To gain election to the Baseball Hall of Fame off the BBWAA ballot, a player’s career must be able to withstand the scrutiny of 400 self-appointed statisticians, with access to comparative metrics writers couldn’t dream about back in 1985. Said player must have managed to charm the press to the fullest extent possible during his career, winning over the requisite old-timers in the process. Said player had to be indefatigably great, popping eyes on the field and in retrospect.
To gain election to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the Contemporary Baseball Era Committee ballot? Said player just has to have a few good buddies on the 16-member voting board.
During next week’s Winter Meetings in San Diego, the Hall in Cooperstown will conduct one of their quietest elections ever, letting in select names from their eight-person Contemporary Baseball Era ballot. Entrants must receive 12 of 16 votes from a group of former players, executives, and historians commonly associated with the era.
This could be (but probably won’t be) a golden opportunity for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmerio, steroid-tainted stars who still managed to make this second-chance ballot (Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did not). It might also be the chance Curt Schilling has long been waiting for, a Hall of Fame shot without a whole mess of journalists standing in the way.
More likely, though, this Hall ballot will be the best chance yet for the underappreciated and semi-forgotten stars of the ’80s and ’90s to sneak through, giving Fred McGriff, Dale Murphy and Don Mattingly a chance to parlay their very different cases into induction.
The former Braves on the ballot — Greg Maddux and Chipper Jones — will likely not be needed to tip the scales in their old teammate McGriff’s direction, who’s already being pre-lauded for his consistency and nearly 500 (clean) home runs. But what about arguably the two biggest stars of the ’80s who’ve yet to be inducted, in two-time MVP Murphy and the iconic Mattingly? Will this slate of 1980s stars recognize a fellow difference-maker when they see one?
Yankees’ Don Mattingly Baseball Hall of Fame chances 2023
After Harold Baines was inducted a few years back by a Tony La Russa-led committee, does anything really matter anymore? Baines was fine. He didn’t even have rabid fans. A Mattingly induction would be like sending Gil Hodges into Cooperstown except, like, while he was still alive. It would make a lot of people very happy!
The strange thing about Mattingly’s case is that, if you sent someone in a time machine directly from 1988 to today, they would not be able to fathom how the Yankees star hadn’t already made the Hall. They wouldn’t know much about the nagging back troubles. They wouldn’t be aware of the slow dissolution of his career. They would only know that the face of baseball in New York — and, by extension, America — in the 1980s somehow wasn’t enshrined for being exceptionally famous and talented.
Mattingly’s peak WAR, compiled while racking up six straight All-Star appearances from 1984 to 1989 and an MVP win, stacks up nicely with an average Hall of Fame first baseman (35.8 vs. an average mark of 42.1). Unfortunately, that peak is basically all there is; Mattingly only amassed 6.6 more WAR and retired at the age of 34.
The last time he was included on a Hall ballot, he received a vote share low enough that it wasn’t even publicly reported (a maximum of three votes, per Jay Jaffe). Will this ballot be kinder to him? Jack Morris, Ryne Sandberg and Lee Smith seem likely to remember their era fondly and wonder why an old-school star like Mattingly can’t be enshrined, too. Newer disciples of statistics like Theo Epstein probably won’t be swayed by Mattingly’s case. The Braves will be too busy focusing on the Braves.
Odds are, Mattingly will miss again this year. But if Baines can do it, why can’t someone who was a brighter shooting star with ample support outside the walls of the Hall get in, too?