Joe Posnanski
Thursday January 7th, 2010

This will be about Andre Dawson, the one player chosen this year by the Baseball Writers Association for the Hall of Fame, but there has to be a bit of set up first. I have this feeling that Dawson's induction this year -- and Jim Rice's induction last year and Jack Morris' climb up the charts -- has something to do with childhood and heroes.

There are much deeper emotions tied to the Baseball Hall of Fame, I think, then for the other Halls. Questions like why Otis Taylor is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- or Jerry Kramer or Ray Guy or Jim Tyrer or Drew Pearson or Bob Kuechenberg or L.C. Greenwood or Chuck Howley or Randy Gradishar -- don't seem to excite the masses. I suspect most people think that at least some of those players ARE in the Hall of Fame.

Same is true in basketball. If I gave you a list of 10 people -- Jim Boeheim, Artis Gilmore, Gail Goodrich, Bill Packer, Jack Sikma, Eddie Sutton, Nate Thurmond, Willis Reed, Dick Vitale, Buck Williams -- you would probably have a hard time picking the five who are in and the five who are out.*

*In case you care (and didn't know off the top of your head): In: Boeheim, Goodrich, Thurmond, Reed, Vitale. Out: Gilmore, Packer, Sikma, Sutton, Williams.

But baseball is different. There have been groups trying to get Shoeless Joe Jackson into the Hall of Fame for about a half century, and you can expect there will be people trying to get Pete Rose into the Hall (and keep him out) forever. There have been millions of words caught in the World Wide Web about why Bert Blyleven absolutely does and does not belong in the Hall of Fame, and not only Blyleven but also Jack Morris, Tim Raines, Ron Santo, Mark McGwire, Dick Allen, Charlie Keller, Marvin Miller, Dr. Frank Jobe, Bill James and the San Diego Chicken.

Emotion. But why? I suppose that part of it is that baseball probably is more connected to its history than other sports. That's obvious. I suppose that part of it is that baseball is such a number driven sport and so it's more tempting to compare players through the decades. I'm not sure how anyone other than the great Dr. Z could compare Jerry Kramer to Will Shields. I'm not sure how you can legitimately compare Scottie Pippen to Bob Pettit.

But I can tell very easily -- and from a thousand different angles -- compare the numbers of Johan Santana and Lefty Grove. I can adjust those numbers to period. I can factor in their ballparks. Baseball just FEELS comparable in ways that other sports do not.

I think that leads into the main point ... something about timelessness and childhood and heroes. Baseball (alone, I think, among big-time American sports) can give a child the illusion that he/she is watching the sport at it's very best -- better than it was ever played before, better than it will ever be played again. I don't think that children of the 1950s or 1960s or 1970s can honestly say that the quality of football was BETTER then than it is now. I mean the players were so much smaller and slower than now. Same goes with basketball. The golfers of the 1960s may have been better than he golfers now, but they were using much different equipment and playing much shorter courses. The tennis players of the 1970s may have been more fun, but with their wood rackets and Pong-like rallies, they were playing a very different game from today.*

*I remember once, during a recent U.S. Open, they showed an old match between (I believe) Tracy Austin and Chris Evert. I think it was Austin in the studio, and she was so taken aback by how slowly the ball floated back and forth she actually shouted "Hit the ball!"

But baseball endures. Many people will tell you that Babe Ruth was the best player in baseball history -- well, he retired in 1935, the year "electronic television" was unveiled. Many people will tell you that the best pure hitter in baseball history was Ted Williams -- and he fought in World War II and in Korea.* Maybe people will tell you the best all-around player was Willie Mays, and he played long enough ago that he actually started his professional career in the Negro Leagues. Then again, it might be Oscar Charleston who played his WHOLE career in the Negro Leagues.

*Some say the best pure hitter was Ty Cobb, who started his career when Teddy Roosevelt was present.

Yes, baseball bows to its history -- and it allows us to stay forever young. It allows times to stand still. Here, for example, were the Top 25 players of the 20th Century according to the Society of Baseball Research (this was done in 1999) -- I try to break them up by the time period when they were stars:

1900-1914 (5): Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Cy Young. 1915-1929 (4): Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, Grover Cleveland Alexander. 1930-1944 (4): Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Bob Feller. 1945-1954 (3): Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Warren Spahn (Yogi Berra at 26). 1955-1964 (3): Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle (Ernie Banks at 27). 1965-1974 (5): Bob Gibson, Johnny Bench, Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax, Frank Robinson. 1975-1999 (1): Mike Schmidt.

