Having purchased a Hall of Fame ballot, which we'll be filling out in accordance with the wishes of our readers, we're examining the merits—and relative lack of merits—of all 36 players on this year's ballot for the purposes of better informing the electorate, i.e., you. All entries in the series can be found here.
An apple is an apple and a chair is a chair; mutual consent allows us, as a species, to share a vocabulary and a frame of reference. When it comes to abstractions like value, though, particularly as they pertain to an institution as malleable as the Hall of Fame, there are no universally agreed-upon definitions. Reality turns liquid, and starts to slip.
Going by the usual measures of value, which use statistical totals as signifiers, Sammy Sosa is probably a Hall of Famer. Cut loose from those numbers, judged in his totality, he probably isn't. But since the Hall is a self-defining institution—that is, the qualifications to gain entry vary constantly according to the whims of a group of men and women tasked with determining the best and most worthy of enshrinement—there's no real way to say. The process is, inherently, debased.
Chances are, we agree that the current methods of Hall of Fame selection are benighted, unjust, and—again—debased, but my list of glaring omissions is probably different than yours. We're just as guilty of being subjective and even irrational as the voters are. That's excusable because it's inevitable: the people who are supposed to do so have given us no clearly defined standards by which to calculate worthiness. There's nothing to hang our convictions—and now, thanks to Deadspin's cunning, our actual vote—on.
Understanding and embracing the fact that better-engineered sets of rules govern mundane things like buffet etiquette than Hall elections is important to remember when you cast your vote. That applies to this Hall of Fame class especially, rife as it is with players who have been portrayed as cheats, juicers, and liars. The winning slate will consist solely of those players who can withstand the scrutiny of an unapologetically biased electorate blinded not only by the purported wrong-doing of this year's candidates, but by nostalgia and subjectivity, just like the rest of us.
One thing blinding an awful lot of people is the career milestone. Over his 18-year career, Sammy Sosa hit 609 home runs. It's a lot, and puts him eighth on the list of career home run leaders, nestled between the turgid arms of Jim Thome and the contagious, though dangerous, smile of Frank Robinson. But for those who like numbers—I certainly do—we have to get past the idea of letting the figures do all of the thinking for us. Counting stats are quantities, not qualities, and in determining how to vote, we should be more concerned with value than values. There's nothing holy about 500 or 600 home runs, just as there's nothing magical about 300 wins or 3,000 hits. Pete Rose may be the all-time hits leader with 4,256, but the story the back of his baseball card (and the one my father tells) fails to mention that Rose wrote himself into the lineup at the expense of his team's success just to achieve a personal record. Sometimes records are nothing more than a convenient means for thoughtless sorting.
Some will also be blinded, especially in Sosa's case, by the rumors that his mid-career home run explosion was attributable to performance enhancing drugs. Though unconfirmed, they won't stop some of the electorate from making harsh decisions and basing their vote on unsubstantiated whispers.
My best advice for voting, which you may or may not heed since it's your dime, is that we should base our choices on what what we know, not what we think we know. We don't know for sure that Sosa ever ingested something that he thought would make him a better athlete. Even if your willing suspension of disbelief balks at accepting that pumpkinhead-model Sosa was as virgin as a Roy Rogers—mine does—we still don't know how to separate Sosa-natural from Sosa-in-a-can, or from all of the weird ways home runs were cheapened across baseball in his prime.
If you push aside the leaderboards and whispers of needles in darkened clubhouse bathroom stalls to focus on what we do know—the numbers in the box scores, and grids on his Baseball-Reference page—and drill down to the value provided by Sosa, what you'll find is a five-year period in which he hit like Superman. From 1990-1997, Sosa's combined oWAR (that is, wins above replacement considering only offense) was 11.2, good for 126th in the majors. From 2003 until his 2007 retirement, it was 4.6, 221st in the majors. His Hall case is all about the period from 1998 to 2002, when his combined oWAR was 33.9, fourth on the list between Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi.
The best years of Sosa's baseball career shouldn't be discounted; he was a tremendous player who dazzled with his hustle, his arm, and all of those home runs. It was the perfect confluence of player and time, though, and when his major talent benefited from a kind of inflation. It was the home run chase with Mark McGwire in 1998 that really put and kept Sosa on the trajectory that led to his nomination to the ballot, giving him a national level of grandeur that might never have accrued to a player whose main place in history, as with so many Cubs greats before him, was mainly to play for one losing team after another. Though I personally find the narrative to be hyperbolic, the chase is credited as having "saved baseball" from its post-strike doldrums by keeping a waning fanbase tuned in to watch balls leap over far fences.
I would never dispute the greatness of Sosa; I would, however, question the magnitude of that greatness. He topped Roger Maris' formerly unreachable single-season home run record three times, and he hit more home runs over a five-year stretch than anyone in history, but he also won the NL MVP just once and led the league in home runs just twice, because he was playing in an era where everyone else was putting up big numbers, too. The years when he could run and field did not coincide with his most prolific home run years. He wasn't a one-year wonder, but on a pure value basis, he was much closer to Maris than to Bonds.
That takes us back to abstract notions of value and just what kind of player should be in the Hall of Fame. Since there is no clear definition of what a Hall of Famer is, I'll feel free to express a preference for careers of greater depth than breadth. Supposed signifiers of greatness like 3,000 hits and 609 home runs matter very little in their own right, because having a big pile of something isn't always the same as having a good pile, and in any case they are arbitrary standards.
Sosa's five-year career arc is undoubtedly one of the greatest in baseball history, but the Hall, at least in my subjective estimation, is about totality. Sosa had one season, 2001, that ranks in the top 500 single seasons of all time. Everything else, once you file away the gaudy home run totals, was just pretty good. The fact that his career WAR puts him 22nd on the list of the best right fielders in history might be enough for him to get the vote. It very well may not.
Once you contextualize the numbers and shrink them into their proper place, as just a component of a story instead of the story itself, the Legend of Slammin' Sammy Sosa leaves me cold. If you came into this expecting a warm and fuzzy story of a Wrigley Field Bleacher Creature whose life was radically changed by a right-handed slugger violating 293 baseballs at the Friendly Confines, well, I'm sorry to disappoint you. That story is good enough, insofar as the Cubs Hall of Fame goes, but does it have less applicability when it comes to Cooperstown?
I'll let you answer that. It's your vote, after all.
Cee Angi is a freelance sportswriter whose work has appeared at Baseball Prospectus, The Classical, The Platoon Advantage, and 670 the Score, and is currently one of SB Nation's featured columnists covering Major League Baseball. Follow her on Twitter @CeeAngi.
Art by Sam Woolley