DDT's Pop Flies (55)

DDT (AKA Darryl Tahirali) is a freelance writer living in Orange County, California. Originally from Canada, DDT enjoys writing about music, baseball, and other areas of Western pop culture from the tasteful to the trashy. DDT can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

After ten years of inducting musical artists, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had shown itself to have cast a broad net. In addition to inducting the expected founders and superstars from the Rock Era's first two decades, it also inducted a number of artists whose credentials were marginal. Unfortunately, that trend accelerated through this third five-year period, with only 10 of the 33 total inductees truly without question Hall of Fame acts. In this period from 1996 to 2000, that broad net scooped up many more acts that clearly justify a close audit of the Hall's inductions. How far off-base had the Hall of Fame become?
Continuing from Part 1 my folly to audit the selections made thus far by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, this bite of the elephant covers the inductees from 1991 to 1995. With 37 inductees during this five-year period, as opposed to 43 during the previous five-year period, and the window of eligibility extending to acts that released their first recording through the 1960s, the Hall made some fairly sage inductions during this period.

Continuing the idea from a previous column about the ten music albums you would want with you on a desert island, here is that idea updated for 21st-century digital boys and girls. (Apologies to Bad Religion.) Thanks to iPods and other digital devices, music storage and playback has grown tremendously—you can now literally hold the musical world in the palm of your hand. Should you find yourself on that titular island today, no doubt you would have access to much more music than before. So, before the batteries run out or the Dharma Initiative kidnaps you, which ten playlists would you have with you on the island?

Beware the dangers of channel surfing: Recently I stumbled across a rebroadcast of VH-1's most recent 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, originally broadcast in 2010. VH-1 has of course appointed itself both curator and arbiter of the history of the Rock Era, and it has proved to be impressively incompetent in this regard, as should be evident from just the first hour of this five-hour televised train wreck. But just how bad could this particular countdown be?

 

While it might be premature to consider Ichiro Suzuki's career to be at a close—he is still the starting right fielder for the Seattle Mariners—he enters the 2012 season as a 38-year-old major-league ballplayer. In baseball terms, that's pushing retirement age—and his performance in 2012 will determine whether it becomes a forced retirement. What is not premature is determining the answer to this question: Is Ichiro Suzuki a Hall of Famer?

After a quarter-century of selecting inductees, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been under steady criticism for its choices, as readers of this site are well-aware. So, in an exercise in extreme foolishness, I think it's high time the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was audited to determine whether its selections really are justified. It is a comprehensive task, and just as you eat an elephant one bite at a time, I am starting with the first five years' worth of inductees.

The week of January 16, which began with the observation of the birthday of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., brought news of the deaths of R&B singer Etta James and R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, both inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It is sadly appropriate first that the deaths of James and Otis should occur in the same week—it was Otis who discovered James—and that both should die during the week that marks the commemoration of the slain African-American civil rights leader.

 

Having proved to be a hit with moviegoers, Moneyball, the baseball story that might feature an underdog but otherwise avoids most sports-film cliché, is picking up steam as we move into the heart of awards season: This fast-paced, engrossing movie has garnered four Golden Globe nominations, typically a bellwether for the World Series of filmdom recognition, the Academy Awards. Indeed, Moneyball is a Hall of Fame-worthy baseball flick.

The Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) has voted on which player or players will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012, and the results of that vote will be announced on January 9. Boy, I wish I'd had a ballot!

Each BBWAA voting member can cast a vote for up to ten players, a ballot provision that might prove to be very useful given the logjam of worthy candidates already on the ballot and those who will be added to the ballot in the next few years. Although I don't think there are ten worthy candidates on this year's slate, I would have voted for eight of them given the chance.

First, I'll dispense with the players who are on the ballot for the first time this year. Of the 13 new candidates, only former Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams merits any serious consideration. Of the remaining 12, the Angels' right fielder Tim Salmon emerges as the strongest choice, although he remains a solid player, beset by injuries, one of the many good enough to play major league baseball as a career but not an elite player.

Trailing Salmon are journeymen Jeromy Burnitz, Brian Jordan, Bill Mueller, Phil Nevin, Ruben Sierra, Tony Womack, and Eric Young, several of whom had their moments in the sun (for example, Mueller, the 2003 American League batting champion, delivering the crucial game-tying single in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series for the Red Sox, who then defeated the Yankees in seven games after losing the first three), along with Vinny Castilla, who would have been a superstar had he only played every game at Denver's Coors Field. Javy Lopez was a good-hitting catcher over a career spent primarily calling signals for the Braves' vaunted rotation, deserving a look for playing one of the toughest positions in baseball, but he too falls short of elite. Of the two pitchers new to the ballot, Terry Mulholland, whose career was split between starting and relieving, played 20 years for various teams because there is always a roster spot for a southpaw—he wound up a prime example of a LOOGY (Left-handed One-Out GuY)—no matter how league-average he might be, while right-hander Brad Radke, a fixture in the Twins' rotation, was a reliable innings-eater, stingy with the walks, prone to the long ball—in short, one of the multitudes who deserved to play in the majors but despite some surprisingly strong qualitative numbers (40.9 WAR [Wins Above Replacement, Baseball Reference version], 113 ERA+ [league- and park-adjusted Earned Run Average]) he too is not a Hall of Famer.

