What makes a baseball player immortal? Fans of Jim Rice are wondering this week, as the Red Sox slugger missed out on the Hall of Fame for the umpteenth time. Paul Molitor, meanwhile, just got invited to Cooperstown on his first try—a reward for two decades of very good batsmanship and an unimpeachable 3,319 career hits. That's a career you can cast in bronze and hang on the wall.
The thunderousness of Jim Rice isn't so easily rewarded in the Hall of Fame balloting. Yes, in 1978, he led the American League with 46 home runs—a feat the steely, competent Molitor never got halfway to matching. Yet Rice had only three such white-hot seasons, accompanied by four or five red-hot ones. He spent the rest of his 16-year career within hollering distance of ordinary, ending up short of both the 400-homer and 2,500-hit benchmarks. Throw in a reputation for being surly with the press, and the voters decided to leave him on the doorstep.
Thankfully for Rice and the rest of the unenshrined majority, there is now another place where they can get the recognition they deserve. For as little as $5 per year, baseball-reference.com, the leading online compendium of baseball statistics, will sell you a sponsorship of one of its player Web pages (pages for superstars can cost as much as $200). In return, users can post a brief mash note above the career numbers of their favorite player in baseball history. What has emerged as a result is one of the great democratic blossomings of the Web: a collection of personal baseball testimonials. Taken together, the messages form not an online Hall of Fame but something more like a Hall of Love.
The Hall of Love message on the Jim Rice page, written by a fan named Edward N. Leger, is short and to the point: "Put him in the Hall of Fame." It's one of many lobbying efforts on the site. "[Bert] Blyleven is fully qualified for the Hall of Fame and it is a travesty that he is not enshrined at Cooperstown," another entry reads. "Blyleven's curveball was one of the best ever. Bert for the HOF!"
A lawyer friend of mine has crammed a frantic Hall of Fame brief on behalf of Goose Gossage into the 255-character limit: "HOF case: (1) amazing 10-yr peak as RP: '75-85 (excl. yr as SP in '76), 2.06 ERA in 975 IP; (2) more dominant yrs than Sutter&L.Smith combined (check ERA+ for each!); (3) staggering longevity: almost 1600 IP in 21 RP yrs(Sutter&L.Smith total barely 2300)."
The more Hall of Love messages you read, however, the less important the Cooperstown museum starts to seem. It doesn't take 3,000 hits to justify enshrinement here; sometimes it takes only one. "My love for [Rico Brogna]," a sponsor writes, "was sealed by his walk-off salami into the Red Sox bully during the dog days of the 2000 pennant race." In five seasons, Francisco Cabrera hit only 17 home runs for the Atlanta Braves—but he has a Hall of Love sponsorship, celebrating his pinch-hit single that won the Braves the 1992 pennant.
Such are the things that make people into baseball fans and into fans of a particular player. "As a 10 year old in 1961 ... I adopted Jim Gentile as my favorite player after I heard he hit two grand slams in one inning," a fan writes. "I remember [Ron Kittle's] roof-shot home runs when I was a kid," says another. And from a fan of the early '90s Yankees: "Nothing better than seeing [Mel Hall's] batting gloves flapping away in his back pocket as he literally walked around the bases after a home run."
In fact, the Hall of Love could serve as a primer on how to win a piece of eternal fan devotion. Public relations matters: Joe Niekro might not be in Cooperstown with brother Phil, but he "posed for a picture with me and my family on the Astrodome pitching mound during Astros Buddies Day." (Knuckleballers may have a knack for such gestures; Tom Candiotti, another fan writes, "called to wish me a Happy Birthday!") Having a distinctive style helps, too: "Cleon Jones was the first player I knew of who batted right and threw left, like me." And never underestimate the value of having the right name: "[H]ow can it not be fun to root for a guy named 'Cianfrocco?' " "Moseby is almost like Mosey ... that was comforting when I was 9 and hoped we were related."
Being a mercenary hurts you in the Hall of Love. All-star-for-hire Gary Sheffield, who hit 39 home runs for Atlanta last year, is sponsored not by any fan of the Braves (or Yankees, Dodgers, Marlins, Padres, or Brewers) but by "5 DVDs For 49 Cents Each."
I should probably confess my own contribution to the Hall of Love. Along with my brother and my college roommate, I posted an encomium to a late-blooming utility man named Jack Voigt. The summer after my college graduation, Voigt played his first and best real big-league season, batting a solid .296 for the Baltimore Orioles. He would go on to eke out a .235 career average, with four different teams. But that year, he seemed to have endless potential: covering five different positions, delivering the big hits, wrapping it up with a vivid quote in the next day's paper. He was worth believing in.