Thursday, 16 January 2014

Hall of Fame Elections: The Great Barometer of Age

How does one know that one is growing old? A twinge in the back. A complete hatred of weekday mornings. A feeling of mild dissatisfaction accompanying all that prevails in daily life. As a sports fan, the reminders are perhaps even clearer. When the team that we love starts to rely on players younger than ourselves, we feel uneasy. The retirement of our heroes brings regret and gloom. Eventually, they end up in the Hall of Fame. That's when we really know that adulthood has become reality.

Such was the case when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas were elected to the Hall of Fame in early January. All three players were superstars when I first began watching baseball; they compiled the statistics and honed the reputations which so wooed Cooperstown whilst my interest in the sport grew. I watched feverishly as these guys became immortal. In previous years, the elected players have been greats of whom I've read but never watched. Now that has all changed, I'm left mourning the loss of my baseball generation and tasked with "getting to know" a new generation of stars named Puig and Harper and Trout.

The Greg Maddux I first knew was a salty veteran with San Diego, getting-by for two hundred innings every year on pure guile. At times, he was scorched by the turbo-charged sluggers from a new generation, but Maddux always found something, usually lathered in finesse, from deep within to stay competitive. In the early days of my baseball fandom, I recall watching many of his games and being mesmerized by the sheer geometric mastery. He changed speeds, angles and looks so frequently that the viewer could only writhe in the sublime unpredictability. This was a master craftsman at work.

In the past decade, my appreciation and sense of baseball history has become more refined. I was quickly made aware that Greg Maddux was one of the most intelligent pitchers in baseball history. Here's a guy who won 355 games, 4 Cy Young Awards and the 1995 World Series with Atlanta. He was honoured by the Braves and Cubs, the two teams which tugged at his heart, with his hallowed #31 jersey retired. However, behind all the awards and the accolades, the Gold Gloves and the hardware, Greg Maddux was just a fantastic pitcher. In this age of over-bearing dependency on statistics to win contracts, prove points and clinch arbitration cases, the actual qualities and skills of a person and ballplayer can be lost in translation. When I think of Greg Maddux, an image of a quintessential pitcher comes to mind; an artisan painting pictures with the ball by making it whoosh and curve and spin. He was a helluva ballplayer.

In a similar regard, I found baseball when Tom Glavine was a New York Met, attempting to somehow reach the 300 win plateau with guts and cunning. In earlier days, he had been a pristine personification of southpaw verve; a tremendously economical pitcher who contributed to the burgeoning Atlanta dynasty alongside Maddux. Whilst in New York, Glavine set about reaching the Holy Grail of pitcher wins. He defied age and proved lastingly consistent throughout my early baseball days. Ultimately, I had the pleasure of watching the game which Glavine won for number 300 live here in Britain. It was an epochal evening, and the inimitable commentary of Jon Miller & Joe Morgan will live in my mind forever. Tom Glavine deserved that sweet moment, just as he deserves enshrinement.

As for Frank Thomas? Well, Big Hurt was still thumping the ball into orbit as I began watching. He had become a prototypical Designated Hitter, with arms like tree trunks and a bat just as big. When Thomas truly connected, the ball was rarely seen again. Naturally, he had calmed from his days as a 45-home run threat with the White Sox, but Thomas still produced consistently as I became fascinated. He was a productive slugger and on-base threat in Oakland and Toronto well into the autumn of a stellar, pure and happy career. Also, Frank Thomas did it all with the biggest smile on his face. What greater legacy can a man create?

It's a little strange to see such favoured players from my early baseball days elected to the Hall of Fame. It's particularly surreal to see esteemed managers such as Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre voted in by the Veterans Committee. These were the legends who I grew-up watching, the superstars who lit-up my childhood. It's sensational to see them elected and enshrined. 

It's also undeniably sobering to think that the five-year waiting period has passed since my early heroes began retiring. Next year, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz join the ballot. 

I'm getting old...