Watching MLB Network the other night, I heard several Hall of Fame candidates referred to as “slam dunks” for election. No, I thought, absolutely not…and I don’t say that to diminish anybody’s chance for Murray Chass-approved immortality.
There are no slam dunks in baseball. I mean that literally and figuratively. Let us not use phrases from other sports for our sport. If other people in other places want to co-opt slam dunks, they can go ahead and go for a theatrical two. The most famous instance of slam-dunkage taken off the basketball court and injected into another facet of life was when CIA director George Tenet told George W. Bush there was a “slam dunk case” to be made for the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They never found any WMDs in the long war that followed, so it could be the lesson is if you go up for what you think will be an easy slam dunk, next thing you know shattered glass could come raining down on everybody, literally and figuratively.
Is two-time A.L. MVP Frank Thomas a “slam dunk” for the Hall of Fame? Is 3,000-hit collector Craig Biggio? Is, ahem, 300-game winner T#m Gl@v!ne? The answer is no. They can’t be, for baseball doesn’t have anything like a slam dunk. But if we play along and exchange “slam dunk” for what it’s intended to imply, we’d ask if those guys are a “sure thing”.
Well, there are no sure things in baseball, either. I mean that literally, figuratively, spiritually and conceptually. I mean it any way I can.
What is a sure thing in baseball, exactly?
• A seven-game lead with 17 to play? Check with your local 300-game winner to see how that turned out.
• A seven-run lead with six outs to go? Check with that same local 300-game winner and ask how that went from the visitors’ dugout — better yet, check with the home team catcher who capped the ten-run, eighth-inning rally that fully erased the theoretically impenetrable seven-run lead.
• A 100-MPH fastball down the middle? Sounds impressively hurled, but we don’t know what will happen to the ball after it’s released or even how it might be called by the umpire if it gets by the batter.
• A sizzling liner back through the box? A properly positioned defender could spear it by skill or by luck.
• A deep drive toward a short porch? Wind has been known to weigh in with its two cents.
How about a good old can of corn? You know, an easy fly right into the center fielder’s glove…no surer thing than a thing they have a name for, right?
Consult with Brant Brown from 1998 or Dave Parker from 1986 and get back to me. Besides, a can of corn isn’t proactive. A basketball player attempts to slam dunk. A can of corn is the end result of a pitcher trying to get an out by any means necessary and a batter failing to succeed at his immediate goal of recording a base hit — and he still might be rewarded if the can of corn isn’t so jolly green cooperative after all.
Baseball’s beauty is that you don’t know, you can’t know, you won’t know, certainly not until there’s something definitive to know. Perhaps you’d prefer that pitcher or this catcher (especially this catcher) gain induction into the Hall of Fame, but you’ll only find out on a need-to-know basis. And who knows right now?
As long as we’re attempting to cut down brainless phrases at the plate, let’s force out “no-brainer”. Baseball makes us think. It’s the thinking fan’s game. Our brain should be in the lineup so often that it makes Cal Ripken appear more sluggard than slugger. Don’t diminish our collective thought process by benching our individual brains. Even if thoughts seem obvious to you, they may not present themselves similarly to everybody. That’s why nobody to date has made the Hall of Fame with more than 98.84% of the vote. That Terrific number was reached 22 years ago when 425 BBWAA voters deployed their various noodles and noggins and of course voted for Tom Seaver, while five writers processed their ballots out some other part of their respective anatomies and somehow forgot to cast a “yea” for the Franchise.
You’d have to be out of your mind to have not voted for Greg Maddux this time around, I suppose (just as could have been said for startlingly non-unanimous choices like Cobb, Mays and Aaron), yet I’d be sorry to see anybody top Seaver’s almost-perfect percentage, no matter how deserving that player is of election by acclimation. But that’s my heart and not my head speaking.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t discount the heart wanting what the heart wants in baseball. Benny Van Buren, manager of the Washington Senators, advised Joe Hardy’s teammates that you gotta have heart, and he led his team to the American League pennant somewhere in the middle of the 1950s when you might have sworn those damn Yankees won it just about every year. I can’t look it up Hardy’s WAR on Baseball-Reference, but sometimes in this game you gotta have faith, too.