By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: This column originally ran on January 8, 2002
Before we get to my plan to save the Baseball Hall of Fame -- a plan that includes a replica of an Egyptian pyramid, no less -- allow me to explain why I'm writing this column in the first place:
The Baseball Hall of Fame officially "jumped the shark" for me in 1998, the year Don Sutton and Jim Rice headed the ballot. Had the Dodgers offered to trade Sutton straight-up for Rice during their respective athletic primes, Red Sox management would have giggled and hung up on them.
So who was voted in that year? You guessed it ... Don Sutton.
It didn't matter that Rice was the finest power hitter in baseball for an entire decade, averaging .305 with 33 home runs and 106 RBI from 1975 to 1986 (gaudy numbers for that era). Nope. Voters were much more impressed by the ageless Sutton, who hung around for 23 years and finished with 324 wins. Who cared if Sutton only finished with one 20-win season, or that he only topped 15 wins once over his final 12 years? If you're very good -- not great, very good -- for an extended period of time, that's enough to make the Baseball Hall of Fame. So Sutton made the cut.
As for Rice, he excelled for a shorter period of time -- just 12 seasons -- failing to notch 2,500 hits and 400 home runs for his career. And since he was renowned for being unfriendly to reporters during his career, the choice was easy. Jim Rice was out. That's baseball. They even have a screwed-up Hall of Fame.
And it's not just Rice. Gary Carter's stats are nearly identical to Johnny Bench's stats, save for the fact that Bench hit about 60 more homers and was considered a better defensive catcher (although Carter was no slouch). Jack Morris was the dominant pitcher of the '80s and served as the ace for three championship teams. Goose Gossage was the most unhittable reliever of my childhood, ending up with two rings, 310 saves and a memorable three-inning save in the transcendent '78 playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees. And yet those guys are still sitting on the Hall of Fame ballot.
There's a reason I take this so personally: I was there. Carter, Rice, Morris and Gossage were the best players at their respective positions (or at least among the best) when I was growing up. Shouldn't that be what the Hall of Fame represents? Excellence over a reasonably long period of time?
The problems don't end there. Remember how your grandparents refused to use the TV remote control and insisted on getting up and changing the channels manually? If there were a sports equivalent of that phenomenon, it would be the Baseball Hall of Fame, where the prevailing theme is, "That's the way they did it back then, so that's the way we'll do it now." Not to turn into Chandler Bing here, but could the entire process be more dumb? Could it be less fan-friendly? Could it be any less thought-provoking?
Ask yourself this question: Did you argue about the Hall of Fame selections with anyone this week? Of course not ... you probably don't care. And why should you? It's like arguing about the Grammy Awards: You know they don't accurately reflect excellence in music. If they did, Toto wouldn't have won four Grammys in 1982.
And that's why none of us really care about the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the only people who do care -- ancient baseball writers -- will be dead soon, anyway. It's almost a lost cause. Almost.
Of course, I still think the whole thing can be salvaged.
While driving to Shea Stadium five summers ago with my buddy Gus and his father, Wally, we came up with a brainstorm to save the Hall of Fame. We were inadvertently borrowing Bill James' plan to redefine Hall of Famers and "weigh them" for importance depending on their qualifications, a process James explained in his "Historical Abstract" (none of us were aware of this at the time). Regardless, I'm positive that Wally invented the "Pyramid Concept."
Here's the premise: In an ideal world, the Hall of Fame should be a place where someone could stroll in, spend weeks walking around, absorb everything about the game ... by the time they departed, they would know everything there is to know about professional baseball. Well, the way the place is presently constructed, all the Hall of Famers are sort of lumped together. It's like having a Hall of Fame for models and putting Cindy Crawford's plaque next to the girl who modeled as the "Before" picture in the original "Weight Watchers" ad.
So why couldn't we transform it into a five-level pyramid -- seriously, an actual pyramid, like a replica of the Luxor casino in Las Vegas -- where elected players are assigned to different levels?
Bear with me ...
Ground floor of The Pyramid ... designated for marginal guys who were considered "Borderline Hall of Famers," either because of the Rice Factor (great career, not long enough) or the Sutton Factor (very good for a long time, rarely great) ... anyone voted in simply because they reached a benchmark (400 homers, 300 wins, etc.) would be thrown in here ... you could even include players who broke significant individual records (Don Larsen, Roger Maris, Johnny Vander Meer, etc. -- though, personally, I say no).
Modern "L1" examples: Carter, Sutton, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Gossage, Rice, Morris, Catfish Hunter, Wade Boggs, Tony Perez, Lee Smith, Rollie Fingers, Tom Glavine (if he keeps going strong). You get the idea.
Second floor of The Pyramid ... not quite as cluttered, not as much space ... reserved for guys who were definitely Hall of Famers, but didn't quite possess a Level 3 résumé for one or more of the following reasons:
Modern "L2" examples: Robin Yount, Carlton Fisk, Dave Winfield, Willie Stargell, Rod Carew, Jim Palmer, Ryne Sandberg, Kirby Puckett, Carl Yastrzemski, Paul Molitor.