That leaves us with the 15 (including Williams) remaining on the ballot. As I would vote for eight of the candidates, let's look at the seven who didn't make the cut.

Right-handed starting pitcher Jack Morris is the Early ("Gus") Wynn of our time, the proverbial fierce competitor who fought through every game, particularly the big ones, determined to win. Wynn did eventually win 300 games, ensuring his place in Cooperstown despite a 3.54 earned run average, and Morris's 254 wins and 3.90 ERA are comparable to Wynn's for his era. Morris's crowning achievement, of course, is outdueling the Braves' John Smoltz in the seventh and deciding Game 7 of the 1991 World Series to win it for the Twins (and if ever Kevin Costner needs an inspiration for another baseball movie, this has to be it). Paradoxically, Morris might deserve consideration for being able to accomplish what he did for being such an ordinary pitcher. Morris's WAR of 39.3 is actually a shade less than fellow candidate Brad Radke's 40.9, and Radke started 150 fewer games and pitched nearly 1400 fewer innings to essentially equal Morris in player value. And when you look at Morris's ERA+ of 105, you realize he is just a little better than a league-average pitcher. Yes, he was good enough to pitch regularly, and he could rise to the occasion when necessary—he was impressive (2-0, 2.00 ERA) in the 1984 World Series for the Tigers—but to put him into the Hall of Fame would make Jack Morris not the Early Wynn but the Rube Marquard or Catfish Hunter of our time.

When he retired, right-hander Lee Smith's 478 saves were the all-time record, since eclipsed by Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. But the save is the most overrated statistic in baseball: Not only is it a cheap statistic—are those final three outs really always the hardest ones to record in a baseball game?—but it does not indicate the most crucial pitching situation in a game, which often occurs in the innings before the ninth, when a stopper like Smith is not called in to pitch but should be. This is not to punish Smith for simply being a tool of managing convention, but to date there is no definitive measure of a relief pitcher's, particularly a closing pitcher's, worth. Smith's qualitative measurements are impressive: a 30.3 WAR for 1289.1 innings' worth of work, an ERA+ of 132, and a strikeout-per-nine-innings ratio of 8.7—although can you really extrapolate that he would actually strike out a batter in each inning of a nine-inning game from just one-plus inning of actual data? Lee Smith for me is a borderline case, but until we can evaluate a relief pitcher's true worth (and this includes all those unsung set-up guys, many of whom are pitching in actual high-leverage situations), I cannot say that Smith is a true Hall of Famer.

For a man nicknamed "Donnie Baseball," Don Mattingly sounds destined for Cooperstown, and had injuries not hampered his career, he might in fact be considered for the Hall of Fame. But Mattingly was forced to retire at age 34, admittedly before his decline years, with the inevitable debit to his counting numbers (2153 hits, 442 doubles, 222 home runs, 1007 runs scored, 1099 runs batted in), which were certainly solid, as was his slash line of .307/.358/.471. First base, however, is not only overrepresented in the Hall of Fame, but is perhaps the prime power position, and Mattingly, despite three years with 30 or more home runs and nine years with 30 or more doubles, was not the prototypical slugging first baseman. This shouldn't be a deterrent—after all, Bill Terry and certainly George Sisler did not fit the profile—but if Mattingly did not compile the big counting numbers, neither was he the dominant hitter of his time despite three Hall of Fame-caliber seasons between 1984 and 1986, and a career WAR of 39.8 and an OPS+ (league- and park-adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage) of 127. You have to evaluate not what could have been or what should have been, but what was, and Don Mattingly was an excellent player who falls short of the Hall.

Similarly, injuries forced Juan Gonzalez to cease being a full-time player after age 31, and he played only 186 games from age 32 in 2002 until his retirement at age 35. "Juan Gone" did hit 397 home runs, including five years with 40 or more, before he turned 32—although the Rangers' right fielder was one of many snagged by the performance-enhancing drugs (PED) controversy, and his power-hitting accomplishments in that steroids-enhanced offensive era are regarded with a jaundiced eye by many voters. A defensive liability—his minus-8.2 career defensive WAR, meaning he cost his team more than eight wins because of his fielding, brought his overall WAR down to 33.5—Gonzalez's prowess was at the plate, finishing with 1936 hits, 388 doubles, 434 home runs, 1061 runs, and 1404 RBI along with a .295/.343/.561 slash line and am impressive 132 ERA+. Regardless of the PED issue, how much more Gonzalez could have accomplished is, as with Mattingly, a might-have-been, and despite his promising record, Gonzalez is in line behind many other worthy candidates.

