up in a big league city grew up rooting for the hometown team, and I’ve been in Houston since I was nine. Today is the first time in all those years that players who spent most (or in this case, all) of their Major League careers with the Houston Astros have a real chance (or in this case, two chances) of getting in. So, yeah, it’s exciting to be waiting for the news: will Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell make it?

(I don’t know how those of you who didn’t grow up in a big league city picked your favorite team: was it the nearest big league team? The one that had a minor league team in or near your town? The team that had your favorite player? Your dad’s favorite player?)

My guess is, Bagwell won’t make it anmlb_g_bagwell_sy_576d Biggio will. Bagwell’s got the numbers, but I think the doubts about his alleged-but-unproven use of steroids are what’s keeping his vote short. Biggio has no steroid shadow over his career; he’s got more than 3000 hits; he was multiple times an All-Star at two different positions, and a multiple times Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner; he’s in.

Let’s see if I’m right. (BTW, this is the first time ever that I’ve stopped whatever else I was doing to try to hear the HOF announcement live…always interested before, but never in quite this way.)


OK then, the headline is: NOBODY was elected to the HOF this year! First time that’s happened since 1996, only the eighth time since they started voting for the HOF in 1936.

The subhead: Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa and the other strongly-suspected steroid users didn’t even come close—seven-time Cy Young Award winner Clemens had 37.6% of the vote, all-time home run king Bonds 36.2%.

The sub-subhead: it turns out my feelings weren’t far off the mark. Craig Biggio was the top vote-getter with 68.2%, just 39 votes short of the 75% needed to be elected. And Jeff Bagwell was third at 59.6%. (Jack Morris was second, just behind Biggio at 67.7%.)

My reaction: I’m fine with this.

First, there is no shame—none—for Biggio not to be elected in his first year bw-29-biggio-0627-4_3_r560of eligibility; something like 80% of the players in the Hall weren’t elected in their first year of eligibility. To be the top vote-getter in his first year, and so close to the threshold, means the voters think he’s worthy, and his ultimate election is all but assured. And Bagwell’s vote total improved again: he had 41.7% in his first year, 56% last year and 59.6% this year. He’s going to make it, too.

It would have been great to see either of them, or the two of them together, get this honor, and I’m now even more confident that one day they will. Other HOFers have ties to Houston—Joe Morgan and Nolan Ryan the most prominent—but none of them is wearing an Astros cap on his plaque; Bagwell and Biggio will be the first players from my team to get to the HOF, and I was in the stands to watch them play their entire major league careers, so it will mean something to me when they are recognized as being among the greatest players ever.

The second reason I’m fine with this is, the steroids cheaters were shut out.

Let me start by acknowledging my ambivalence on the subject of steroids. I can accept the scientific evidence that the use of steroids poses a danger to the user, and I’m conformist enough that I have no problem punishing players who broke the rules that prohibited the use of steroids, once those rules were finally put in place. It’s the concept that some performance-enhancing drugs are banned while others are allowed that gives me trouble. Why are antibiotics, protein supplements, vitamins and caffeine OK, but anabolic steroids and amphetamines prohibited? How do we draw the line that says an athlete’s efforts to become the best they can be are to be applauded but only up to this point, and no further?

Second, I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made that baseball writers—the journalists who cover baseball as a news story—shouldn’t be the ones with sole authority over which players get into the Hall of Fame: the people whose job it is to cover the news should not be involved in making the news. (I don’t know who, in the alternative, would select Hall of Famers, but that’s a different question.) In this case, we’re talking about the baseball writers who covered the game in the 1990s and 2000s, who saw the players get freakishly bigger and the old records fall, and decided not to write about the fact that the players breaking the records were taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

This Hall of Fame ballot wasn’t the first one to feature prominent players whose careers came during the era of steroid use, but in Bonds and Clemens it had two of the most accomplished players of all time who also happened to be suspected of cheating. Their worthiness to be enshrined in the HOF was judged by the writers who were once complicit with the players and their union and Major League Baseball and its teams in facilitating the use of steroids by players and the subsequent mutilation of the record books that it caused, and who now unapologetically pivot into the role of moral arbiter and protector of the faith to declare that no cheaters shall prosper in Cooperstown. Nice work if you can get it.

