Ballot 10: Vlad and Manny

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Manny Ramirez

Played 19 years with five teams

Twelve-time All-Star hit 555 home runs, won a World Series MVP, led league in slugging and on-base percentage three times. 69.2 WAR, 35.6 WAA

Pro Argument: One of the greatest hitters who ever lived.

Con argument: PEDs and was a subpar outfielder

Deserves to be in Hall?: Yes.

Will get elected this year?: No

Will ever get elected?: 45-50%

* * *

Vladimir Guerrero

Played 16 years with four teams

Nine-time All-Star hit .318 for his career, twice led the league in total bases. 59.3 WAR, 29.4 WAA

Pro Argument: One of the greatest hitters who ever lived.

Con argument: Shortish career … he retired at 36 before he reached some of baseball’s magic numbers.

Deserves to be in Hall?: Yes.

Will get elected this year?: 43%

Will ever get elected?: 99%

* * *

If you listened to this week’s PosCast, well, first of all, thank you for that. That thing was long, wasn't it? We can't shut up. But back to the point, if you listened to this week’s PosCast you already know that at some point it became clear to me that there were 11 players I absolutely wanted to vote for this year. And the rules only allow 10.

Yes, I could have left off Bonds or Clemens or both … I knew neither one would be elected anyway and it’s likely they both did act shamefully when baseball was the Wild, Wild West and so on. But I couldn’t leave either one off because I feel sure that they are the two best players on the ballot, and I think it’s my job to vote the best players in the Hall of Fame.

I was obviously going to vote for Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell. It’s ridiculous that it has taken this long to get them into the Hall of Fame.

I considered ditching Curt Schilling for being an Internet troll, but I didn’t consider it very long. For one thing: It doesn't have anything to do with his baseball career. But two, I see Curt Schilling as a not-borderline, no-doubt, slam-dunk Hall of Famer and because I see him as that (and many others don't) I feel the responsibility to push his case every chance I can.

Mike Mussina: Same thing.

Edgar Martinez was one of the greatest hitters ever and has waited too long simply because he was a DH. Larry Walker, as I’ve written before, is one of the 10 most complete players in baseball history and belongs in the Hall of Fame. Pudge Rodriguez was a marvel, the greatest defensive catcher I ever saw and that includes Johnny Bench.

Well, that’s nine. It leaves only one spot.

So, here are Manny Ramirez and Vladimir Guerrero, two players I adored for very different reasons, two players I absolutely and unequivocally believe belong in the Hall of Fame. And I could only choose one.* The 10-player rule is absurd and groundless and should be changed and ... well, it's still the rule.

*If I’d had 11 picks, I would have had to leave off Gary Sheffield, who I also believe is a qualified Hall of Famer. I would have felt a bit bad about that, but not as bad as with Manny and Vlad.

So, here’s what I did – this is absolutely true. I made a copy of the Hall of Fame ballot. And I filled out two ballots. One had Manny Ramirez on it. One had Vladimir Guerrero on it. And I looked at the two of them for very long periods of time and tried to decide which one to send in.

Very ... long ... periods of time. It's embarrassing, really.

* * *

“In my lifetime,” I wrote three years ago, “I think that there was nothing in sports more fun than watching Vlad Guerrero hit a baseball.”

In the ensuing years, we’ve had the emergence of Steph Curry who is impossibly fun to watch. Usain Bolt won more gold medals – impossibly fun. Jordan Spieth came along and had that stretch of time when he figured out the calculus of golf and kept winning even though he wasn’t really the best at any one thing – impossibly fun. Novak Djokovic won some points that boggle the mind – impossible fun.

Simone Biles. My gosh. Simone Biles.

And yet, that thing I wrote, it’s still true. There has not been a single thing in my lifetime of sports watching that I enjoyed more than watching Vlady hit – the closest anything can get is a tie. The thing that made it all so joyous, so fun, is that nobody in the history of everything enjoyed anything more than Vlad Guerrero enjoyed hitting a baseball. Baseball is, of course, filled with terrific hitters who did not walk. Most of them did not have the abilty to walk … they lacked the rare ability to differentiate between balls and strikes in that blink-of-an-eye time between pitcher’s release and the ball reaching the plate. They lacked the rare talent of being able to hold back when a pitch looked like a strike and then broke or dropped or rode out of the strike zone.

