The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Scott Rolen doesn’t seem like a Hall of Famer. Maybe that’s my fault.

Cincinnati Reds third baseman Scott Rolen fields a ground ball during a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sept. 14, 2010, in Cincinnati. (Al Behrman/AP)
5 min

I really don’t know if Scott Rolen, the former All-Star third baseman who was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, really deserves that honor — which is why no one gives me a vote. On this I’ll have to trust the baseball writers, who rely on nerdy statistics I’ve never warmed to (things like WAR, BABIP, WRC+) and who spurned every other player on this year’s ballot.

All I know is that I never thought of Rolen as an all-time great, and apparently I have plenty of company. But I’m coming around to the idea that this says more about our shifting perspectives on greatness — in sports and in society generally — than it does about Rolen.

The Hall of Fame is a weird conceit, when you think about it. No one embarks on a career as a lawyer hoping to one day have a plaque next to her briefcase set behind glass. There is no ballot for the best all-time first-grade teacher five years after your retirement ceremony.

Only in professional sports, really — and most notably in baseball — does the news media get to decide who deserves to be remembered for the duration of existence, based on a career that lasts, in most cases, fewer than 20 years.

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When you think about the Hall, you tend to think of players in sepia tones whom most of us never saw play: Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax. Or else you think of the players you watched as a kid, when everyone on the field seemed about 10 feet tall and made of steel.

When I was growing up as a Yankees fan, the team’s annual yearbook devoted a page to the best players among their rivals. (This is amazing to think about now, when grace toward one’s adversaries is exceedingly rare.) I viewed the stars on that page — George Brett, Rod Carew, Robin Yount — as comic book villains endowed with superhuman abilities. When those guys entered the Hall of Fame years later, I had no doubt they belonged.

But then suddenly you’re an adult with a career, and you become aware that the players are just other adults navigating their own careers, through good years and bad. They struggle more than they succeed, they age awkwardly, they haggle over contracts. Even the great ones — the ones who didn’t cheat with drugs or hidden cameras — betray their fallibility on a daily basis.

Every so often, you get a giant like Aaron Judge, or a phenom like Mike Trout, and they seem to have stepped out of a cornfield from another time. But a less exciting player such as Rolen, or the recently elected Fred McGriff, or the almost-elected Todd Helton?

For a lot of us, it doesn’t matter what the newfangled and impossibly complex statistics say. These will always be very, very good players who can’t measure up to the heroes of our imagining.

Like so much else in baseball, this distorted lens on greatness applies in other fields, too — movies, literature and, yes, even politics.

As a political writer, I’ll own up to having occasionally mythologized the skills of leaders I never knew or whom I admired as a kid. (Mario Cuomo comes to mind.) When then-Sen. Barack Obama remarked in 2008 that Ronald Reagan had been the only transformative president in recent times, igniting a storm in his own party, I understood exactly what he meant. To me, Reagan, the president of my youth, remains larger than life.

On the contrary, the first time I saw Obama as president, after having interviewed him for years, I had to remember to stand and button my jacket. He was a contemporary to me, not some towering figure from a history book.

And so there’s a tendency for all of us grown-ups to blithely assert that the great politicians are gone, that we don’t make presidents worth monuments anymore, that there are no all-timers roving the halls of Congress. It’s facile, and I think it’s unfair.

There are probably plenty of Scott Rolens and Fred McGriffs in our public life at any given moment — talented, constant leaders who will leave the field with more career accomplishments than we realize, because we’re too busy measuring their worth against the ghosts from some other time.

Perhaps, if there were a WAR for presidents, we would find that Joe Biden is more than holding his own against some of his more charismatic predecessors who occupy the presidential pantheon.

After all, it took five years for the baseball writers, who spat on Rolen’s candidacy when he first made it onto the ballot, to gradually accept his numerical case for the Hall. They had to reexamine their own youthful impressions of what greatness is supposed to look like.

That might be a useful exercise for the rest of us, too.