That's it. One guy in the last 25 years. Now, of course, it's tough to judge the time you are living in -- and I'm sure that if we extended things to 2009, the group would put Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and Barry Bonds in the Top 25, maybe Pedro Martinez, maybe Rickey Henderson and Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs up or near the top. But it is instructive that when the century ended, the general feeling was that 24 of the 25 best players played long ago. There were not, apparently, too many living legends.

The lull of great players seems at its apex from about 1975 to 1987 or so -- which just so happens to be my childhood. The truth is, there just weren't many legendary players during my childhood -- no Ruth, no Mays, no Feller, no Gibson, no Williams. Mike Schmidt was great -- he is pretty widely viewed as the best third baseman ever -- and George Brett was an all-timer though he got hurt a lot and Joe Morgan was for a time the best player in the game though many of his skills were so subtle that people missed them. Eddie Murray was so steady, that's what people called him. Steve Carlton and Jim Palmer were terrific pitchers.

But mostly it was a time for disappointment. Mark Fidrych got hurt. Dave Parker got involved with drugs. Dale Murphy inexplicably faded. So did George Foster. Don Mattingly's back went out. Fred Lynn was never quite the same after he left Fenway Park. Ron Guidry's body could not hold up. J.R. Richard had a stroke. On and on and on -- Pedro Guerrero, Darryl Strawberry, Jeff Burroughs, Dwight Gooden, Vida Blue, Eric Davis. All these guys and more looked like potential legends. And, for one reason or another, it didn't quite work out.

Well, wait a minute: We can't just accept that, can we? I mean: This is what I mean about baseball and childhood. We cannot just accept that, for various reasons, our time was devoid of legends. Our parents had Willie, Mickey and the Hank, their parents had Williams and DiMaggio and Musial, their parents had Gehrig and Ruth and Hornsby. Our kids had Bonds and Maddux and Unit and Pedro and Pujols. Where were our legends?

And I think that's why the last few Hall of Fame ballots have been about how we want to remember our time. Bruce Sutter was elected in 2006 -- you probably know he pitched the fewest innings of any pitcher in the Hall of Fame including Babe Ruth. His career is virtually indistinguishable from Dan Quisenberry, who pitched at the same time and got no Hall of Fame support. But we REMEMBERED Sutter as fearsome, overwhelming, a legend of his time.

Last year, Jim Rice was elected. There are at least a dozen outfielders with similar or better careers who never came close to the Hall of Fame -- including his teammate Dwight Evans. And Rice put up his numbers in large part because he played half his games at Fenway Park when it was a savage hitters park. He hit 40 points higher and slugged almost 100 points higher at home. But no matter: We REMEMBERED him as fearsome, overwhelming, a legend of his time.

Every year, Jack Morris gets more and more support -- he moved past the magical 50 percent mark this year. Never mind that his 3.90 ERA would be the highest in the Hall of Fame. We REMEMBER him as fearsome, overwhelming, a legend of his time.

And finally: Andre Dawson. There is absolutely no question that Dawson at his best was a sight to behold. He hit home runs. He stole bases. He charged after fly balls with fury. He threw like Clemente. Before his knees went bad -- I'd say from about 1979 to 1983 -- he was the closest thing we had to Clemente. He was playing in Montreal at the time, and we as a nation did not get to see him play much -- but we saw enough. Dawson in those younger days was awesome.

And then, the knees did go bad -- probably from those years playing on that miserable Montreal turf. And he stopped being quite so awesome. Yes, in 1987 he gave the Chicago Cubs a blank contract and told them to fill in the numbers, and then he played as if possessed and mashed 49 home runs and drove in 137 runs. The baseball writers were so awed they gave Dawson the MVP even though the Cubs were in last place. The managers gave Dawson the Gold Glove even though he couldn't move anymore. That was nice.

But, no, Dawson probably wasn't a great player by then. The numbers were part illusion -- the ball was juiced that year and so was Wrigley Field. He was 12th in the league in OPS+. On the road, he hit .246. Well, he was just not the player he had been. Dawson hit for lower batting averages and hardly ever walked in those days and so his on-base percentages were annually below even the league average. But it's like his defenders would shout later: "Who cares about on-base percentage?" Or: "If the Hawk wanted to walk, he could have walked, that wasn't his job." Or: "You just had to see him play."

Dawson never stopped playing hard, and he always had that aura. He was the Hawk. We needed him. Our TIME needed him.

And so now he's in the Hall of Fame, and even though I did not vote for him I'm very happy for him. I'm happy for my childhood. Dawson at his best was a truly great player. And that's the way we want to remember him ... and our childhood.

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