The Deception of Ryne Sandberg, and other Hall of Fame thoughts.

By | August 01, 2005

Thanks to the beauties of TiVo, I watched a Hall of Fame induction ceremony for the first time ever yesterday. I skipped through all commercials, ramblings by that lady who insisted on calling herself the “chairman,” all the Bud Selig content, and Jerry Coleman’s speech (nothing against Jerry, I just didn’t care). What I did watch was the introductions of the living Hall of Famers who were present, and the speeches by Peter Gammons, Wade Boggs, and Ryne Sandberg.

Peter Gammons has long been one of my heroes. For a person who loves to write and loves baseball, it is hard not to admire Mr. Gammons. His speech was one of the best things I have ever heard, reminding me why I love the game so much and why it is so important to our country. The story he told about Oil Can Boyd’s father — “That’s the beauty of this country: the KKK Grand Dragon is destitute and dying, and my son is pitching in the Major Leagues for the Boston Red Sox” — was wonderful, as were the dozens of other little stories he related. I think I would love to sit down with Mr. Gammons and talk baseball for about a week straight. My favorite part of his speech was the end, when he said, “This is the highlight of my professional career.” It always bothers me when a man with a wife and kids refers to anything not related to them as the highlight of his life, so I was very glad that Mr. Gammons referred to his “professional career” that way. It keeps things in perspective.

The last two speeches, from Boggs and Sandberg, surprised me a little. There is no question, I have always been more of a Sandberg fan than a Boggs fan. I have always recognized that both were great players, I just liked Sandberg’s personality more. His quiet, dignified style appealed to me. But then they stood up and spoke, and I was left much more impressed with Boggs than with Sandberg.

Why? Well, Boggs’ speech was beautiful. He paid tribute to all the important people in his life, extolled the virtues of hard work and perseverance, reminded us that baseball is just a game, and seemed genuinely grateful for the honor.

Sandberg’s speech bothered me more than once. First, his “I’m a baseball player. I’ve always been a baseball player. I’m still a baseball player. That’s who I am. … Everything I am today, everything I have today, everything I will ever be is because of the game of baseball” section was the exact opposite of the perspective I admired in Peter Gammons’ speech. I love baseball more than any other unimportant thing in the world, but if it ever becomes more important to my identity than “good son,” “good father,” “fun guy to be around,” “devoted religious man,” etc., I hope someone will have the presence of mind to kick me where it counts.

I could have gotten past that, though, because I am sure that Ryne Sandberg isn’t the only famous person with screwed up priorities, and because he later referred to his wife as “my past, my present, and my future.” But then he got into his self-righteous Good Ol’ Days rant, taking issue with the power hitters of today for not being team players. A couple quotes:

Harry [Caray], who was a huge supporter of mine, used to say how nice it is that a guy who can hit 40 homers or steal 50 bases drive in a hundred runs is the best bunter on the team. Nice? That was my job. When did it become okay for someone to hit home runs and forget how to play the rest of the game?

These guys sitting up here did not pave the way for the rest of us so that players could swing for the fences every time up and forget how to move a runner over to third, it’s disrespectful to them, to you, and to the game of baseball that we all played growing up.

If [my induction] validates anything, it’s that learning how to bunt and hit and run and turning two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light at the dug out camera.

And all along, I could actually see Reggie Jackson sitting behind Sandberg. It wasn’t zoomed close enough to see if he was laughing, but he must have been, at least on the inside. Reggie had 2,597 strikeouts in 21 seasons, to go along with 13 sacrifice bunts. Reggie made the Hall of Fame with a .262 batting average, which means that pretty much ALL he did was hit home runs. And if there was a man who knew how to find the red light on the dugout camera, it was Reggie.

I generally agree with all the principles that Ryne Sandberg advocated in his speech, although not to the extent that he does. What I disagree with is the idea that things are so much worse — or even much different — than they were 20, 30, 50 years ago. You certainly have guys like Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, who were great fielders in addition to great hitters. And I am sure there are a lot of Hall of Famers who were good bunters. But don’t tell me that Willie McCovey or Willie Stargell are in that category — they had 14 sacrifice bunts BETWEEN THEM in 43 years of playing. Long before Barry Bonds or Jason Giambi ever looked at three infielders on the right side, that was called the McCovey Shift. Most of the at-bats in McCovey’s career could have been bunt singles if he had been the best bunter on the team.

People play roles on a baseball team, Mr. Sandberg. Your role often included bunting, and you were great at it. You truly were one of the great all-around players, playing Gold Glove defense, stealing bases, hitting home runs, and generally not striking out much. You deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, but it is presumptious of you to opine that people who contribute to the team in other ways are not as deserving, and it is naive to believe that everyone before you in the Hall of Fame played the same way you did.

Of course, while I was writing this, the news came out about Rafael Palmeiro being suspended for steroids, and a lot of people believe that Sandberg’s comments about “respecting the game” were a direct reference to steroids. Well, to that, I say:

If you want to make a statement, make a statement. If you want to say, “Steroids are bad,” say that. If you want to say, “Sammy Sosa doesn’t deserve the Hall of Fame because he is a cheater,” say it. You talked about respecting the game, and you cited players who don’t play defense, who can’t bunt, etc. If you are talking about cheaters, say it.

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