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The Curious Case of Kenny Lofton and the Hall of Fame

With Tim Raines being named to the Hall of Fame, many questions have been asked about how Kenny Lofton was so quickly eliminated in the process. The IBI's John Vourlis opines on the integrity of the Hall of Fame...

Once upon a time, getting voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame meant something.

When you were inducted into Cooperstown, you were enshrined into the pantheon of baseball heroes—an honor reserved for only a very few immortals. You were made a peer of legends Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Bob Feller. You were placed among the best of the best players of all-time.

These days, with media scrutiny now a contact sport, it’s almost as big a deal, maybe bigger, who doesn’t get in as who does. No Barry. No Roger. No Sammy. No Mark. Instead, we now have a Bagwell, a Pudge and a Timmy (not to mention a Bud). One of them might actually be HOF worthy—Ivan ‘Pudge’ Rodriguez—but that is not the point, really. The integrity of the Hall, and by extension the sport, is the real issue.

If you think the steroids era is over, you’re clearly not paying attention. The steroids era in baseball will never be over. It will remain a stain on the game for as long as the game exists, because baseball honors it’s past (or at least it used to). Baseball, more than any other sport, is in touch with the history of the game on a daily basis.

Today’s Francisco Lindor is compared to yesterday’s Omar Vizquel, and yesteryear’s Ozzie Smith, Luis Aparicio, and Phil Rizzuto—to every shortstop who played all the way back to the dawn of the game. This is part of the culture of baseball, an important part, and has been for at least three generations, perhaps longer. Grandfathers passed the game down to fathers who now pass it on to sons and daughters.

This brings us to the curious case of Kenny Lofton.

Lofton was, for anyone who saw him play, one of the greats. Whether he was great enough to be in the Hall or not might be disputed. There have been several articles analyzing the statistical comparison between Lofton and new inductee Tim Raines, and even a cursory examination of their lifetime stats shows Lofton most certainly was as great a player as Raines offensively, and likely his superior defensively, because he played a more demanding position. And yet Lofton never made it past the first ballot, failing to get the 5% minimum in his one and only appearance—after which he was removed from consideration. And that is a shame.

There are a number of reasons Lofton missed out (he played in Cleveland, not New York; he was occasionally surly to reporters; he was traded in his prime), but they are all beside the real point here. Lofton played clean, played exceedingly well, but he played in the era of steroids and he, through little fault of his own, has suffered for it. Plain Dealer writer Terry Pluto wrote a mea culpa paragraph or two in the most recent Sunday sports section lamenting the fact that he ignored Lofton in that initial vote. At least he had the decency to do that. Baseball on the other hand, and Hall voters in particular, have committed far worse transgressions in our humble opinion.

One of the more fun arguments surrounding the game is what we like to call the “equivalent eras” argument. It goes something like this: You can’t compare Babe Ruth to Hank Aaron because the Babe played in a different era. This is clearly true, for a number of obvious reasons of course, but it didn’t diminish the Babe’s or Henry’s accomplishments, and it didn’t stop the comparisons. The comparisons in fact were part of the fun of being a baseball fan.

Things are different now, and not just a little. Now it’s absolutely legitimate to say you can’t compare Ruth (or Aaron) to Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds. Steroids have made the comparison not just questionable, but completely false. And thus the thread that held the baseball generations together has been severed. 

What to do then? Can we somehow put the genie back in the bottle? Probably not.

Enshrining Bud Selig pretty much sealed that deal. Voting in the ostrich who put his head in the sand while steroids was making a sham of the game was the last straw, regardless of whether Bonds or Sosa or Clemens ever get in or not. Enshrining Selig is the equivalent of enshrining the entire Chicago ‘Black Sox’ team of 1919, along with Arnold Rothstein. Can you imagine Kennesaw Mountain Landis going along with that? Yet having done so, the Hall voters have soiled, spoiled, and stained a once great American institution.

This is not a diatribe against Selig, who otherwise was a decent, if not entirely harmless man (that All-Star game fiasco should have been enough to keep him out of the Hall). This is a condemnation of a once important institution, one that seems to no longer have the decency to look in the mirror and judge itself.

The Hall is now like a bright shiny apple—with a worm inside. Especially with respect to the steroids issue. It is an institution that has failed to be honest with its fans, with the game, and most importantly with the history and traditions of the sport, and one that no longer seems to have the wisdom to judge which players should get in, and which ones shouldn’t.

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