The hypocrisy of the writers notwithstanding, the circumstantial evidence of cheating against many of the players, including Bonds and Clemens, is overwhelming, and I’m satisfied at their being rejected this time around; remember, they’ve got 14 more chances, and attitudes are likely to change/soften over the years. Bob Costas suggested that a comparison of next year’s vote totals with today’s for Clemens, Bonds and Sosa will give a real indication of their ultimate chances for getting into the Hall. The vote totals for steroids users like Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire started low and then slipped: Palmeiro (569 homers, 3020 hits) started at 11% in 2011 and was down to 8.8% this year, Mark McGwire (583 homers) got 23.5% in 2007 and this year just under 17%. (And just in case you’re interested, here’s the Mitchell Report on steroids in baseball, with dozens of references to Bonds and Clemens.)

Oh, and one more thing: pitchers and catchers report in just one month!

Milo, you’re no Hall of Famer and I can prove it

Listening to a baseball game on the radio is a special treat, but I haven’t been able to tune in to my Houston Astros since the mid-1980s because I cannot abide the play-by-play announcer.  So I was quite pleased recently when Milo Hamilton announced he was retiring from the broadcast booth after the 2012 season.  Appreciation of one broadcaster or another is to some degree a matter of taste, I grant you; in this case, I’m finally getting the bad taste out of my mouth after more than 30 years!

In the days of my first experience with cable television in Austin, Texas in the late 1970s, when all you got was a dozen or so channels in total including the local stations, the special offerings including the independent “super stations” WTBS (originally WTCG) in Atlanta and WGN in Chicago which carried a ton of syndicated programming plus all the games of the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs baseball teams.  To a fledgling broadcaster and long-time baseball fan it was pretty cool to see how stations in other cities put on their broadcasts, and since the Cubs played all their home games in the afternoon back then I saw them a lot.  In a very short time I decided that I did not care for the style of either of the Cubs play-by-play men, Harry Caray and Milo Hamilton.

By 1985 I was back in Houston, and was disgusted at the news that the Astros hired Hamilton to be the second play-by-play guy behind long-time local favorite Gene Elston.  By 1987 Elston was unceremoniously dumped and Hamilton had the top spot in the radio broadcast.  He has some ardent fans—most notably Astros management, that hasn’t fired him in all these years—but Hamilton is the subject of high derision and ridicule, and it’s not just me: check out the comments forum at Houston’s Leading Information Source, or even the Astros’ own website,  when the news broke that Hamilton was going to announce his retirement.

Among the things I’ve always loathed, right after his increasing inability over the years to stay focused on the game playing out right in front of his damn eyes, has been Hamilton’s pomposity, his exuberant affection for all things Milo and his assumption that you love all things Milo too.  This includes the unbecoming habit of reminding the listener that he’s a Hall of Fame broadcaster, referring to the fact that he won the Ford C. Frick Award from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 1992.  Well, during the big doings over the retirement announcement I saw a story in the Houston Press that gave me pause: John Royal asserted that Hamilton is not a member of the Hall of Fame, just the winner of an award the Hall gives.  I had to find out for myself:

HOF

There you have it boys and girls, the bar-bet-settling evidence straight from Cooperstown!  Milo Hamilton, no matter which halls of fame you claim, you are not a member of baseball’s hall.  Happy trails!  Oh, frabjous rapture!

But as joyous as the news is, as wonderful the feeling of smacking down a hated asshole can be, it’s raised an issue.  My friend Mark Sterling, a product of Detroit who shares my distaste for Hamilton’s on-air style, and who is a lover of the late long-time Tigers broadcaster who also won the Frick, had this response to the notice heralding my achievement:

A fine piece of investigative work, indeed; certainly adding proper perspective to Milo’s body of work.  However, in the case of fellow “award winner” Ernie Harwell, Red and I will stand like the house by the side of the road, and watch that one [Craig’s assessment] go by…

Oh crap, what I have I done?  (Milo, what have you done?  You’ve gone and screwed it up for everybody.)

And then it hit me: this is only a problem for creeps like Hamilton who’ve overreached and taken credit for something they’re not entitled to.  We’ve all heard other Frick Award winners referred to as Hall of Famers by others, but the mikemen don’t bear the responsibility for that error.  They’re all in the Hall, in the exhibit in the Museum, and we who appreciate their work aren’t wrong to think of them as being in the Hall.  (Donna Stell, another friend who read the Hall’s response to my question, wondered if that makes Hamilton an exhibitionist; yes, I believe it does.)

So, I was relatively proud of myself for coming up with information that like-minded baseball lovers can appreciate.  I shared it among a group of friends, and made the parenthetical aside that “this may be the most worthwhile thing I have done this week;” my friend Tom Adolph, no doubt voicing the sentiment shared by many others, replied “This may be the best thing you have ever done.”  If so, I can live with that.