JIM THIELMAN: Hall Of Fame Honor? Thanks, But No Thanks

Joe Mauer didn’t reject his induction to the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame this summer, and if he gets enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame next year, he won’t turn that down, either.

I’m not saying he should. It’s just that no one turns down an award.

Who are you to deny your admirers if you’re to be immortalized as Employee of the Year on that majestic granite wall at Sligley Furniture Inc., in Gypsum, Illinois?

David Freese, who grew up in St. Louis and is a bigger deal to Cardinals’ fans than Joe Mauer is to Twins’ fans, last month declined his invitation to the club’s hall of fame.

He said, after agonizing, that he didn’t feel his career in St. Louis measured up to the 50 Cardinals in the club’s hall of fame, which includes Stan Musial, Bob Gibson and Ozzie Smith.

The thing is, in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, Freese was to Cardinals’ fans what Kirby Puckett was to Minnesota fans.  And more.

Statistics matter in baseball, so let’s get them out of the way before talking a bit about how the small fraternity of great players view each other’s worth.

The Texas Rangers needed one out to win Game 6 of the 2011 World Series and pop champagne, on the Cardinals’ field, no less. What followed was the second of two acute instances in which Freese gained immortality in St. Louis.

He had tied Game 6 with a two-out, two-run triple in the ninth, then won it with a two-out walk-off home run in the 11th inning.

The Cards won Game 7 the next day and had their 11th — and most recent — World Championship.

In 18 post-season games, Freese had hit five home runs, driven in a post-season record 21, batted .545 to win the National League Championship MVP and .345 to win the World Series MVP.

That put him up there with four others, including former Twins Puckett and David Ortiz, as the only players to hit extra-inning, walk-off home runs to halt instant postseason elimination.

This serendipity capped a potholed season.

Freese had missed two months with a broken hand and a few games after he collapsed face first when a fastball found his helmet.

Cardinal fans embraced Freese in his five seasons in St. Louis — enough to qualify for the club’s hall of fame — after he arrived in the big leagues at age 26.

Still, in fewer than 500 games he hit .286, with just 44 home runs.

Cardinals fans view Freese, a lean 6-foot-2, as an affable sort who seems more comfortable with himself at 40 than he was at 20. He explained in a statement that he was not turning his back on Cardinal fans or the organization.

He intends to remain a key Cardinals’ alum, making appearances at events and playing in the multiple Cardinal fantasy camps held annually.

He was in Cooperstown, N.Y., last September for a fantasy camp that included Ozzie Smith, Larry Walker and Ted Simmons. That trio is in what players call “The Room.”

That’s the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Plaque Gallery, where oak walls display bronze homages to 270 former big league players — 1 percent of all those who played the game.

Far more players are in the Hall’s museum. Artifacts of Freese’s remarkable postseason are there, but he’ll never be in The Room.

Those in The Room know that a bad break or an injury could have kept them out, and they know what it means to rise above the moment. The special glow of doing so is deep in Freese.

”Fifty-thousand people screaming when it matters is better than 13,000 after a rain delay,” he told some in Cooperstown.

Here in Twins Territory, where we share a border with Manitoba, it’s a long way from Cardinal Nation and David Freese.

One observer of the St. Louis romance with baseball observed, “the general thought is, ‘It’s too bad that he feels that way, but we respect him.’ There doesn’t seem to be animus on the part of either party.”

I consulted other students of the game on Freese’s uncustomary display of self-awareness.

One, in his 60s, termed it “honorable.”

Another, 40 years younger, said, ”My take is he 100 percent deserves to be in the Cardinals Hall of Fame. Without him they don’t win that World Series. I’d be perfectly fine with him going in. Especially being it was a fan initiative.”

There was more agreement on this than I expected.

“I get the feeling behind his decision,” another said, “but in my book, a guy could be in a team hall of fame based on a short time with them. I could see the Twins putting Jack Morris in based on 1991, especially Game 7 of the World Series.”

You can’t get more “Missouri” than Mark Twain. He might not have said ’em all, but he sure has his name behind a lot of pithy remarks.

If Twain were alive today, his telegram to Freese would read, “It is better to deserve honors and not have them, than to have them and not deserve them.”

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