Friday, February 24, 2012

The Hall of Very Good

Thanks to a tip from Deadspin, this morning I learned about a very cool e-book project called "The Hall of Very Good". According to the project's creators, HoVG:
"is an ebook meant to celebrate the careers of those who are not celebrated. It's not a book meant to reopen arguments about who does and does not deserve Hall of Fame enshrinement; rather, it's meant to remember those who, failing entrance into Cooperstown, will unfairly be lost to history. It's for the players we grew up rooting for, the ones whose best years led to flags and memories that will fly together forever. Players like Bret Saberhagen, Will Clark, Dwight Evans, Tim Salmon, Wilbur Wood, Orel Hershiser, and literally hundreds of others."
The roster of contributing writers that are on deck to create this project is seriously impressive, and I'm excited to read it (I've already contributed to the project, which is now beyond fully funded).

As a lifelong baseball fan, I think this project hits on a dynamic that is central to the life of a sports fan. The brilliance of HoVG is that it recognizes that most sports fans draw emotional connections not necessarily with the stars, but with the very capable role players (and fringe stars). They're more accessible somehow, seem more like "one of us", and we can therefore find it much easier to cheer for them. My three favorite Red Sox of the last 20 years--Tim Wakefield, Trot Nixon, and Bill Mueller--combined for one All-Star Game appearance, a late-career "lifetime achievement" nod to Wakefield in 2009.

The stars are just so obvious to root for--any guy (or, you know, girl) who picks up a sports page knows who Barry Bonds is, or Pedro Martinez. But the REAL fan can tell you all about the time Bill Mueller hit grand slams from both sides of the plate in a game, or argue over which Martinez was the better all-around hitter--Edgar or Tino. The REAL fan doesn't buy a Jeter jersey or an A-Rod jersey--he buys a Brett Gardner jersey, and then he talks your ear off all night about the little things Gardner does that help the team win. It takes stars to win a championship, yes, but it also takes a lot of almost-stars.

Of course, the secondary brilliance of this book is that it points out just how many truly terrific players never got into the Hall of Fame. I'm not talking about your one-time All-Stars whom history easily forgets (your John Hudeks, your Mike Sharpersons, your Neal Heatons). And I'm not even talking about your guys who have started multiple All-Star Games and still not gotten into the Hall (like Lance Parrish, David Justice, and Benito Santiago).

I'm talking about guys who have won MVP awards--multiple MVP awards, in some cases--and still not been deemed worthy of baseball's highest honor. Should history forget these men? It's an impressive list, one so impressive that I couldn't possibly list them all here. Kevin Mitchell was an MVP. So were George Bell, Terry Pendleton, Ken Caminiti (R.I.P.), Mo Vaughn, Don Mattingly, Kirk Gibson, Willie McGee, Keith Hernandez, Willie Hernandez, Don Baylor, and Dave Parker.

Dale Murphy won two MVP awards in 1982 and 1983, but he still can't get any Cooperstown love (he shares that dubious distinction with Roger Maris). There are also some more recent MVPs who probably won't get into the Hall of Fame because of steroid questions (Roger Clemens, Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa, etc.), but that's not the point of this discussion.

I hadn't realized just how high the bar really was for Hall of Fame enshrinement until I noticed that just collecting MVP awards wasn't sufficient. That's not exactly fair--among other gripes, it's always bothered me that Hall voters seem to prioritize consistent above-averageness over sporadic brilliance--and that's why this project exists. I'm looking forward to seeing what kinds of stories get churned out here. The forgotten stars are, for me, a big part of why sports are so enjoyable.

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