Baseball waved goodbye for the winter (and maybe well into spring) when Rob Manfred pushed the lockout button at 12:01 a.m. last Thursday, effectively wiping out all the fun parts that help sustain the most loyal fans through a long, cold offseason.
So our last images of 2021 were the depressing, dueling news conferences staged by the commissioner and his Players Association nemesis, union chief Tony Clark. They each told us how the other side was wrong, lying or a combination of both. It was sad a sendoff for baseball. Happy holidays, indeed.
And then, while stumbling around in this post-lockout haze, the suffering sport got a gift. On Sunday evening, two special committees deputized by the Hall of Fame approved a whopping six players for Cooperstown enshrinement next July -- including one of New York’s favorite sons, Gil Hodges, who finally made it with his 35th turn on the ballot.
If there were an antidote for the cynicism hovering around baseball these days, the Hall of Fame delivered a temporary booster. The Class of ’22 is a collection of feel-good candidates that goes beyond the foul lines: Hodges, Buck O’Neil, Jim Kaat, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Bud Fowler. With so much time and effort devoted to pure data-crunching during the 21st century, this was a group that not only had passing grades performance-wise, but included pioneers and upstanding ambassadors for the game.
Amid the echoes of Manfred and Clark’s saber-rattling, we got to watch Sunday night’s celebration at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, where there was an election-night vibe for O’Neil and Fowler. On Monday, during a Zoom call, we were treated to the Hodges family -- Gil passed away in 1972 from a heart attack at age 47 -- and two of his former ’69 teammates overjoyed by the long overdue honor.
"The Hall of Fame is better with Gil Hodges in," Ed Kranepool said.
Kranepool, who took over first base from Hodges on the Mets before he later became manager in Flushing, referred as much to Hodges as a "gentleman," a "class act" and a "great human being" as he did listing his worthy on-field accomplishments. That’s pretty much the theme of any conversation involving Hodges or his fellow ’22 classmates.
"I’m near tears," tweeted documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who has produced numerous love letters to the sport. "Buck O'Neil is one of the greatest people I have met on this planet. I’m just so happy and pleased and know that somewhere Buck is already in an even bigger Hall of Fame."
Quite a different tone than what we’ve been accustomed to this time of year with the Cooperstown voting process. With the BBWAA currently pondering its ballots, the standard December debate typically focuses on which PED-tainted star (or alleged steroid abuser) deserves a plaque in the Hall. Or not. And if you spend any time on Twitter, these are not civil discourses.
On top of that, with many BBWAA members going full transparency with their ballots, the voting process itself tends to grab a sizable chunk of attention from the inductees, at least until they take the stage in Cooperstown. But with these special committees - which are comprised of 16 voters from a crosssection of Hall of Famers, executives and media members -- all we know is the final result, not what the individual ballots looked like.
Hodges, after more than a half-decade of near-misses, still barely made the cut, getting the requisite 12 of 16. That’s how close this was from being just another disappointment thrown on the pile. But baseball got lucky this time. With all the negative momentum building up since Manfred’s unilateral labor shutdown, the sport had a few hours to celebrate players from long ago eras when the game was everything -- and these six were among the best of what that game had to offer.
"So many people revered Gil," Art Shamsky said. "And know about his memory and how important he was to the [Mets] franchise, and to Brooklyn and the city of New York."
If baseball ever needed an escape, to travel back in a time machine for a nostalgic gaze at these treasured players, this was it. Unfortunately, that fuzzy feeling already is slipping away. We’re stuck in a reality where a labor war has frozen the sport indefinitely with two entrenched sides that are in no hurry to make a deal. All baseball has right now is the past, and Sunday’s Class of ’22 at least gave us a brief reprieve from sweating about the future.