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Oh Boy, A Met in the Hall

That eleventh Met in the Hall of Fame [1] we didn’t order has arrived [2] anyway. What the hell, congratulations Roberto Alomar, second baseman in these parts for a year-and-a-half when the team wasn’t very good and he didn’t appear to try very hard. Cases can be made for his wearing a Blue Jays cap, an Orioles cap or an Indians cap on his plaque, but as a Mets fan, I’m obviously biased: I think he should wear a ski mask over his face to represent how adroitly he stole money [3] for 219 games in 2002 and 2003.

We got to revel in our unanticipated Sheadenfreude last year when Robber Alomar was surprisingly passed over on the first ballot. Most of that was probably from his briefly giving a spit in the direction of umpire John Hirschbeck, but I’d like to think that just enough writers who watched him fax it in as a Met [4] were offended by the ample lack of professionalism the man demonstrated day in and day out. Alomar may have been spiraling into the downside of his career when he arrived at Shea, but that didn’t mean he had to accelerate the process by voluntarily slowing down and being a less than ideal teammate while doing so.

But as bygones do what bygones will do, Roberto’s a Hall of Famer now, and not without merit when the full panorama is taken in. Alomar was a spectacular second baseman and a terrific hitter from 1988 to 2001, a single day of great expectorations in 1996 notwithstanding. He may have been one of the biggest letdowns in Met history (him or George Foster, take your sorry pick) but there was more to his career than Flushing the last part of it away. The spirit of congratulations demands we remember the good times, which were, quite frankly, after we acquired him and before he played for us. Let’s leave Roberto Alomar, New York Met and son of a New York Met (Sandy sipped a cup of iced coffee with us in 1967), with this achingly hopeful quote from the opening of Spring Training in 2002, courtesy of the New York Times [5]:

“Finally I get a chance to wear this uniform. I’m excited. It’s like being a little kid again.”

From there, so as not to be a Met blanket about it, let’s pretend that everything had turned out fine [6].

If Robbie Alomar had landed as a Met and then become the performance equivalent of Carlos Baerga — not very good but still hustling, still mentoring, still apparently giving a damn — I’d feel a lot sunnier that the newest Hall of Famer will have a NEW YORK (N.L.) notation inscribed into his hardware. As for the actual Baerga, ours from 1996 to 1998, he trotted onto the ballot this year and has been trotted right off it. Not a single vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America: 0-for-581. For a handful of years in Cleveland, Baerga was hot stuff. Then he joined the Mets.

Funny how that works.

Also shut out completely was Lenny Harris, a Met in 1998 and again in 2000-2001. I read more than few snarks and snorts about his presence on the ballot not being worth the ink used to print it, yet I was happy to see him there. Eighteen seasons and a major league record 212 pinch-hits (setting the mark in his last moments as a Met), plus a lot of that Great Teammate stuff. I think it’s worth one line if no check marks.

Al Leiter received four votes in what will be his only time considered for what they call immortality. Surely he got them from four writers who enjoyed his quotes and his company. If a pitcher could talk his way into Cooperstown, I’m convinced Leiter would be on the podium this summer. It’s enough that he threw a few dozen Hall of Fame-caliber games as a Met from 1998 through 2004. There’s a plaque with his name on it waiting to be bronzed, but its destination is just off the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. Nothing wrong with that.

I was surprised John Olerud collected only four votes. If I had a ballot, I would have marked off Olerud on mine — it’s a reflex reaction. Just as the thought of Roberto Alomar turns me sour, I become surprisingly sweet and not a little gooey when I conjure an image of John Olerud in a Met uniform topped by a Met hard hat. As recently stated [7], I’d check every box available if John Olerud was the name next to it. With a high OBP that traveled with him from Toronto to Queens to Seattle, I thought Oly would break through a little more with the sabermetric-minded, but without mammoth first base power, I guess something was lost in translation. Sorry Johnny O, but we’ll always have 1997 to 1999 [8].

Not exactly cruel but kind of unusual was the fate of the final Met on the ballot in 2011, John Franco. A player needed 29 votes to remain in contention for 2012. Franco received 27: more than I expected, not enough to keep on jogging in from this particular bullpen. Tough to come so close, but all it was going to buy John was time. He wasn’t getting in or getting near Cooperstown. From 1990 to 2001 and, following Tommy John surgery, 2003 to 2004, there was nibbling (his) and there was squirming (ours), yet ultimately it could not be denied John Franco did all he could do as a Met reliever. He was asked to close games most of his career, and he generally sealed them — not always tight as a drum, but generally enough to keep the air out.

John Franco finished up with the most saves compiled by any lefthander and remains two ahead of the supposedly retired Billy Wagner. He’s fourth overall, behind Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera and Lee Smith. Smith stays balloted year after year but probably won’t make it. Hoffman’s a who-knows candidate when he’s ready and Rivera, of course, would be inducted right now if the rules allowed it. The voting writers don’t seem impressed by saves but they know a “great” reliever when they see one. As the long, hard and finally successful slog of Bert Blyleven perhaps proves, the “he doesn’t feel like a Hall of Famer” argument is running out of steam for starting pitchers, but the snap judgment call where relievers are concerned is still OK. John Franco didn’t feel like a Hall of Famer, except he did what he was supposed to do pretty darn well for a very long time and did it better than most.

Though I welcome this January baseball diversion, I’m still down on the Hall of Fame as an institution and figure to remain so until Mike Piazza is up for election in two years, at which point I will hypocritically obsess on his chances. Why so down? Same old complaint: Too much Walter O’Malley and Bowie Kuhn; not enough Gil Hodges and Buck O’Neil and, for that matter, Keith Hernandez. Plus a newer complaint: For weeks leading up to the announcement of new members, I’ve noticed almost everybody who writes or talks about the Hall of Fame morphs into an intolerant jerk when faced with any kind of opposing opinion.

I find almost every argument for or against a given player compelling on some level. I enjoy learning advanced statistical calculations that prove a player more or less worthy than I might have otherwise thought. At the same time, I can relate to instinctual choices based on educated observation and recall of particular “clutch” moments in a given career. I think there’s something to be said for feeling like you were watching an all-time great. I think there’s also something to be said for brushing aside the cobwebs and discovering a more nuanced perspective through which to make a decision if indeed you are entrusted with a vote.

But inevitably columns and comments demand we choose sides as if the fate of the free world hangs in the balance alongside Jack Morris’s Cooperstown credentials. I love baseball, but I just can’t get that worked up over this stuff. I’ll get worked up over Piazza, I’m sure, but if he’s made to wait a year or three, or somebody mistakenly portrays him for eternity in an L.A. cap, well, he’ll still be Mike Piazza, New York Mets legend to me. Gil Hodges [9] is that. So is Keith Hernandez. So is John Olerud. I’m going to continue to think Lee Smith was a ferocious reliever I didn’t want any Met facing no matter what the BBWAA deems. I’m not letting go of my conviction that Dale Murphy at his peak was one of the best players I ever saw or that Tim Raines could beat my team in more ways than I care to count. And however he bulked up, I won’t forget the summer of Mark McGwire as an awe-inspiring spectacle.

Put them in the Hall. Don’t put them in the Hall. But don’t call each other names while making your points. It doesn’t help your cause, unless your cause is coming off as an ass and/or running for Congress.

Thanks to all who let me know they received and enjoyed a copy of Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets [10] over the holidays. Joe Janish of Mets Today offers up a nice review here [11].