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When I recall Ryne Sandberg, I see him most distinctly running the bases. In writing about his Hall of Fame credentials, many people mention his base-stealing totals, which were impressive early in his career, peaking at 54 steals in 1985, and came to 344 lifetime against 107 times caught. Yet these numbers don’t capture the way Sandberg moved.
He ran the bases the way he did everything else–with elegant precision–and while there may have been faster runners, I don’t think anyone was quicker going from home to third on a triple or from first to third on a hit to right. Sandberg ran with his head forward and slightly tipped, his elbows held tight near the body as his arms chugged with a minimum of wasted motion. He never slowed rounding the bases, turning slightly to the outside before crossing them, and his slide at the end was again a model of form. It mixed efficiency with safety, one leg extended directly forward and the other bent at the knee under his body to absorb contact with the dirt, his hands down at his sides to likewise cushion the impact.
Sandberg did everything precisely and by the book. Nothing made this more apparent than the basic batting stance he took–legs slightly bent a shoulders’ width apart and square to the pitcher, the bat held close to the body and slightly tilted–which he seems to have taken from some boy’s baseball primer of his youth and never altered. He fielded much the same way. He did everything so perfectly and with such quiet grace–honed by endless practice–he was a thing of beauty, the Cubs’ Joe DiMaggio, the closest they’ve come to producing a perfect ballplayer.
Yet he is not and did not deserve to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Sandberg certainly belongs in the Hall, and after drawing a vote on almost half the ballots cast by the Baseball Writers Association of America in his first opportunity, he could be elected next year. (Seventy-five percent is required for enshrinement.) Some have argued that a player either is a Hall of Famer or not and that the notion of making a player wait is arbitrary and capricious. Yet I’d answer that the notion of a first-ballot Hall of Famer is inherent in the system and a distinction worth preserving.
When the Baseball Hall of Fame elected its first members in 1936, five were chosen: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson. Other future Hall of Famers were passed over, from the obvious, such as Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, and Cy Young, who’d be inducted the following year, to George Davis, the great turn-of-the-century shortstop who at the end of his career starred on the “Hitless Wonders” White Sox of 1906, a player virtually forgotten until Bill James and others revived his name only a few years ago, resulting in his 1998 induction. Keep in mind, Young won 511 games in his career, a record that truly will never be broken, yet had to wait until the second class of inductees to enter the hall.
The first ballot should be for the best of the best, which this year Eddie Murray, with his 3,255 hits and 504 homers, was deemed to be. (Catcher Gary Carter, in his sixth year of eligibility, was the only other player chosen, though there’s hope for Ron Santo when the veterans committee makes its choices next month.) I once got into a vicious argument with a Boston Red Sox fan about how Carl Yastrzemski wasn’t a deserving first-ballot inductee, and I’d argue the same about the Milwaukee Brewers’ Robin Yount, even though each made it in his first year. In hindsight I’ll grant that topping 3,000 hits made both almost automatic–much as I’d beg to dispute the standard–but that’s a mark Sandberg fell short of.
Sandberg was the best second baseman of his era and still holds records for career homers by a second baseman, 282, and lifetime fielding average at the position, .989. At one point he was the highest-paid player in baseball; and while cynics are quick to point out that–like all Cubs since 1945–he never played in a World Series, he performed well both times the Cubs made the playoffs, hitting .368 in five games against San Diego in 1984 and .400 with six runs scored and four driven in in five games against San Francisco in 1989. Add his 1984 most valuable player award–an honor that eluded Murray and Carter over their careers–and Sandberg has strong Hall of Fame credentials. Yet, perfectionist though he was in the field, he had his flaws. He didn’t make the play up the middle as well as he did to his left–he was the best I’ve ever seen going into short right field to get a grounder–and he wasn’t great turning the double play. That’s why, however vigorously Sandberg’s fans point to his fielding percentage and errorless streaks, he cannot lay claim to being the best-fielding second baseman of all time; that’s a title that belongs to Bill Mazeroski, finally voted in by the veterans committee last year.
