Remnants of All Things Dying
The slushy streets sounded hollow as my boots clicked on the pavement, as if the subterranean world below Bridgeport was a cracked eggshell just waiting to collapse into itself. I imagined the bones of workers clubbed to death in labor disputes by company goons a half-century before my father was born, rotting down there, shovels and picks in mummified hands awaiting a battle long ended. Dead buildings of gray brick and grime stood sentinel along wide, deserted streets. They called this time of year “Spring.”
I felt both sweaty and chilled in my dark blue fleece as the remnants of a sun dissolved behind black cherry clouds. My dad once worked in one of these vacant buildings where cold metal machinery claimed fingers, hands and even the occasional arm in its vast unforgiving maw. Guys got bandaged up and went back to work the next day. The blood of men in their thousands greased the wheels of industrial America. My dad called it “going to work.”
My friend James lived up on Washington Ave. about a mile or so from my house, but a frayed ribbon of Bridgeport mile was a showcase of all that had once been, and now only the scattered, battered remains were apparent. A vast industrial cemetery graveyard that I called home. It started to drizzle.
I had hoped James and I could play some catch. I’d even brought along an extra glove in my denim duffle bag I’d inherited from a gnarled aunt whose favorite pastime was collecting stamped envelopes from places others had been, of which she could only imagine the worst calamities befalling her if she’d ever set foot outside her two-room apartment, triple locks on her front door. I couldn’t say I blamed her.
James didn’t answer the door at first; he never did. Apparently allergic to the light even in a refracted nightmare of a town like ours, asthmatic James finally cracked the door open, stretched and yawned in his undershorts and without a word, allowed me to enter his darkened sanctuary. He coughed as he pointed to a pile of papers on a desk on the edge of a shallow kitchen. It was a story he and I’d been working on, but it wasn’t coming together. Like our story, he and I would soon go our separate ways, connected only by the fiction that friendship lasted forever.
“So, what did you think?” I asked, although I already knew the answer.
James sighed a lot. (Only my dad sighed more often.) There were levels to his sighs. Small sigh meant things were typically O.K., but never would be great. Medium sigh, shorter in duration but more intense, meant he had actually given the subject some thought and predictably wasn’t impressed. Long sighs followed by a trip to the refrigerator for a glass of milk indicated categorical failure on your part from which there might be no return.
What followed was a long sigh, followed by a trip to the bathroom. That was a new one, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but I knew it couldn’t be good.
Good times with James only happened more or less by accident now. A friendship formed between a pair of fourteen-year old loners in a Catholic high school populated by medieval nuns, creepy lay-teachers and sadistic jocks was a friendship defined under duress in the trench-warfare of adolescence. Now that we’d been freed from the petty tyranny of our education, our bond had begun to dissipate, though neither of us had the guts to completely face up to it. Getting on each other’s nerves was about all we had left.
When he emerged from the bathroom several minutes later, dressed in blue jeans and a Pink Floyd tee-shirt, I chose not to ask for specific feedback on my portion of the story. It would be a hopeless and depressing waste of time. So I pulled the glove out of my duffle bag and tossed it over to James. He briefly examined it without surprise or excitement.
“Where the hell’d you get a left-handers mitt?” he asked, because I was right-handed.
“Babe Ruth’s fucking grave. What the hell difference does it make?”
Without a word and to my everlasting astonishment, James led the way outdoors to the mostly empty parking lot around the back of his apartment building. Only a lone, ’76 Nova stood in the way of the spot where we last played nearly a year ago. Luckily, it had its parking brake off, and with the driver’s side window smashed in, it wasn’t too difficult to manipulate the abandoned vehicle out of our way, if you were careful about the broken glass.
I started off with a split-fingered fastball, the way Bruce Sutter used to do it. That pissed James off ’cause he wasn’t expecting it, so he fired a two-seamer back at me which nearly ripped the webbing of the glove I’d had since sixth-grade (and still have today.) I smiled, which I think was the first time either of us had smiled that day.
“Asshole!” I called out to him, the echo reverberating off the silent brick buildings.
I threw him my best change-up, which never fooled anyone I ever threw it to.
“That all you got?” he shot back, a faint hint of a smile nearly creasing his lips. “No wonder you never got laid in high school.”
“With those Amazons?” Christ, even the nuns looked better.
“Donna would’ve let you at least touch her.” He was getting comfortable now, his arm angle the familiar three-quarters I remembered from the high school ball-field.
“Yeah, with your dick,” I called back. A pretty standard, unoriginal response expected by both parties in a conversation such as this.
“Got one for you,” he warned. But I knew what was coming. A tight curveball, small but perceptible break to it, creased the March breeze and smacked into my tan George A. Reach Co. mitt. It felt like home. Not the one I actually lived in, but the place I imagined must be just around the corner from the park, where kids played in actual sunshine on real grass. Home.
