Monday, December 15, 2014


               Have some players made the Baseball Hall of Fame in part because they were nice guys? The short answer is yes.
               Exhibits A, B and C in this regard are Phil Rizzuto, Richie Ashburn and Ron Santo. All had very good baseball careers—excellent, in fact—but none boasted the sort of credentials that screamed “Cooperstown!” Each was on the annual sportswriters’ ballot for 15 years, but none was mentioned on more than half of those 600 or so worthies’ votes in any one year, far short of the 75% needed for induction. The best Rizzuto ever did was 38%, in 1976.
              But there’s a back door to the Hall called the Veterans’ Committee, a much-cozier group or groups (there are three of them now, covering different eras of the game’s past) that meet behind closed doors. One of them gave each a nod, more than 30 years after their playing days had ended.

               The stats of the three didn’t change in that span but other things did. Each stayed in baseball and had careers as broadcasters with their former teams, Rizzuto with the New York Yankees, Ashburn with the Philadelphia Phillies and Santos with the Chicago Cubs. Each made friends and influenced people among his peers and the fans. Each was a nice guy, something to which I can attest.  Their eventual elections were generally applauded even though they were the sort of “life achievement” awards that couldn’t be fully justified by what they did on the field. So does the world turn.

               But how about the other side of that coin: have players been denied Hall status because they weren’t nice? That question is tougher to answer because it would require some mind reading, but I feel safe in saying that it might not have taken Jim Rice, the old Boston Red Sox strongman, 15 years to gain entrance if he hadn’t routinely ducked the press after games. And some years ago, after I’d written a column extolling the Hall credentials of Keith Hernandez, the best-fielding first baseman I (and maybe anyone) had seen, I got a letter from a fellow writer saying he thought Hernandez didn‘t deserve a plaque because he was a jerk.

               This rather-lengthy preface brings us to the newest Hall of Fame ballot, which includes a number of outstanding first-time nominees. Easily the most-outstanding of these is Randy Johnson. With 303 career wins and 4,875 strikeouts, the latter figure the game’s second highest, the very tall (6-foot-10) lefty was the one of the two or three best pitchers of his era (1988-2009), someone whose sizzling stuff and intimidating mound presence caused proud batters’ knees to shake. Check out the You Tube video of him facing John Kruk in the 1993 All-Star Game. Kruk all but waves a white flag in that one.

               Johnson deserves further props because he was anything but a natural at baseball. Choreographing his lanky frame took a lot of effort so he didn’t make the majors to stay until age 26, and it would be three more years before he’d harness his control.  The fact he was a late starter makes his career accomplishments all the more remarkable. He should be a Hall shoo-in, maybe a unanimous pick.

               Chances are, though, that he’ll be left off of some ballots because he wasn’t a nice guy. The snarling mien he presented from the mound often reflected his off-field persona as well. He was disdainful of fans and the press (he once stiffed me for an interview I’d arranged in advance), and it was said that his teammates tiptoed around him when his familiar black cloud was in evidence. A widely circulated picture showed him stiff-arming photographers who dared disturb his walk on a New York street after his trade to the Yankees.

               But I’ll be voting for Johnson, not because I’m a nice guy but because he was a terrific pitcher who belongs in the Hall. That’s the best reason I can think of.

               I’ll be voting for two more ballot first-timers, John Smoltz and Pedro Martinez. The right-handed Smoltz had a singular career, becoming the only pitcher to record more than 200 wins (213) and 150 saves (154), and with a 15-4 post-season won-lost mark, and 2.67 earned run average, he was a big-game performer without peer. He’s more than deserving to be enshrined along with his Atlanta Braves rotation mates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.

               Martinez, also a righty, was small for a Major League pitcher (he listed at 5-feet-11 and 170 pounds), and was dogged by injuries during many of his 18 Big League seasons, but when he was on his candle burned brightly.  Three times he won American League Cy Young Awards (in 1997, ’99 and 2000), his career winning percentage of .687 (219-100) is sixth-best all-time and his 3,154 strikeouts rank 13th. His electric stuff made watching him pitch a treat.

               I’ll fill out my ballot with six players I’ve supported before—Craig Biggio, Edgar Martinez, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, Lee Smith and Alan Trammell—and one I didn’t—Mike Mussina. Again, I won’t include three ex-players—Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa—who made the eyes-wide-open choice of using banned drugs to enhance their skills and paychecks. They were good enough as it was and should have left things there.

               Biggio topped the 3,000-hit mark in 20 seasons with the Houston Astros. He fell just two votes short of election last year and should make it in this one. Edgar Martinez was a scientist with the bat who was the best designated hitter ever. Piazza was the best-hitting catcher of his era, Schilling topped the 3,000 career-strikeout mark and was at his best on the biggest stages. Smith ranks third in all-time saves, Trammell was a great shortstop for 20 years. Smith is in his 13th year on the ballot, Trammell in his 14th. Neither has come close to the 75% mention required for election, and I fear they never will, but I’m stickin’ with ‘em anyway.

               I didn’t vote for Mussina when he made his ballot debut last year but on reconsideration think his 270 career victories deserve a plaque, especially because the total is about as good as we’ll be seeing in this five-man-rotation era. Like Smith and Trammell, he’s probably a Veterans' Committee kind of player, but I say why wait. He might not want to be a broadcaster.



