The Hall of Nearly Great

by ceeangi

The ebook that everyone’s been talking about, The Hall of Nearly Great, was released last Wednesday. Chances are, you’ve already purchased a copy, but if for some reason you got distracted, couldn’t find your credit card, hate happiness, or were waiting for your paycheck, I’d like to take the time to remind you that, “Good News! The ebook is still available!”

I’ve finished reading the whole book now,  and while you might find my opinion horribly biased since I’m one of the authors, I will assure you that it’s a fabulous book with some really great stories about baseball players that even my mom purchased. Essentially, if you don’t buy the book, you’re less cool than my mother, in which case I’ll tell everyone you like Barry Manilow albums, Murder, She Wrote re-runs, and mom jeans.

If you’d like to purchase the ebook, you can click here. Using this link will not only allow you to purchase the ebook (that can be read in any number of formats, including just .pdf on your computer), but it will also give me a little extra bourbon money… and to that I say, “Cheers, dear reader.”

In case you haven’t heard, The Hall of Nearly Great is, “is an ebook meant to celebrate the careers of those who are not celebrated. It’s not a book meant to reopen arguments about who does and does not deserve Hall of Fame enshrinement. Rather, it remembers those who, failing entrance into Cooperstown, may unfairly be lost to history. It’s for the players we grew up rooting for, the ones whose best years led to flags and memories that will fly together forever. Players like David Cone, Will Clark, Dwight Evans, Norm Cash, Kenny Lofton, Brad Radke, and many others.

This is not a numbers-driven project (although our contributors lean analytical in their views). Our plan isn’t to be overbearing with stats and spreadsheets to convince you that these players are worth remembering. What we aim to do, instead, is accomplish that same task through stories. Think of your favorite players growing up: they have their moments, games, seasons, quirks, personalities, and legends worth remembering and sharing. Now, combine the best of everyone’s forgotten favorites, and you’ve got a Hall of Nearly Great. Ask the people who have those memories and love for these players to write essays about them, and you have The Hall of Nearly Great ebook.”

My favorite part of this project is that each author took a very different approach to writing their chapters–some are personal, some are great narratives, and some have less to do with baseball and more to do with being a gentleman (you can thank Carson Cistulli for that one).

Here is an excerpt from my chapter on Kenny Lofton:

Kenny Lofton was an athlete, a baseball player, and a great basestealer, but most of all he was a puzzle piece. Jigsaw puzzles are arduous brain teasers, a task of fitting together numerous pieces, all oddly shaped and spe- cialized in their duty, and creating an image from the tessellations. No piece in a puzzle is an island; each is meaningless in its autonomous state, but when married together they reveal a picture.

While most do puzzles for leisure, running a baseball organization is an exercise in competitive puzzle-building. There are 30 teams, all trying to complete their puzzle in a limited amount of time. Given the universe of avail- able players from which to choose pieces, each of which possesses unique attributes, they must pick 40 that, when assembled, will reveal a picture of a winning baseball team.

These baseball puzzles are constructed using pitchers and catchers, infielders and outfielders. There are veteran pieces with wear on their corrugated edges, pieces borrowed from other puzzles that just might fit, and pristine pieces with crisp edges making their debut on the board. There are fast pieces, portly pieces, and ones that lack plate discipline. There are home run-hitting pieces, ones that steal bases, and some so frequently broken that they are doused in layers of super glue and left drying on the disabled list.

Completing a baseball puzzle is a more complex task than making the same attempt with a two-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, because the “shapes” in a baseball puzzle are shifting contours of skill and luck—in other words, timing. Finding 25 good players is unlikely, and collecting 25 lucky ones even more so, but a general manager might be able to acquire a sufficient number of each to reveal a familiar image: a locker room covered in plastic- sheeting while players celebrate triumphantly as geysers shoot from bottles of Dom Perignon, leaving every- thing covered in the sticky splendor of fermented grapes.

A player’s career can take many forms in the puzzle, often evolving over the course of a long career. The best players combine both skill and luck to make a difference in any lineup. For Lofton, his tenure as a puzzle piece had two distinct phases: first as an integral piece in the 1990s rebirth of Cleveland baseball, the second as a vet- eran journeyman who became less of a focal piece, but a nice player who could fill gaps in an organization’s puzzle on a short-term basis.

Lofton is considered one of the best leadoff hitters of his generation, but his career almost didn’t happen—he became a puzzle piece by accident. If you had asked a young Kenny Lofton what he wanted to be when he grew up, it’s likely he would have said a basketball player. He might also have said firefighter, astronaut, or doctor, but the point is he wouldn’t have said baseball player—until his junior year in college, he’d never played the game. Lofton spent his childhood hours listening to his sneakers squeak on the hardwood floors of East Chicago, Indiana, while he practiced fast breaks and three-pointers. His greatest assets were speed and the ability to anticipate the moves of his opponent. On any given night, Lofton could be seen swiping the ball from his op- ponent and rushing down the court for an easy layup.

Lofton’s basketball prowess led to a scholarship to the University of Arizona, where he was a backup point guard to Steve Kerr, who’d eventually spend several seasons in the NBA, and the Arizona Wildcats reached the Final Four of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament in his first year, and the Sweet Sixteen his second, with Lofton setting the season and career school record for steals in the process.

Lofton possessed the sort of speed that lent itself to being athletic. He could have just as easily been a running back or a sprinter. Given the proper training, a man of Lofton’s ability could have run marathons or raced against horses in a sideshow event—he was just that fast. Instead, Lofton saw parallels between stealing balls and stealing bases and decided to try out for the baseball team his junior year at Arizona. “Basketball up and down the court is 94 feet, and that’s what I was used to,” he said. “Baseball, on the base paths is 90 feet, so it was perfect. The distance of me sprinting up and down the court was so perfect for me in baseball.”

Despite Lofton’s obvious athletic abilities, it was no sure thing that he would develop the baseball skills that would keep him in majors for 17 seasons. Scouts were unsure that he’d be able to learn to hit and field at the major league level, coming to the sport so late. The Houston Astros drafted him in the 17th round of the 1988 draft, his late selection an indicator of what talent evaluators thought of his possibilities. Even Lofton himself seemed hesitant to predict success, saying, “I wasn’t really expecting anything, except I expected myself to work hard and it’d pay off for me.” Lofton split his time, playing minor-league baseball in the summer, basketball at Arizona in the fall, both while finishing a degree in radio and television broadcasting.

To read the rest of this chapter, and chapters by forty-two other authors, click here to purchase the ebook.