A middle-aged black man came down and sat on a stoop just watching us for several minutes, followed by a pair of young, twin sisters with pink barrettes in their hair. James and I had nothing more to say to each other, but I like to think the sound of baseball — the final game of catch we ever played — yet reverberates off silent walls in a crumbling, forgotten part of town accessible only through faulty, imperfect memory.
Who Is the Average Hall of Fame Player?
Virtually every conversation about the Baseball Hall of Fame includes some version of the following argument:
“We shouldn’t water down the Hall of Fame. It should only be reserved for the best of the best.”
The implication being, of course, that every pitcher on the ballot needs to compare favorably to Tom Seaver, Walter Johnson, and Sandy Koufax. The same, of course, is true of every position player on the ballot. Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams are the immortals that some fans believe our most recent ballot hopefuls need to measure up to in order to merit serious consideration for being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
But how realistic and accurate is that assessment? What is a “real” Hall of Fame-caliber player? When we’re discussing the careers of Biggio, Bagwell, Thomas, Piazza, Walker, etc., (among the position players on the ballot), what is a fair and honest standard to hold them to in order to reward them with a plaque in Cooperstown?
Fortunately, Baseball-Reference has a page that actually sheds some light on these questions. Here are the statistics for a typical, average position player already in the Hall of Fame:
Games: 2,134, Plate Appearances: 8,996, At Bats: 7,917, Hits: 2,397, Doubles: 409, Triples: 110
Home Runs: 209, Runs Scored: 1,321, RBI: 1,212, Stolen Bases: 228, Walks: 889, Strikeouts: 728
Triple Slash Line: .303 / .376 / .462, OPS: .837 WAR: 69
I did a little research to see if I could find one player in baseball history who came closest to approximating those stats over the course of his career. While there was no one player that matched perfectly, of course, there were a few who came relatively close. For example, here’s Player A:
Games: 2,076, Plate Appearances: 9,053, At Bats: 7,869, Hits: 2,336, Doubles: 449, Triples: 55
Home Runs: 287, Runs Scored: 1,366, RBI: 1,257, Stolen Bases: 147, Walks: 1,069, Strikeouts: 1,212
Triple Slash Line: .297 / .381 / .477, OPS: .858 WAR: 49.5 (But Offensive WAR: 62.7).
As you can see, Player A had a little more power, and a little less speed than your “average” HOF player. But overall, this player is a pretty good comp. Let’s try another. Here’s Player B:
Games: 1,976, Plate Appearances: 8,283, At Bats: 7,173, Hits: 2,176, Doubles: 440, Triples: 47
Home Runs: 284, Runs Scored: 1,186, RBI: 1,205, Stolen Bases: 67, Walks: 937, Strikeouts: 1,190
Triple Slash Line: .303 / .384 / .497, OPS: .880 WAR: 56.2
Player B’s batting average is right on the money, and his on-base percentage is close. Again, a little more power and less speed than the average HOF’er. One last comp: Player C
Games: 2,380, Plate Appearances: 9,086, At Bats: 7,946, Hits: 2,383, Doubles: 413, Triples: 148
Home Runs: 169, Runs Scored: 1,247, RBI: 1,304, Stolen Bases: 71, Walks: 1,018, Strikeouts: 538
Triple Slash Line: .300 / .382 / .453, OPS: .834 WAR: 55.1
Player C’s Triple Slash Line is very close to the average HOF’er, as are his hits, doubles and triples. The WAR is a little low, but the rest of the profile matches up pretty well with our hypothetically average Hall of Famer.
Which of the three do you like best?
O.K., I wasn’t being completely fair. Of the three players I analyzed, only Player C is actually in the Hall of Fame. Player C is Enos Slaughter, inducted into The Hall in 1985.
Working backward, Player B is Will Clark, and Player A is Bernie Williams. In other words, a typical Hall of Fame-caliber player isn’t necessarily even in the Hall of Fame.
As you can see, then, although many baseball fans feel protective of the Hall of Fame, and don’t want it to be “watered down” by inducting “unworthy” players, the truth is, the Hall of Fame doesn’t require protection from any of us.
There is little danger that any of the players on the current ballot who might conceivably be inducted would, in any objective way, lower the standards of the Hall of Fame as it actually exists. If anything, the majority of the players on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot are, by historical standards, overqualified.*
Simply put, this is not just Hank Aaron’s Hall of Fame. It is Enos Slaughter’s Hall of Fame as well.**
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
*You will find that this is true, even if you decide to break the list down position by position.
**It may also some day be Carlos Beltran’s Hall of Fame. Though his stats are also pretty close to the historical averages, I didn’t include him because he is still currently active.