Monday, December 1, 2014


               There are many foolish, overhyped things in American sports, but few can match the annual Heisman Award in either regard.
              The Heisman supposedly goes to the year’s best college football player, but that’s pretty silly to begin with. College football these days is a 50-players-a-team game manning 11 positions on each side of the ball, with each position requiring quite-different abilities and duties. Multiply that by about 700—the number four-year institutions that field teams—and figuring out which individual performs best taxes credulity.

               The Heisman folks solve that problem by not addressing it.  They eliminate all but the 70 or so schools that perform in the five “power” conferences (the SEC, Big Ten, PAC-12, Big 12 and ACC), then cross out just about everyone who plays defense or is an offensive ”down” lineman. Aside from a small handful of tight ends or wide receivers and one defender (Michigan DB Charles Woodson in 1997), all of the 78 winners to date have been quarterbacks or running backs. The next selectee, I’m sure, also will be one of those.

               The provenance of the award is equally questionable. From its origin in 1935 it has carried the imprimatur of the Downtown Athletic Club, a private group of besuited jock sniffers based in Lower Manhattan, N.Y., but that outfit went bust a dozen years ago and it has bounced around since. Now it’s pretty much owned by ESPN, which stages its culminating, Oscar-style award ceremony in one mid-town venue or another. It’s always a long broadcast leading to a short conclusion (“and the winner is….”) whose result usually has been anticipated. It’s good to prepare for the evening (December 13 this year) by having a Netflix disc at the ready.

               The DAC’s first award carried its own name and considered only players from schools east of the Mississippi River. It went to halfback Jay Berwanger of the U. of Chicago, an institution that dropped big-time sports in 1939, thus keeping its skirts clean of the muck that has followed. The next year the prize went national and took the name of John Heisman, a leather-helmet-era football coach who ended his days as the club’s athletics director.

               Heisman may have been a fine fella, but his credentials as a sportsman are suspect. He made his rep by coaching some good Georgia Tech teams from 1904 through 1919, and was on the Engineers’ sideline on the October day in 1916 when they racked up football’s most-lopsided win at any level, a 220-0 trouncing of much-smaller Cumberland College.

              The story has it that Heisman had it in for Cumberland because he believed it had used ringers in defeating Georgia Tech in baseball the spring before. Cumberland had discontinued football before the 1916 season began but Tech threatened to sue if it didn’t fulfill its contract, so the Tennessee school reluctantly sent a 14-man squad. Tech ran 40 plays from scrimmage in that game, all runs, netting 978 yards and all of its 32 touchdowns that didn’t result from fumble runbacks. Cumberland registered minus-28 yards in 41 plays. Tech scored 42 of its points in the last quarter.

               Possession of the stiff-armed trophy is decided by an electorate of 929, including 870 sportswriters or broadcasters and 58 former winners. The final vote (yes, one) is determined by an ESPN poll. The writers and broadcasters are divided among six geographic regions, 145 for each. That must mean that in some sparsely populated areas just about every weekly newspaper sportswriter has a vote. Each elector can name three players with the top choice getting three points, the second two and the third one.  Some years, the last being in 2009 when Alabama RB Mark Ingram was selected, the winner gets fewer than 50% of the available points.

               Electors do not make their choices in a vacuum—far from it. The Heisman is more a contest of sports information directors than of football players, with the SID of every school that thinks it has a candidate pouring out publicity supporting his kid, beginning before the season’s start. I never had a vote but I used to get some of the stuff anyway. One school (can’t remember which) Fedexed me a sturdy, wood-handled fan consisting of the photographed face of the player it was hyping.  I kept it around to swat flies.

               It’s up to the fans to decide how well the process works, but it’s worth noting that some non-legendary players have been honored. A few include Colorado RB Rashaan Salaam (1994), Florida QB Danny Wuerffel (1996), Nebraska QB Eric Crouch (2001) and Oklahoma QB Jason White (2003). The year that last guy won his competition included Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Larry Fitzgerald.

               College football (and college sports in general) gets seamier by the year, and some of its shmutz has rubbed off on the Heisman. The 2005 award, to USC running back Reggie Bush, later was revoked when it was revealed he’d received more than $300,000 in cash and gifts from an agent while in school, including the rental cost of the limo he rode to receive his Heisman.

               Bush, however, seems like a pretty straight guy compared with the two most-recent winners. Johnny “Boys Just Wanna Have Fun” Manziel, the 2013-winning QB from Texas A & M, left school for the pros a year later in a cloud of rude tweets, empty beer bottles and allegations of autograph selling. Jameis Winston, the Florida State QB, won last year despite having been accused of rape by a fellow student whose charges were deep-sixed by the local and university police. Since then he’s added to his rap sheet by being caught shop lifting and helping terrorize his campus neighborhood in a pellet-gun war, although that’s no big deal at a school where footballers are issued “get out of jail free” cards.

               Last year’s Heisman reminded of a Second City sketch in which an actor playing a Chicago politician sang “If indicted I will run, if convicted I will serve.”  I wonder what kind of encore we can expect this year.