Well, I don’t believe that Vlad Guerrero lacked either of those talents. Frankly, I don’t think there is a hitting talent of any kind that Vlady lacked. He was a hitting savant and I’m pretty sure he had the instincts to know if a pitch was a ball or a strike, and I’m pretty sure he had the reflexes to hold back. He could have been a different hitter if he wanted.

What he lacked was the CAPACITY to hold back.

If there was a pitch thrown anywhere in Vladimir Guerrero’s solar system, he wanted to hit it. He needed to hit it. That was the fundamental character of Guerrero. See the ball. Hit the ball. Every pitch left alone was a missed moment, a flower unnoticed, a dream unremembered, a glance unreturned. If the pitch was in the dirt, Guerrero golfed. If the pitch was in the clouds, Guerrero leaped. If a pitch was three feet outside, Guerrero reached. If a pitch was two feet inside, Guerrero eluded and swung the bat in the same motion.

He could not wait. COULD NOT WAIT. He hit 126 home runs on the first pitch of an at-bat, which as far as we know is the most ever, more than Bonds, more than McGwire, more than Griffey. He put 1,780 balls in play on his first pitch – only Derek Jeter did it more. Jeter put 56 more first-pitches in play. Jeter also played 600 more games than Vlady.

Guerrero's career walk numbers are deceiving … I fall for it all the time. Guerrero walked 737 times in his career, which isn’t terrible, and he walked 84 times in a season once, which is very good. But it's an illusion. Guerrero walked only when pitchers had basically given up trying to pitch to him. More than one-third of his walks were intentional walks (only Garry Templeton joins him in that club). Then you throw in the walks where pitchers pitched around him.

Of course, it was very hard to pitch around Vlad Guerrero. Because of the joy.

Everything about Guerrero’s game was joyful, not just the hitting. He had this throwing arm, lord, what a thing THAT was. He could throw a baseball about as hard and far as anybody ever. The thing is, he never had any real idea where it was going. In his life as an outfielder, he had 126 assists (28th all-time) and 125 errors (5th all-time). He airmailed countless cutoff men, hit the screen behind home plate on the fly ... but also made absurd throws that would stick with you and stick with you until one day, months later, you were at work or at school or just sitting around and you would smile thinking about it.

He ran with wild abandon. Guerrero stole 40 bases one year. He was caught 20 times that same year. He had 11 triples one year. He also twice led the league in grounding into double plays. Everything he did on the bases was big and bold and electrifying and frustrating and entirely wonderful.

What a hitter. In the end, I suppose, those three words sum up the Hall of Fame case. Guerrero hit .318 for his career and only twice failed to hit .300, once in his last season when he hit .290. He racked up total bases like few ever have; he reached 350 total bases in a season five times, same as Henry Aaron, one behind Stan Musial and Willie Mays who had much longer careers.

Vlad retired with 2,590 hits, but he also retired at 36. That’s more hits than Tony Gwynn, Carl Yastrzemski, Paul Molitor, George Brett and Lou Brock had at the same age. Even a few mediocre years would have easily gotten him to 3,000. And he did try to keep going, but his body just couldn’t take the pounding of his bigger-than-life game any longer.

When Vladimir Guerrero retired, one of my first thoughts was: I can’t wait to vote him into the Hall of Fame.

* * *

“The following column,” I wrote in 2008, “is dedicated to the admittedly bizarre proposition that one Manuel Aristides (Onelcida) Ramirez, sometimes known as Man-Ram or Manny Being Manny or just plain Manny is a genius.”

Well … he was a genius. OK, no, he was not a genius in life … “It’s not an easy case to make,” I wrote then, “that a man who tries to run to third on a ground-rule double, who sometimes disappeared into the Green Monster during pitching changes, who gets pulled over by police for having overly tinted car windows is a genius.”

But he was a hitting genius. In this series, I have written about what an amazing hitter Jeff Bagwell was. Manny Ramirez was a better hitter than Bagwell. I have written about the extraordinary Edgar Martinez, at one point referencing him as a genius too. Manny Ramirez was even MORE of a hitting genius than Edgar.

He is the second-best hitter on this ballot, and he’s only second best because the BBWAA still has not voted in Barry Bonds, who is a whole other category. In the purest form of excellence – the talent to hit baseballs often and hard – there are a few men who separated themselves from the rest, there is Ruth and Williams, Aaron and Mays, Gehrig and Foxx, Hornsby and Bonds, Mantle and DiMaggio, Musial and Greenberg and in today’s game Pujols and Miggy and Trout. Manny Ramirez is in this stratosphere as a hitter.