Whether Fred McGriff is one of those worthy candidates is what can make evaluating enshrinement in the Hall of Fame such a challenge. "Crime Dog" was a durable (2460 games, 8757 at-bats), consistent (ten years of 30 or more home runs, eight years of 100 or more RBI) slugger who compiled an excellent batting record over the course of his 19 seasons: a .284/.377/.509 slash line, 2490 hits, 441 doubles, 493 home runs (26th all-time, and tied with fellow first-sacker Lou Gehrig), 1305 walks, 1349 runs scored, and 1550 RBI (42nd all-time) to go with a 50.5 WAR and an impressive 134 OPS+, tied for 116th all-time with Hall of Famers Al Kaline, Joe Medwick, and Paul Waner. Moreover, McGriff was adjudged as clean during the PED Era—ironically, the very quality that might keep him on the outside of Cooperstown. McGriff might have been durable and consistent, but he was not a dominant offensive force, never posting a truly superior season even among many strong ones. A not-quite-adequate-fielding first baseman—he cost his team 32 runs and 2.7 games in the field over the course of his career—McGriff helped his teams, primarily the Blue Jays, Braves, and the then-Devil Rays, as a reliable run-producer with a good eye at the plate (his .377 on-base percentage is in the top 200 all-time). Fred McGriff's case is a strong, if not compelling, one, but compared to the three first basemen to be discussed shortly, he does not deserve to go into Cooperstown ahead of any of them.

A fan and critical favorite, Dale Murphy did win back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards in the National League, coincidentally the same two years when he led the NL in RBI, and he did finish two shy of 400 home runs as the Braves' power-hitting outfielder from 1976 through 1990, a relatively offensively-challenged period. But although he contributed more with his bat than his glove—he was much better in right field although he started more than a 1000 games in center—Murphy, despite the MVP seasons, had neither the peak seasons nor the career compilations to make a serious case for the Hall. He seems to be the Bobby Grich of the outfield—his proponents urge us to look beyond the ordinary numbers to the positional scarcity of his being a power-hitting center fielder with some speed (he hit double digits in stolen bases seven times, finishing with 161). But Dale Murphy, more so than Fred McGriff, needs to see several more qualified candidates advance before he does—although I don't think his case is convincing enough in any circumstances.

Finally, the only new candidate worthy of discussion, the switch-hitting Bernie Williams was an integral cog in the Yankees teams that won four World Series in six appearances between 1996 and 2003, and is a better center field choice than Dale Murphy, at least offensively. Sporting a career .297/.381/.477 slash line with 2336 hits that include 449 doubles and 287 home runs, 1069 walks, 147 stolen bases, 1366 runs, and 1257 RBI, Williams was always a threat at the plate, leading the American League in 1998 with a .339 batting average. He also helped the other team offensively as his defensive record is hardly exemplary—over his career, Williams cost the Yankees 108 runs as a center fielder (118 runs altogether), while his minus-12 defensive WAR drags his overall WAR down to 47.3. Although Williams retired with a 125 OPS+, that isn't enough to nudge his qualifications past the door in Cooperstown.

With those seven candidates out of the way, let's look at the eight I would vote for had I been given a ballot. I have listed my choices below based on positional scarcity—that is, by candidate at positions from most to least demanding.

With 62.1 percent of the vote last year, Reds shortstop Barry Larkin seems to be on course for Cooperstown. Larkin's case rests primarily with his bat: He was a great-hitting shortstop, one of the best in any era. As a defender, Larkin was no Omar Vizquel, let alone an Ozzie Smith; however, neither was he a liability—over his career, he saved the Reds 28 runs as a fielder, resulting in a defensive WAR of 2.3. The point is that Larkin was very much a major-league-caliber shortstop—arguably the hardest position to play on the diamond—and not many shortstops in the history of the game packed his offensive punch of a .295/.371/.444 slash line, 2340 hits including 441 doubles and 198 home runs, 939 walks, 379 stolen bases, 1329 runs scored, and 960 RBI, all of which contributed to his career 68.9 WAR (61st all-time among position players; 90th all-time overall) and 116 OPS+ (not-so-coincidentally tied with recent Hall of Fame inductee Roberto Alomar). Only Honus Wagner, Joe Cronin, Cal Ripken, Jr., and maybe Luke Appling are comparable both offensively and defensively, and recall that Robin Yount played just over half his games at shortstop before moving to center field, while Larkin started all but two of 2056 games at short. The 1995 NL MVP, Barry Larkin might not have led in any offensive category, but he was consistently strong over a 19-year career at one of the toughest positions to play in the major leagues. He deserves his place in Cooperstown.

