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The Historic Scope of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017

Where were you when Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Iván Rodríguez made their MLB debuts?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

After months of lobbying, arguing, and public speculation, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America elected Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Iván Rodríguez to the Hall of Fame. While the vote revealed promising trends for many other players who await their own election, the ones who made it in this year — even Rodríguez, who made it in on his first attempt — had been waiting for this moment for quite a while.

Every member of this year’s class, in his own way, illustrated the astonishing historical scope of a Hall of Fame career. In a game as steeped in history as baseball is, becoming a historical figure takes time.

Rodríguez had some good offensive seasons — he hit 311 career home runs, stole 25 bases once, hit .300 10 times, won the AL MVP award in 1999, and came up just short of 3,000 hits for his career — but his career OPS+ is only 106, and his career OBP is the same as Jeremy Hermida’s. He’s in the Hall of Fame for his glove.

Rodríguez is remembered as the best defensive catcher of his generation — he threw out a higher percentage of opposing base stealers (45.7 percent) than any other catcher in the expansion era. In many respects, Rodríguez is less comparable to his contemporary Mike Piazza than he is to Ozzie Smith, who’s in Cooperstown because he played a staggeringly difficult defensive position staggeringly well.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Rodríguez is his longevity — 21 seasons spent in a squat soaking up foul balls, most of them in the punishing Texas summer heat. Rodríguez caught 2,427 games in his career, 201 more than second-place Carlton Fisk, with whom he shares a nickname. Pudge caught more than twice as many games as Hall of Famer Roy Campanella, more than three times as many as David Ross, and more than Bengie and José Molina put together.

In fact, Rodríguez’s longevity watered down his career numbers. Those pedestrian career offensive stats include an abnormally early start and an abnormally late end to his career, but from age 22 to age 32, Rodríguez hit .315/.357/.513.

Rodríguez debuted at age 19 and played until he was almost 40, and in between he had a Forrest Gump–like career, popping up here and there over the course of decades. When Nolan Ryan, who played his first big league game in 1966, beat up Robin Ventura, Rodríguez was behind the plate.

Rodríguez also caught Justin Verlander’s first no-hitter and Stephen Strasburg’s big league debut. He was on deck during the Steve Bartman Incident in 2003, en route to his only World Series title. He played alongside longtime big league catchers Brian Downing (born 1950) and Wilson Ramos (born 1987). He retired in 2011, missing out on, by a few months, sharing a Nationals clubhouse with Bryce Harper, who hadn’t been born yet when Rodríguez was named to his first All-Star team.

When Rodríguez broke in, baseball was played by mulleted men in ankle-length pants on AstroTurf.

And by the time he left, it looked like the game we watch today.

During Rodríguez’s career, the MLB expanded twice and adopted the wild card and interleague play. Four men occupied the Oval Office and four different men played Batman in a movie. He played for two teams — the Florida Marlins and Washington Nationals — that didn’t exist when he played his first big league game. The Hall of Fame, like all museums, is about history, and few players have witnessed more.

The path to Cooperstown was far tougher for Jeff Bagwell, who waited until his seventh time on the ballot for election.

Bagwell became eligible for Cooperstown at a time at when the Hall of Fame electorate — BBWAA members with at least 10 years in the association — was perhaps less representative of baseball media than at any other time in history. Those requirements created a pool of voters heavy on local writers from traditional print journalism backgrounds, and they favored a brand of analysis that was more reliant on access than empirics. In other words, the electorate has long skewed toward a set of writers who are pro-tradition, puritanically anti-PED, and limited in their willingness and/or ability to grapple with sabermetrics.

That made Bagwell’s case hard from the start, because even as a power-hitting first baseman, he doesn’t have a traditional Hall of Fame profile. Bagwell’s 15-year career isn’t that long by Hall of Fame standards, so he wound up short of the traditional milestones with only 2,314 hits and 449 home runs, and his .297 career batting average is just below that nice round number. Bagwell never led the league in home runs and only led the league in RBIs once — in the strike-shortened 1994 season. Bagwell also never played in New York, Boston, or Los Angeles, never won a World Series, and only won a pennant in his last season, when an arthritic shoulder limited him to 39 games. Chris Burke had more memorable playoff moments as an Astro than Bagwell did.

But if you look beyond the surface numbers, you’ll see that in 1994, strike or not, Bagwell slugged .750 — and in the cavernous Astrodome, of all places. His 202 career stolen bases are the most by a first baseman since Joe Judge, who retired in 1934. And while Bagwell’s counting stats and batting average let him down, his .408 career OBP will rank 23rd among the 163 position players in the Hall of Fame.

