Perhaps no other sport can elicit the level of debate among fans and pundits alike as baseball can. I believe this has everything to do with the numbers that drive the sport. Like golf, in the end, the numbers are your most tangible results. And few players in the history of the game posted numbers as gaudy as Rickey Henderson.
Henderson, the second straight ex-Yankee to be inducted, may arguably be the most obvious first-ballot choice of this era. (Congratulations also to Joe Gordon, the Yankees¢ second baseman on the 1930s dynasty and one of the best offensive players at that position of all-time. His induction, even by the Veterans Committee, was long overdue.) The mainstream local media have treated him well, particularly with the retrospectives from former teammates Willie Randolph and Don Mattingly. And they will laud him again — maybe with similar profiles and features — at the end of July. His speech may be the most fun and accidentally eloquent we’ve ever seen. I put the over/under on 50 third-person references.
Henderson’s co-inductee, Jim Rice, spent 14 years climbing up the ballot and tipped the chads with 76 percent of the vote. I will go on the record here and on Alex Belth’s BB show later today to say Rice is undeserving of this honor. He’s in the Hall of Very Good, like many recent inductees — Gary Carter, the late Kirby Puckett, Tony Pérez, Orlando Cepeda, and by the VC, Bill Mazeroski — but not the Hall of Fame. I’ve participated in message board discussions analyzing the case for Rice, and I’ve concluded that this player’s inclusion in the Hall could polarize voters in the future.
Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus nailed it when he said the further removed a player gets from his career, the more his numbers need to be measured. Sheehan discussed mythology and outlined the increase in Rice’s share of the vote over the years, and the results lead me to believe that subjectivity is playing an increasingly more important role in the Hall selection. I’ve discussed the theory of objectivity in this space when discussion writing and reporting. Objectivity is an impossible thing to achieve, but we can come close. Rice’s vote takes objectivity, crumples it up and tosses it out the window. This was a great campaign that took place over the past year. To me, it demonstrates the sway of the New York and Boston chapters of the BBWAA, the two largest BBWAA membership areas in the country. (Rob Neyer’s column about the voting process and the issues facing the BBWAA is a must-read if you’re like me and take this issue to heart.)
I reviewed Rice’s career numbers against one of his lead comparables, Dave Parker. Granted, they played in different leagues, but their careers and “level of dominance” spanned the same time frame. According to the data, Parker had the better, more complete career. Parker played more seasons, scored more runs, had more hits, led the league in slugging twice, and defensively, won three Gold Gloves. If Rice, who was claimed to be the “most feared hitter” in the American League, was so feared, why didn’t pitchers walk him? Parker led his league in intentional walks twice. Plus, Parker achieved two things Rice never did: win a batting title (Parker won two), and win a World Series.
Taking nothing away from Rice’s career, he got in for his 1977-79 seasons, which were dominant. His 1978 MVP year ranks as one of the best offensive years of that decade by anyone, in any league. Rice had three 200-hit seasons and seven seasons where he hit .300 or better (but never more than three in a row).
I look at Rice the same way I look at Don Mattingly, who only received 11 percent of the vote this year. Mattingly was the 1A to Wade Boggs’s 1 for a four-year stretch from 1984-87. But a four-season stretch of greatness in a 14-year career is not enough to make you a Hall of Famer.
Other ex-Yankees who were on the ballot: Tommy John received 31.7 percent of the vote from the BBWAA. If he gets into the Hall of Fame, it’ll be by the Veterans Committee. We’ll get into this on the show, but I believe a special section of the Hall should be created for players who made worthy contributions to the game even though their resumes didn’t merit induction. John, who gave his name to the ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery that extended his career and so many of those after him, should be a HOFer. If he doesn’t make it alone, put him in with Dr. Frank Jobe.
Roger Maris is a similar case. His career, to me, is a hybrid of Puckett and Mattingly. He won two World Series and was a great offensive and defensive player. As a baseball fan, it seems fundamentally wrong to me that Maris, who held the home run record for a longer period than Ruth, whose record he broke, is not formally recognized in Cooperstown for that accomplishment, along with his two Gold Gloves and back-to-back MVPs in 1960 and ’61.
Lee Smith, who appeared in eight games for the Yankees in the 1993 season, was the fifth-leading vote getter behind Bert Blyleven, Andre Dawson, Rice and Henderson. As relievers garner more recognition, I believe he’ll get in before his 15 years of eligibility have expired.
Tim Raines received 22.6 percent of the vote, down from 24.3 last year. I believe he’ll be inducted in about five years. If Rickey Henderson was the most dominant leadoff hitter in the American League in his three-decade career, then Raines had a similar effect in the National League.
David Cone, the hired gun, former 20-game winner and hurler of a perfect game, earned only 3.9 percent of the vote and is ineligible to appear on next year’s ballot.
Counting it down until pitchers and catchers report. Until next week …