Garnering only 24.3 percent of the vote after 11 years on the ballot, Alan Trammell does not have the clear-cut case that Barry Larkin has—although Trammell has fared better than his double-play partner, second baseman Lou Whitaker, who is a prime candidate for Veterans Committee advocacy (and who might get his chance, seeing that Ron Santo has finally been selected for the Hall). I've written about Trammell's bona fides for the Hall of Fame in a post on his page, so I won't elaborate here except to note that during Trammell's low-offense era (certainly compared to the explosion that would begin in the mid-1990s), he averaged each season, over a 14-year period (1978 – 1991) as the Tigers' starting shortstop, .286/.354/.419 with 144 hits, 25 doubles, 12 home runs, 53 walks, 15 stolen bases, 76 runs scored, and 62 runs batted in, resulting in a 4.5 WAR—near All-Star quality, as indeed he was six times over that span—and an OPS+ of 113. For his career, Trammell posted an offensive WAR of 59.4 and a defensive WAR of 7.5 for a total of 66.9—just two wins under Larkin—and an OPS+ of 110. Given his consistent excellence at a challenging position, Alan Trammell is worthy of the Hall.

Because the heart of his career found him playing his home games at Denver's Coors Field in the pre-humidor era, right fielder Larry Walker is seen as a beneficiary of the Coors Effect and, apparently, has been penalized for it—in his debut on last year's ballot, he got just 20.4 percent of the vote. I've made Walker's case before, so I'll just repeat that Walker is a genuine five-tool player, hitting for average (.313 lifetime batting average while compiling a .400 on-base percentage by adding 913 walks to his 2160 hits), hitting for power (471 doubles, 383 home runs, .565 slugging average), running (230 stolen bases), fielding (he saved his team an eye-popping 96 runs as a right fielder while compiling a career 9.6 defensive WAR), and throwing (Walker's 150 assists are 12th among right fielders since 1954); those last three qualities are largely independent of the Coors Effect, by the way. And if Walker did benefit unfairly from the thin mountain air as a Rockie, his first six years were spent in cavernous Olympic Stadium in Montreal (with its artificial turf to boot). Larry Walker is one of the best right fielders in recent memory, and he deserves to take his place among the best all-time.

Now that Bert Blyleven and Ron Santo are safely ensconced in Cooperstown, the next sabermetric darling appears to be Tim Raines, whose 808 stolen bases are fifth all-time. Not that that should be the sole criterion by which to evaluate the "Rock"—if it were, Vince Coleman would be a serious candidate for the Hall—because Raines was the poor man's Rickey Henderson, which is still a singular honor to hold. I've already made the case for Raines on this site in two places (in fact, I first made the case for Tim Raines nearly ten years ago, as he was winding up his career), so I'll only repeat that Raines is one of the great lead-off hitters of all time, and the best way—the only way—to acknowledge that is to induct him into the Hall this year.

Now we turn to the really controversial picks. If you're looking at the 2012 ballot, you have already deduced who is left: three first basemen and a designated hitter. Let's look at the least controversial first baseman first—which is still saying something even when you know who the other two are.

Somehow the allegation of PED usage has managed to stick to Jeff Bagwell like the specter of terrorism hovers around someone placed, rightly or wrongly, on the Transportation Security Agency's No-Fly list. There is no substantive evidence that Bagwell ever took performance-enhancing substances, yet because of his size and his era, it has become almost an article of faith that he juiced. How else to explain that the closest we've seen to a five-tool first basemen in our time got less than 50 percent (41.7 percent) of the vote on his first ballot? I've made my case for Bagwell before. Perhaps the biggest statistical knock against Bagwell is that he didn't get to 500 home runs before injuries forced his retirement (although starting his career in the Astrodome couldn't have helped), but he ranks 57th all-time in WAR with 79.9 among both pitchers and position players, and 34th all-time in OPS+ with 149. Are you telling me you wouldn't want Jeff Bagwell on your team? Put him in.

But if Bagwell has not proved to have taken PEDs during his career, our next first baseman not only initially denied to the U.S. Congress that he took PEDs—he was later shown to have lied about it. Rafael Palmeiro might have shot himself in the foot—if not in a more vulnerable area—permanently, or at least for the duration of his time on the ballot, with his mendacity, although he managed to stay afloat on his first ballot with 11.0 percent of the vote. (A player must receive at least 5 percent of the vote to remain on the ballot.) I have gone on in voluminous detail about the PED witch-hunt in various places on this site before, so I will spare my two readers a rehash by cutting to the chase here: Baseball looked the other way for too long with respect to PED usage, and you have to evaluate the baseball you have, not the baseball you wish you had. With respect to Palmeiro, regardless of what he took to accomplish it, he finished his career with 3020 hits and 569 home runs. Only three other men in the history of the game have ever combined 3000 or more hits with 500 or more home runs—Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Eddie Murray, all of whom were first-ballot Hall of Famers. (Although I'm not so sure that Murray should have been a first-ballot choice, but let's save that hair-splitting for another time.) That is an extremely select club, one that should entitle Rafael Palmeiro entrance into another highly select club: the Baseball Hall of Fame.