Bagwell was an offensive giant in an era with no shortage of offensive giants, but that’s part of the problem. Bagwell got lumped into a bucket with his contemporary sluggers as “steroid guys,” an unproven allegation that helped put Bagwell in limbo for six years as the baseball media wrestled with the sport’s recent history. Bagwell admitted to using androstenedione in 1998, before the drug was banned by MLB, or even before the most famous bottle of andro in history wound up in Mark McGwire’s locker, but he never tested positive for a banned substance, was never tied to BALCO, was not named in the Mitchell Report, and was not named (as Rodríguez was) in Jose Canseco’s book Juiced, which, for all of Canseco’s other sins, has turned out to be largely credible regarding PED use in baseball. Even the andro was such a non-issue back then that by the time Bagwell hit the ballot more than a decade later, it had largely been forgotten.

Bagwell had to wait so long not because of anything he actually said or did, but because he was a power hitter from the 1990s who had forearms like hams and biceps the size of Ichiro’s waist. For him to get in, it took a gradual philosophical shift that also allowed Piazza — himself long whispered about but never proved culpable — along with Rodríguez and the commissioner who enabled it all, Bud Selig, to reach the Hall of Fame. A more curious, empathetic electorate would have voted Bagwell in years ago, rather than leaving him fortunate to get in at all.

And then there’s Raines, who witnessed just as much history as Rodríguez, and whose post-retirement wait for enshrinement was just as torturous as Bagwell’s.

Raines first came to prominence with the Montreal Expos during the strike-shortened 1981 season, stealing 71 bases in only 88 games as the Expos won the NL East’s second-half title and made the club’s only appearance in the NLCS. Raines started out playing alongside future Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson in Montreal, and would win his only ring with the Yankees in 1996, as a teammate of the 22-year-old Derek Jeter and the 26-year-old Mariano Rivera. In 2001, he became only the second player in big league history to play alongside his son, Tim Raines Jr.

Raines’s unique profile led to his being underrated by the BBWAA for many of the same reasons Bagwell was. He won only one batting title and never finished better than fifth in MVP voting, and like Bagwell ended up short of 3,000 hits and a .300 batting average. But his career OBP of .385 was almost exactly the same as that of his contemporary Tony Gwynn (.388), who thanks to reaching base more on singles than walks, had 3,141 hits, won eight batting titles, and made it into Cooperstown on his first try, with 97.6 percent of the vote.

But unlike Bagwell, the problem simply seemed to be that nobody realized how good Raines was. Raines played half of his career in Montreal and was good in ways the baseball culture of the time didn’t value that much. He has the fifth-highest stolen base total in major league history, but did it at a time when stolen bases were more common than they are today. Rickey Henderson was the iconic base stealer of the 1980s, so Raines sort of got lost.

By Baseball Reference WAR, Raines has the eighth-most career WAR and the eighth-best JAWS score among left fielders, both comfortably above the average for Hall of Famers. But by the time WAR was popular, Raines was already well into his Hall of Fame candidacy, a problem made worse when the Hall of Fame shortened the eligibility window from 15 years to 10 in 2014.

So it took a concerted campaign, a public lobby heretofore unseen in Hall of Fame voting history, to get Raines over the top in his final year of eligibility. Jonah Keri has spent years stumping for Raines, uniting forces ranging from the weirdos of the internet baseball community to the Canadian House of Commons in support of Raines’s candidacy. The result: Raines went from 22.6 percent of the vote in 2009 to 86.0 percent in 2017. Not only did Tim Raines the candidate take part in his share of history, Raines’s candidacy itself became historic in its own right.

The Hall of Fame often feels like a part of the past, full of relics and artifacts from an age you only read about in books. At the same time, it doesn’t seem like long ago that many of the players on this ballot were in their primes — not only do most baseball fans remember watching these players, we’ve owned Manny Ramírez in a fantasy league or talked about Vladimir Guerrero on Twitter. These are recent players.

If there’s one thing this slate of candidates proves, it’s that a Hall of Fame career unfolds on a generational time frame. It was 40 years from the time Raines signed his first professional contract to when he was elected to Cooperstown, 29 for Rodríguez, and 28 for Bagwell. The internet as we know it hasn’t been around that long. It took only 36 years to get from the Wright Brothers’ first flight to the first jet aircraft, and only 30 years after that for Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon. We should treat Bagwell, Raines, and Rodríguez as historical figures, because their impact on baseball is historical in scope.