Mickey Mantle AP

Do we need heroes in sports?

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Buzz Bissinger has a post up over at The Daily Beast today, lamenting the absence of colorful heroes, rakes and rogues in sports today:

Sports are bigger than ever. It occupies us more than ever. It is ever exploding. There are still routinely great performances. But behind those performances there is less and less human dimension, either colorful or heroic … Are there any athletes in the modern-day era of sports either truly heroic or just truly colorful?

He comes up with a few examples. In the hero category he rightfully cites Pat Tillman, although his heroism had little to do with sports as such.  He also names a couple of people who fit the “colorful” bill well enough by virtue of their lack of self-censorship, like Rex Ryan, but notes that, for the most part, sports figures are programmed to be dull and non-responsive and private.

And he’s right.  It’s just that I just don’t know that this is a problem for anyone besides sports writers looking for juicy quotes.  While I love the stories about players of yore, the ones I love the most aren’t really about heroism as we tend to define it within the context of sports.  They’re the things written by or about people on the margins (think Jim Bouton), not the stuff written about the big names as they’re making their big marks.  The Mickey Mantle book that came out last year was way more insightful and interesting than anything anyone got from him when he was the king of the world.

Moreover, I don’t know that, insight aside, it’s all that healthy for our society to celebrate athletes as heroes.  How many of those would-be heroes pan out as true heroes over time?  How many role models turn out to be anything but?  Bissinger correctly notes that the relatively bloodless content of the game — the live action and recaps and box scores and all of that — has taken precedence, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.  If anything, it helps us to remember that sports are just that — sports — and not some substitute for real life. As always, XKCD got it right when it comes to identifying what we’re really doing when we try to make sporting events into something greater than what they are.

I get what Bissinger is saying. And as someone who grew up on the sort of sports coverage in which heroes and rogues meant everything, I too sort of miss the lack of color we see today and like it when someone breaks from the “I’m just trying to help the ballclub” script.

But I don’t know that it’s a bad thing in an absolute sense. It’s just where sports and society is heading. And it may very well us to bring some different perspectives into the sporting world that could, just maybe, make our society’s relationship with sports a bit more healthy than it was in an age where narratives were applied and dramatic roles were assigned to people playing what are, in effect, random games.

Looking Ahead to Next Year’s Hall of Fame Ballot

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 15:  Chipper Jones #10 of the Atlanta Braves stands in the on-deck circle prior to batting against the Cincinnati Reds at Turner Field on May 15, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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We’re only a night’s sleep removed from the 2017 Hall of Fame class being announced but, hey, why not look ahead to next year’s ballot?

After yesterday’s vote there are two guys clearly banging on the door: Trevor Hoffman at 74% and Vladimir Guerrero at  71.7%. It’d be shocking if they didn’t get in.

Also back, of course, and already polling over 50%, which tends to ensure eventual election, are Edgar Martinez (58.6); Roger Clemens (54.1); Barry Bonds (53.8); and Mike Mussina (51.8). All of them are worthy and each of them should have some segment of the baseball commentariat pushing their cases.

But the new class of eligibles is formidable too. Let’s take a preliminary look at everyone we’ll be arguing about next December:

  • Chipper Jones: You have to figure he’s a first ballot guy;
  • Jim Thome: 612 homers will say a lot and, I suspect, most people believe he’s a first ballot guy too. Still, his handling will be curious. Yes, was a better hitter than Sammy Sosa. But was he so much better that it justifies Thome getting 75% in his first year while Sosa is scraping by in single digits? According to Baseball-Reference.com, Thome and Sosa are each other’s most similar comp in history. This is less a Thome point than a Sosa one, of course. I think they both belong.
  • Omar Vizquel: Every few years a defensive specialist hits the ballot and the writers go crazy. When a defensive specialist who got along really, really well with the press comes along, Katie bar the door. Vizquel is gonna cause a lot of arguments about the measurement and value of defense. He’s also going to cause a lot of people to say things like “you had to watch him play” and “it’s not the Hall of Stats!” He’s going to cause a lot of stathead types to counter with “but Scott Rolen was just as good on defense as Vizquel, but you don’t like him!” It’s gonna get ugly. It’ll be glorious.
  • Johnny Damon and Andruw Jones: Will probably be one-and-done, but way better than you remember. If we wanna talk defense, I’ll offer that I have never seen a better defensive center field in my lifetime than Jones. It’s a shame that his falling off a cliff in his 30s will taint that as his legacy.
  • Chris Carpenter and Livan Hernandez: Hall of pretty darn good pitchers who will be fun to talk about;
  • Hideki Matsui: Also one and done, but everyone loves him so I bet he gets some “good guy” votes;
  • Jamie Moyer: A first-time eligible at age 55. Sandy Koufax had been in the Hall of Fame for 18 years when he was the age Moyer will be when he hits the ballot.
  • Scott Rolen: Way better than people believe now and way better than people said at the time. As suggested above, his defense was nowhere near as raved about during his career as it would be if he played today. If his 72.7 career bWAR was heavier on offense as opposed to distributed 52.1/20.6 on offense and defense, people would’ve probably talked him up more. Career WAR for Jim Thome: 72.9. Career WAR for Derek Jeter: 71.8.
  • Johan Santana: The Hall of What Could’ve Been if Shoulders Weren’t So Dumb.
  • Kerry Wood: The Hall of What Could’ve Been if Elbows Weren’t So Dumb. Still, if Jack Morris can stick on the ballot for 15 years based on one dang game, I don’t see why Wood can’t get some support based on a better one.

There are a couple of other fun “oh my God, how has he been retired that long?” names that will appear on next year’s ballot. Check out the whole list here.

Jorge Posada highlights 16 one-and-done players on Hall of Fame ballot

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 24:  Jorge Posada addresses the media during a press conference to announces his retirement from the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on January 24, 2012 in the Bronx borough of  New York City.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Former Yankees catcher Jorge Posada received only 17 total votes (3.8 percent) on the 2017 Hall of Fame ballot. Unfortunately, he is one of 16 players who fell short of the five percent vote threshold and is no longer eligible on the ballot. The other players are Magglio Ordonez (three votes, 0.7 percent), Edgar Renteria (two, 0.5 percent), Jason Varitek (two, 0.5 percent), Tim Wakefield (one, 0.2 percent), Casey Blake (zero), Pat Burrell (zero), Orlando Cabrera (zero), Mike Cameron (zero), J.D. Drew (zero), Carlos Guillen (zero), Derrek Lee (zero), Melvin Mora (zero), Arthur Rhodes (zero), Freddy Sanchez (zero), and Matt Stairs (zero).

Posada, 45, helped the Yankees win four World Series championships from 1998-2000 as well as 2009. He made the American League All-Star team five times, won five Silver Sluggers, and had a top-three AL MVP Award finish. Posada also hit 20 or more homers in eight seasons, finished with a career adjusted OPS (a.k.a. OPS+) of 121, and accrued 42.7 Wins Above Replacement in his 17-year career according to Baseball Reference.

While Posada’s OPS+ and WAR are lacking compared to other Hall of Famers — he was 18th of 34 eligible players in JAWS, Jay Jaffe’s WAR-based Hall of Fame metric — catchers simply have not put up the same kind of numbers that players at other positions have. That’s likely because catching is such a physically demanding position and often results in injuries and shortened careers. It is, perhaps, not an adjustment voters have thought to make when considering Posada’s eligibility.

Furthermore, Posada’s quick ouster is somewhat due to the crowded ballot. Most voters had a hard time figuring out which 10 players to vote for. Had Posada been on the ballot in a different era, writers likely would have found it easier to justify voting for him.

Posada joins Kenny Lofton in the “unjustly one-and-done” group.