At least Mark McGwire has run interference for Palmeiro and every subsequent PED offender soon to appear on a Hall of Fame ballot, and he has managed to remain on the ballot for the past five rounds, nudging up to nearly 20 percent of the vote by last year. I went into excruciating detail about McGwire, PEDs, and the witch-hunt that has resulted from baseball's Captain Renault* routine concerning them on this site's McGwire page, so I'll simply note this about the slugging first baseman for the Athletics, then Cardinals, who helped to give the home run such notoriety in the last two decades: Mark McGwire was the Harmon Killebrew of our era. "Big Mac" hit a lot of home runs (586 lifetime in only 6187 at-bats), and he usually hit them pretty far. And like Killebrew, McGwire was a true Three True Outcomes hitter: He mainly homered (his 10.61 at-bats per home run is the all-time best—even better than Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds), walked (1317 times compared to 1626 total hits—leading to an outstanding on-base percentage, .394, that is 131 points higher than his pedestrian .263 batting average), or struck out (1596 times, or in 20.8 percent of his career plate appearances). While his career WAR for position players, 63.1, ranks 91st, he ranks 12th in all-time OPS+ with 162. Again, you evaluate the baseball you have, not the baseball you wish you had. Mark McGwire is a Hall of Famer.

My eighth and final vote might be the most controversial. Edgar Martinez didn't become an everyday player until he was 27, and injuries plagued him at various times. But the most damaging aspect to Martinez's legacy is that he was essentially a full-time designated hitter—fewer than 600 of the more than 2000 games Martinez played in were in the field—a position that has been derided for the nearly 40 years it has existed. Myself, I'm a National Leaguer by preference, and I've had a highly equivocal attitude toward the DH from the beginning. But, as I have been saying all along here, you evaluate the baseball you have, not the baseball you wish you had. The DH has been a legitimate position, at least in the American League, for nearly four decades, and although I might pick Frank Thomas over Martinez as a DH, Martinez was a damn fine—and, yes, Hall of Fame-caliber—hitter.

Despite not playing every day until an age when most players are hitting their peak, Martinez, beginning as the Mariners' starting third baseman in 1990, posted a respectable .302/.397/.433 slash line, banging out 147 hits including 27 doubles and 11 homers (he would develop his power stroke in his early thirties) while walking 74 times—a portent of on-base percentages to come. That 1990 season marked the beginning of a 12-year period in which Martinez produced a .321/.429/.537 slash line, averaging 151 hits, 36 doubles, 21 home runs, 87 walks, 86 runs scored, and 84 runs batted in every season, resulting in qualitative measures of a 5.1 WAR—All-Star quality, as he was six times during this stretch—and an OPS+ of 155 each year. Martinez finished with a classic 3-4-5 slash line, .312/.418/.515, the result of 2247 hits including 514 doubles (one of only 54 men in the history of the sport to collect 500 or more doubles) and 309 home runs—not bad for a guy who didn't more than 20 home runs in a season until he was 32—while picking up 1283 walks, and as an indication of his great eye at the plate, Martinez struck out 81 fewer times than he walked, a most unusual distinction in this era, and he scored 1219 times while driving in 1261 runs.

Qualitatively, Martinez ranks 95th in batting average, 22nd in on-base percentage, 66th in slugging percentage, 70th in position-player WAR with 66.9, 100th in combined position-player and pitcher WAR with 67.2, and, perhaps most indicative of Martinez's worth as a hitter, 40th in OPS+ with 147. It is tempting to wonder how much better Edgar Martinez could have been had he been an everyday player in his early 20s instead of his later 20s, but based on the record he actually compiled, it sure looks like the résumé of a Hall of Famer to me.

Of course, it is highly doubtful that more than two of these candidates will have been selected by the BBWAA for the Hall of Fame Class of 2012. If I were a betting man, I would say that Barry Larkin and Tim Raines are going to get the nod this year, although Edgar Martinez and even Jack Morris are possibilities. (Morris I can see as a reaction by the old guard who believe that intangibles such as guts and determination are every bit as essential as cold, unfeeling statistics. I don't dispute the sentiment—to do so would be tantamount to admitting that you've never actually watched a baseball game, let alone played in one at any level—but as the lawyers like to say, you go with the best evidence, and that lies in the numbers.) In any event, I am waiting, along with every fan who cares about the legacy of this great game, for the January 9 announcement of who gets their ticket punched for Cooperstown this year.

Now just wait until you see next year's ballot . . .

* For those who haven't seen the film Casablanca, the delightfully amoral Captain Louis Renault, portrayed so engagingly by the great Claude Rains, is, as he puts it, "a poor corrupt official" who enjoys winning fixed games at the casino run by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). However, when he is forced to close Rick's casino, he proclaims with great moral dudgeon that he is "shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"—moments before he pockets his winnings for the night. In the same way, Major League Baseball was "shocked, shocked" to discover that all those baseballs flying over the fences were apparently the result of players taking performance-enhancing drugs—but only after it had been celebrating those home runs as the return of baseball, with, in 1998, McGwire and Sammy Sosa as the poster boys of baseball's renaissance.

