Sunday, December 09, 2001

A case for Cooperstown?

Dawson vs. Doggie

By Chris Haft
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It was a sheer visual treat. Before Tony Perez began his brief stint as the Florida Marlins' manager, he and Andre Dawson often sat side by side in the press box, evaluating players in their guise as Marlins club officials and inspiring awe with their mere presence.

        In a way, they were twins: right-handed hitters known for impressive production on the field and classy dignity off it. And their playing statistics were nearly identical.

        But while Perez's and Dawson's qualities as ballplayers and men may always bind them, the balloting for baseball's Hall of Fame could separate them forever.

        Perez, as everybody with a drop of Reds allegiance knows, is enshrined in Cooperstown. Dawson is among the leading newcomers to the Hall of Fame ballot, which voters received last week. Should Dawson follow Perez and be named in early January to next year's class of inductees?

        This is a sample of the many questions the Hall of Fame electorate (10-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America) must ponder before ballots are due Dec. 31. The Perez-Dawson comparison illustrates the burden voters face. It's truly an honor to help decide who receives admission to baseball immortality, but like many responsibilities, making these selections isn't always fair.

        To a large extent, deciding who belongs in the Hall of Fame is easy. It isn't for the very good. It's for the very best. And as admirable as Andre Dawson was — the intensity with which he stared down pitchers was matched only by his stoicism through knee pain — he rarely was ranked among the game's top three or four players. An exception was 1987, when he led the National League in home runs (49) and RBI (137) and won the MVP award in his first year with the Chicago Cubs.

        But true Hall of Famers sustain this excellence for five, six, 10 seasons or more. Dawson exceeded 30 homers three times and had 90 or more RBI seven times in 21 seasons. He was always well above-average, but that doesn't equal greatness.

        These resolute viewpoints grow a tad wobbly when one links Dawson to Perez, which is inevitable for us privileged folks who saw them perched together at Cinergy Field or Pro Player Stadium. As the accompanying chart demonstrates, their statistical similarities are uncanny. Moreover, Dawson accomplished something Perez couldn't: He stole 314 bases, making him one of only four players (Willie Mays, Bobby Bonds and Barry Bonds are the others) to surpass 300 homers and 300 steals. Dawson and Perez shared not only substance but also style; both were known as quiet yet strong leaders.

        Thus, it's permissible to argue that since Perez is safely ensconced in the Hall, Dawson should join him.

        Even if voters embrace this logic (eligible players must be named on 75 percent of the ballots to earn induction), Dawson probably faces a long wait. Perez appeared on the ballot nine times before being elected in 2000. Obviously, many voters didn't consider Perez worthy of the Hall. Anybody with that mindset will reason that mistakes shouldn't be perpetuated and, therefore, shall leave the square next to Dawson's name blank.

        Engaging in such mental tug-of-war is less pleasant than refocusing on the image of Perez and Dawson sitting together in regal silence. But image, when it comes to the Hall of Fame, is far from everything.


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