Sandberg was a skilled ballplayer, but not a smart or inventive one. He never walked 100 times in a season, and he didn’t raise his assist and putout totals with astute positioning, the way Cal Ripken did at shortstop. At the plate a good curveball could make his knees buckle, and throughout his career he had trouble laying off low outside sliders. His consecutive 1984 homers off Bruce Sutter’s split-fingered fastball notwithstanding, he was a mistake hitter. These qualities diminished him in baseball writers’ eyes, as did his year-and-a-half retirement when he avoided the public eye during a messy divorce in the mid-90s. Not to sound heartless, but private entanglements have derailed more than a few Hall of Fame careers–just ask Frank Thomas. Yet Sandberg hit 25 homers and drove in 92 runs in his comeback season of 1996, though he batted only .244.
That lack of walks is especially damning. If there’s anything the first-ballot elections of Joe Morgan and Ozzie Smith demonstrated, it was the growing appreciation of baseball writers for the base on balls. The same shortcoming has weighed on Andre Dawson, who got four votes more this year than Sandberg. Dawson played the game well and honorably, and his 1987 season, when he came to the Cubs for a paltry $600,000 contract in the middle of the owners’ collusion campaign against free agency, remains one of the highlights of Chicago sports over the last couple of decades–especially his 49th homer in his last at-bat of the season at Wrigley Field. Yet Dawson was even more of a free swinger than Sandberg. In 1990 he was intentionally walked 21 times, which is exactly the number of walks he got on his own. This hole in his game distressed BBWAA voters.
It’s funny how criteria change over the years–though those who suffer from it might not find it amusing. Morgan consistently walked more than 100 times a year in his prime, so while his career batting average is worse than Sandberg’s his on-base percentage is almost 50 points higher. Yet Santo also walked 100 times a year in his prime, which was a few years earlier than Morgan’s. To the Neanderthal thinking still dominant in the press box 20 years ago, when the BBWAA was first ruling Santo out as a Hall of Famer, the benefits of Santo’s walks as a slugger hitting cleanup weren’t as obvious as those of leadoff man Morgan’s would later seem. Now, thanks in part to James’s undying support, he’s considered the best player not in the hall and figures to be a shoo-in when his peers decide his case next month.
They may also have a say in another, less deserving case. A number of the veterans on the committee–themselves members of the hall–are scheduled to meet with Pete Rose, as commissioner Bud Selig decides whether to return him to baseball’s good graces. With Rose, however, the wavering criteria are moving away from enlightenment and toward a cynical pragmatism. In this age of excess, Rose’s crime–betting on his own team–is seen in a kindlier light. He had a gambling problem, many people say, and he paid his price and deserves rehabilitation, including the spot in the hall he has long been denied. (His gambling scandal broke while he was the Cincinnati Reds’ manager and before he had spent the required five years retired as a player.) What these people ignore is that gambling is the one inexcusable crime in baseball. Every profession has one unpardonable offense: in writing it’s plagiarism, because signing your name to someone else’s work deprives your name of any integrity; in baseball, it’s gambling, because it leads directly to offenses that strike at the integrity of the game. Many fans and writers seem to have forgotten how baseball was almost ruined when the Black Sox scandal broke in 1920, and how it took Babe Ruth to save the game. Since then, every major-league clubhouse has had a sign posted in it that says any gambling on baseball means a one-year suspension and gambling on your own team a lifetime ban–no exceptions.
James attacked the admissibility of much of the Dowd Report that led to Rose’s banishment, but Derek Zumsteg has written a pair of pieces on Rose for the Baseball Prospectus Web site. The first took apart James’s argument, printed in his most recent Historical Baseball Abstract, piece by piece, demonstrating how it would take a fool–or someone with the wet-noodle ethics of a Selig–to deny Rose bet on the Reds while managing them. In December, he posted a blistering attack on the pro-Rose forces that I won’t attempt to equal here. It can be found in the archive at www.baseballprospectus.com, and it’s recommended reading.
The reason all this is important is that as we redefine greatness we alter the game’s present. An appreciation for walks drawn by players like Morgan and Santo yields an appreciation for walks in the present day. (Are you listening, Corey Patterson?) Recognition of Sandberg and Dawson as great players with considerable holes in their games urges today’s players to address their own shortcomings. (Hear that, Frank Thomas?) A pardon for Rose would almost certainly lead to a more serious gambling scandal down the road. For 80 years baseball players have faced banishment for betting on their own teams, and the rule has maintained the game’s integrity. George Ryan might commute the sentences of everyone on death row, but that doesn’t mean Pete Rose should be permitted to enter the Hall of Fame.