All right, so the Baseball Hall of Fame has not inducted any movies yet, but that doesn't mean that baseball fans who love movies—feel free to reverse that if you are so inclined—don't have their favorite baseball movies. I know I do. And here they are—my Starting Nine, baseball's Hall of Fame-quality movies.

 

More so than any other sport, baseball lends itself to the dramatic devices that make a feature film effective. For one thing, the fundamental conflict in baseball—the pitcher-hitter confrontation—makes for an ideal one-on-one confrontation. Moreover, the individual focus on a player translates to dramatic character study like a double-play transfer toss at second base. For another, the very pace of the game (and, yes, non-baseball fans might liken that pace of the game to Oscar Wilde's description of a Wagner opera: "Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror") allows for the kind of climactic moments ripe for slow-motion shots and stings of thrilling music swelling on the soundtrack, with sufficient time for reaction shots from the bench and the bleachers (think: The Natural). Finally, the claim that baseball was the "national pastime" persisted throughout the 20th century, allowing Hollywood to begin mythologizing the game early on.

 

Indeed, early baseball movies tended to be afflicted with either the aw-shucks corniness of B-list comedies or the stagy melodrama of B-list tragedies; even the outstanding Pride of the Yankees can't quite project the grandeur of Lou Gehrig's story. Worse than that is The Babe Ruth Story, with William Bendix hamming it up as the Bambino; don't get me wrong: I love Bendix, a broad comic actor (The Life of Riley) who could take a serious turn in World War Two flag-wavers (Wake Island, Guadalcanal Diary) including Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat—he's just not broad enough to do justice to the Babe (nor is John Goodman, for that matter, in the much later The Babe). Even our fortieth President, Ronald Reagan, couldn't keep the schmaltz from The Winning Team, the story of Grover Cleveland Alexander that soft-pedals Alexander's alcoholism and epilepsy while presenting Doris Day as his savior. (In his later years as President, Reagan claimed to have portrayed Grover Cleveland in a film; aides had to remind him it was the 20th-century baseball player, not the 19th-century President, whom he portrayed.)

 

Another issue with earlier baseball movies is that the baseball itself just never looked very convincing. It looked staged, not natural, and much of that had to do with the actors who played the players. Sure, sometimes the filmmakers would get actual players, credited or uncredited, to be in the scenes; Jackie Robinson played himself in The Jackie Robinson Story, a heartfelt if earnest low-budget picture. But while Anthony Perkins in Fear Strikes Out had the acting range to convey all manner of emotions churning through the mind of Jimmy Piersall, the Red Sox outfielder with bipolar disorder—and in the process Perkins previewed the quiet, creepy Norman Bates kind of character with which he would become synonymous—the slight-of-build young man was not at all convincing as a ballplayer. (And let's not discuss his manic freakout during the middle of a game in which he literally climbed the walls.)

 

However, in that respect, the quality of baseball movies has kept pace with the quality of baseball. As talent compression now produces better teams because there are more quality players available, so has the evolving art and craft of filmmaking enhanced the quality of contemporary baseball movies, which both sophisticated moviegoers and baseball fans demand. Actor Kevin Costner, an avid baseball fan for decades, has proved to be a one-man cottage industry for baseball movies, one of which is a brilliant classic and another of which drowns in the kind of bathetic fluff that symbolized earlier Hollywood baseball movies. (Read on to discover which is which, if you haven't figured them out already.)

 

And although the asinine premise of Bernie Mac's Mr. 3000 keeps it firmly in the bush leagues, it does raise a point about how we evaluate legacy: Mac's character, a selfish hitter who retires immediately after reaching 3000 hits, discovers that a clerical error erroneously credited him with three more hits than he actually got. This leaves him with 2997 hits—and that in large measure keeps him from the Hall of Fame. Readers of this site know that just because he didn't get to a nice, round number doesn't make him more or less of a Hall-worthy candidate, but that is what got greenlighted at the studio. (This logic means that Al Kaline doesn't deserve to be in the Hall because he only batted .297, failing to reach .300, and hit only 399 home runs, failing to reach 400.)

 

In any event, my starting lineup does feature more films made since the 1970s because of the more effective realism of both the drama and the baseball in those movies.

