The Case For Mattingly
By Tom Edwards, Editor-In-Chief, Buhner.com

    Rob Neyer (of ESPN.com) is a fan of these type of games, and I like them to, so I'm going to throw out two players to you, my dear reader.  One is, as one would expect from the title of this piece, the career numbers of Don Mattingly.  One is not.  See if you can guess which one is which.

    1785 games, 222 HR, 1007 runs scored, 1099 RBI, 2153 hits, 442 doubles, 20 triples, .307 batting average, .358 on base percentage, .471 slugging percentage

    1783 games, 207 HR, 1071 runs scored, 1085 RBI, 2304 hits, 414 doubles, 57 triples, .318 batting average, .360 on base percentage, .477 slugging percentage.

    The top player is Don Mattingly, former first baseman of the New York Yankees.  The bottom is first ballot Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett.  The case for Mattingly (or against Puckett, if you will) stands by the fact that the two players are incredibly similar, and that if you put their statistics side by side, the belief that if one player gets in on their accomplishments, then players that have similar accomplishments should get in as well.

    It's known as "precedent."

    The Baseball Hall Of Fame is meant to record the best players in the game of baseball.  In almost all these cases, the judgment is statistical first, with things such as popularity and defense taking a back seat until a group of former players called the Veterans Committee get together, look over those players who didn't get voted in the first time, and elect players for other reasons.  If the Veterans Committee wishes to vote in a player because he was popular with all the other players who played at that time, or was an outstanding defensive player who just didn't put up the offensive statistics of a certain "Hall Of Fame" player, than so be it.  If the baseball writers of America (who do the original and "real" voting on the Hall Of Fame) vote in a player after several years of eligibility because his statistics and actions on the field weren't definite Hall Of Fame material, but would be eligible for inclusion without embarrassment, than so be it.

    However, when it comes to the concept of a "first ballot Hall Of Famer", you're dealing with a player who, without question, is one of the greatest players of all time.  This should be a player who, when spoken about, doesn't cause arguments.  Willie Mays.  Babe Ruth.  Hank Aaron.  Only 32 players in Major League Baseball history have gotten into the Hall Of Fame on the first ballot.  That list doesn't include Joe DiMaggio, Rogers Hornsby, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Jimmie Foxx, Carl Hubbell, Harmon Killebrew, Eddie Mathews or Mel Ott.  However, it does include Kirby Puckett.

    Now, no one with a straight face can tell you that Puckett's numbers match up to Hornsby's, or any other player mentioned in the last paragraph.  However, those who wrote about Puckett after the announcement that he would be inducted in the Hall Of Fame's class of 2001 reminded us that Kirby wasn't just numbers.  "The numbers may or may not be Hall-of-Fame material by itself," wrote Mark Heller of the Minnesota Daily on January 17th, 2001.  "What is Hall-of-Fame material are his two World Series rings. His game six performance in 1991 is the greatest individual performance in Minnesota history, played in the greatest World Series ever."

    Words to be expected from a Minnesota newspaper about one of the best Minnesota Twins in team history, especially on the eve of his Hall Of Fame induction.  However, it wasn't just a local issue.  ESPN's Tim Kurkjian (who also wrote for Sports Illustrated) pointed out that Puckett's statistics were noteworthy, but gets relatively obscure when mentioning them:

      "He was a .318 hitter (higher than Roberto Clemente) at a position (center field) that demands more of defense -- he won six Silver Slugger awards (best offensive player at his position) and six Gold Gloves. In 1988, he became the first player since Ducky Medwick in 1937 to have as many as 234 hits and 121 RBI in the same season."

    Kurkjian's article (which can be found here) goes on to mention Puckett's ability to be a "clutch" player, which is nice, but doesn't make you a Hall Of Fame player.  Kurkjian also mentions Puckett's lone batting title (1989), his three top-three finishes in MVP voting (never actually winning one), the fact that his 2,304 career hits are more than Joe DiMaggio (although Puckett didn't spend three years of his prime fighting in World War II), the fact that he was the only player in major league history to hit 30 home runs in a season when he had a previous full season with none (which is more odd than legendary), and the fact that "in 1988, he joined Jim Rice, Lou Gehrig and Chuck Klein as the only players to total 200 hits and 25 home runs three seasons in a row," which would be super, had he hit 25 home runs in 1988.  And for the record, of those three players mentioned, only one (Gehrig) was elected to the Hall Of Fame by the sportswriters.  Klein was later elected by the veteran's committee, while Rice is not a Hall Of Fame member.

