Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Right As Rickey

Twenty-eight members of the BBWAA did not vote for Rickey Henderson in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame.

Cosmically, this is irrelevant. Rickey (one of the few players afforded the singular honor of needing only his first name for identification) breezed into the Hall with 94.5% of the vote, one of the highest totals ever. Only 75% is required for induction, so some months hence, on a sunny day in the small town of Cooperstown, Rickey will make a heavily-anticipated* speech and take his place amongst baseball’s immortals. It’s no skin off his back.

*Rickey is what is commonly referred to as a “character”. He has a habit of referring to himself in the third person, and although this may be exaggerated, it’s become a defining part of his image. Before games, Rickey would stand in front of a full-length mirror, completely naked, and shout “Rickey’s the best! Rickey’s the best!” over and over again. He framed the first million-dollar check he ever received, without cashing it. Late in his career, searching for a team that would give him another shot, Rickey called up Padres GM Kevin Towers and left this message: “This is Rickey, calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play ball”.

Where it matters intellectually is as such: Rickey Henderson is, conservatively, one of the top 25 players in baseball history. He is so far above the standard of the Hall of Fame that it’s almost silly; you would do better to create a separate wing for players of Rickey’s caliber than to vote against him. To wit: Rickey has stolen 1406 bases in his career. The second-highest guy has 938. He’s first in runs scored, first in unintentional walks, won and excelled in two World Series, won an MVP award, broke a million and one smaller records, and (I’m convinced of this, and it may warrant a separate post), turned otherwise-unremarkable sluggers into mini-superstars. Rickey went beyond Great—he was Exceptional and Unique.

Twenty-eight writers looked at that sterling resume, scratched their heads, and thought “Naaaah—just don’t see it”

And that’s a problem.

Sure, it’s not a problem on the level of War or Famine or even Fall Out Boy, but it’s still a problem. So let’s look at the ballots.

According to several online sources, at least two writers did not submit any names on their ballots. This is due to a policy of not voting for any players who played during the so-called “Steroid Era”, roughly the mid-90s to mid-00s. So those guys probably thought Rickey was good enough to merit induction, but were making a political statement about baseball in general (Rickey is considered to be above steroid suspicion, as he never blew up like a balloon or developed severe backne).

One writer, Corky Simpson of the Green Valley News & Sun, simply left Rickey off his ballot without explanation. He explained his “no” votes on several choices, as well as his “yes” votes (for such a luminary as Matt Williams, for instance), but relegated Rickey to a “And Here Are Some Players Who May Yet Be Elected” list. Later, Simpson explained on the Columbia Journalism Review that:

“No one in the history of baseball has ever gotten into the Hall of Fame on a unanimous vote,” he notes. “I mean, we’re talking about Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson—nobody. And if anyone out there thinks that Rickey Henderson can carry one of those guys’ shoes, he’s crazy.”

That’s twenty-five ballots left unaccounted for. I have a feeling most of them fall into the Corky Simpson line of thinking, which is where the problem’s crux lies.

The first Baseball Hall of Fame class was named in 1936—Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Matthewson, and Walter Johnson. None were elected unanimously—Cobb came closest, with 98.2 percent of the vote. According to Simpson and, ostensibly, most of the naysayers on Rickey, this is a sign that no player should ever be elected unanimously. After all, if the Baseball Writers of 1936 didn’t believe that Babe Ruth—the greatest player of all time, a name synonymous with “baseball”—wasn’t worthy of unanimous induction, then no one should be given said honor. Therefore, a set of “guardians” will simply leave players off their ballot if they are up for their first year of eligibility. There’s no thought process to it—they just don’t check the box next to said player’s name.

The problem is that this doesn’t jive with history. Baseball-Reference.com (probably the greatest pure website ever invented by man) has statistics going back to—wait for it—1871. Players in this day and age are eligible five years after they’ve retired, and can stay on the ballot a maximum of 15 years—hence, you never have any player who retired more than twenty years ago on the ballot.

Voters in the first election were working off a SIXTY-FIVE YEAR backlog of players. A special veteran’s committee was set up to vote exclusively for pre-1900 players, but the rules were unclear, and several players appeared on both ballots. Twenty-three players appeared on the 2009 ballot. There was no such list of eligible players on the 1936 ballot, but FORTY-SEVEN received at least one vote apiece.

Do you see the issue here? A voter might have felt that the stars of yesteryear were being forgotten, and tilted his ballot away from the obvious stars in order to give the Edd Roushes of the world a better chance. The more options you give people, the better chance they’ll lack unanimity on the obvious choice.

These writers are holding up a standard which doesn’t exist.

So, you might say, why not simply educate them on their mistake? Perhaps a little enlightenment will shock them into some sense.

I have a feeling that’s not what would happen. The writer—as well as the pundit, or the politician, or some combination of the breed—isn’t interested in being right. He’s interested in being weighty. Rickey Henderson is not a Hall of Famer because of his statistics, or his accomplishments, or his sheer brilliance on the field of play.

Rickey Henderson is a Hall of Famer because I say so.

And I don’t say so.

And that’s the problem.