 

Before I list that starting lineup, here are a few words about three well-known baseball movies that didn't make the cut:

 

  • Field of Dreams. Tries way too hard to be both mythical and mystical. It's a nice sentiment, but drawn out to even less than two hours it wallows in bathos, with every Meaningful Moment literally in capital letters, particularly Moonlight Graham's Wrenching Dilemma. James Earl Jones is the only bright spot here, although Amy Madigan gets points for spunk and for putting up with Kevin Costner. Additional demerit: The real Shoeless Joe Jackson batted left-handed; Ray Liotta, who portrays him here, bats right-handed. Hey, they were able to jimmy the film back in 1942 to make righty Gary Cooper look like lefty Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees.
  • Bang the Drum Slowly. Another one churned out from the Mawk-o-Matic, baseball's Brian's Song has the added deficiency of being both portentous and pretentious. Dim-witted catcher Robert De Niro strives to have one good season before an incurable illness permanently crosses him off the lineup card. Urbane pitching pal Michael Moriarty wants to help him do that. Yes, this one choked me up when I was a kid, but then I grew up. And speaking of kids—
  • The Sandlot. Paint-by-numbers Boomer reminiscence—a feature-length episode of The Wonder Years (and apologies to that rather fine show)—that leaves no cliché unturned, from Smalls's newly reconstituted family to bonding with your buddies to learning about girls and the eternal mystery of life—how to really reach home plate. That James Earl Jones is again the only good thing here doesn't speak well for his choices. Look, the sandlot was as close as I got to playing ball on a regular basis, and I was that kid who moved every year or two and had to keep making new friends—but please tell me that my life wasn't this hackneyed?

 

Now, onto the starting lineup:

 

9. The Natural (1984). Directed by Barry Levinson. Starring Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, Robert Duvall, Darren McGavin.

 

Baseball movies are prone to myth-making, which can inflate them to ludicrous proportions (hello, Field of Dreams!), and The Natural would fall into that category if Levinson's artiness didn't make it look so impressive. The movie looks sumptuous, which lends richness to the mid-20th century feel of the quasi-metaphysical story. Also helping is Redford's understated performance as the symbol of hopes hobbled and dreams deferred. Or something. And why is Darren "Kolchak" McGavin not given a screen credit?

 

8. It Happens Every Spring (1949). Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Starring Ray Milland, Jean Peters, Ed Begley, Alan Hale Jr., Ray Collins.

 

This delightful trifle cannot be taken seriously: Milland is a baseball-loving chemistry professor who invents a liquid that repels wood—naturally, he uses it on baseballs to stymie every hitter he faces while wooing Peters and ducking his college boss Collins as he goes AWOL to pitch in the Majors. It Happens Every Spring has fun with its silly seriousness—Milland in particular is convincingly sincere—and it is the precursor of both secret-formula films (Flubber) and, at the end, gut-it-out-for-the-team films (The Natural).

 

7. Pride of the Yankees (1942). Directed by Sam Wood. Starring Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright, Babe Ruth, Walter Brennan.

 

Sentimental and very "gosh-golly!" in places, Pride still packs a wallop as the (basically) true story of Lou Gehrig, the Yankees' slugging first baseman and baseball's "Iron Man" forced to retire because of the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, now called Lou Gehrig's disease) that killed him prematurely. Lantern-jawed Cooper projects the quiet dignity and stoicism that contrasted Gehrig from the flamboyant Ruth, with Wright as his devoted wife (a role Wright played throughout her career, most notably in The Best Years of Our Lives). The real-life ending has been spoofed many times, but it still raises goose bumps. And I'm a Red Sox fan.

 

6. Sugar (2008). Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Starring Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland.

 

Few baseball movies outside Bull Durham convey how hard it is to become a major-league ballplayer—and before Sugar, none conveyed that struggle from a foreign ballplayer's perspective. Soto plays Sugar, a pitching phenom from the Dominican Republic who earns a berth in the American minors. Struggling just to adjust to the cultural and language barriers, he soon finds an injury challenges not only his physical ability but, more seriously, his psychological mettle as well. Told in effective pseudo-documentary style, detailing the plush baseball academy and Sugar's poverty-stricken home town in the Dominican to the coffee shops, host-family homes, and ballparks in the United States, Sugar is the first to acknowledge the accomplishments and influence of foreign, primarily Latin—and specifically Dominican—players, making it a compelling immigrant story that overcomes the flat acting and journeyman scripting and direction.

 

5. Baseball (1994). Directed and produced by Ken Burns.

 

By now, Burns's PBS documentaries have attained "event" status, and Baseball, along with The Civil War, codified his blending of a popular subject with an accessible narrative. Interviewees and anecdotes galore lay out both the history and the allure of the national pastime along with the wealth of still and moving photography that compose the "Ken Burns Effect," also apparent in the emphasis on key figures such as Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. Particularly instructive are the "early innings" that illustrate the rough-and-tumble dead-ball era, and "Shadow Ball," about the impact and influence of the Negro Leagues, making Buck O'Neill a star long after his ball-playing career. Oh, and let's tack on those Extra Innings updates as well.

 

4. The Bad News Bears (1976). Directed by Michael Ritchie. Starring Walter Matthau, Tatum O'Neal, Vic Morrow, Jackie Earle Haley, Brandon Cruz.

