Sunday, December 27, 1998

Ryan, Brett, Yount should get Hall passes




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Nolan Ryan is an immortal lock. Baseball's definitive power pitcher will make the Hall of Fame on the strength of seven no-hitters and the equally staggering feat of 5,714 strikeouts.

        His fastball was a freak of nature, which made his curve ball cruel and unusual punishment. When Ryan could control these two pitches, which was not always, a batter's best bet was to call in sick.

        “You don't face Ryan without your rest,” Reggie Jackson once said. “He's the only guy I go against that makes me go to bed before midnight.”

        George Brett is a lead-pipe cinch, pine tar notwithstanding. He won three batting titles in three different decades with a swing as pretty as your daughter on prom night. He, too, will crack Cooperstown on his first try.

        “The only way to pitch him is inside, so you force him to pull the ball,” a veteran pitcher once proclaimed. “That way, the line drives won't hit you.”

        Robin Yount should be a sure thing. He was twice the American League's Most Valuable Player, and at two different positions. He came up with the Milwaukee Brewers as an 18-year-old prodigy, and he was still ahead of Pete Rose's hit-making pace until his mid-30s. He finished with 3,142 knocks and a reputation for selflessness rare among superstars.

        “If your daughter came home with a Robin Yount,” said Frank Howard, then a Brewers coach, “you'd be so grateful, you'd light candles for the rest of your life.”

        The Hall of Fame ballots are due this week, and for some there's not much need for deliberation. Brett, Ryan and Yount are so supremely qualified there's little point in studying their statistics. You check their names off reflexively, like so many items on a shopping list.

        Not since the first Hall of Fame election, in 1936, has the Baseball Writers Association of America approved three first-time candidates in the same year. But only an inveterate curmudgeon or a National Football League referee could have missed the magnifi cence of Brett, Ryan and Yount. Each of these three candidates should expect at least a 90 percent approval rating when election results are announced on Jan. 5.

        After that, it's not so easy. Carlton Fisk appears on the ballot for the first time, and Tony Perez is back trying to build consensus for the eighth year. Choir boy Dale Murphy makes his debut, and fallen choir boy Steve Garvey returns for a seventh shot at immortality. A case can be made for all of them.

        So, too, with Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Dave Parker, Jim Rice and Bruce Sutter. Of the 28 names on the ballot, three pass the no-thought test; six are introduced as a one-year courtesy (George Bell, Mike Boddicker, John Candelaria, Charlie Leibrandt, Frank Tanana and Mike Witt); and the remaining 19 force you to read the fine print.

        When I first started voting for the Hall of Fame, back at the dawn of the decade, my standards were exacting and my arrogance was insufferable. I used to say that for every player who was voted in, someone else should be voted out. I thought Cooperstown had become crowded with too much second-tier talent, and resolved to reward only those whose merits were unmistakeable.

        But greatness does not always conform to preconceived formulae. Some players are dazzling for a short period and then flame out prematurely because of injury or circumstance. Others reach greatness on a cumulative basis, having been blessed with lesser ability and greater grit.

        Exhibit A: Tony Oliva.

        Exhibit B: Phil Niekro.

        Eight of the players eligible for induction this year were once the Most Valuable Player of their league. Gary Carter, twice the MVP of the All-Star Game, holds the major-league record for most putouts by a catcher. He probably deserves some sort of award just for all that squatting.

        The argument for exclusivity is that admitting too many marginal candidates to Cooperstown diminishes the honor for those who rightly belong. Lawrence Feehley of Brockton, Mass., feels so strongly about Hall of Fame standards that he has sent letters and charts to voters across the country, urging them to exclude Carlton Fisk.

        “There has to be a line between immortal and very good,” Feehley wrote. “Very good isn't good enough for Cooperstown. As baseball expands, more and more players will finish with "very good statistics.' Writers have many considerations when voting for Hall of Fame induction, but the line must be maintained for only the greatest.”

        The pains Feehley has taken in this project suggest either an obsession or a grudge, but attempts to clarify his position Saturday were thwarted by an unlisted phone number.

        My position is as follows: Brett, Ryan, Yount, Gary Carter, Tony Perez, Jim Rice and Bruce Sutter. Plus the annual write-in vote for Pete Rose.

        Eight is enough. Nine is too many.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE