Todd Helton reached a milestone in the 7th inning Sunday in Colorado, when he slapped the hustlest of hustle doubles into left field for his 2500th career hit. I tend not to think these milestones have any cosmic significance — even relative to other baseball events — but you can’t watch the scene in Denver and not acknowledge something bigger than a simple hit in a 7-2 September ballgame happened here.
The Rockies are not going anywhere in 2013. Helton has not announced his retirement at the end of the season, but the writing is on the wall. The beauty in Helton’s 2500th hit is not in the number itself, but instead in how it gave the Colorado fans one more time to truly rally around a man who has served as a baseball hero since the franchise’s infancy.
After the game, Dexter Fowler deftly set up where the discourse following Helton’s career will go from here.
— Dexter Fowler (@DexterFowler24) September 2, 2013
#HOF? Hashtag, Hall of Fame? Not so fast.
Helton, by the numbers, sits in a sweet spot where the Hall of Fame debates really heat up. His rate statistics are excellent — .317/.415/.540 career, in 9,362 plate appearances — and 2,500 hits, 365 home runs and 1393 RBI measure up well with most players.
Look at the big picture, however, and nearly every added bit of career context chips away at his case. Coors Field in the late 1990s and early 2000s was possibly the easiest place to hit in major league baseball history. In an age when players were compiling home run totals in the 400s, 500s and 600s, Helton won’t get to 400 despite Coors. His batting line comes out to a 133 OPS+. Edgar Martinez — who won’t sniff the Hall anytime soon based on the last few years — posted a similar .312/.418/.515 career line. Despite the weaker slugging percentage, Martinez’s 147 OPS+ is far superior.
If Larry Walker is any indication, the voters will take this into account. In three years on the Hall of Fame ballot, Walker has gone from 20.3 percent to 22.9 percent to 21.6 percent — not a track heading toward Cooperstown. Walker only played 10 years of his 17 in Colorado, and he has more home runs (383) and a better slash line (.313/.400/.565, 141), albeit fewer hits (2,160). I don’t think Helton’s case, from the BBWAA’s perspective, is as strong as Walker’s. Worse, I expect Helton to be punished even more harshly for the Coors effect, even before we account for the propensity of some voters to punish any and all plyers from the steroids era.
The language — punish — is chosen with a purpose. This is the language of the Hall of Fame. The tone of retribution is at its most fiery with steroid users — confirmed or speculated. Howard Bryant vehemently argued in favor of a formal punishment of ineligibility for known PED users in 2009. Dan Shaughnessy heavily implied his thin ballot in 2013 was a punishment of the dirty players of the steroids era. He wasn’t alone — this contingent helped ensure no living inductee went into the Hall of Fame this season.
Schaughnessy also acknowledged the idea of withholding Hall of Fame votes as a punishment for players they simply didn’t like:
“I didn’t want to let my personal feelings for a player get in the way (hello, Jim Rice). So perhaps I gave Schilling the nod because I don’t like him — defusing the ever-handy charge that we use our vote to take out grudges against players who were uncooperative.”
Read through the ballot justifications or the forum arguments or listen to the TV debate segments regarding the Hall of Fame. The argument inevitably comes down to finding something the player didn’t do correctly. The argument becomes about reducing these players who reached the top of their craft, inspired cities and created childhood memories to their most minute flaws when compared with their infinitesimal peer group. Intention or no, it ends up being yet another chance to say, “You weren’t good enough.”
So much of athletic competition is being told you’re not good enough. Not good enough for varsity. Not good enough for All-Conference. Not good enough for All-State. Not good enough to be a prospect. Not good enough to be a high draft pick. Not good enough to be a starter. Not good enough to be an All-Star. Not good enough to be a Hall of Famer.
Those who find themselves on the outside looking in have typically lived a fine life. They have excelled at their craft and likely banked an unfathomable fortune. Sympathy for them should not be required to see the poison this culture incubates. But sometimes, they do serve as the most perfect displays.
Look at Ron Santo and his family. Santo was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012, but not until he had already passed away. His family, as Larry Stone reported in the Seattle Times , was crushed that he wasn’t around to see it. Santo’s disappointment with the Hall’s decision was apparent, even if it wasn’t outspoken.
And so it goes for endless borderline cases, including Bert Blyleven, who finally made it in on his 14th ballot, Buck O’Neil, who was absurdly rejected by the Veteran’s Committee, Dale Murphy, whose family has been deeply supportive of his case, and many others.
When his 2500th hit dropped in the Coors Field outfield Sunday afternoon, Todd Helton accomplished something only 96 men have ever done. His impact for the city and for a large, devoted group of fans is singular. He was good enough for them for 17 years. For the next five, and for as many as 15 after, we’ll argue whether or not he was good enough for a mostly arbitrary Hall of Fame, based on this number or that feeling or whatever else becomes our pet cause.
Is this good? Is this worthwhile? Since it’s baseball, there’s one supremely important question: Is this fun?
For me, the answers have become a resounding “No.” Todd Helton’s hard work and achievement are only belittled when reduced to a pedantic argument over which peers he ranks above, and whether or not its enough to deem him worthy. The Hall of Fame is supposed to be about celebration. In its current form, it is far from accomplishing that goal.