Friday, January 16, 2009

Rickey and Jim, yes; Mark McGwire -- it's not that easy

Glad to see that the nation's baseball writers went 2 for 2 with one intentional walk in this week's Hall of Fame voting. Rickey Henderson is a first ballot no-brainer. He is the greatest lead-off hitter ever -- no one else comes close, not even Lou Brock, a great player (and great man) in his own right. Brock could certainly hit and steal bases. He was also durable, playing 2616 games in his major league career, the equivalent of about 16 full seasons of the 19 years he played MLB. Brock also spent his entire career in the National League, and so never benefited from the DH rule (created in 1972, or 11 years after Brock made his MLB debut with the Chicago Cubs), as Paul Molitor, another great hitter (and HOFer), who spent his entire career in the American League, did. Although he never won a Gold Glove, Brock was an above average outfielder who could cover a lot of ground. From 1964-1970, when he and the peerless center fielder Curt Flood played together in St. Louis, the Cardinals had perhaps the two best everyday outfielders in MLB. Brock wreaked havoc on pitchers and catchers from the day he stepped on the field until almost the day he retired. By 1979, when he retired, Brock had redefined the lead-off position, creating the standard that Rickey Henderson would emulate and over his 25 year career (for the record, Rickey played in 3081 games, or just over 19 full seasons).

Rickey, though, surpasses everyone else. No one else could hit for power and average and then steal any base almost at will. Rickey took a great deal of heat for his crouched batting style, which critics argued neutralized his strike zone and allowed him to walk more than he should have. Guess what? Go back and look at Pete Rose's batting crouch. If you drew stick figures, it would be hard to tell the difference between the two. Now think about this for a minute: Rickey holds the record for most runs scored by anyone, most home runs by a hitter leading off an inning, most walks by a player leading off an inning, and, of course, his signature record, most stolen bases by anyone ever. Even if he didn't steal a base, he made pitchers crazy just by knowing that if wanted to he could. What else is there to say?

This. Rickey walked 796 times to lead off an inning? Who the hell walks Rickey Henderson to lead off an inning?

And this: By the time Rickey played bits and pieces of two seasons with the Boston Red Sox in 2002 and 2003, he had stolen more bases (1,395) than his new team (1,382) had over its 100 year existence. The Red Sox didn't surpass Rickey until 2004.

Okay, so Rickey was a pain-in-the-ass and almost single handedly invented the phrase, "sports diva." So what? The only question surrounding his HOF vote is trying to find the writers who made up the 5.4% of the voters who didn't vote him in on the first ballot. I'm guessing they also voted for Bush twice and McCain in 2008 because they thought, inexplicably, that Sarah Palin was hot. Hmmm . . . I had no idea that Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes had HOF voting credentials.

* * * * * * * * * *

Speaking of the Red Sox, Jim Rice, only one a handful of players from the post-Curt Flood era in MLB to spend his entire career with one team, finally made it into the HOF on his last try. This is one I've never understood. Rice was a great player and one of the most dominant hitters of his generation. Okay, maybe not a great all-around player -- he wasn't a particularly capable fielder; neither, though, was he incompetent -- but he could smack the living shit out of a baseball. And -- I'll get in trouble for saying this -- no other city outside the South has historically been as hostile to black athletes as Boston. Ask Bill Russell, Nate Archibald, Luis Tiant (before he went into his trance) and countless others. Red Auerbach, the great Celtics head coach, would tell you the same thing if he was still alive. Rice, in some ways, was not all that different than Ted Williams in his approach to the game and the fans. Rice, like Williams, never stepped-and-fetched for anyone, and that certainly did not endear him to the Boston fans, who like(d) their sports heroes white and personable (i.e., Orr, Havlicek, Cousy, etc.), not prickly and distant. How many people outside of serious life-long members of Red Sox Nation can tell you that Williams homered in his last major league at-bat before the Fenway faithful? How many of those same people are willing to acknowledge that Williams flipped them off as he rounded third base for the last time?

Admittedly, Rice is not Rickey Henderson, Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray or even Dave Winfield. Depending on how deeply you want to go into stat-geekdom, something that is admittedly not my forte, you can make an argument that Rice doesn't belong in the HOF. But, if you calculate his greatness based on the following question, "From 1975-1985, would you rather face Jim Rice or almost anyone else?" then Rice's candidacy picks up considerably more steam. Had he been white, played in another city, and had a more agreeable personality, Rice would have been voted in years ago. Not on the first-ballot -- that's for the best of the best. One anti-Rice Red Sox fan told me that Rice's penchant for grounding into double plays alone disqualified him. Okay, then . . . let's rid the HOF of Hank Aaron, Carl Yaztremski, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken and Dave Winfield, all of whom grounded into more double plays than Rice.

So, good for Jim Rice.