    What apparently makes for a final argument for Puckett (in Kurkjian's eyes) though, is Puckett's election to 10 All Star teams, and the fact that "(h)e was a fabulous teammate who played the game with tremendous joy."  Considering that All Star voting is done by the fans, we can chalk up a portion of that to popularity, while "enjoying playing baseball" is generally not something that Hall Of Fame voters look at.

    So, to summarize, let's look at what Kirby Puckett has going for him:

    • His team won two World Series' with him.
    • He had a higher career batting average than Roberto Clemente (who is in the HoF).
    • He was elected the best hitter at his position (center field) six times.
    • He was elected the best fielder at his position (Gold Glove) six times.
    • He had a lot of hits and a lot of RBI one year, which hadn't been done in 50 years.
    • He won a batting title.
    • He was almost voted Most Valuable Player.
    • He had more hits than Joe DiMaggio (who is also in the HoF).
    • He had a full season where he didn't hit any home runs, and a full season where he hit 31.
    • He was a 10 time All Star.
    • He liked to play baseball.

    I look at that, and that looks like someone who might find himself in the Hall Of Fame one day.  Someone who, upon closer examination, you start to remember certain instances (such as his "clutch play" in the World Series) and think that maybe he should be in the Hall Of Fame.  You don't see someone who should be elected, immediately, with a higher voting percentage than Jackie Robinson when he was elected.

    So why does Kirby Puckett get elected on the first ballot?  His injury, and his character.

    Puckett was diagnosed in 1996 as having glaucoma in his right eye.  The glaucoma forced Puckett to retire at the age of 36.  Puckett probably could have played 3-6 more years, leaving voters and fans to wonder what Puckett's numbers would have been like had he not been injured.  The common defense for Puckett's low career numbers is the injury.  Had he not had the problem with his eye, Puckett would have played several more seasons, eventually getting the career numbers one would expect out of a Hall Of Fame player.

    The problem with this, of course, lies within the crystal ball of prediction.  There's no way to correctly predict how the rest of Puckett's career would have ended up had Puckett's vision not failed him.  By looking at Puckett's yearly statistics, one can see that Puckett's numbers were incredibly consistent.  However, at a pace of 180 hits a season, it would have taken Puckett almost four more seasons to reach 3000 hits, one of the "benchmark" numbers for Hall Of Fame inclusion.  That would put Puckett at 39, assuming relatively good health.  Puckett didn't have a great athlete's build (one might even go as far to call him "fat"), and one can point to a hitter similar to Puckett's hitting ability and physical stature in Tony Gwynn and notice the injuries he battled from the age of 36 on.

    So, we're left with Kirby Puckett's character.  When Kirby Puckett played, be was beloved by the state of Minnesota.  Unlike the believed attitudes of players of his time, Kirby Puckett went out every day looking as it there was no greater joy in his life than to be playing baseball.  He had fun playing, just as kids do during a randomly put-together game at some sandlot.  And while Puckett truly enjoyed what he did on the field, he made sure his celebrity status did not go to waste.  Puckett was often visiting children in the hospital, his wife by his side, donating money to charity, and giving off the field as much as he gave on the field.  In 1996, Puckett received the Roberto Clemente Award, given each year to the Major League Baseball player who combines outstanding skills on the baseball field with devoted work in the community.  Loved on the field and off it.  The fact that you couldn't not like Kirby Puckett probably, more so than his statistics, allowed him to be enshrined into the Major League Baseball Hall Of Fame.

    The problem with this, of course, has become evident in recent months.  The allegations of Puckett's now ex-wife, his alleged mistress, and another woman portray Puckett as a womanizing man with low regard for other people in general.  Puckett was described as "hating" visiting children in hospitals, and doing the charitable work he was credited for.  The Kirby Puckett off the field was a creation of his then wife.  

    But the numbers speak for themselves, you might say.  The 80s were not a time in baseball of gaudy numbers, unlike current baseball.  If Kirby played in today's ballparks and faced today's pitching, he'd hit 50 home runs and still be a top five player, some would say.  It's because of that ability to be a great player during that time that got him into the Hall Of Fame; not his character or his personality.  The stats were the main thing that got him there.  It had to be, to get in on the first ballot.

    Fine.  If we can bring Puckett into that light, let's bring Mr. Mattingly into the same light.  Both played their last games in the 1995 season.  Both were around the same age when they left baseball (Mattingly is actually slightly younger, by a few months).  As shown earlier in the article, both put up similar stats.  But the deeper you look, the stronger Mattingly's case appears.

    *** Puckett appeared in 10 All Star games in his career.  Mattingly appeared in 6 straight, from 1984 to 1989.  1990 saw Mattingly miss 54 games due to the back injuries that would end his career prematurely.  Mattingly would never appear in an All-Star Game after 1989.

