Monday, January 07, 2008

Which way to Cooperstown?

There are three issues I try not to bring up in polite company because of the potential for arguments: politics, religion, and the Baseball Hall of Fame.

January 8 is announcement day for this year's class, and it could be an interesting one. There are no great new candidates for induction, such as Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken last year. So that means, at least in theory, that the old candidates may be able to move up. The rules are pretty familiar: a candidate needs 75 percent to be elected, and a voter gets to pick up to 10 players.

People are starting to realize that Rich Gossage was overwhelming as a relief pitcher in his prime. There's no one you'd rather see on the mound with a one-run lead in the ninth inning in the late 1970's. He threw a bunch of innings ... and threw them hard. It looks like it his time.

Will anyone join Gossage? That's where the fun beings, mostly about the candidacy of Jim Rice.

There's no doubt that Rice was a feared power hitter from 1975 to 1986 or so. There's also no doubt that his career ran out of gas before he could pile up any memorable career statistics. He only had 382 career homers. So he's not a clear winner.

That's the problem. Does he get credit for those 10+ great years? Is that enough? Is longevity important enough to overlook some, but not a lot, years of brilliance? Is Rice another Ralph Kiner, another great hitter who retired early before piling up career stats?

I'm a Red Sox fan, and I never thought Rice had the numbers to get in. Part of that may be the way he finished. His skills disappeared in a hurry, and I have a lasting memory of Rice rounding third against the Mets in the 1986 Series and lumbering home.

If you don't like the "dominating hitter for a while" theory of putting Rice in, there's the "least common denominator" theory. It goes something like this. Tony Perez wasn't as good a player as Jim Rice, and Perez is in the Hall, so Rice should be in the Hall. We'll forget for the moment that Perez was never a clearcut choice to go to Cooperstown, and many still believe he doesn't deserve the honor. Heck, people will be compared to Bill Mazeroski for years.

The basic problem, of course, is that there's no clear line for in/out. So a few hundred writers have to guess. Tomorrow, they'll guess on Rice.

This leads to all sorts of other discussions. Bert Blyleven is the opposite of Rice, having pitched for a long, long time and piled up some impressive career numbers. But he didn't have many great single seasons (he won 20 games once), and I never really thought of him as a Hall of Famer. Tim Raines was a mighty good player for an Expos team that played in the relative dark of Montreal, but suffered a bit when he left Canada for the second half of his career.

Then there are players like Andre Dawson, Jack Morris and Alan Trammell. All fine players, but as Bill Parcells said, it's the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Pretty Good. And for Mark McGwire, well, I'm not prepared to get into that discussion.

I don't think Gossage will have company in this year's voting, but I'll be watching closely. Just don't aske me about it -- an argument could follow.