I have memories from my childhood of combing through my Baseball Encyclopedia and Baseball Reference and happening upon the list of top Hall of Fame vote-getters. Two things immediately stood out to me, as I’m sure they did to many- the first was the lack of 100s at the top of the list. How could somebody vote against a true all-time great? But perhaps even more shocking was the name at the top of the list- a man who held the highest mark for decades- Tom Seaver. At this point my knowledge of the history of the game was still forming. I knew the name Tom Seaver, having been raised by former Mets fans, but even they could not make a case for Tom Terrific as the greatest baseball player of all time, or even really in the discussion.
My dad’s explanation for why Seaver had received 98.8% of the vote, more than Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth before him, was that Seaver was iconic- a stalwart for a beloved Mets team and a central cog in their 1969 championship. He was universally beloved. I didn’t really care for this explanation- if anything should be a true meritocracy, it should be the Hall of Fame. The very best players should receive the most votes, and in the pantheon of all-time pitchers, Seaver probably tops out in tier 2- unquestionably one of the greats, but not in the discussion for the best ever. How did he end up with the fewest no-votes?
Over time I came to realize there were a few reasons for this- racism for much of the hall’s history, a reluctance to vote for any player on the first ballot, and so on. The lack of a unanimous inductee early in the hall’s history created an impossible standard for a unanimous inductee in the minds of many. If Babe, Williams and Mays were not worthy of every vote, it would take a truly once-in-a-lifetime player, a new level of greatness, to sway every single BBWAA voter. Many thought Ken Griffey, Jr. could be the first, and somehow three people were able to concoct a reason to vote against him. Maybe the great Rickey Henderson, who Bill James once said would be two hall of famers if you could split him into two players? Perhaps Mike Trout could do it years from now, if he maintained his early-career trajectory and posted career numbers that rivaled PED-aided 90s stars?
Enter Mariano Rivera. The greatest closer of all time- a title he looks likely to hold for years to come- and, like Tom Seaver, a hurler who is inextricably linked with the city of New York. When I first read that Rivera had received 100% of the votes, I was first a bit surprised, then a bit perturbed. Rivera is a hall of famer- about that there is no doubt- but there’s simply no way to earnestly make the case that he is among the most valuable players of all time, no single-inning reliever possibly could be. Scores of greater players were denied a unanimous induction in the past. I’ve said that after reviewing the 2018 ballot, I would not have voted for Rivera- not because he’s not deserving, but because I think there are at least 10 men on the list who are either more deserving or in greater need of votes at present (we’ll get you in, Larry). It shook my faith in the BBWAA more than it already had been, which was a tall order. However, I’ve come to realize that I’ve misattributed my frustration. Mariano should not have been the first unanimous inductee- on that I’ve not budged- but that is because many men should’ve had that honor before him, not because the impossible standard should have continued.
It is my hope that Rivera has opened the door, and that the next time a Griffey-type candidate joins the ballot, he can feel the same joy that Mo did knowing his resume had been formally recognized as bulletproof, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. The Hall process cannot be perfected- writers’ standards differ wildly, and some like Dan Shaughnessy completely disregard the responsibility that comes with the privilege of casting a ballot out of spite. Getting roughly 500 baseball writers on the same page is an impossible task, even moreso with the less-than-ideal pool of hall of fame voters. That observers see players’ value so differently is unavoidable, even as analytics continue to make value easier and easier to quantify, and there are myriad legitimate viewpoints on how to cast a hall ballot with regard to valuing longevity vs. peak and strategic voting.
Perhaps Mariano is the start of a trend, an ice-breaker of sorts, and perhaps for years to come the only unanimous hall selection will be a relief pitcher with roughly half the career WAR total of the game’s greatest players. What is certain is that he has made it abundantly clear that a player’s proportion HOF votes received is not indicative of their greatness relative to their peers, but of where a player’s profile fits in the variety of standards applied to hall of fame voting. His unanimous induction represents progress- gone are the days of voters reflexively voting no on first-ballot candidates, and the idea that relievers don’t belong in the hall. Those that roll their eyes at WAR and those that treat it as gospel alike agree- the greatest player of all time in a given role is a hall of famer, and Mo is unquestionably that.