We’re about to arrive at the sweetest moment on the baseball calendar and nothing in all of sport quite matches it. We speak of Hall of Fame Day at Cooperstown on the banks of that shimmering pond that Fenimore Cooper glorified where at the high point of every summer the grand old game is again, indisputably and profoundly, “The American Pastime,” If only for a day!
Yet, whataday it ought to be this time with the largest and lustiest crop of newly hatched “immortals” in recent memory to be ushered into the cozy little museum that baseball presumes to have the supernatural properties of a genuine shrine. It’s a curious business, which makes it no less delightful.
Seven chaps will be canonized, and it’s joyful to note all seven are alive and kicking and able to revel in the moment, which is truly rare. The arcane and muddled process that anoints the alleged “immortals” usually manages to give us at least one who has been dead the better part of a century.
Last year, in the dreariest renewal yet on record, all three of the freshly minted had unfortunately been collectively departed a total of nearly three centuries. While baseball prides itself on its long memory, it was clear this was getting silly, an exaggeration of what that old rascal Bill Veeck used to call “Baseball’s unquenchable fondness for necrophilia.”
Hence this year’s much welcome about face. The Baseball Writers Association, maneuvering around the agonies wrought by the performance enhancing drugs (PED) crisis, has delivered pitchers Greg Maddux and local boy Tommy Glavine, plus swarthy slugger Frank Thomas. The reformed Veteran’s Committee, in a rare burst of consensus, has blessed the managerial troika of Brothers Torre, LaRussa, and Cox. And, in what for many in my dodge is the nicest touch of all, Roger Angell, incomparable laureate of the New Yorker, is receiving the A.J Spink award, which brings with it a permanent niche at the Hall of Fame, much to the greater glory of the writer’s wing.
Roger Angell and Cooperstown! That, my friends, is a marriage made in the true Heaven.
Obviously, quibbling about the elevation of this class – which I annually delight in doing – might seem harder to come by this year. Usually, the controversy is obvious. While it’s there again this year, you have to dig deeper to reach it. Because at least on the surface, all are quite brilliantly worthy of recognition in terms of performance and achievement, with old friend Roger, in his special category, being the purest slam-dunk since Babe Ruth.
Under normal conditions a couple of them might have had to wait longer, but there’d be no denying any of them, ultimately. Master craftsman Maddux would have excelled in any era. It’s hard to imagine even a Christy Mathewson having been more a perfectionist. Had the likes of Roger Clemens not foolishly disqualified themselves, Glavine probably would have been snubbed this time around, his fine credentials including 300 plus wins notwithstanding. But he, too, would be a lock over the long haul. That he gets to go in with Braves’ buddy Maddux is an elegant touch. The PED issue eliminating a certain backlog also benefited Thomas, massive slugger of the White Sox. But what does it matter in the end? He belongs.
Most importantly, all three – Maddux, Glavine, and Thomas – are regarded without qualification to have been “totally clean.” There is not now nor has there ever been so much as a faint implication of dirty PED deeds by any of them. This, of course, is now mandatory.
Which leads us to the managers and it’s on and about them that quibbling seems to me to be quite in order. For sure, solid cases can easily be made for all three tabbed by the Vets-electors. But that’s only in terms of the things they did in the game; it’s what they didn’t do that raises questions and challenges their worthiness.
It’s complex. Who would argue that on paper Joe Torre is not supremely worthy. He was border-line worthy as a player, then gained further eminence managing the Yankees, now serves notably in important MLB administrative posts, and is even rumored to be a candidate for commissioner. It’s an amazing set of credentials. LaRussa, much prized for his smarts, was a revolutionary force and superb teacher. Cox, the complete manager, excelled at the highest priority: winning.
But all three have something else in common. All three managed, with an apparent blind eye and deep sense of the oblivious, major performance-enhancing drug abusers who have either already been identified or remain strongly suspected and who were important contributors to the success of the teams all three managed, and to whom, therefore, they are quite indebted for making it to the Hall of Fame. Period!
Would Torre and LaRussa and, to a lesser degree, Cox have been anywhere near as successful if they’d been vigilant on the PED issue and out front in coming to grips with it instead of totally ignoring it, and implicitly enabling it, and decidedly benefiting from it? Now that is the question.
I say it stirs more than enough doubt, sufficient to keep them out in the short term, or at least until the painful process that all of baseball is going through to sort out the PED era and understand its consequences and identify its culprits reaches the point where it can be reasonably asserted that “this is what happened, and how, and why.”
A whole generation of ballplayers, a substantial percentage of whom are certainly innocent, has been smeared by this dreadful business. All players of the era are to varying degrees on the grill. Why should three of the most influential leaders of the era – their bosses – be given a free pass? Why should the baseball writers, neither wanting the task nor equal to it, be obliged to declare who is guilty and who is not via their voting for the Hall Of Fame?
Baseball managers are like ship captains. For better or worse, their control is total and their word is final and the greater the manager, the stronger the grip. It’s near ludicrous to accept that these three had no clue about what was happening right under their noses for the entire length of the crisis, let alone not recognize it was wrong.
Cox, the least culpable, still had at least three major PED suspects who starred for him. Torre, who has become very gifted at sidestepping this business, had eight, all major performers also alleged to have been major offenders. Keep in mind that Clemens won 83 games pitching for Torre. Further recall that Joe gleefully embraced Manny Ramirez in Los Angeles after there was no longer any doubt he was grossly tainted.
But it’s Mr. La Russa who takes the cake. There was something almost arrogant about the way he championed the cause of the two poster boys of the PED era – Bash Brothers Mark McGwire and the ridiculous Jose Canseco. Trained in the law, brightest in the dodge, proud of his sophistication, Tony La Russa doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
This is not a wildly contrarian view. Here’s what columnist Rick Reilly wrote last December when the three managers got the call to Cooperstown:
“La Russa slipping on the Hall of Fame jersey is the sight that really tests my gag reflex. He did more for juicers than Jack LaLanne. Under La Russa, the Oakland clubhouse became a kind of leather-upholstered showroom for creams, rubs, and injections that allowed players to work out harder, recover quicker, and attack the game like a wolf in a hen house. He spent eight hours a day around these guys, eight months a year, and yet he never saw a thing.”
Amen, says I. Players that the glib Tony mentored are disgraced for life, yet he walks untouched, floating off to Cooperstown on a wave of popular adulation. It doesn’t quite work for me, either.