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Pride of Cooperstown

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Pride of Cooperstown

The 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame class exemplifies the National Pastime. January 25, 2019
Arts and Culture

The National Baseball Hall of Fame carries special importance for the sport’s continuity, myriad traditions, and long history. New inductees to Cooperstown join the hall’s oldest member, Alexander Cartwright, born when James Monroe was president, and American icons like Ruth, DiMaggio, Robinson, and Clemente, all the way up to Griffey. This long lineage explains why debating Hall membership is itself a pastime within the national pastime.

In these divisive times, the 2019 Hall of Fame class, announced on Tuesday, should be unifying. Mariano Rivera, the late Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, and Mike Mussina are not only all-time great ballplayers, but good men. All were consummate professionals and ambassadors of the game.

Rivera is the Hall’s first-ever unanimous selection, an historic feat that nonetheless reminds us of the stinginess of some baseball writers in the past. Somehow, more than 5 percent of the balloters in 1979 thought that Willie Mays didn’t deserve to make it—and before him, Ruth, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, and others also failed to win universal approval. Only Rivera inspired the writers to change their ways. Nobody ever faced more pressure situations than the Yankees closer and all-time saves leader. Nobody has been more valuable in postseason play—and for the winningest and most scrutinized franchise in history, no less. Standing alone on the mound, protecting narrow leads, the “Sandman” was the Platonic ideal of clutch. Rivera grew up poor in Panama, where kids used milk cartons as baseball gloves, but would later become known for his generosity. Pitchers around the majors, including Halladay, credit him with teaching them an effective cut fastball—his single, deadly pitch. A soft-spoken, mild-mannered family man, philanthropist, and devout Christian, Rivera is a role model in many ways.

Halladay, who died at age 40 in 2017 in a plane crash, took an indirect route to greatness. “Doc” was a highly regarded fireballer when he came up to the majors in the late 1990s but floundered soon after arriving and returned to the minors, where he remade his delivery. While pitching mostly for the Blue Jays—in baseball’s toughest division, the AL East—he was the best pitcher in the game from 2001 until his retirement in 2013. But he will be most remembered for hurling a postseason no-hitter for the Phillies—only the second in baseball history—in 2010, a season in which he had already thrown a perfect game during the regular season. A fierce competitor on the field, Halladay had a generous heart when not competing. He arranged a box in Toronto for sick children to attend games and patronized other causes extensively. He was nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award for sportsmanship and charity several times.

Rivera said that the toughest hitter he ever faced was long-time Seattle Mariner Edgar Martinez, who, like Rivera, spent his whole career with one team. Now they will be inducted alongside each other, Rivera elected on his first ballot, and Martinez on his tenth and final year of eligibility with the baseball writers. Skirting a taboo among baseball purists, Martinez became just the second player to win induction (Frank Thomas was the first) who played primarily as a designated hitter. Martinez was a model of the clichéd “professional hitter.” Over his career, he batted above .300, with an on-base percentage over .400 and slugging percentage over .500—making him one of just 18 players in the game’s history to achieve that trifecta. And in an age of free agency, when athletes make their homes across the country from their teams, the native Puerto Rican become a pillar of the Seattle community, starting two local businesses, one of which he still operates. He won the Clemente award for his charitable work in 2004.

Mike Mussina hails from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home of the Little League World Series. An economics major at Stanford and a noted crossword puzzle enthusiast, “Moose” brought a quiet and cerebral demeanor to baseball, which seemed to fit his career—steady and consistent, without major peaks or troughs. He carved up hitters with finesse and craftiness, not power, throwing five pitches consistently. While between them, his fellow pitching inductees, Rivera and Halladay, won five World Series and two Cy Young awards and pitched two no-hitters, Mussina was shut out in all those departments. He came within two outs of a World Series in 2001 (when Rivera lost Game 7), one spot of a Cy Young in 1999, and one strike of a perfect game in 2001. Yet his body of work was stellar. He has the 23rd-most wins above replacement, 83, of any pitcher in history, ten more than the average Hall of Famer. He won 270 games in the toughest division and in an age of bullpens and unprecedented offense. He won at least ten games in every season after his first, and he won 20 in his final year, at age 39. Mussina coaches high school basketball today in his quiet, rural Pennsylvania hometown.

Conspicuously left out of the Hall for another year are Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling—omitted, conceivably, for questions of character on or off the field. Their cases, and others’, will continue to be argued, pro and con, but the 2019 Hall of Fame class gives baseball fans an occasion for joy and consensus. No steroids, no scandal, no frills: just excellence and character.

Photo: Chris Connelly/Wikimedia Commons

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