Close look at Puckett puts first-ballot vote into focus

ON BASEBALL

January 21, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

So good guys really do finish first.

Former Minnesota Twins star Kirby Puckett realized one of his fondest wishes Tuesday when he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and it would be hard to find a baseball fan who wasn't pulling for him.

Puckett had the numbers, though the tragic loss of vision in his right eye forced him to cut short his career after 12 seasons.

He averaged 192 hits a season for those 12 years. He had more hits (2,040) in his first 10 calendar years than any other player in history. That should make him a Hall of Famer in almost anybody's book, but there still was some doubt whether he would gain entrance to Cooperstown on the first ballot.

Here's a confession: The first time I weighed my Hall of Fame ballot, I was not inclined to vote for him. I knew he deserved to get in eventually, but I considered his candidacy on the first ballot marginal because of his limited cumulative numbers and the fact that he rolled up his 12 impressive offensive seasons in Minnesota's hitter-friendly Metrodome.

The more I thought about it, however, the more he looked like an obvious choice. How many players get 192 hits in any season, much less average that many over 12 seasons? How many players bat .318 over a dozen years? How many players could do all the things that he could do - with a bat, with a glove, with his legs?

Then I thought about the glaucoma that struck him in his prime and considered what he might have done if he had remained healthy enough to allow his career to run its normal course. If he had played until 40, he might well have finished with 3,500 hits and ranked among the truly elite hitters in the history of the game.

In short order, I went from considering him a marginal candidate to wondering how 92 voters (out of 515) could leave him off their ballots. But there was even more to it than that.

The ballot guidelines encourage the voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) to look beyond the numbers, and that's where all doubt was removed.

On the day he announced his retirement - on the painful day that he acknowledged that the sight in his right eye would never be restored - Puckett stressed repeatedly how thankful he was for the opportunity to play 12 major-league seasons. He chose to look at the 12 years he had been given rather than the four or five that had been taken away.

It was a poignant reminder to many of his fellow players that the game and the good fortune to play it at the major-league level should never be taken for granted. Puckett proved that day that he could see better with one eye than most of us can see with two.

Then he embarked on a personal crusade to raise glaucoma awareness and broadcast the importance of testing and early detection.

He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

It should have been unanimous.

Nice touch

Of course, the headliner on this year's ballot was slugger Dave Winfield, whose induction was a foregone conclusion, but the arrival of Puckett and Winfield together this year should be a treat for beleaguered Twin Cities baseball fans.

Winfield grew up in St. Paul and played alongside Puckett for two seasons with the Twins in 1993 and '94.

He played for six teams in all, but likely will go into the Hall representing the New York Yankees, since he emerged as a superstar during his nine seasons in pinstripes.

Character counts

The Hall of Fame ballot process allows voters to take personal character into account along with the most easily quantifiable body of statistical information about a candidate, which may explain why Boston Red Sox slugger Jim Rice was named on only 57 percent of the ballots. (Candidates must be named on 75 percent for induction.)

Rice has Hall of Fame numbers and figures to get in at some point, but he may have to wait for a thinly populated BBWAA ballot or a call from the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee to be enshrined.

What's the problem? Rice may have been the most feared hitter in the game in his prime, but he treated the media with such obvious contempt that many longtime baseball writers are going to have a tough time overcoming their personal aversion to him.

For the record, I voted for him this year, but it wasn't easy to put a check by his name after witnessing his churlish behavior on too many occasions during his otherwise stellar career.

Maybe Rice's demeanor toward the media shouldn't make any difference. Maybe the voters should rise above their personal feelings about him. (Nearly 300 did.) Or maybe what goes around comes around.

Carter close

Former Montreal Expos and New York Mets catcher Gary Carter came the closest of those who fell short of induction, showing up on 65 percent of the ballots to come within 52 votes of induction.

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