To the folks who believe the Mets ought to retire No. 17 in honor of Keith Hernandez, I suggest something greater, a plaque in the Hall of Fame for the former first baseman. The performance of Mark Teixeira in the Yankees' postseason reminded me of the defensive impact a first baseman can have, and it rekindled my support of Hernandez -- who, to some, was the best defensive first baseman -- for the Hall. He's off the ballot now. But ways to right that wrong do exist.
Last week, I promised a piece about my sense of Hernandez's Hall of Fame qualifications. It follows.
The 2009 Hall of Fame ballot has arrived, and with it a delivery of angst.
I embrace this annual exercise, which doesn't suggest it can be completed with dispatch or without dispassionate analysis. Voting for Rusty Staub, Joe Torre and Jim Kaat would have been a joy -- I like those guys -- and Vada Pinson was my favorite non-Yankee when I began watching baseball regularly. But I couldn't justify voting for them.
When putting check marks on the ballot, the rule -- to me -- is to be as selective as Ted Williams with a 3-1 count. The term "borderline Hall of Famer" ought to be regarded as an oxymoron. A step on the Hall of Fame borderline is not akin to a bloop that raises chalk. If a player falls on the line, he doesn't get my vote.
The analysis of career performances has become increasingly difficult because of the effects of expansion, which has produced an increase in players eligible, the effects of steroids, which have distorted so much of what we witnessed and tracked for two decades, and the real decline in the level of fundamental execution. What we see these days isn't Branch Rickey's or George Kissell's baseball.
Staub, Torre, Kaat and Pinson were exceptional players with solid credentials, but each lacked something to merit induction, as a player, into professional sport's most heralded Hall. If the Hall had another corridor for the exceptional-but-not-elite, those four, Tony Oliva, Bert Blyleven, Ted Simmons, Jack Morris and maybe Tommy John would have been checked on my ballots. Morris still might get a check from me. But that's a story for another day.
Don Sutton is in, even though he unwittingly sabotaged his own candidacy in the afterglow of his 300th career victory in 1986. He acknowledged that despite his milestone achievement, he was "a level below" the great pitchers among his contemporaries -- Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Catfish Hunter and Jim Palmer. In his candor, Sutton talked his way off my ballot.
How Mex fared in HOF vote
Percentage of vote
The knocks on Bill Mazeroski, who eventually was inducted, and Mark Belanger -- both extraordinary defensive players for extended periods -- were that neither excelled enough offensively to warrant Hall of Fame election. And they played positions that demanded defensive excellence.
Hernandez played what is considered an offensive position. So his defensive brilliance somehow has lost its importance and luster. But a lot of outs happen at first base.
Hernandez gave the Cardinals and Mets defense comparable to that provided by Mazeroski and Belanger. And he hit. He was an offensive force, a No. 3 hitter for two World Series champion teams. He delivered key hits in World Series Games 7 in 1982 and '86. Did those hits -- each a two-run single in the sixth inning -- produce something less than a two-run home run?
Hernandez played in two seven-game Fall Classics. He drove in eight runs in the last three games in '82 and three in the seventh game in '86, and hit one home run in doing so.
All that home run stuff aside, he was a feared hitter, one of the last guys a pitcher wanted in the box with the game on the line in the eighth or ninth inning. Indeed, in 1985, six years after he led the National League in batting and shared the NL MVP Award with Willie Stargell, Hernandez placed second to Dale Murphy in the Sporting News' survey of 100 Senior Circuit pitchers asked to identify the hitter they least liked to face.
Not so incidentally, Hernandez should have won the award outright in 1984, when he served as the Mets' "Pops." He was naked in the batting order, the primary offensive force on a team that won 90 games despite being outscored. And he essentially called pitches for an inexperienced and talented pitching staff.
