By Greg Blume
Earlier this month, the 2012 National Baseball Hall of Fame class was announced, and on Saturday, we will learn the newest members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This time of year always draws a crowd of voices debating not only who belongs in the halls of fame and who does not, but also what the standards for induction should be—what it means (or should mean) for someone to be a hall of famer. Since the only opinions that end up counting are those of actual voters, what everyone else is really debating are the standards of their own personal halls of fame. This argument is always lots of fun: we get to talk about the greatness of those players that we most admire, evaluate and compare them, and struggle to decide how to evaluate and compare them. What makes a player “great”? “Greater” than another? Is there a single criterion for greatness, or more than one standard? Is it possible to construct a single, all-encompassing hierarchy of a sport’s players, or not?
My own hall of fame is reserved for the elite (in the true sense of the word) athletes of a given sport. (It would also include coaches and other important contributors, but here I’ll be sticking to the players.) It would set apart those players whose career performances were legendary, approaching the bounds of human potential in their field, absolutely unattainable for everyone else. As I kill time until Super Sunday, I thought I would write about my own notion of what makes a hall of famer.
The evaluation of players against this standard relies more on subjective considerations—observation, impression—than on statistical data (though a player’s numbers are still important indicators of his performance and impact). My standard is founded on the notion of dominance. A dominant player is the center of his opponents’ attention. He completely consumes his opponents’ focus—their planning before the game and their awareness during the game. This is why stats alone are insufficient. We can look at numbers as memory aids, to remind us of how a player played and how his performance stood up among his peers, but if his dominance wasn’t experienced, and then remembered (either directly, or through contemporary accounts), he wasn’t dominant enough by my standard.
There are four things to note about my evaluation of players:
1) Hall of famers are “no-doubters”; if a player’s case makes you stop and think, he probably doesn’t belong.
2) The fact that a dominant player consumes his opponents’ attention does not mean that a single team cannot have more than one dominant player (e.g. Ruth and Gehrig). In sports other than baseball, in fact, two dominant players often perform as partners (Jordan and Pippen), and they might even depend on each other (Montana and Rice).
3) By my standard, the period of a hall of famer’s dominance can be shorter than that which most voters require. This is because my admission criteria are so stringent. Koufax and Sayers are both real-life hall of famers based on the extreme dominance of their few memorable years, but other players are admitted to (real-life) halls of fame based on lesser (though still exceptional) performance over a longer period. My hall of fame, however, only houses players on the level of Koufax and Sayers, so five or six years of dominance—or even fewer—are sufficient. I would strongly consider Bo Jackson because of his four great years (1987-90), and even discount the fact that those seasons were shortened by his baseball career (he never played more than eleven games in a season). When he was on the field, opponents were overwhelmed. His level of dominance, in the games he played, was perhaps equal to that of Sayers. His performance, for me, could very well outweigh his career’s brevity. I don’t have a prescribed minimum playing time.
4) A player is never penalized for the time period in which he played. Dominance, by my definition, can only be considered in context. This is rarely an issue in any hall of fame voting, but it needs to be articulated. A player cannot be judged by the standards of another era, which can vary from the current era both in style of play and in conditions of competition. Dominance by a quarterback obviously meant something different in 1965 than it does now because of the period’s style of offense. Likewise, playing in a live-ball or dead-ball era should not affect a baseball player’s evaluation. His opponents played in that same era, and what matters is whether he dominated them under those conditions.
It’s worth noting that the conditions of competition include developments in training techniques and sports medicine. No one would dispute Jim Brown’s place in the Hall of Fame, but there are those who argue that, were he to play today, he would be an average running back at best. This might be true, if his 1965 self were magically transported to 2012. Brown didn’t have the advantages that modern running backs have to develop his natural talent, so his strength and speed, in a vacuum, may not have been comparable to that of Brandon Jacobs or Chris Johnson. The fact, though, is that Brown was the most dominant player imaginable in his time. That is what is important.
In this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame voting, two local stars made the final round: Curtis Martin and Bill Parcells. Martin was a wonderful player, but, in my observation, he wasn’t dominant in the sense that I’ve described. He may very well deserve induction into the real-life Hall of Fame, but—great as he was, and as much as I liked him as a player (he’s one of my all-time favorite New York athletes)—he isn’t in my personal hall.
Parcells, though, is obviously in. I haven’t put much thought yet into what makes a hall-of-fame coach, but whatever the criteria are, they have to apply to Parcells. He turned four different franchises into winners through talent evaluation, system development and on-field management—and he did so quickly. In his first year coaching the Giants (1983), and they went 3-12-1; in 1984, they were a 9-7 wildcard team; in 1985, a 10-6 division champ; in 1986, the 14-2 Super Bowl winners. And on it went:
Patriots – 1993: 5-11; 1994: 10-6, wildcard; 1996: 11-5, AFC champs
Jets – 1997: 9-7*; 1998: 12-4, division title
Cowboys – 2003: 10-6, wild card**
Team-building, chemistry management, game-planning, and in-game leadership are the four responsibilities of a coach, and the four key elements of consistent success. Parcells mastered them, and did so in an era of free-agency and prescribed league parity. He will get into the Hall eventually, but I think he deserves for it to be this Saturday.
*in 1996 (the year before Parcells was hired), the Jets went 1-15
**in 2002 (the year before Parcells was hired), the Cowboys went 5-11
Possibly Related Posts:
- High Highs and Low Lows for New York Football
- Giants Starting to Look Like Jets
- New York Hit By Two Hurricanes: Sandy and the Pittsburgh Steelers
- Why are we still talking about Tim Tebow?
- Mensch of the Week – Former Jets Coach Eric Mangini