Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Over his dead body

  Last month, longtime Chicago Cub third baseman and broadcaster Ron Santo was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the ‘Old-Timers’ committee, receiving 15 of the 16 committee votes (12 were needed for passage). I think Santo’s selection is well deserved. In his prime, he was the best third basemen in the National League. Santo’s statistics don’t measure up to today’s players despite playing in hitter-friendly Wrigley Field, but in the 60’s and early 70's his 25 to 30 home runs and 90+ RBI’s put him in the top 10 of the league and in the All-Star game every year.

  When a baseball player is retired for 5 years, they are eligible to be selected to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) if 75% of the membership votes for selection. From 1980 to 1998, Santo never got even 50% of the votes from the BBWAA, topping out at 43% in his last year of eligibility in 1998. Santo also was passed over by the ‘Old-Timers’ committee in 2002, 2005, and 2008 before this years’ induction. After all these years of rejection from the baseball writers and the old-timers committee, why did Ron Santo finally get into the Hall of Fame this year? Simple. He died in December, 2010.

  Aside from being a great ball player, Santo was an inspiration to many by being one of the first athletes to openly acknowledge he had diabetes, an entertaining radio broadcaster for the Cubs with his frequent groans of agony as the Cubs would lose yet another game while building on their current streak of 100+ years without a World Series title and 60+ years without even a World Series appearance, and was a beacon of courage as he continued to broadcast even after his legs were amputated in 2001 and 2002.

  Except for his death what exactly changed in the 30 years since Santo first became eligible? I almost think there was a grudge against him. Having denied Santo his lifelong dream of making the Hall of Fame while he was still alive, couldn’t the old-timers committee find any living people worthy of being in the Hall of Fame? The whole think seems kind of stupid to me. The old-timers committee could have waited another 30 years to vote Santo in and he’d have still been dead. It makes me glad that Phil Rizzuto got to enjoy being a Hall of Famer while he was alive. Of course, if Rizzuto had only lived to 70 like Santo (instead of 89), he would have been 10 years too late.

  One reason I’m happy about Santo’s election to the Hall of Fame is that it enhances the candidacy of one of the great Yankees my youth (the 1970's), Graig Nettles. Like Santo, Nettles played in the pre-steroids era when 30 home runs were considered the mark of a power hitter and not the sign of an incompetent pharmacist. Nettles didn’t have the career consistency of Santo, but he was a feared power hitter, leading the league in homers in 1976 and was easily the best fielding 3rd baseman of the 1970s even though Brooks Robinson‘s scrapbook won the Gold Glove awards.

  Santo played on the Cubs teams of the late 60’s and early 70’s which featured 4 Hall of Famers (Santo, Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins, and Billy Williams). With all this Hall of Fame talent, the Cubs never won the National League pennant or even a division of the National League. That group of players never played in a playoff game. Not one. By comparison, Nettles played on the 1976 Yankee World Series teams with only one Hall of Famer (Catfish Hunter) and 3 Yankee World Series teams with 2 Hall of Famers (Hunter (77) Goose Gossage (78,81) and Reggie Jackson). Just so you don’t think I’m pushing Nettles solely because of his Yankee heritage, in 1984 when Nettles was traded to the San Diego Padres at the age of 40, the Padres got to the World Series for the first time in their history with 2 Hall of Famers (Gossage and Tony Gwynn). Clearly these teams are short of Hall of Famers and I believe Nettles is the man who is missing. There’s a huge difference between being a great player on teams that win nothing and being a great player for teams that are expected to win it all. I don’t have to wonder how Santo would have performed in the crucible of a pennant race because in his only real pennant race (1969) his production shriveled in August and September as he led the Cubs to blowing a 9 game lead to the Mets over the last 2 months of the season. Compare that to Nettles 1978 season when he was at his best over the last 2 months of the year to help the Yankees erase the filthy Red Sox’s 14 game lead and win the division. Given the anti-Yankee bias in the Hall of Fame (Nettles never got even 10% of the votes from the BBWAA), I doubt Nettles will ever get his due as the best American League third baseman of the 1970’s, but if he does I hope he’s alive to enjoy it.

  What got me started on this Hall of Fame kick? The news that the old Giant coach Bill Parcells was selected as a finalist to the NFL Hall of Fame. Parcells won 2 Super Bowls with the Giants, went to another one with the Patriots, and got to the playoffs as the coach of the Jets and Cowboys, but I never thought of Parcells as Hall of Fame material. He was a great coach with the Giants, but I never considered him the equal of Redskins coach Joe Gibbs and 49er coach Bill Walsh, who both won 3 Super Bowls over a 10 year stretch encompassing Parcells 2 Super Bowl runs. I felt Parcells best coaching job was the 1990 Giants who gutted out playoff wins against the 49ers and Bills with backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler to win the Super Bowl, but he also had some underachieving teams and failed to win a single playoff game in the 4 years between Giant Super Bowls. Once he left the Giants, Parcells showed he knew how to build veteran laden teams that would be able to get into the playoffs and maybe even win a game or 2. Inevitably, Parcells would get into a fight with his owners and leave them with an old team that would have to be rebuilt with younger players.

  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Parcells fan. The Giants were a laughing stock until Parcells, GM George Young, Lawrence Taylor, and Phil Simms showed up and turned the team into winners and champions. I just never thought of Parcells as a Hall of Famer… That is, until I decided to go to the Hall of Fame website and see what coaches were enshrined as Hall of Famers. I saw many of the names I’d expect to see from my lifetime of watching football; names like Gibbs, Walsh, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, and Don Shula. Of all these coaches, only Shula and Landry won 2 championships like Parcells, but they also took their teams to the Super Bowl at least 5 times each. I don’t feel Parcells belongs in this top shelf of coaches, but he certainly belonged on the next shelf with coaches like Hank Stram and John Madden who won one Super Bowl each.

  This made Parcells a marginal Hall of Fame coach in my mind, but then I got down on my hands and knees to check out the bottom shelf of Hall of Fame coaches and found George Allen, Marv Levy, and Bud Grant. Between the 3 of them they were in the Super Bowl 9 times and lost 9 Super Bowls. I remember Allen from his coaching the Washington Redskins in the 70’s. He took over the team that was recovering from the death of Vince Lombardi , brought in a bunch of veteran players, proclaimed the catchy phrase ‘The Future is Now’ , made the playoffs almost every year, went to the Super Bowl in his second year and never won another playoff game. Levy was famous for losing 4 super bowls in a row in the early 90’s. I understand that getting to the Super Bowl is a great accomplishment, and to get a team to go back to the super bowl 3 times after being stopped one game short of the championship is the mark of a great coach, but a Hall of Famer? Grant was in the same boat as the coach of the Minnesota Vikings, having a team good enough to lose 4 lopsided Super Bowls.

  Levy, Allen, and Grant were fine coaches, but I’d like to think a Hall of Fame should be for the best of the best instead of candidates for ‘The Biggest Loser’. If these are Hall of Fame coaches, I can only wonder why Parcells wasn’t selected a long time ago and I hope he makes it this year so he can enjoy it while he’s alive.

  I don't have a 'Broken Pawn Hall of Fame', but if I start one I won't wait until I'm dead to induct the game I played yesterday.
  Does anyone know where I can get a cheap plaque?