Writer Corky Simpson (really?) recently wrote in his column about his selections for the 2009 Class of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the most prestigious honor that can be bestowed upon an individual in baseball and perhaps in all of American Sports. Now he made some ridiculous picks (which I'll cover) but the most absurd was the pick he didn't make: Simpson completely omitted The Great Rickey.
Rickey Henderson is a Hall of Famer.
That is perhaps the understatement of the century. As revolutionary statistician Bill James once put it "If you split [Henderson] in two, you'd have two Hall of Famers." Henderson was a 10-time all-star, the 1989 ALCS MVP (stealing 8 bases in the series, still the record for most SBs in a post season series), the 1990 MVP, a Gold Glover winner in 1981, a 3-time Silver Slugger award winner, and a generally cool cat ("But today, I'm the greatest of all time"). Statistically, Rickey was also the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time. Don't believe me? Henderson has a career OBP of .401. He's first in career runs scored. He has 3055 career hits. He's second all-time in walks. According to baseball-reference.com. he's 10th all-time in runs created. Oh and he's got those stolen bases (His 1406 steals are a full 468 more than Lou Brock, the number 2 all-time, that's over 50% more). Henderson led off a game with a homerun 81 times, a staggering number. Perhaps just as staggering was that he led off an inning with a walk an astronomical 796 times. Some guys don't walk that much in their entire careers, let alone to lead off an inning. As Joe Posnanski put it, "He walked more times just leading off in an inning than Lou Brock, Roberto Clemente, Luis Aparicio, Ernie Banks, Kirby Puckett, Ryne Sandberg, and more than 50 other Hall of Famers walked in their entire careers." If one thinks about the ramifications of having any man lead off an inning with a walk, and then considers that Henderson was also the all-time stolen bases leader, that statistic shows how great an influence Rickey had.
The great sportswriter Tom Verducci put it best when he wrote "Baseball is designed to be an egalitarian sort of game in which one player among the 18 is not supposed to dominate... Yet in the past quarter century Henderson and Barry Bonds have come closest to dominating a baseball game the way Michael Jordan could a basketball game."
Now I don't know if Corky Simpson is one of those idiots who believes that nobody should be a unanimous selection (a load of crap, if you ask me, which by coming to this website and reading this you have), or he's just an idiot period.
Well actually, we do know that he's an idiot. Here are some other highlights from his piece.
- He wants Tim Raines in the Hall of Fame. Now I agree with putting Rock in. But Rock Raines is what Bill James was referring to: half of Rickey. And to think, I was nearly involved in the death-by-yellow-VW-Beetle of Rock at a minor league baseball game...
- He wants Tommy John inducted. Now from a statistical standpoint, one could make an argument for Mr. John, perhaps not a very strong one, but a moderately valid one. But Simpson's reasoning for his inclusion mentions Tommy John surgery. While this is certainly an achievement, using it as a criteria for Hall of Fame admission is like saying that Lou Gehrig belongs because he had Lou Gehrig's Disease. Really, if Gehrig belongs in for something extraneous like that, it's that his nickname (other than the Iron Horse) was Biscuit Pants.
- He wants Matt Williams inducted. Here is his reasoning: "Matt Williams, my first Hall of Fame vote for an Arizona Diamondback player. Matty played 17 seasons for the Giants, Indians and Diamondbacks. Nobody ever played the game with more intensity, nor with more reverence for the sport. He was the inspirational leader of the 2001 World Series champion D’backs." Now that does sound like a nice player...but a Hall of Famer? Anything to say about his actual performance on the field, Corky? Saying he played for a long time with intensity and reverence for the sport and being the inspirational leader for a team would be like saying Mark "Mad Dog" Madsen belongs in the basketball Hall of Fame. What Corky just described could be nothing more than a glorified cheerleader who over-stayed his welcome. Now in actuality, Williams was a very solid player who had a career that could be envied by most (including one of the all-time "what-ifs" for his homerun total during the 1994 season). But is he a Hall of Famer? No. If Albert Belle isn't a Hall of Famer, Matt Williams certainly isn't.
This brings me to a larger point about the sanctimonious nature of the sports fan, specifically the baseball fan. Baseball is a game steeped in tradition. Few sports, or any American institution for that matter, are so ingrained in our culture and history. Football may be more popular, but what kind of hats do the players wear on the sidelines? Baseball hats. No sport has as rich a tradition as baseball does, well over 100 years of professionalism strong. But too many are lost in tradition. I, like many, think its important to honor the past, but not at the expense of the present or the future. People remember the good old days in baseball and talk about how players only do it for the money now. Please. The good old days? What when black players were scared for their lives because they were black? When players had to have a second job in the offseason to pay their bills? Guys played for the money back then too...if you're good at a game and someone will pay you for it, why wouldn't you do that? If the players of yore really played for the love of the game, they'd do it for free. When Sandy Koufax (who old school guys love) and Don Drysdale threatened to sit out the 1966 season, they weren't doing because they loved the game...they wanted to get paid. And what about the right way? Does that mean scrappy? Ty Cobb was scrappy. But he also was a huge prick who would spike the opposition any chance he got and once fought an armless man who was heckling him. Does that mean they put their head down and just play and forego the flashiness? Rafael Palmeiro was considered the consummate professional; nice guy, worked hard, no glitz, and now he's vilified for taking performance enhancers. The thing is not that the game or the players have changed, it's that the fan has changed. The fan has changed what they're bitching about. But really, all we are doing is holding these men to absurd standards. If you could get paid to do something you're really good at that you've always considered leisure, wouldn't you? If you could take a pill that would make you better at your job with little chance of consequence, wouldn't you?
My long, rambling, convoluted point is that folks like Corky Simpson need to get off their high horse. They need to simply look at objective barometers for success and worry about upholding the tradition of excellence that sports' most hallowed club holds: on-field achievement. Rickey Henderson should be in the Hall of Fame. Mark McGwire should be in the Hall of Fame. Matt Williams shouldn't be (although I wouldn't worry about that happening).