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All these non Hall of Famers

My annual wrestling with Cooperstown’s relevance to baseball

Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants Photo by Jeff Chiu - Pool/Getty Images

I’ve been to the Baseball Hall of Fame once in my life. I have no real memory of the museum or any of the exhibits. I don’t remember how my family got there or where we drove from or how long it took to get there or where we went after.

It was the summer of 2001 and I was nine years old. Dave Winfield, Kirby Puckett, and Bill Mazeroski were the inductees. I knew who they were. Winfield because I lived in San Diego, his number 31 retired at Qualcomm earlier that year.

Puckett because of a VHS of baseball’s greatest defensive plays we owned, relaying by warped tape and grainy frame his 1991 World Series catch.

Mazeroski because of a photograph of him: buzz cut, ecstatic, windmilling his helmet as he rounded the bases after his home run to beat the Yankees in the 1960 World Series.

But again, I do not remember any of this. I pulled these names from the internet. It took thirty seconds of googling, matching up date and time with the event, and–boom!–I had my personal narrative neatly overlaid with the grand historical arc of baseball.

Two decades on, all I remember is my brother Matt buying a velcro Cincinnati Reds wallet from a memorabilia stop in town. There was no “Cooperstown Experience” for me. No struck-dumb moment, no awe standing before Ruth’s plaque or Mays’s.

I suppose there are countless reasons why the trip to the Hall was far from indelible for me. Number one probably being I was a snotty fourth grader with the memory of a fly and the spatial awareness of a southern California. I needed the definition of the coast. The openness of the desert. The wet thick green of landlocked and upstate New York dizzied me.

But I was no baseball rube. The game was everything to me at that time in my life. I played little league year round. Wiffle ball in the backyard. Tennis ball against the garage door. A cat named Ozzie (constant clarification: Smith, not Osbourne).

In 1998, I baked a cake for the Troop 15 cake auction in the shape of back-to-back St Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs batting helmets to commemorate the home run race of McGwire and Sosa.

Back to ‘01–the feeling of the floor on my stomach as I watched from my living room Luis Gonzalez’s bloop sail over a pulled in Jeter. I will never forget that weak flare somehow toppling an empire.

I was a kid and dumb, but I was tapped into the greater baseball consciousness–yet, the Hall did not cast its spell.

No doubt it is a special place with special meaning for many people and players, but I think the critique that has often been levied against it in past years—reignited once again after the 2022 inductee reveal on Tuesday—still carries weight. The Hall of Fame is an institution and an invention and carries myth like a monkey on its back. It is slow moving, reliant on the past, immoral in its moralizing and white-washing, and frivolous. It has an agenda. It prefers safety to relevance. It finds substance in pomp.

I’m getting myself worked up here–but every January I need to remind myself of something I seemed to tacitly understand as a kid: baseball does not need the Hall of Fame. If the Hall of Fame collapsed, closed, the janitor lost the would still go on.

The fact that a small portion of the good baseball players that I watched play baseball over the years will one day end up with a plaque in a building near Otsego Lake, New York is pretty insignificant. It sounds like a cheap vacation more than anything. I’m not here to belittle: I’m sure the commemoration and recognition means a lot to those enshrined, but the influence it has over my enjoyment of baseball day-to-day is minimal–round down to nil.

Barry Bonds is not a Hall of Famer, and yet, somehow, I can’t help but laugh out of pure nervous excitement watching him do something like this to a baseball.

Tim Lincecum is not a Hall of Famer, and yet, somehow, I still go out of my way every month or so to watch him strike out 14 Atlanta Braves in game one of the 2010 NLDS.

Madison Bumgarner will not be a Hall of Famer.

Pablo Sandoval will not be a Hall of Famer.

Hunter Pence, Marco Scutaro, Travis Ishikawa, Kevin Mitchell, Will Clark, Chris Speier (random, but for mom & dad), Lou Seal and Crazy Crab, Mike Yastrzemski, Late Night LaMonte–

And yet all these non Hall of Famers are often the players I want to watch, read, write and talk about. These names, clips, highlight reels, defining moments in San Francisco Giants history noted above are going to be the plaques and exhibits I return to year after year.

Why go to a museum when you could go to a ballpark?