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On Baseball History

Posted By Bill Baer On January 9, 2013 @ 6:55 pm In MLB,Philadelphia Phillies | 82 Comments

Fair warning: This is just me rambling and getting personal a bit.

The results of the Baseball Writers Association of America balloting for Hall of Famers were released today, and unsurprisingly (shockingly unsurprisingly, if that makes sense), no one received enough support to earn entry into the hallowed halls in Cooperstown, New York. The fallout has been a thick mixture of outrage and apathy; yours truly has fallen into the latter category.

In the past, I’d have written a lengthy rebuttal or FJM’d something dumb one of the writers said, but I’ve long since stopped being emotionally invested in anything involving the BBWAA. Anticipating the results, I expected Jack Morris and Jack Morris alone to receive the requisite votes, but even that didn’t come to fruition, as pessimistic as that was. Even the end-of-season awards haven’t reached my core as a fan in a while. Perhaps with age I’ve become more jaded and cynical, but I like to think I’ve changed for the better — I don’t rely on the BBWAA to be my baseball history guide.

On May 7, 2006, I went to Citizens Bank Park for a night game (nationally broadcast on ESPN, if I recall correctly) between the Phillies and the San Francisco Giants. Barry Bonds was on his quest to surpass Babe Ruth‘s then-second-best career home run total, entering the night at 712, just two shy of a tie with the Great Bambino. Jon Lieber toed the rubber for the Phillies, opposing Matt Morris. Pat Burrell homered in the first, and the Phillies strung together a few extra-base hits in the second to take a 5-1 lead.

The offense died down for a few innings. Lieber entered the sixth inning with his team up 5-2, scheduled to face the 2-3-4 part of the Giants’ lineup. Omar Vizquel grounded out to third base and Pedro Feliz struck out. It looked like an easy inning for Lieber, but Bonds took his usual stride to the plate amidst a chorus of boos. I stood up and applauded, ever the contrarian. Fans in left field had been holding up this banner all night:

Bonds was walked intentionally with a runner on second base and two outs in the first inning, and singled to lead off the fourth on the first pitch he saw. Facing Lieber for the third time in the sixth, he had seen a grand total of one legitimate pitch. But Bonds was used to this: he drew a MLB-record 120 intentional walks in 2004 (he finished with a .609 on-base percentage, by the way. .609. Six-oh-nine.) It was often said that, in the course of an entire game, Bonds may have only seen one hittable pitch, if that. He made a habit of not missing them.

Bonds fouled off a 1-0 pitch, then took another ball to bring it to 2-1. Lieber, who was never particularly effective with the Phillies, threw one of his typical meatballs and Bonds crushed it. Bonds attacked the baseball like Fedor Emelianenko attacked any one of his many vanquished opponents. I, and the rest of the nearly 40,000 at Citizens Bank Park, rose to our feet in absolute awe. As the ball hung in the air like a star in the night sky, all of us in attendance for that moment discarded our allegiances to simply admire the beauty created by this performer.

The ball peaked and tumbled back towards Earth, its descent interrupted by the McDonald’s advertisement that hangs just below the upper deck. Few had even come close to hitting a baseball that far (Ryan Howard would, a month later, surpass it in a game against the New York Yankees). As the reality settled in, the fans with mouths agape pursed their lips to boo the slugger, to shame him for making them believe that what they had just witnessed was real. Bonds jogged around the bases and touched home plate for the 713th time. The Giants still trailed, 5-3. The Phillies would add four more runs and went on to win 9-5.

To this day, that is still the most memorable game I have seen in person. Seeing Bonds hit that home run, to me, is almost as incredible as seeing Brad Lidge fall to his knees after striking out Eric Hinske to end the 2008 World Series. I bring this up because Bonds, arguably the greatest player in baseball history, did not receive nearly enough support (36.2 percent) to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. He will remain on the ballot, but he is fighting an uphill battle against a cacophony of anti-PED sentiment among the generally older set of baseball fans that make up the BBWAA.

Bonds’ not being inducted into the Hall of Fame does not diminish my memory of that night, or of him as a player or as a person. Bonds made baseball incredibly fun for me in the 1990′s and 2000′s, and that is something I will pass on to anyone that wants to listen to me talk about baseball. There has been a lot of sentiment recently that the BBWAA and the Hall of Fame both need to change — and they do, badly — but fans should not let a homogeneous group of baseball writers affect what they do and don’t like about baseball.

Kenny Lofton, for example, received only 3.2 percent of the vote and will not have another chance despite compelling credentials. Will you forget about Lofton’s incredible defense? Will you forget about the sheer terror he created for pitchers when he was on the base paths (622 career steals, 79.5 percent success rate)? Will you forget that he was one of the best lead-off hitters of his era, finishing with an on-base percentage above .400 in four different seasons? Something is obviously wrong when once-in-a-generation players are left on the side of the road the way Lofton was, but he won’t simply disappear from the annals of baseball history. The Hall of Fame is not the Ministry of Truth. The emotions you felt watching these players — the excitement, the frustration, the joy — was real, and an organization of self-indulgent sportswriters will never have agency over that.


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