Monday, December 15, 2008

FAME

Few duties remain from my days as a working sports writer, but one of them I especially cherish. It showed up again in my mailbox the other day in the form of my annual ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

I get to vote because of my 10-plus active years in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, the estimable organization that oversees the election of players who recently have retired from the game. Even though I’m retired I’m still a “lifetime honorary” member with hall-elector status, one of about 575 people so designated.

When I was working I was pestered constantly to vote on all sorts of jock awards. I pitched most such pleas on the ground that those guys already were too-much fussed over. I place the Hall ballot in an entirely different category. Baseball is the sport whose roots go deepest into America’s soil, and the game’s depository of relics in charming Cooperstown, N.Y., uniquely conjures up its glories. It’s said that you visit the Hall to discover baseball’s past and wind up discovering your own. I’ve been there as boy and man and can vouch for the truth of that.

The most interesting thing about the Hall’s election process is how few statutory requirements govern it. To be eligible for the ballot someone must have played at least 10 Major League seasons, be retired five years and be nominated by at least two members of a six-member BWAA screening committee. Period. That means every voter must define greatness in his own way. It’s a challenging task. Kind of daunting, too.

In practice, some statistical accomplishments virtually assure a player’s election, such as 300 career wins for a pitcher or 3,000 hits for a position player, but times change and so do such standards. For instance, 500 home runs used to be a sure ticket to Cooperstown, but the game’s steroids era (roughly 1990 to 2005) ended that. The Bluto-like Mark McGwire showed up on the ballot last year with 583 homers to his credit but was mentioned by just 23% of the voters (and not by me), far short of the 75% required for election. His chemical odor makes him a long shot ever to get in. The same fate may await another accomplished juicer, Rafael Palmeiro (3,020 hits, 569 home runs), when his Hall eligibility begins in 2010. Pending future developments, Barry Bonds may have a tough time, too.

Ten new names are on this year’s ballot: Jay Bell, David Cone, Ron Gant, Mark Grace, Rickey Henderson, Jesse Orosco, Dan Plesac, Greg Vaughn, Mo Vaughn and Matt Williams. Henderson, the all-time stolen bases leader and smacker of 3,055 career hits, should be a first-ballot shoo in. I look forward to his installation speech and hope that in it he’ll refer to himself in the third person, as he often did in interviews. Of the rest, Cone, Grace and Mo Vaughn have the best chance of getting the 5% mentions needed to remain on the ballot for another year. The rest, I’m afraid, are history in another sense.

Electors can put from none to 10 names on their ballots, from the total list of 23. Besides Henderson, I’ll be naming Jack Morris, Andre Dawson, Alan Trammell and Bert Blyleven.

I’ve enthusiastically voted for Morris since he became eligible 10 years ago and can’t understand why many other of my colleagues haven’t (he got just 43% mention last year). Besides a win-heavy 254-186 career record he was one of the best big-game pitchers I’ve seen, the biggest being his 10-inning, 1-0 win for Minnesota over Atlanta in the seventh game of the epic, 1991 World Series.

Dawson was a powerful batsman (he’s 23rd in all-time extra-base hits, 25th in total bases, 30th in RBIs), a heck of an outfielder and had a great nickname (“The Hawk”). I’m partial to shortstops, who generally are the best athletes on a baseball field, and Trammell was one of the best of the best during his 20 seasons in Detroit. He was World Series MVP for the 1984 Tigers, one of the game’s greatest teams.

I’ve wrestled with myself over Blyleven’s qualifications, sometimes including him, sometimes not. He was a good pitcher for a long time (22 seasons), and won 287 games, but never quite reached the sport’s pinnacle. However, I’ve finally concluded that his fifth-place in all-time strikeouts (with 3,701) is an achievement worth honoring.

Among those I’m leaving off is Jim Rice. In his 15th and final year on the writers’ ballot ( a veteran-players’ committee considers candidates 20-plus years out), he fell just short of election last year at 72.2%, and might have been in before if he hadn’t made a habit of stiffing writers after games (yes, some count that), but by me he doesn’t quite measure up overall. Ditto for such other present-ballot notables as McGwire, Lee Smith, Dave Parker, Tommy John, Harold Baines, Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly and Tim Raines.

Think I’m wrong? Let me know. I have a couple more weeks to change my mind.

Or not.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Fred
I am asking you to take another look at jim rice. I know that you have probably seen the stats. He led his league in alost every offensive category from 75-86 h,hr,rbi,slg,total bases and also led in assist. In his 1978 season he had 406 total bases first with 400 since Dimaggio in 1937 and no AL player has done it since. Not even in the steroid era. He top 5 in mvp voting SIX times only 10 others have done that and are eligible and all the others are in.

The Rice vote is the only vote that will make a difference in this election. Henderson is a lock and he should be. Blyleven is gaining support but has no chance to make the big leap in percentage this year. He should be in though and he will in a year or two more. This is it for Rice he has waited the 5 years to get on the ballot and 15 years on it. And has been at the center of debate for to long. He has waited long enough. He will make it or not by a vote or two this year.It will be a shame if a few writers that hold a grudge for his attitude twords them when he was in his 20'S he is now almost 60 and is now a part of the media on tv in boston.He has always handeled coming close with class he is a proud man and should not come so close to be Shut out Check his name on your ballot. It will feel good . No one should have to go through the controversy and have people who were not even alive to see him play belittle his career like many have done. he was great.Your vote could be the one that gets him in or denies him.
Thanks

Seth Kaplan said...

I am going to agree with the other poster re: Jim Rice. I know that there are a lot of political reasons why players are voted on or off ballots (see Tim Tebow being left off 150+ ballots in the Southwest region this year to allow a victory for Bradford), but this Rice thing has gone too far.

Simply put, the guy dominated the league for the better part of a decade. And this was not domination like Mark Grace "dominated" the 90's with the most singles to the opposite field that did not help his team. This was domination backed up by real numbers. Top 5 in MVP voting 6 times is a Hall of Fame worthy stat, as is his reputation as one of the most feared RH hitters of his generation.

The detractors say he grounded into too many double plays, he was a lesser hitter on the road, and then fall back on the old argument "if you have to ask if he's a Hall of Famer, then he is probably not."

Well I for one think that's inane. The Hall of Fame has objectivity and subjectivity, of course, but to say that anyone whose induction one questions should be left out would leave this as a pantheon, not a Hall of Fame. Imagine walking through the halls of the museum in Cooperstown where the plaques hang and seeing the locks like Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, Mays, Mantle, Schmidt and Seaver and players like Ripken (a career .273 hitter), Gwynn (134 HRs), and Carew (won no gold gloves and had one year where he hit zero homeruns!) missing. Absurd.

The Hall is about players who dominated their eras, because that's all you can do as a player. Jim Rice did that.

As a kid in Chicago - in the backyard playing wiffleball circa 1978 - I have memories of assuming that upright stance and standing still as a statue, chomping on my Big League Chew, and daring my friend the pitcher to come anywhere close to the plate so I could spin his cap, Jim Rice Style. Sure, Dave Kingman got the same treatment, but that's not the point. I never fancied Dave Kingman as a dominator. Now Rice, that was a different story.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insight into the Hall of Fame election process. I've always been curios but never had the occasion to seek the info. But your thinking process from the voters standpoint brought it all together. Sam Spade

Seth Kaplan said...

And Rice gets in...Fred, did you change your vote?

Looks like Dawson and Blyleven for next year...newcomers Alomar and Larkin are not first ballot guys.