Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cooperstown. Way to go, Rickey!

When I was a kid, my favourite baseball players were always the ones who stole a lot of bases. When I played baseball (and every other sport, for that matter) I was always one of, if not the, slowest players on the field. So I always admired the crazy-fast people and their baserunning ability. And so Rickey Henderson was my obvious choice as my favourite player. Not only was he the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, he was also perhaps the greatest all-around player ever, up there with Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. And, of course, he several records for stolen bases and runs that may never be broken. Here's a guy who could have hit 30 homers a season had he decided to hit for power, and batted .330 consistently had he decided to hit for average. But instead he did it all.

I think the best Rickey Henderson moment I remember was when he was playing a game against the Orioles, and some guy, Dave Henderson or something, hit a pop-up to shortstop. Cal Ripken was no slouch in the field, of course, and he backpedals to grab it. At the same time, Rickey was on third base. And he was tagging up. Here's Ripken, backing into the shallow outfield, or more like the deep infield, and Henderson thinks he can score. And of course, he did. Ripken rushed the throw, and Rickey scored fairly easily. He was certainly the best base runner of all time as well. (He was also a bit of a dick - remember that uprooting the base thing? Dick. But what a player!)

Then there's Jim Rice, who made it in as well. And that seems to have caused more controversy. Of course, at this time every year, there is controversy, and I have talked about this before, because I love the history of baseball, and poring over minutiae such as who belongs in the hall of fame and who doesn't. There are certain plateaus that players can reach that basically automatically guarantee them induction, and that is a good thing, I think. Like a pitcher who hits 300 wins. He's in. A player who has 3,000 hits. Guaranteed. Everything else is up for debate. And I don't mean Pete Rose debate, or Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire debate.

No, I mean Bert Blyleven debate. Here's the thing. I like Blyleven. I liked him when he played. I thought he was cool, and his stats were always pretty good. But that's it. His stats were never eye-popping. They were never incredible, he never had even one staggeringly great season, or even a particularly standout year. He rarely led the league in any category (he probably would have led in strikeouts, a few times, had he not been playing at the same time as Nolan Ryan). So what, really, are his qualifications? I saw clips of him complaining on a radio program about how it bothers him every year, and it hurts him when he doesn't get in, and I think - why? What makes you think you ever would? Well, here's why - 287 wins. He was oh-so-close to that 300 mark, and had he played two or three more seasons to get there, he would be in. They would have been crappy seasons, and he wouldn't have played well, but he could have picked up four or five wins each year to squeak in. And I'm glad he didn't.

Because 300 wins and 3,000 hits is a celebration of longevity as well as talent. And if you can be a very good ballplayer, year after year, for twenty years, you can hit these marks. You don't ever have to be a great player, as long as you are a very good one every year. Pitchers who have had some of the greatest years ever - Doc Gooden, for example - would never have had a chance to get to 300, because they had flashy seasons but no staying power. And they are not in the Hall of Fame. And I'm sorry Bert Blyleven, unless you've hit these marks, you don't get in automatically. You must combine longevity, to some degree, with something spectacular (which is why I think Jack Morris has a much better case).

But the biggest problem is the 1960s and 1970s. When old guys in baseball started voting in all their old buddies, seemingly without caring at all for their qualifications. By the standards set by some of those inductees, Blyleven absolutely does belong in the Hall. And perhaps that's how he's looking at it. But here's the problem. By the standard set by Cooperstown members such as Lou Boudreau and Ray Schalk, then Kelly Gruber belongs in the hall of fame. Bob Welch belongs in the hall of fame. John Olerud, Mike Greenwell, Dan Pasqua. Kevin McReynolds. You see what I mean? Let's make Cooperstown what it once was - the hardest club to get into in sports. Rickey Henderson is deserving either way. I'm still not too sure about Jim Rice. But then, I'm not a baseball writer. (If I was, I'd be more concise. Or less. I'm not sure.)


  1. Don't forget that this was Rice's last year of eligibility. He had 15 years of eligibility. Fact was, Jim never talked to reporters. He went out of his way to avoid them like they carried the plague.

    I agree with you about some players not belonging in the HoF ( he even on the ballot?).

    Gary Carter was voted in and I think he fits the Bert Blyleven profile you created. Never led the league in anything, but his position was catcher, so I think that gave him a lesser burden than the rest of the baseball players that might otherwise be worthy (like Jim Rice was). Then again, it's the baseball writers who vote and Gary Carter loved the media.

    I recall after Gary was traded to the Mets for Youmans, Winningham, Brooks and Fitzgerald, that a newly-former teammate tacked to the wall of the dressing room a transcript of an interview Gary had with some newspaper or magazine. All the words "I" and "me" and "myself" were highlighted. Seems Gary was a star in his own eyes.

    I loved my Expos, and I was upset when they traded away the Kid. I got over it. But then when Gary was elected to the Hall, the Expos had died and he was adamant that he didn't want to be included as an Expo (the one and only). The Hall decided that he would go in as an Expo, and now Gary can lay claim to be the only on in the HoF for a team that no longer exists.

    God Bless Les Expos. I miss the trips to the Bog Owe.

  2. No, Gruber isn't on the ballot. An exaggeration to make a point. The main problem I have is that based on the people who HAVE been elected to the HOF, Rice was certainly very qualified, and it's sad he had to wait this long to actually get in. I would agree with Carter to some degree - except I think that catchers get a little extra boost because of their position. Although Carter never had a great season, or won an MVP or a World Series, I think being a catcher actually helps him. How many truly great catchers have their been? In Carter's era, there were only two who were even good - him and Fisk. And no one else. (I consider Johnny Bench to be earlier than Carter's era.)

    I miss the Big O as well. And the Expos. They were my team as a kid, and I just barely managed to be old enough to get out there when I was older and watch a few of their final games in their last couple of seasons - I got to see Pedro Martinez throw a one-hitter against the Tigers, which was awesome. Hey, I wonder if he'd consider going in as the second Expo when his time comes up?

    I'm with you sir. (Or ma'am.) God Bless Les Expos.