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January 15, 2004

Breaking Balls

Rickey Redux

by Derek Zumsteg

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Ahhhh, the mailbag. Nothing I love more when I'm 40 minutes from deadline with two, three columns started and left unfinished.

Last week's column on the relative dominance of Babe Ruth and Rickey Henderson drew a fair amount of mail. Here's the composite for your reading ease:

Rickey may have been a great player but he's always been a selfish and arrogant player. His steals came in pursuit of a record and didn't help his team. Rickey sucks!

Yours sincerely,

No Rickey Association

P.S. Booooooo Rickey!

It's possible to be selfish and arrogant and help your team. If a player hits a home run in an arrogant matter, that's still worth at least one run. If Rickey selfishly stole second, that puts his team in a better position to score. Certainly, if he got himself thrown out all the time, he'd have been a detriment, but he was successful more than 75% of the time in his record-setting, 130-steal year.

Baseball's one of the most individual team sports. The game's crux is a one-one-one battle, batter against pitcher, and even the most complex plays are serial actions--pitcher to batter to shortstop to first for the out. If everyone on a team was as good as Rickey and acted selfishly, they'd score 2,000 runs a year. In a strike-shortened season, where every game was rained out after the fifth inning. Playing in the Astrodome.

I'm not concerned that Rickey acted selfishly. Now, the arrogance thing...so what? There are two kinds of arrogance I can tolerate:

1. Hilarious arrogance (Derek Bell variety)
2. Justified arrogance (Barry Bonds variety)

Obliviousness is a key ingredient to hilarious arrogance. Joe Carter talking about his amazing ability to get RBI hits over the course of his career cracks me up, for instance. Players who can't hit and have never hit claiming they'd be an All-Star if only someone would give them a full season of at-bats. It's unintentional comedy at its finest.

On the other end of this spectrum of self-perception are some of the truly great players. If Barry Bonds and I were hanging out for some reason, and Barry said "It's strange sometimes, being one of the best players ever in your sport," I wouldn't nod my head in a "yeah, I know what you're talking about" way, but I certainly wouldn't protest either. Bonds is one of the greatest players in baseball history. If he realizes that, what's the point in dancing around the sombrero of denial? Alex Rodriguez plays the modest-and-humble player all the time, and it grates on me far more than whatever Bonds quote got blown out of proportion that week. If Bonds, or Rickey, is that great, and they're not bad people, enh, let them have their fun. Their attitude doesn't make them lesser players any more than their compensation, or how the public at large views them.

And in a way, I have sympathy for the players who are pretty good and understand that means they're among the best athletes in the world. Seriously, I can mock Kenny Lofton's defensive decline from the stands, but he's still way, way better than I am. So if he's got a bit of an attitude, I'm fine with that.

And now, to close, a letter so fine I have little to add to it:

I loved your article about Ruth and Henderson. I have often talked about Henderson's accomplishments with a similar line of argument. Thanks! Ruth and Henderson were both remarkable and it should be pointed out HOW MUCH better they were at their skill. But I don't like it that I never see any analysis looking at perhaps the most amazing relative performer in the history of baseball: Ron Hunt

Ruth (1920): HR per PA was about 11 times better than the league average HR/PA.

Henderson (1982): SB per PA was about 12 times better than the league average SB/PA.

Ron Hunt (1971): HBP per PA was 16 times better than the league average HBP/PA!

Is a HBP less valuable than a home run? Yes. But we are talking about Ruth here--he may even be better than Barry Bonds.

Is a HBP less valuable than a SB? NO! Arguably, it is better than a SB. In 1971 Ron Hunt had 50 HBP, and the Expos (for whom he played) had 78, leading the league. The second-highest team total was the Giants, who had 37. Hunt had 35% more HBP than any other team!!! Ruth had more homers than any other team in 1920 but not by a Hunt-sized margin, and heck three teams beat out Henderson in 1982.

Again, I loved the analysis, I just want Hunt to get his due as well.

Thanks,

LDN

Baseballlibrary.com's entry on Ron Hunt contains this gem of a quote: "Some people give their bodies to science; I give mine to baseball."

What a cool game.

Related Content:  Rickey Henderson

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