Mike Piazza: Caught in the machine
When you think about it, there's little reason to get worked up about Mike Piazza's Cooperstown fate - it will be revealed later today, in this, his third year of eligibility. After all, 306 people have already been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, but Piazza is the only Major Leaguer to be immortalized in song by Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian.
And really, what better tribute to Piazza could there be than such peculiar and surreal musical delight?
Probably the best hitting catcher the game has ever seen, Piazza had an uncanny knack for finding himself at the center of some of modern baseball's most bizarre circumstances. Taken in the 62nd round of the 1988 MLB Amateur Draft, only to become a 12-time All Star. Member of the Florida Marlins for all of five games, a waystation of sorts between his memorable runs in Los Angeles and New York City. Inexplicable target of a fire-eyed, steroid-infused, Louisville Slugger shard-wielding Roger Clemens. A few years later, after a beanball from Guillermo Mota, it was Piazza's turn to boil over with rage, a normally calm, collected star charging the mound like a man possessed.
There was that strange media scrum, in 2002, when he directly addressed swirling whispers about his sexuality. The moment will likely always follow Piazza, because it was so clumsy, so head-scratchingly awkward; a weird version of Seinfeld's "Not that there's anything wrong with that!" come to life.
And of course, there were also moments of great power, and significance. In a career that saw 427 home runs, one, of course, will be remembered forever, coming just ten days after one of the greatest tragedies our nation has ever faced.
After all that, why should the baseball world work itself into a lather over the Hall of Fame fate of Piazza? His is the very definition of a career that will always be remembered, regardless of when (or whether?) he's awarded that plaque in Cooperstown.
The answer, obviously, is that we care - despite our protestations otherwise. As much as we might like to think we've outgrown such arbitrary distinctions in a more enlightened age, honors likes these still resonate, particularly in the way we remember and unpack the games we love. That's particularly true for baseball; its history is so entangled with that of our country, and despite football's inexorable ascension, our national "pastime" still continues to hold a meaningful place in the American consciousness.
In many ways - notwithstanding the legitimate discussion about why Piazza (who's endured his share of PED whispers) is close to induction while other stat-worthy players remain out of the mix - it is poetic that the man who stood at the center of so many odd and indelible baseball moments now sits squarely at the tipping point of the Hall's current quandary?
Public ballots show Piazza as close to the 75 percent threshold for induction, which is somewhat odd considering that his numbers put him among the greatest offensive catchers of all time. He has not been lovingly swept into the Hall immediately, like Frank Thomas, Barry Larkin, Greg Maddux, and other superstar contemporaries. And yet, because the rumors of PED use have not been substantiated, Piazza seems likely to avoid the long - perhaps even permanent - waits that are in store for Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, and others. Piazza is stuck in a weird limbo, caught up in a system that desperately wants to "fix" the legacy of the PED years, but doesn't have the foggiest idea how to go about it.
Is Piazza's "plight" frustrating? Sure. Infuriating? Occasionally. Surprising? Not in the least. Serious, could there by anything more American than scapegoating individuals for an institution's failures? It's a story we've seen play out repeatedly, in sports and society.
Despite what you may have read, the "Steroid Era" was not indicative of just a few bad apples tossing aside morality for personal gain. It was more complicated than that; the byproduct of a business that found itself in real trouble after a self-inflicted labor stoppage in 1994. It was the consequence of a marketplace that craved more runs, more power, more everything. And - listen closely, media members - it was exacerbated by a negligent, nigh complicit, press corps that was all too happy to look the other way and jump on the big fly bandwagon, instead of bothering to dig into the mysteries of shady characters, discarded syringes, and Dante Bichette's forearms.
In retrospect, it's easy to understand why nobody wanted to ask the questions. But now, all these years later, you don't get to make up the answers - which is why it's so staggering to watch the Baseball Writers Association of America compound its journalistic failings. Instead of a sober, honest appraisal of collective responsibility, some are content to shout "BUT, BACNE!", and throw Piazza overboard. It is, in fact, the very definition of abdication, a collective ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ from the sport's esteemed fourth estate.
Baseball is not unique. It's just another in a long line of examples of what happens when good intentions get twisted, and the powers that be in sport advocate simple solutions for complicated problems. The NFL redraws disciplinary rules without adding any true consensus, or transparency. The NCAA pushes half-measures to fix a monumentally corrupt system. The NBA tosses out owners whose racist views became public (and unprofitable).
All of which happens with no appropriate examination of how such institutional failures were allowed to fester in the first place.
It goes without saying that three floors of nostalgia in upstate New York are not nearly as important as these other systemic issues, but the larger point still holds. Piazza's eventual election isn't some turning of the tide - mostly because this isn't really about Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, or the increasingly dead-in-the-water campaign of Mr. Pinterest himself, Sammy Sosa. It's not about individuals; it's about a selection process that's been exposed as a farce - regardless of whether you prefer the calm, measured airing of grievances preferred by Buster Olney and Jayson Stark, or the delightfully anarchistic methods of Deadspin and Dan LeBetard.
If we care about the Baseball Hall of Fame - and the amount of ink spilled on the topic suggests we care a lot - it's time to find a real solution before the debate slips into irrelevance. That means no more clinging to old methods simply because that's how we've always done things. That means no more kicking and screaming against the evolution of the modern baseball writer. That means a full examination of what the Hall should represent, who should be the gatekeepers. And, most importantly, that means how to handle those who achieved greatness in the game while also committing offenses against it, because believe it or not, Shoeless Joe, Charlie Hustle, and The Rocket won't be last "transgressors" we must deal with.
No Hall of Fame debate is complete without words like "impact," "meaning," and "legacy." As we wait to learn Piazza's ballot box fate, though, his is not the legacy we ought to be concerned with. Any baseball fan will tell you that his place in history is secure. He redefined what was possible offensively at baseball's most physically taxing position. His swing was a model of beauty and consistency, his career slash line of .308/.377/.545, and eight consecutive seasons of 30 or more home runs speak for themselves.
No, the only legacy we ought to be worried about is that of the Hall itself - it's clear that the election process itself is broken.
So, no matter today's results, let's fix it. Let's take a look at transparent voting, binary ballots, and a little principle called "presumption of innocence." Baseball is always evolving, shouldn't the Hall evolve with it? Sometimes, convention must be broken, whether you're building a shrine to baseball history, or just seeking that perfect "wistful pop" sound. It's just like the song says:
"We hung about the stadium, we've got no place to stay."
(That was about the Hall Of Fame, right?)
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