The Manny stories, as Mike Schur likes to say, may or may not be true … but they FEEL true. One of those (told by Bill James, no less) is that Manny used to purposely get into full counts with runners on first base so that they would be on the move on the pitch and would score when Ramirez ripped a double, as he did 547 times.

Another, told by many, is that Manny would sometimes swing and miss at a pitch in April (or during spring training) to give the pitcher a false sense of comfort. Then, when it mattered, the pitcher would inevitably throw that pitch and of course this time he would hit it to the moon, as he did 555 times.

“It’s freaky,” Brian Bannister said of Manny. “Sometimes, he will just let a pitch go by, like he doesn’t care. If you’re lucky enough to strike him out, he will just kind of walk back to the dugout like it didn’t even matter. And you’re on the mound thinking, ‘What’s going on here? Is he setting me up?’”

The first time Bannister faced Ramirez, he got Manny to fly out. And Ramirez walked away like it meant nothing. The next time up, Bannister was freaking out, trying to remember what he’d learned on tape, trying to garner the courage to throw Ramirez something, and he threw a 2-1 fastball that was supposed to be low and away. It ended up being a bit higher and less away than he wanted. Manny hit the home run to center so hard that Bill James will still tell you it’s the hardest ball he’s ever seen hit.

“In the end,” Bannister said, “you can’t help but admire it.”

The numbers are the numbers. Ramirez finished his career 32nd all-time in on-base percentage, eighth in slugging percentage, 31st in doubles, 15th in homers, 21st in runs created and so on. But it’s the wonder of watching him hit that stays with you. He was this mad genius who was terrible on the bases, uninterested in the outfield, a constant pain in the neck. People who played with Manny to this day will tell horror stories about the experience.

But they will always finish with this: The guy was the greatest hitter they ever saw.

When he retired, even knowing it would be controversial, I knew I would vote for Ramires to go in the Hall of Fame.

* * *

So there they are, two ballots, one with Vlad, one with Manny, and I could only send in one. It irritated me that I couldn’t vote for both based on some baffling rule. It frustrated me. I have always promised that I would vote for the 10 best players, that I would not use the ballot to play games, to vote for this guy because he would need the votes or to pass on that guy because I would get another chance to vote for him next year.

Best player. That's all.

Well, no, that's not all. Because if it was that simple it would be simple: Manny Ramirez was a better player than Vlad Guerrero. Well, I should say he was a better hitter, better enough that it made up for his utter lack of interest in doing anything else. Manny had 30 points of on-base percentage and thirty points of slugging on Vlad and he had a somewhat longer career. Vlad created 1,600 or so runs. Manny created more than 2,000. There’s no way Vlad could make up that gap with defense or base running.

But …

Manny Ramirez twice tested positive for PED use, this was at the end of his career when he was just hanging on. Yes, I will vote for players who used steroids but Manny’s positive tests are \different. He used steroids after baseball had made a clear rule against it, after public opinion turned hard against steroid users, after it became clear just how much PED use was hurting the game. Two positive drug tests is definitely part of the equation.

How much of a part? Should it utterly disqualify a player from Hall of Fame consideration? Some would argue yes. Some would say it should be one factor in the bigger question. I tend to fall in that category.

Vladimir Guerrero, by everything we know, was clean, was a team leader, was a great teammate.

But …

Manny fundamentally altered the direction of the game. He played on four World Series teams, he was a great hitter on 10 different playoff teams, he was an unstoppable playoff force for the first Red Sox team in forever to win a World Series. MannyBManny hit 29 postseason home runs which is by far the most in postseason history. Yes, postseason greatness is a tricky thing because other great players, like Vlad Guerrero, through no fault of their own, just didn’t play on as many great teams. Still, this is baseball history. MannyBManny didn’t just take part in that history. He made it.

But …

Vlad Guerrero is what baseball is all about. He’s WHY I love baseball.

But …

There is no right answer. On the PosCast, I suggested that I was so upset that I had to pass on one of them that I would keep it to myself who I voted for. I was joking. I’m about to tell you.

I took the Vlad the Impaler ballot … and I took the MannyBManny ballot. I folded them both up. And then, finally, I put one in the envelope and took it right to a mailbox and dropped it in, so there would be no more vacillating.

I sent the Manny Ramirez ballot.

I regretted it the instant the envelope dropped into the mailbox. Though, to be fair, I probably would have regretted it just as much if I had sent the Vlad ballot.