Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Puck everlasting

6:22 pm - Be sure to check the update below!

I want to show you something.

..G. .AB. Runs Hits .2b 3b .HR .RBI .BB ..K. .AVG .OBA .SLG
1783 7244 1071 2304 414 57 207 1085 450 _965 .318 .360 .477
1785 7003 1007 2153 442 20 222 1099 588 _444 .307 .358 .471
1626 5321 _938 1430 239 26 282 _934 740 1398 .269 .359 .482
1898 6621 1364 1917 403 63 411 1216 1357.1050 .290 *** .556

The top line belongs to Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, recently deceased. The second line is the man who is most similar to him statistically (according to Baseball Reference.com), Don Mattingly. (The others, we'll get to later down.)

Mattingly has an AL MVP award; Puckett finished top five three times but never won. Each has one batting title. Puckett was the faster runner, and made more All-Star Teams; Mattingly has ten Gold Gloves to Puckett's six (and was so good afield that the Yankees once tried him at third base, even though he's lefthanded). They each suffered career-ending debilitative injuries (Puckett's glaucoma, Mattingly's back).

The difference is that the Yankees never played the World Series in Donnie Baseball's 14 years, while Puckett was the hero of two championship teams in Minnesota, not known for its title-winning ways. And though Puckett's "ambassador of the game" status took a major hit with allegations of sexual misconduct (he was acquitted of these charges), he was always the more likable player.

ESPN re-ran a great column about Puckett, from the mind of Ralph Wiley. You owe it to yourself to give it a read. One of many money quotes, if you please:

"Think about that. You 'hate' a guy in sports because he's hurt you. He's hurt your team. That's why you hate him, basically because he's done a good job for his team, and made some other people deliriously happy. 'Hating' him has nothing to do with the actual guy. You don't know the actual guy.

Think about this: same thing goes when you 'love' a guy. You don't know him then either. He's helped your team win. He's helped your philosophy, your way of life, you. But you don't know him. So don't act like you do."

That was Wiley's way - slinging barbs down from the heavens. Like them or not, agree or disagree, they stung more than a little because the man had such good aim. His writing flowed like a graceful river, complete with rocks and rapids. And in a weird way, that made him a hero of mine, more than any of the three ballplayers whose stats got us started. No, not that I knew him, of course, but as he said, he helped my philosophy. He made me think and got me to be more clear about what's what in the world. Not many sportswriters do that - as Pantheon as he is, Bill Simmons doesn't make me think like Wiley did.

Wiley, by the way, is the fellow who brought up our third player. The red line of statistics belongs to Eric 'the Red' Davis, who like Mattingly was incandescent until injury stole his considerable gifts - in his case, a lacerated kidney in 1990 and colon cancer in 1996. Wiley says, in the column, that he'd take Davis in centerfield over Puckett. Interesting, but again, take it in the light of the quote above, and with other thoughtful opinion about Frank Deford's SI story - the one that first shone light on Puckett's darker side.

Now Puckett and Wiley are both on the other side, before their God. One can only imagine the conversation; my own imagination leads me to think that if either of them brings up the article at all, it will be as a joke - it won't be a difference to settle at all, since all accounts have already been squared. Usually one feels embarrased or awkward when at one's most self-conscious. What use is that once you've stopped trying to look better than you are, and are just yourself at last?

**post-script - SI is at it again, this time taking a whack at the Bonds piƱata. Easier target, and much more likely to be true, especially since even Bonds' fans acknowledge that's he's generally unlikable. But... is that all? If Bonds is tried, does it change what we thought we knew? Let's face it, there's "exonerated" and then there's "getting over," and Bonds' alleged juicing definitely falls in the latter class, should he ever be acquitted.

update, 6:22 pm - thanks to the Coalition for their quick take. I asked in reply, does Bonds make the Hall of Fame without the tainted numbers?

Pretend that, instead of 'roids, he went for the nose candy like Darryl Strawberry. That leaves you with the fourth line in the stat box, italicized - Bonds' numbers from '86-'98, 13 seasons. I have to say yes. Even if you disqualify everything he did under afterward, those numbers are a mortal lock, first-ballot. (The on-base number is blank because I couldn't figure it with the limited time involved.) That makes the considerable evidence that he DID cheat even more puzzling. He was only 33 in 1998, and healthy (156 or more games played each of his last three years); while he may have begun to dip in the next five seasons or so, he was still good to reach about 550 dingers, maybe even 1750 rbi (that's top-ten all time actually, it would be 17th, ahead of Honus Wagner's 1732 and behind Frank Robinson's 1812), plus all the stolen bases. He was Barry Freaking Bonds! Damn it all.

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