Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens might have been barred from the Hall of Fame, but it's likely that Frank Thomas won't be. It's a weird thing to reconcile with.
You get the sense that the Baseball Writers Association of the America can feel the outrage, even if most aren't technologically savvy enough to fire up their 56K modems and look up the statistics of the men they imparted an essentially fucked up brand of retributive justice on, let alone to find the reaction of the much more in-touch people who realize their crimes. The men who get to decide what counts and what doesn't in baseball's proud and important history love the responsibility. Doing what they did on Wednesday -- pitching a Hall of Fame shutout despite perhaps 10 worthy candidates and at least four total no-brainers -- pleases them to no end. It makes them feel like they matter, like their gate-keeper status is deserved and their judgment and wisdom should be forever lauded. Baseball's Hall of Fame should be the most revered of its kind, because, as Jeff Passan wrote at Yahoo!, "[baseball's] history is more important than its present". This isn't true for football, isn't true for basketball. But baseball, and the MLB as an institution, boasts something no pro sports league can touch: an embedded-from-birth sense in every one of its fans of what the numbers mean.
It's the main reason why the infiltration of advanced statistics was often accompanied with words like "war" and "battle" for so long. From the time you attend your first baseball game, you know what a .300 batting average means. You know what it means to hit 40 home runs, to steal 50 bases, to finish with 100 RBIs. Even as these statistical plateaus have largely become as outdated as the men who keep baseball's history, it remains the reason why this Hall of Fame matters more than the others. There's 100+ years of context here, so there might as well be a place to keep all of it.
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are Hall of Famers. Mark McGwire is a Hall of Famer. Mike Piazza, Rafael Palmeiro, Craig Biggio: Hall of Famers. As a White Sox fan who grew up with a strong distaste for North Side baseball, I can confidently say Sammy Sosa is a Hall of Famer. It's not debatable. That all of these men were unjustly barred is one thing, that the men who made the call take such pride in their powers and their stupidity is another.
But as the unsurprising news trickled out Wednesday that there would be no induction class in 2013, it got me thinking about what happens next year. We are about to live in a world where Bonds and Clemens aren't in the Hall of Fame, but Frank Thomas is. That's really something.
Frank Thomas never needed steroids -- everyone else needed steroids to look like Frank Thomas. The best hitter in White Sox history is also one of the best in the sport's history and he'll get his day in a sun a year from now when his name appears on the Hall ballot. Even as more accomplished and more ballyhooed hitters from his era are kept out, Thomas should have no problem reaching the 75 percent minimum. At least you wouldn't think. I suppose no one ever has any clue what the Hall's too righteous voters are ever thinking at any particular time.
Even in the context of the steroid era, Thomas' numbers are eye-popping. In 1994, during a strike-shortened 113-game season, Thomas finished with an OPS+ of 212. 100 is average. Just look at some of the best years of The Big Hurt's career:
- Age 26, 1994: .353/.487/.729; 212 OPS+
- Age 29, 1997: .347/.456/.611; 181 OPS+
- Age 23, 1991: .318/.453/.553; 180 OPS+
- Age 27, 1995: .308/.454/.606; 179 OPS+
We could keep going on, but you get the point. Thomas finished with a OPS+ between 212 and 174 eight times. He topped the league-average 100 OPS+ 17 times. He won two MVPs and was screwed out of a third during Jason Giambi's roided-out 2000 season. He hit 521 home runs, finished with a career on-base percentage of .419. And next season, likely with Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux at his side, Thomas will be in. It's just sort of weird, that's all, that he'll be in before people who were probably better than him.
Frank Thomas is a strange guy, and it's the reason he sometimes doesn't feel as beloved as he should be. At every point of his brilliant career, it felt like he was overshadowed. He was overshadowed nationally by Ken Griffey Jr. He was overshadowed locally by Michael Jordan, later overshadowed in his own sport by Sosa. He might even have been overshadowed on his own team by Albert Belle and Bo Jackson. He wasn't really a part of the 2005 team South Siders will forever hold dear; even a huge fan like myself has trouble recalling a signature moment from his career. There's no World Series grand slam, no perfect game, no YouTube worthy defensive web gem. All Frank Thomas did was murder baseballs, and he did it for a really long time. He'll be honored for it next season.
But why will he be honored? Because he passes baseball's misplaced "character" test? As the only active player to participate in the Mitchell Report, Thomas will likely be granted a reprieve by Hall voters. Bonds, Sosa, McGwire and the rest won't be so lucky. It doesn't matter that Kirby Puckett is in even though he beat his wife. It doesn't matter that Ty Cobb once ran into the stands to beat a crippled man who was heckling him. It doesn't matter that all of the cheaters who came before the steroids era -- the ones who got hopped up on speed, the ones who threw spitters -- can still live forever as members of the Hall. Thomas will be in soon enough and that is a reason to celebrate. It just feels kind of dirty that it will again be surrounded by the "yeah, but...." context Hall voters put in place.