But the award went to Ryne Sandberg, one of seven Cubs who had special seasons and received NL MVP votes. I asked myself, if six others received votes -- Rick Sutcliffe, Jody Davis, Gary Matthews and Leon Durham finished in the top 12 -- how could one teammate be so valuable as to receive 22 out of 24 first-place votes? It didn't justify in my mind when the Mets won six fewer games and Dwight Gooden was the only other Met to receive support.
But Sandberg had hit two home runs against Bruce Sutter in a nationally televised game. I recall how the casual midseason NL MVP discussions changed direction after those home runs and how the Cubs' division championship prompted nationwide bandwagon jumping.
OK, so Hernandez placed a distant second, but he was the runner-up. And he was the leader in NL MVP points from 1984-88 after sharing the award in an earlier year. And from 1979-88, no player in the game participated in more victories than he.
Hernandez was the type of player who impressed observers the more they saw him play. His contributions weren't always reflected in the box score. Once Tim McCarver saw Hernandez play regularly, he offered this assessment: "No player I've played with or against -- or watched, for that matter -- does more to help his team win."
And McCarver, a four-decade man, had played with or against only Musial, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Matthews, McCovey, Ernie Banks, Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Ken Boyer, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Stargell, Pete Rose, Dave Parker, Frank Robinson, Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Seaver, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins and Juan Marichal.
McCarver's assessment was a powerful endorsement, considering that the objective of the game is to win and that the man who made it knows well of what he speaks.
And yet Hernandez is off the ballot, left for the Veterans Committee to consider. He remained eligible for nine years, until his vote percentage was less than 5 percent in 2004. His absence from the ballot is preposterous to me.
Perhaps the committee should consider this: Hernandez's rates of offensive production during his prime seasons, 1976-88, exceeded those of another perennial Gold Glove winner and one-time MVP who was elected to the Hall in his first year of eligibility, Brooks Robinson.
Mex vs. Robinson
Keith Hernandez (1976-88)
Brooks Robinson (1958-75)
Batting average, runs, homers and RBIs statistics are averages over 500 at-bats.
Sutton's words reinforced a personal criteria for election -- a player should have been the best or among the elite in his particular area of expertise for an extended period. And that brings me to Hernandez, the best defensive first baseman of his generation, and perhaps any generation. Hernandez was the best at what he did for more than a decade, winning 11 Gold Gloves. And he, not Steve Garvey, should have won in 1977 -- the year before he began his run.
The late Jack Lang, who covered Brooklyn's beloved Dodgers before he followed the Mets, considered Hernandez a better first baseman than Gil Hodges, who had been his choice for years. The late Jerome Holtzman ranked Hernandez ahead of Hodges, Wes Parker, Garvey and Bill White. And the late Joe Falls, more of an American League guy, spoke of Vic Power, George Scott, Don Mattingly and Hernandez as comparables. Taking their perspectives into account, I thought I was on solid ground in my assessment of Hernandez's defensive prowess compared with that of players from the '40s on.
Much more than splendid, smart and aggressive defense is in Hernandez's favor in my evaluation. Too much of his candidacy, however, is obscured by his home run total, meager by the standards of Hodges, Stan Musial, Ted Kluszewski, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Garvey, Fred McGriff, Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols -- first basemen all.
Where is it written that first basemen must also be sluggers? Hernandez wasn't. He probably wouldn't have been even if he had not spent most of his career playing in home ballparks that were home run unfriendly. Neither old Busch Stadium nor Shea Stadium surrendered easily. But he was a productive and clutch hitter.
Hernandez scored more runs and drove in more runs per 500 at-bats than Robinson. And when we finally put away all the OPS stuff, runs win games. But if batting average is a yardstick, Hernandez's average in his 13 prime seasons was 30 points higher than Robinson's in his 18 prime seasons.
Offensively then, Robinson did it longer, Hernandez did it better.
And no matter how much credit Robinson gets -- and deserves -- for his brilliant defense, Hernandez, as a first baseman, was at least comparable to Robinson as a third baseman. Each was best at what he did for an extended period. One is Hall of Famer. The other ought to be.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.