* * * * * * * * * *

And then there is the Mark McGwire dilemma. On his third year on the HOF ballot, Big Mac picked up just over 25% of the vote, or about 50% less than he needs to get elected. Sure, there is the sanctimonious argument of many writers (and fans) that McGwire cheated by taking steroids, and then hurt his case even more when he refused to admit to his wrongdoing during the 2005 congressional inquiry into steroid use in MLB. Funny, isn't it, how Congress seems much more concerned about the performance enhancing drugs that professional and amateur athletes use than holding public officials accountable for torture, deception, lying and outright perjury on matters of life and death (what about blow jobs, you ask? not to worry; Congress is on the case). Perhaps McGwire should have taken a lesson from George Bush and said that he just wanted to hit some home runs to bring fans back into all the new retro parks built at taxpayer expense, and if -- IF -- he got a few things wrong along the way, then that's simply the price that great players have to bear for being, well, great.

Unlike our soon-to-be-departed president, Mark McGwire is a smart, thoughtful, talented and charitable man. Rather than go into my arguments for and against inclusion in the HOF during the Steroid Era, read my previous posts about this issue here (on drugs in sports) and McGwire's case specifically here.

I just don't think the McGwire question is all that easy. I'll say this much, though -- if McGwire can't go, neither can Barry Bonds. On the merits -- drugs aside -- they're both shoo-ins , yes, even the so-called "one-dimensional" McGwire (who, was, by the way, an excellent first baseman before he started DHing). Introduce the steroids as a factor and, in Bond's case, a possible criminal conviction, and they're both out.

Think this is tough? Wait until Roger Clemens's name appears on the ballot in five years. Two years ago, the only question surrounding Clemens was what hat he would appear upon his induction -- Red Sox, Yankees, Astros or Blue Jays. No longer. How strange will it be for the sport's most dominating pitcher of the last 25 years (perhaps ever) and dominating player of the past 25 years (perhaps ever) to sit in their self-imposed purgatory while watching lesser players get elected. If Clemens and Bonds are done, then both of them will appear with Greg Maddux in 2014. Based on the "McGwire Rule, only one can go -- Maddux, who is my favorite pitcher ever other the Sandy Koufax.

Perhaps while they're thinking about McGwire's fate, the HOF baseball writers can investigate all the players from baseball's glory years from the late 1950s through the early 1970s for alcohol and amphetamine abuse, the latter clearly a performing enhancing measure, who are currently sitting in the HOF. With pitchers and catchers set to report in just over a month, we may as well clean house as long as we're in a cleaning mood.


Will said...

Great comments on this, Professor Ivers. Though I frequently visit your blog without posting, I seldom see good musings about baseball anywhere so I thought this merited a comment. I am curious as to what you think about how the players in baseball's "steroid era", such as Bonds and Big Mac, should be evaluated. Also too, more broadly, I noticed you called Mark McGwire a "charitable man." How do you think qualities that do not necessarily impact a baseball players success should be evaluated in their HOF candidacy? This is something I've personally wrestled with, being aware not only of the way young kids idolize baseball players (my room is still has plenty of pictures of Derek Jeter) and the corresponding responsibility, but also the reality that many of the most storied players don't have much to be proud of in either their conduct on the field (Ty Cobb), or the personal choices they made that potentially limited their playing careers (Mickey Mantle).

Jeremy said...

You swung and missed on Rice's double plays. All of the players you listed grounded into similar numbers of double plays, but Rice played for 15 years, while Winfield played for 17, Murray for 19, Ripken for 20 (which was more like 25 for most players), and Aaron for over 20.

In my opinion, Rice would barely make it, but if he barely makes it, doesn't that mean Dave Kingman barely misses? I don't want to live in a world in which Dave Kingman is a borderline Hall of Famer.

Gregg Ivers said...

Rice and Kingman aren't the same player and shouldn't even be mentioned in the same breath. Longevity does have its advantages -- you can set more great records, assuming you have the skill to set them. And it has disadvantages -- just ask Nolan Ryan. For years, the argument on his candidacy centered on winning percentages (barely .500), gave up a ton of walks, never won a Cy Young, and so on. So you're right about Aaron and Winfield. Murray and Ripken, both of whom I absolutely loved as players, hit into far more double plays than "great" players should, particularly Ripken. Perfection isn't a criteria for the HOF.

And don't forget Sandy Koufax. He only had 5 1/2 great seasons; before that, he was his generation's version of Randy Johnson (or Nuke Laloosh). Should a player be eligible for admission to the HOF based on half a career?

Greatness is not determined by a strict quantitative measure. That's what makes talking about greatness so much fun.

Gregg Ivers said...

Jeremy -- Your "Suburban People" blog is hilarious, a great knock-off on the Stuff White People Like site. I have a friend that can tell you great stories about SAT tutoring.