- Their team never won a World Series.
- Something was missing from their career totals.
- They never enjoyed an outrageously good single season.
- Somebody else played their position during their time who was better.
- Their career was shortened by injury and/or rapidly declining skills.
Reserved for the "No-Doubt-About-It" Hall of Famers ... these guys were undoubtedly the best at their position for years and years, with all the requisite "résumé" stats to match ... unfortunately, there's a distinct, crucial difference between Level 3 and Level 4 (explanation coming).
Modern "L3" examples: Joe Morgan, Ozzie Smith (more on him later), George Brett, Roberto Clemente, Brooks Robinson, Rickey Henderson, Tony Gwynn, Robbie Alomar, Eddie Murray, Greg Maddux (assuming he keeps cruising along), Randy Johnson (ditto), Dennis Eckersley (a unique case, but definitely).
These are basically "L3" guys, only there's something just inherently "greater" about them. Some possible indications:
Modern "L4" examples: Reggie Jackson, Steve Carlton, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Cal Ripken Jr., Nolan Ryan (a great argument here -- some don't even consider him a Hall of Famer), Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds (maybe even a little low for him, as scary as that sounds), Roger Clemens (it hurts, but it's true).
(Note: Pete Rose should be an "L4 guy," Dwight Gooden should have been an "L4 guy," and Darryl Strawberry could have been an "L4 guy." None of them make it ... although Rose should be here eventually because Ty Cobb's in here, and Rose couldn't have been more of a jerk then Cobb. Also, other than Clemens and Bonds, out of the veterans playing right now, Junior Griffey, Maddux and maybe Randy Johnson have the best shots at Level Four. It's too early to tell about anyone else.)
- Do you have to consider them in any "best of all-time" discussions?
- Did they have transcendent games or memorable moments?
- Did they hit 500 homers, get 3,000 hits or win 300 games?
- Were they just dominant at times?
- Will you always remember watching them play, even when you're 80 years old and peeing on yourself?
Take a deep breath. Level 5 is the top of the pyramid, literally and figuratively. You can rattle the L5 guys off the top of your head: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Grover Alexander, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner.
Sixteen in all. That's it. That's Level 5. The best of the best. The Pantheon.
Hey, maybe it wouldn't work. Maybe it's too complicated. Maybe it's too far-fetched. But you have to admit, it makes the process infinitely more interesting.
Four of my favorite wrinkles about the Pyramid Model:
1. People would argue endlessly about which players belong on which levels. It would be the "Ginger vs. Mary Ann" of sports debates. Is Koufax an "L4" or an "L5"? Does Ryan even make it past "L1"? Does Yaz crack the "L3"s? Should Brooks Robinson, Clemens and Morgan be "L4"s? Should The Eck even be an "L1"? Is Ripken an "L5" because he broke Gehrig's record? What about Barry Bonds, who certainly seems to have the requisite credentials on paper for the Pantheon. And on and on and on ...
2. To institute the Pyramid scheme, a special selection committee would re-assign levels to every existing member. Let's say the committee features 50 members, made up of well-known players, journalists and broadcasters). Each member would vote on levels for every existing HOF member from one (lowest) to five (highest); the average score for each member (rounded up) would determine their level; and each person would have to vote for 15 players (no more, no less) for the top level of the Pyramid.
(I mean ... wouldn't that be an immense amount of fun? How many columns would Rob Neyer be capable of writing during "Re-Assigning Committee Week"? Can't you picture Neyer in a small hotel room, surrounded by half-eaten boxes of Chinese food, 30 different encyclopedias and 20 pounds of dirty laundry strewn everywhere, looking like Campbell Scott during the final 30 minutes of "Singles"? This needs to happen.)
3. All incoming members would be assigned a level. For instance, let's say Ozzie Smith gets elected this week (and he should). After he gets selected, everyone on the Voting Committee would fill out another ballot assigning "levels" for those players from one to five, with the average score for each member (rounded up) determining their level. Makes it a little more interesting, no?
4. The Pyramid structure would look cool. Besides the aesthetic benefits of a five-story pyramid-shaped building that contains every single nugget of baseball history and resembles a pyramid, can you imagine walking around the Hall of Fame, climbing each level ... and finally reaching The Pantheon? Unbelievable. I'm getting chills just thinking about it.
Yup ... too bad it will never happen.
That's baseball for you. Instead of moving forward, our national pastime keeps moving backward and sideways. That's why the game is controlled by unions, TV money and luxury boxes. That's why big-market teams swallow small-market teams. That's why owners bitch about rising costs and then shell out gigantic, $50 million-plus deals to Darren Dreifort and Chan Ho Park. That's why World Series games start at 8:30 every night. That's why Don Sutton was elected to the Hall of Fame and Jim Rice wasn't ... and that's why few people care in the first place.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.