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Edgar Martinez and Pulling the Arc of the Hall of Fame Towards Justice

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On belonging and getting a hand up

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics
O captain

Today brings the announcement of the 2018 induction class for the MLB Hall of Fame. Again, as last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, those of us who want to see Edgar elected will be holding our collective breath, hoping against hope that certain voters will see the light, will have seen it fit to check off Edgar’s name on their ballots. Thanks to Ryan Thibodaux’s tracker, those of us who care have spent this long, cold, exquisitely boring offseason studying the tracker intently, watching our hopes rise and fall in real time.

Another thing about the tracker: those who do not vote Edgar can be found, and gently persuaded (don’t laugh—longtime Edgar no-voter Barry Bloom changed his mind this year, thanks in part to respectful, informed discourses had on social media). And those who do can be given thanks and praise (it is right to give them thanks and praise). Back when I leveraged all of 39 followers on Twitter, I found an Edgar yes-voter and tweeted my thanks to him. “He belongs,” responded the voter.

He belongs. That simple, declarative statement—sent from a member of the august BBWA to little old 39-follower me—felt like the most powerful magic. I believed, but here was someone bigger and more important agreeing he belonged, and in his belief validating my own belief, transforming it from a fond wish to a moral imperative. He belongs. A sentence as simple as breath itself, and as important.

Over time, the movement has grown, the #EdgarHOF tag taking on a life of its own. It has attracted major figures within the baseball community who believe he belongs and have advocated for his cause, like Jay Jaffe and Brian Kenny, among others. It has become a rallying cry for fans, who are quick to tweet their disapproval when someone does not vote #EdgarHOF (it has probably caused more than its fair share of meltdowns in Ryan Thibadoux’s mentions). The official Mariners account has done its part, and behind the scenes, the Mariners organization has continued its direct campaign to the voters themselves, sending out beautifully illustrated information packets every year. The concentration of effort puts me in mind of Stubbs in Moby-Dick, exhorting the crew to “pull, pull, my fine hearts-alive; pull, my children; pull, my little ones...Pull, will ye? Pull, can’t ye? Pull, won’t ye? Why in the name of gudgeons and ginger-cakes don’t ye pull?--pull and break something!” We are pulling, and pulling, and pulling, trying to break Edgar into the Hall.

Yet as powerful as the move for Edgar on social media has been, it’s caused some backlash. Passionate fans aren’t always tactful fans, and that hurts Edgar’s case more than it helps. There’s also a sense that the campaigns are becoming excessive, leading to a sense of voters becoming overwhelmed, or some, outright resentful. A true Hall of Famer doesn’t need a campaign, some small-hall types will grouse. There should be no debate in true Hall of Famers, said one voter who checked off Bonds, Clemens, and Ramirez. Tracy Ringolsby—who did vote for Edgar this year after not voting for him before, so put down your torches—complained during his appearance on the Hot Stove podcast about the incessant mailings from Mariners PR. Some writers feel “badgered,” with stats, per Thibadoux. No one likes to be told they are wrong, and those BBWAA members who share their ballots are opening themselves up to a storm of tweets barraging them with stats, at best, or insulting their intelligence (or worse). [NB: Insulting people directly to make a case for Edgar does not help him.] But digging deeper with the issue of annoyance around campaigns, a common thread emerges. The words “fringe” or “borderline” come up; a line has been drawn, and any attempts to push a candidate over that line are met with skepticism or outright derision. The prevailing thought here is “real” HOFers don’t need a hand up. Anyone should be able to recognize their talent. The numbers should speak for themselves, said one voter, magically tweeting from the late 1970s. A true Hall of Famer doesn’t need a hand up, or a handout.

There is a rich culture in America of anxiety around the idea of handouts. The US, after all, is a country founded on the notion that all people should be able to determine their own futures, with the baked-in expectation that the meritorious and hard-working shall rise to the top; that one can be born anywhere, in any station, and still succeed. The American Dream was a promise, but for centuries that promise was only available to a certain kind of person. American history has been a long, slow, frequently interrupted march towards justice, to working towards making the dream available to all people, regardless of color, creed, gender, sexuality, financial standing, parentage, or any of the other hundreds of things out of our control that still make us who we are. And sometimes those moves towards justice are things that could be labeled “handouts” but might more rightfully be called “equalizers.”

