The Baseball Hall of Fame Is Just a Baseball History Museum

I go back and forth on how much I enjoy this time of year as a baseball fan and writer. On the one hand, there are no new games to keep up with so there is more time to write and think about big picture stories and trends, and I have all of baseball’s history to look through. On the other hand, there are no new games. Baseball writing shifts to rumors and speculation about trades and free agency, but until something happens–this year with Giancarlo Stanton, J.D. Martinez, and 23 year old Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani–the rumors and speculation are merely that. Beyond the hot stove, the major points of debate shift to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and Hall of Fame season has become a lot less fun in recent years.

On one hand, I am hoping as a fan that the Veteran’s Committe inducts Red Sox legend Luis Tiant this year. On the other hand, there is the ongoing struggle of how to handle the Steroid Era in the Hall of Fame. It looked like progress was actually being made towards changing minds and giving Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens the recognition they deserve. But then Joe Morgan wrote a letter to tip the scales.

Joe Morgan has reached all time highs in baseball as one of the game’s greatest second basemen with the Cincinnati Reds, and all time lows in baseball as one of the game’s worst color commentators, calling nationally televised games on ESPN, but his shortcomings as a broadcaster rightly did not diminish the respect he earned as a player. But as a board member of the Hall of Fame, writing a letter to members of the BBWAA urging them not to vote for players who took steroids, his reputation took a bigger hit with me than it could have with any number of bad telecasts over the years.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports wrote a response to Morgan’s letter, saying he will no longer be voting on the Hall of Fame because he cannot keep supporting this system. While it is a flawed system, I feel Passan, who I like a respect a lot as a writer, is falling into the same trap as Morgan as taking the whole thing too seriously. 

I have been firmly on the record as being in favor of putting the best Steroid Era players in the Hall of Fame. I am a Barry Bonds apologist, and a Manny Ramirez apologist. I hated Alex Rodriguez during his entire tenure with the New York Yankees, but to say he was not a Hall of Famer would just be petty tribal homerism on my part. But this week after the Morgan letter, I realized any Hall of Fame argument I have ever listened to, read about, or emotionally invested in has–like Joe Morgan–missed the larger point about what the Hall of Fame is. It’s just a museum about the history of baseball. Nothing more, nothing less.

Why was I so upset about Craig Biggio getting into the Hall of Fame when he did? Sure, some of it was that he got in before Bonds, Clemens, and Tim Raines, whose candidacies I cared more about, but the bigger issue was that I had to real connection to Biggio’s career. He played his entire career for the Houston Astros, when they were still in the National League, and I come from an American League fanbase. What, if anything did Keith David say about Craig Biggio in the most recent edition of Ken Burns’ Baseball? I honestly cannot remember. But those things do not tell the whole story. By finding reasons to be opposed to Biggio, I was building up an anti-Astros bias similar to the anti-Montreal bias that kept Tim Raines out of Cooperstown for far too long.

Where do we draw the line on inducting relief pitchers? Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz got in, but they had also been successful as starting pitchers. Mariano Rivera should and will get in, but should Trevor Hoffman? Should Billy Wagner? What will be done about a failed starter like Andrew Miller if he has another five years of brilliant relief work? Who cares? It’s just a museum about the history of baseball. Nothing more, nothing less.

Going back to Luis Tiant, his case for the Hall of Fame becomes much more clear. I can see why he has not gotten in yet, but his overall contributions to the game are important to consider. It’s a museum about the history of baseball, and Tiant’s journey from Cuba to America to the mound in the 1975 World Series is an incredible piece of the history baseball. So is the steroid era. So is the stain of gambling. So is segregation. For better or for worse, it is all part of the history of baseball. 

I understand the honor it is for players to be inducted into the Hall, and I can see why someone like Morgan who believes to have played the right way, would have an issue with PED users. Maybe if the plaques contained accurate summaries, warts and all, we could have the authentic Hall of Fame baseball deserves. One with Bonds, and Clemens, and even Pete Rose if you want. It’s a museum about the history of baseball, not anybody’s arbiter of societal morality, or at least it was the last time I checked.

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