Nine years ago when Andre Dawson got his Hall of Fame call, I immediately reached out to my father and uncle, who are even bigger Cubs fans than me. I proposed we make a week-long summer pilgrimage out of Dawson’s induction, and they were completely in.
We immediately booked a hotel room in Cooperstown. As prelude to the induction weekend festivities, we caught three minor league games along the way. We even took in the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, which proved a disappointing contrast to baseball’s gold standard.
What a sojourn it was. Cooperstown is heaven for true baseball fans, and it’s at its pearly best during an induction weekend. The trip easily ranks as my second favorite sports experience after only the Cubs’ 2016 World Series title.
Thus, as a Chicago baseball fan, you’d think I’d celebrate the news that former Cub Lee Smith and my all-time favorite White Sox player, Harold Baines, had earned election to the Hall of Fame. However, my immediate response was actually a sarcastic, “Well, now maybe Ken Boyer can get into the Hall of Fame too.”
For those of unfamiliar with the Boyer “oeuvre,” he was basically the Ron Santo of the St. Louis Cardinals, but with an MVP and World Series ring to his credit. Always solid at the plate, he hit .300 five times, but led the National League in a statistical category only twice: for caught stealing as rookie in 1955 and for his 119 RBI in 1964. For the latter stat, he won the NL MVP even though Willie Mays (111 RBI) eclipsed him statistically in nearly every other way (47 homers to 24, 121 runs scored to 100, 11.0 WAR to 6.1).
Plus, Boyer’s performance was not even the most memorable or important part of the Cardinals’ season. That was their trade for Lou Brock on June 15. On that date, the Cardinals were three games under .500 and seven games back. The Brock trade turned the Cardinals’ whole season and decade around. And though Brock played just two-thirds of the season for St. Louis, his WAR in those games nearly matched Boyer’s for the entire year (5.7 to 6.1).
A heck of a ball player with five gold gloves as well. (Same as Ron Santo.) But not a Hall of Famer.
I admit, I’m a baseball purist. When I see the initials HOF next to a player’s name, I want to open their career stats and be awed in some way. So if I wanted to see plaques of good-but-not-great players mixed in with the sport’s true immortals, I’d work in a side visit to Canton again or to Springfield, Mass., when next in the vicinity much like I would to a good city zoo. I certainly wouldn’t make a pilgrimage out of that visit.
Which returns me to Baines and Smith. Baines was the 1980’s White Sox to me. Carlton Fisk was by far the greatest player on those teams, but he always felt more like Ron Cey in a Cubs uniform. By this I mean a free agent signed after his more famous peak elsewhere – though Fisk’s best White Sox seasons (1983 and 1985) far surpassed Cey’s solid 1983 and ’84 with the Cubs.
But I loved Baines’ quiet competence, long clutch swing, and solid consistency. Not that I didn’t think retiring his number in 1989 was anything but complete silliness. It seemed a desperate apology by Jerry Reinsdorf to fans for several other recent sins (installing Hawk Harrelson as GM, letting Tony La Russa go, trading Bobby Bonilla for Jose DeLeon) and for perhaps one major one to come. That would be leading the owners in that 1994 strike that canceled the World Series and denied my all-time favorite White Sox team a shot at a title.
(You’ve probably guess by now, I don’t subscribe to the common North Side/South Side rivalry. I’m a baseball lover, not a hater.)
The extra irony is that Larry Himes’ 1989 trade of Baines was actually pretty good. It returned two future All-Stars in Wilson Alvarez and Sammy Sosa, plus utilityman Scott Fletcher. But even a fan like me has to admit Baines’ longevity and consistency really just made him the outfield/DH version of Fred McGriff, who I also don’t think HOF worthy.
Also if you had the choice between Baines or Dale Murphy in their respective primes, you wouldn’t blink twice before grabbing Murphy. And my comparison of Baines to McGriff really reveals my nostalgic partiality for Baines. After all, McGriff posted a vastly superior career OPS of .886 to Baines’ .820, which is far closer to Ken Boyer’s .810 career OPS.
Moving on to Smith, I won’t repeat the well-trod debate about the dilution of the saves stat once closers became single-inning specialists, which occurred about halfway through Smith’s career. Smith certainly posted a few dominant seasons, five by my count. But his induction seems more like enshrinement by career saves list than a real acknowledgement that his nearly 1,300 innings pitched were among the greatest of all-time.
After all, when Smith pitched in Wrigley, how many Cubs fans thought they were witnessing one of the greatest pitchers of all time? Certainly not in 1984 with that 3.65 ERA or when he allowed runs in three of his mere four career playoff relief appearances (8.44 ERA). And when you compare Smith to my favorite forgotten reliever of all time – 1974 Cy Young winner Mike Marshall – it’s hard to make the case that Smith’s career was more memorable. In my book, neither were ultimately Hall of Famers.
But, again, I’m a baseball lover, not a hater. I feel good for these two players’ good fortune in earning election to the Hall. But I esteem Cooperstown far more and can’t shake the idea that members of a Hall of Fame should actually be famous for something versus merely fondly remembered.
Ultimately, the best – but least statistical – way to measure a player’s greatness is this: Upon hearing of Baines and Smith’s induction news, how many fans excitedly started planning that baseball pilgrimage of a lifetime for those players’ induction weekend?