 

The Sandlot without the schmaltz, The Bad News Bears tells you in no uncertain terms that while you might be a winner just for playing, you're not going to get the trophy unless you actually beat them. Tough lesson, but better to learn that when you're younger—it'll be a rude shock later on. Matthau is hilarious as the Bears' coach, with O'Neal and Haley helping to blend the rah-rah kids' message with adult dimension. The way Cruz holds onto the ball to spite overbearing father Morrow in the film's "big-game" finale is classic '70s cinematic nose-thumbing. And how can you not love a Little League team that's sponsored by . . . Chico's Bail Bonds?

 

3. A League of Their Own (1992). Directed by Penny Marshall. Starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Lori Petty, Madonna, Rosie O'Donnell, David Strathairn, Jon Lovitz.

 

Neither Marshall nor her screenwriters for League, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, ever lost their sitcom mentality, and everything about this movie conforms to sports-movie cliché, from the sibling rivalry between Davis and Petty to the obligatory "big-game" showdown at the end. So why is this movie so good? Because not only is it as well-executed as a run-scoring squeeze play, it gives recognition to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, a little-known but significant historical accomplishment in women's empowerment. Davis leads the cast of distaff—and disparate—ballplayers, while Hanks (his character loosely based on Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx), Strathairn, and scene-stealing Lovitz hold up the men's side. Look for Marshall's Laverne and Shirley pals Carmine (Eddie Mekka) and Squiggy (David L. Lander) as well. "Dirt in the skirt," indeed!

 

2. Eight Men Out (1988). Directed by John Sayles. Starring John Cusack, David Strathairn, Clifton James, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Christopher Lloyd, D.B. Sweeney, Gordon Clapp, Studs Terkel, John Sayles.

 

One of the grittiest baseball movies ever, both in presentation and in content—Eight Men Out is the unsentimental dramatization of the "Black Sox," the powerhouse Chicago White Sox team that lost the 1919 World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds because key Sox players took bribes from professional gamblers to throw the series. Sayles makes it clear that unsympathetic stinginess on Sox owner Charles Comiskey's (James) part and financial need on the players' part were crucial factors in the fix—not that ballplayers of that era, whom Sayles doesn't soft-peddle, were paragons of virtue. Strathairn is terrific portraying pitcher Eddie Cicotte, the Sox ace who was probably more vital to the fix than hitting superstar Shoeless Joe Jackson (Sweeney), whose involvement in the "Black Sox" scandal has kept him from the Hall of Fame. Cusack, in the fulcrum role portraying zealous competitor Buck Weaver, heads the rest of the strong cast that includes Sayles regular Clapp playing Ray Schalk. (Bonus points for realism: Sweeney's Shoeless Joe, unlike Ray Liotta's in Field of Dreams, bats left-handed.)

 

1. Bull Durham (1988). Directed by Ron Shelton. Starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Trey Wilson, Robert Wuhl.

 

The greatest baseball movie ever, Bull Durham might also be the greatest sports movie ever. Writer-director Shelton was a career minor leaguer; his knowledge of what it takes to make it to the "Show"—or not—permeates every moment of this terrific comedy that is more about deconstructing myths, about both baseball and moviemaking, than perpetuating them. Costner shines as veteran minor-league catcher Crash Davis who can see his career ending with no more than a cup of coffee in the Show, but he hangs on for two reasons: He wants to break the minors' career home run record, and he's been asked to groom a young pitching phenom Nuke LaLoosh, a hilarious Robbins, for the majors. Sarandon is sexy and touching as Annie Savoy, the literate disciple of the "Church of Baseball" who forms the love triangle with Costner and Robbins. Bull Durham might have created new sports clichés but it studiously avoided the old ones (such as "the big game") with its unblinking look at ambition, failure, and acceptance. Memorable utterance by Costner to Robbins: "Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls—it's more democratic."

Speaking of democratic, what are your favorite baseball movies?

As of this writing, Minnesota Twins designated hitter Jim Thome is two home runs away from reaching a milestone mark in baseball: 600 home runs. Only seven men in the history of baseball have reached the 600-homer plateau, and if 500 round-trippers are no longer an automatic ticket to the Hall of Fame, then surely 600 are. Right? Earlier this year, we saw a good deal of hoopla surrounding the Yankees' Derek Jeter's reaching 3000 hits, another historic milestone, and Jeter certainly reached that hallowed circle in grand fashion, not only going five-for-five during the game that he reached 3000, including hitting a home run for his 3000th hit, but he drove in the winning run with one of those hits. By contrast, Thome's march toward history seems to be a non-event despite the fact that if and when Thome reaches 600, it will be several years before Albert Pujols reaches the same plateau. Where is the love for Thome?

 

Part One of this series was easy—picking the five recently-retired players who will waltz into the Baseball Hall of Fame once they are eligible, probably during their first year of eligibility. Part Two is not going to be as easy: Yes, these players would, during any other time, be on the express train to Cooperstown. But the Hall of Fame ballot for the next several years is going to be overstuffed with worthy candidates; there are already several qualified candidates waiting for their call to lasting baseball greatness. Will we see surefire Hall of Famers overlooked and even discarded?