As many baseball fans know the Hall of Fame’s Modern Baseball Era ballot just came out earlier this week.
The ballot is a who’s who of the players (and non-player) I tend to see at the top of the wish lists of baseball fans everywhere, whether for their sabermetric chops (Whitaker, Evans, Simmons), godlike status while playing (Garvey, Murphy, Parker, Mattingly), lasting impact on the game (John, Miller), or special circumstance (Munson).
Of course, the internet being the internet, the ballot also brings out its fair share of critics and bashers worried about the next Harold Baines, as if he’s the worst player in the Hall of Fame or somehow less deserving than various umps, execs, and commissioners. I suppose there is also the not very questioned assumption that the presence of an undeserving plaque somehow ruins the visitor experience, cheapens the honor for other inductees, or automatically means hundreds of other borderline players now have to get in if there’s any justice and fairness left in America.
This year the unofficial honor of “least deserving player on the ballot” seems to be attached to my favorite player as a kid, Steven Patrick Garvey. While I worry Garvey may fall short, here is why I believe he belongs.
How many ballplayers have a run of cards like this one?
In my book seven straight Topps all-star cards and no steroids should make for automatic enshrinement. Garvey was a perennial all-star on cardboard and in real life, playing in ten all-star games between 1974 and 1985. The only Cooperstown eligible players with more all-star appearances than Mr. Clean are Pete Rose (depending how you define eligible), Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, and Bill Freehan. As for Garvey’s cardboard run of seven straight, only Rod Carew and George Brett top it.
The idea that a perennial all-star is somehow undeserving of a plaque is bizarre to me. Does it mean I’d be okay with Bill Freehan, Elston Howard, and Dave Concepcion? Yes, definitely!
During his time with the Dodgers and Padres, Steve Garvey was without a doubt one of the most popular players in the game, notwithstanding a few salty Cubs fans. Popular does not of course mean great, but last I checked the Hall of Fame wasn’t called the Hall of Greatness.
The Hall of Fame is as much a tourist attraction as it is anything else. If you’re looking for a list of the Top 100 players in WAR, there’s a website for that with the mug of Barry Bonds at the very top of it. Enjoy!
Garvey is without a doubt one of the most popular Dodgers in the history of the franchise. He was an absolute god to kids growing up in L.A. during his (not exactly short) prime. He was on our magazine covers, our cereal boxes, our tee shirts, our baseball gloves, and the cards we carried around in our pockets or stashed under our pillows. (And present tense, our CBD!)
Jay Jaffe published a terrific Garvey bio the other day on Fan Graphs, and in it he echoed Bill James in considering the Hall of Fame case for Mr. Clean:
“…[Garvey] might do things that will help you sell tickets. Personally, I prefer players who do things that will help you win ballgames.”Bill James, “Baseball Abstract 1984”
But here’s the thing. 29 teams out of 30 go home losers, or 25 of 26 in Garvey’s era. Though it’s easy to forget, professional sporting events are entertainment. The A’s and Rays won a lot of games in 2019 and just about nobody cared. Meanwhile, the Angels sucked (again!) but drew more than three million thanks to one incredibly popular player. (And before you say, “But Mike Trout does help you win ballgames…” what he really does is help his team win 72 games instead of 64-66, which in the scheme of things is incredible but utterly meaningless.)
Excellence in his era
When Garvey played the game, the hallmarks of greatness for a hitter were a .300 average, 200 hits, and 100 RBIs. Something modern analytics have taught us is that none of these are as meaningful or valuable as any number of newer stats that didn’t exist back then. A consequence is that Garvey’s stockpile of 100 RBI seasons count zero toward his HOF case while his 30-40 walks per year are practically a death sentence.
Seriously though, had the baseball world understood the true value of the base on balls back in the 1970s, do we really think Garvey (or Cobra for that matter) couldn’t have drawn a lot more walks? When Garvey came up in a big situation with a man on second or third, you can bet he was swinging away (THANK GOD!), but if Lasorda had told him to shop for a walk I don’t think that would have been beyond his athletic talents.
I have to imagine that if the Dodgers told Garvey they’d rather get 100 walks than RBIs from him he not only could have done it but it would have been the easiest year of his career.
Finally, on the cardboard side, note that baseball cards didn’t even list walks until 1981 and didn’t include on-base percentage until 1995. Notably, while Fleer made a “Most Hits NL” card in 1981, there was no “Most Walks” card.
We can talk all we want about the modern stats, but the truth is they are more measures of the theoretical and hypothetical than the actual. WAR tells us that a guy who generated the raw outcomes Garvey did for 19 years would help a hypothetical team win 38 more games than if they’d gone with a total chump.
What it doesn’t tell us is that Steve Garvey himself “only” helped the actual Dodgers and Padres teams he was on win 38 more games. In fact, it has zero to say on the subject. For those of us who watched Garvey play, whether as Dodger fans, Padre fans, or Cubs fans (!), we know his impact on winning (not to mention selling tickets) was far greater than that. We also know the wins he added turned good teams into great teams while many of his higher WAR peers simply turned bad teams into not quite as bad teams.
If a formula keeps telling you Steve Garvey belongs in the Hall of Fame as much as (or less than) Jeff Pfeffer, the fault may not be with Steve Garvey but with the formula. The man was a perennial all-star and fan favorite who led his teams to five pennants in eleven years, none of which they would have won without him. Along the way he excelled in all the statistical categories that the baseball world cared about at the time.
I know the “intelligent fan” would rather visit the plaque of a guy who walked a lot or turned .400 teams into .450 teams, but the dumb guy writing this will walk right past the busts of enshrined immortals the likes of Nestor Chylak, Ned Hanlon, and Bud Selig to the overdue plaque of Steven Patrick Garvey, Hall of Famer…
…or if the Committee passes on Garvey once again, hey, I guess my whole childhood was a lie, that’s all.