    *** Puckett won 6 gold gloves in his career.  Mattingly won nine in ten years (excluding the 1990 season.)

    *** Puckett was in the top three in MVP balloting three times.  Matting won the AL MVP in 1985, and came in second in 1986 (to pitcher Roger Clemens).

    *** Puckett won a batting title in 1989.  Mattingly won a batting title in 1984.

    *** Puckett led the American League in RBI in 1994.  Mattingly led in 1985.

    *** Puckett led the league in hits four times, and total bases twice.  Mattingly led the league in hits twice, but also led the league in doubles three times, led the league in extra base hits twice, and led the league in slugging percentage and OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) in 1986.  In fact, Mattingly's career double total is 75th alltime.

    *** Puckett retired immediately due to injury.  Mattingly suffered a serious back injury that affected him through the rest of his career.  Mattingly's average season before the injury in 1990?  .327 BA, 27 HR, 114 RBI.  1990 and after?  .286 BA, 10 HR, 64 RBI.

    Most knowledgeable baseball people will agree that if Mattingly continued to produce at the rate he did in the mid 80s, he would have easily been elected to the Hall Of Fame.  But the fact remains that he didn't; due to injury (or something else, although most will agree that injuries played the biggest role), Mattingly's production dropped, resulting in six mediocre to slightly above average seasons at the end of his career, therefore resulting in a very different career path than Puckett.  Mattingly went from a higher peak to a lower valley, while Puckett remained constant.  However, averaged out career numbers over a 162 game season come out pretty even:

    Mattingly: .307, 20 HR, 91 R, 100 RBI
    Puckett:   .318, 19 HR, 97 R, 99 RBI

    This isn't to say that Don Mattingly is a Hall Of Fame player.  He should have gotten there had he not had the injury problems during his career, but since he did, it's still left up to discussion.  The issue is that while Don Mattingly has similar career stats over an equal amount of time, Puckett enters the Hall Of Fame in 2001 on the first ballot, receiving a larger percentage of votes than Jackie Robinson did when he was elected, while Mattingly received 28% of the votes in 2001 (75% is needed for election), some 278 votes less than Puckett.  At least 278 sportswriters, or 54% of them, felt that Kirby Puckett was a Hall Of Fame caliber player, while Mattingly is not.  That's an incredibly large amount for two players so statisticly similar.

    Mattingly's Hall Of Fame chances are pretty close to nonexistent now.  Mattingly received 96 votes (20%) in 2002, and 68 votes (14%) in the recent 2003 election, and while Puckett faces  charges of felony false imprisonment and gross misdemeanor sexual conduct, Mattingly works as a spring training instructor for the Yankees, the only team he played for in his career.

    The article isn't to criticize Puckett for his actions; that can be found easily enough in the pages of Sports Illustrated and other publications.  The point is being brought up to point out the problem with electing a player based solely on popularity and image.  Pete Rose can be kept out of the Hall Of Fame because of allegations that he bet on baseball (never against his own team), because of the image he portrays.  Ever since the 1919 Black Sox scandal, gambling has been looked upon as more deadly to baseball than prejudice, hate, performance enhancing drugs, and controlled substances.  Gambling is the only thing that there are specific guidelines regarding the handling of a player/manager/etc accused of the actions.  Nothing else; everything else is taken on a case by case basis.  Barry Bonds, if his career ended today, would be elected into the Baseball Hall Of Fame.  If he raped five women the year before his election, there is a possibility that he might not make the Hall Of Fame, and the issue would be up to debate.  If he raped five women a year after his election to the Hall Of Fame, he would still sit in the Hall Of Fame.  However, if it were proven that Barry Bonds bet on five baseball games during the 1991 season, all of them Blue Jay games that weren't even in his own league, 10 years after his election to the Hall Of Fame, he would be banned from baseball, and more than likely removed from the Hall Of Fame.

    But there is no "moral clause" in the Hall Of Fame, or in baseball.  But there are moral bonus points, as in Kirby's case when he was elected.  And once you get in, they can't take those points away from you.  Unless you gamble, of course.

    An odd footnote to this entirely too long article.  The article on Puckett in the Minnesota Daily referenced earlier had several quotes from Puckett in regards to his career and reaction to his election to the Hall Of Fame.  This is taken directly from the article:

    "I never played baseball to be in this position," Puckett said. "I played because I loved the game of baseball since I was five years old. I had no idea I would do everything I did in my career, but I knew one thing, and that's that I played hard every time I stepped on the field.

    "I fooled them all again."

    Never were truer words said.

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