Monday, November 14, 2005

Peter Gammons' Hatchet Job

Apparently, Peter Gammons has decided that Jim Rice might not belong in the Hall of Fame after all. He voted for him for years, and maybe he still does, but in his most recent ESPN column, Gammons went out of his way to hatchet Rice’s last, best shot at the Hall. With no clear front runners on the ballot this year, and Rice one of the top returning vote getters, he may never again have a better chance at election. The Red Sox have recognized this, and are campaigning on his behalf.

With this landscape, one might expect Gammons, a past supporter of Rice’s election, to come out in favor of him. He’s the most well-known baseball writer in the world, as well as the most respected, and as a former Boston guy, his views on Rice carry a lot of weight. If Peter Gammons had decided to write that he still supports Rice, and that this year other writers should take advantage of this opportunity to vote for him, a lot of the membership of the BBWAA would have paid attention.

But Gammons didn’t do that. Instead, he wrote a fleeting compliment of Rice’s achievements, followed by a scathing assessment of his accomplishments, based on the fact that he led the league in OPS just once, and on the assessment that his career OPS mark of .854 isn’t particularly noteworthy.

I don’t know why Gammons suddenly decided to fire off this salvo, knowing, as he must, that it is likely to cause irreparable damage to Rice’s chances for election. I can’t help but wonder if it may have something to do with the hit his image took in Howard Bryant’s 2003 book, “Shut Out”, in which Gammons came off as someone in a position to expose the racism Rice faced in Boston, including from the Red Sox organization itself, but passed up the opportunity to do the right thing. It was Rice making the point in Bryant’s book that it was the responsibility of people like Gammons to expose the truth, and it sure is interesting that Gammons now feels the need to disparage Rice’s Hall credentials at a critical time, despite having supported his election in the past. I wonder what changed his mind?

Allow me to take the opportunity in this meager space, with nowhere near Gammons’ readership or reputation, to point out how misleading his comments were. Here’s his full comment on Rice:

“The Red Sox are campaigning for Jim Rice for the Hall of Fame. Despite his six top-five finishes in MVP balloting in a span of 12 years, Rice is hurt by the way his career ended -- with 388 home runs. Rice led the league in OPS only once (1978) and his .854 career mark is the same as Jack Clark's and lower than Wade Boggs'. Ted Williams led in OPS 10 times; Carl Yastrzemski four; Babe Ruth, Dwight Evans, Boggs and Fred Lynn twice.”

First, it would be nice if the leading baseball columnist in the world could properly look up a stat line. Rice had 382 career homers, not 388. Also, it would be nice if he placed the numbers in any kind of context. For instance, while he’s correct that Rice’s career OPS of .854 is the same as Jack Clark’s, it would be nice if he pointed out that Clark’s adjusted OPS+ (which is OPS adjusted to account for home ballpark and run-scoring era) of 137 is better than half of the 18 first basemen currently in the Hall of Fame. That’s not a bad comparison for Rice at all. And having a career OPS lower than Wade Boggs certainly isn’t anything to be ashamed of; Boggs is in the Hall of Fame, and is probably one of the top five third basemen of all time.

In addition, Rice’s failure to lead the league in OPS more than once is also nothing to be ashamed of. Here’s a list of outfielders already in the Hall of Fame who also led the league in OPS just once:

HOF Outfielders Who Led League Once in OPS
Joe Medwick
Elmer Flick
Edd Roush
Hugh Duffy
Fred Clarke
Willie Keeler
Tris Speaker
Hack Wilson
Al Kaline
Billy Williams
Larry Doby

And in case you think every other outfielder in the Hall managed to do better than that, think again. There are 25 other outfielders in the Hall who never led their league in OPS a single time, including such immortals as Joe DiMaggio, Al Simmons, and Roberto Clemente (see full list below). Does that make Rice better than all of those guys? Of course not, no more than it means his career is somehow less worthy than Fred Lynn’s or Dwight Evans’ simply because they led the league in OPS twice each.

It’s that kind of context that Gammons ignores in his little blurb. It’s wildly unfair to throw around the numbers he did with the implication that they make Rice unworthy of election. If he wants to use OPS numbers as his measuring stick, shouldn’t he mention the good along with the bad, by making mention of the facts I just listed? Shouldn’t he note that Rice would have led the league in OPS twice if not for the fact that he finished 2nd in the American League in 1977 to an MVP season by a Hall of Famer (Rod Carew)? Or that the only people he trailed in 1983 are also in the Hall of Fame (George Brett, Boggs and Eddie Murray)?

Picking one stat that makes a guy look ordinary is sloppy journalism, at best. At worst, it smacks of a deliberate smear attempt, and that’s unfortunate. I thought Gammons had a little more character than that.

Maybe the criticisms of him in Bryant’s book are closer to the truth than Gammons cares to admit.

HOF Outfielders Who Never Led in OPS
Goose Goslin
Kiki Cuyler
Lloyd Waner
Heinie Manush
Sam Rice
Max Carey
Zack Wheat
Sam Crawford
Joe DiMaggio
Al Simmons
Paul Waner
Harry Heilman
Tommy McCarthy
Jesse Burkett
Jim O’Rourke
King Kelly
Earle Combs
Chick Hafey
Harry Hooper
Joe Kelley
Ross Youngs
Roberto Clemente
Sam Thompson
Earl Averill
Lou Brock
Enos Slaughter
Richie Ashburn

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