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Monte Irvin, born in Alabama to a sharecropper father, was a Negro Leagues star who spent his winters playing for the Senadores in Puerto Rico. His biggest fan was an earnest youngster named Roberto Clemente. Clemente, whose father was a farmer as well, didn’t always have the fifteen cents for admission to Sixto Escobar Stadium, but he was a tremendous admirer of Irvin, who had the best arm on the island. Irvin gave Clemente his suit bag to carry, so the youngster could get into games for free, where Clemente took in everything about Irvin, from the way he threw to the way he dressed and behaved. Irvin offered the skinny teenager throwing tips until one day, Clemente’s arm matched, then outpaced, Irvin’s. Perhaps we do not have Roberto Clemente as we know him now except for the generosity of one man—a man denied the right to play at the highest level in his own country, another man who fell on the wrong side of a line defined by others; a man about whom Buck O’Neil would once say, about segregation in baseball, “the world didn’t miss out on me. But the world missed out on Monte Irvin.”

It was Roberto Clemente who made Edgar Martinez want to play baseball; in 1971, an eight-year-old Edgar heard his aunt screaming in the dining room, where the TV was. He rushed in to see a man from his own island, a forty-minute drive from his home, playing in the World Series; saw him hit a crucial Game Seven home run to help the Pirates to victory and be named MVP of the series. The next spring, his aunt outfitted Edgar with a uniform and equipment, spurring both a love for the game and a lifelong veneration for his countryman. Clemente would tragically pass away two years after his thrilling World Series performance, on his way to deliver relief to earthquake disaster victims, but the seed was planted for Edgar, who would go on to an eighteen-year career in MLB. Edgar never got to know personally the man who inspired his passion for baseball, but he did win the award baseball has named after Clemente—the first Puerto Rican to do so—for the charitable work that was a hallmark of his career. Edgar carried on Clemente’s legacy in a different way, as well; for years, young players filled his living room in Dorado early each morning over the off-season, anxious to collect some knowledge from the great, from their living, breathing Roberto Clemente. There is a line that can be drawn from Monte Irvin, through Roberto Clemente, to Edgar Martinez (via a baseball-loving aunt) all the way down to the young hitters whose lives he impacts today, helping to make sure the world doesn’t miss out on another Monte Irvin.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics

Hall of Fame voting is not a representative democracy (or Edgar would have been in years ago); it’s a duty that has been entrusted to a select number of individuals who have been servants of the game and its players over many years, who are, ideally, still engaged with the game today. But nor should HOF voting be a dictatorship, or worse, a place to grind a very particular axe:

Voting for the Hall of Fame is a privilege earned over years of toil, and it’s hard to see people abuse that privilege. It’s hard, too, considering the nature of privilege itself, and who benefits from privilege—who has, most likely, been offered a hand up in his own career, a recommendation, maybe, or a subtle pull on a strand of the intense nexus of accumulated privilege enjoyed by those who were written into the original American Dream—to see some disparage the kind of grassroots movements designed to give players who might have been unfairly passed over a second look.

Those of us who exist outside of this power structure—and I include myself in this, I include myself because, in part, of the night I was told at the Triple-A All-Star Game that I was not allowed to accompany my male colleague behind a closed door because “there are men in there”—we need a hand or hands up in order to get over the lines other people draw, and there’s not any shame in that. There’s not any shame in a soft-spoken, Spanish-dominant player who spoke accented English to reporters and played for a consistently underachieving team while the majority of sports writers were asleep, who might not have counting stats like RBIs thanks to said underachieving team and a late start to the majors but has rate stats for days, who doesn’t have the postseason resume so fetishized by certain members of the voting bloc—there’s no shame in a player like that needing a hand up from a passionate, informed campaign. It’s not a handout, and it’s not an attack on these writers. Sometimes, when the arc of the moral universe doesn’t bend towards justice in a timely manner, you have to grab it and pull it in that direction. It has been the moral imperative of certain players over MLB’s history to offer each other hands up; it’s time the writers do so, as well.

El pertenece. He belongs.