Rarely are we able to go to bat for a hero. But that’s what I’m doing today. On December 6th, the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee will consider 12 candidates for the highest honor in the sport. One of these candidates happens to be Ted Simmons, the great St. Louis Cardinal catcher of the 1970s. He belongs in the Hall, and I’m here to make his case.
Gaining Hall of Fame recognition by having donned a catcher’s tools of ignorance has proven to be a Herculean challenge. Only three catchers have played the game since 1966 and made it to Cooperstown: Johnny Bench (1967-83), Carlton Fisk (1969-93), and Gary Carter (1974-92). Among the 16 backstops in the Hall of Fame, Bench is the only first-ballot inductee. (No other position has so few honorees elected in their first year of eligibility.) Catchers have an inherent penalty against their Hall candidacy, in that the rigors of their defensive role tend to diminish the offensive numbers that attract the eyes of Hall of Fame voters. Simmons, it should be noted, was penalized further by spending the prime of his career in the considerable shadow of that one first-ballot catching legend, Bench.
When Simmons first became eligible for election to the Hall, he received only 3.7 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America (75 percent being the standard for induction). The paltry figure knocked Simmons from the ballot for any future consideration ... until now, when the Veterans Committee (16 voters) will reconsider the egregious slight. Here’s hoping 12 of those voters read this column.
Ted Simmons was a switch-hitting doubles machine for the Cardinals in the Seventies, an era that saw Lou Brock and Bob Gibson wind down their Hall of Fame careers with clubs unable to reach the postseason (where players invariably boost their Hall of Fame stock). Over the course of his career (including five seasons with Milwaukee and three as a pinch-hitter with Atlanta), Simmons finished in his league’s top 10 in batting six times, RBIs six times, and doubles eight times. Despite the drab teams for which he toiled, Simmons finished in the top 10 for National League MVP three times (1972, ’75, and ’77). He was an eight-time All-Star and is 14th all-time in games played at catcher.
Simmons had more career hits (2,472) than Hall of Fame catchers Yogi Berra and Carlton Fisk. He scored more runs (1,074) than Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter. And get this: Ted Simmons had more RBIs (1,389) than Johnny Bench. Mike Piazza — the former Dodger and Met All-Star — was fearsome at the plate (not so much behind it) and will surely be elected to the Hall when he becomes eligible in 2013. Simmons had more hits, runs, and RBIs than Piazza.
The standard complaint about Simmons was his shortcomings as a defensive catcher. This is akin to griping about Elizabeth Hurley’s posture. And Simmons wasn’t that bad. The man caught two no-hitters (one by Bob Gibson in 1971, another by Bob Forsch in 1978). He led National League catchers in assists twice (granted, opposing base runners were ready and willing to test him). Factor in the heat of St. Louis summers (magnified by the artificial turf of Busch Stadium at the time), and Simmons — donning those tools of ignorance day in, day out — battled elements in ways your average (or Hall of Fame) leftfielder did not.
I was introduced to Ted Simmons in 1978, when I opened a pack of baseball cards to find him smiling at me, kneeling in his catcher's gear (minus the mask). He may as well have had Superman’s logo on his chest protector. Later that summer, my dad bought me a slurpee at a nearby convenience store. The plastic cup had Simmons’ face on it. It was just as good as a Batman mug. Simmons and Roger Staubach were my first sports heroes. Staubach has been a Hall of Famer for 25 years now. Here’s hoping in a few days Simmons gets his due from baseball’s hallowed shrine.
There’s something brutally deflating about cheering a bad football team. I write from the heart, as the three teams I follow each weekend are now a combined 5-21. It’s one thing to follow a mediocre team, a win breaking through the clouds of defeat every three or four weeks. But to watch a football team — or three football teams — take the field and get smacked around in serial fashion is a strike at one’s manhood. Somehow, miserable football hurts on a deeper level than lousy baseball or basketball. I’ll try to explain.
Say your favorite baseball team is in the basement of its division. True to your colors, though, you tune in to watch when they happen to be on your cable system (or you admirably take a drive for a weekend series at the ballpark). Predictably, the team falls behind early, can’t scrape together a crooked number for the scoreboard, and slumps off the field as the opponents glad-hand each other near the mound. This may turn your mood sour, but there are too many ways to rationalize a bad performance by a baseball team: starting pitching is weak, no clutch hitting, poor managing, no strength in the bullpen, etc. I love baseball like my children, but it’s a sport that lends itself to whining more than vicarious pain.
Then there’s basketball. To begin with, this is a game played by men in shorts, tank-tops, and sneakers. Lots of muscle flexing and trash talking, but it comes across as the schoolyard variety. When your basketball team stinks, you’re one player (maybe two) away from turning bad fortune to good. Consider every NBA Finals that went as many as six games. If you took the best player from the winning team and had him switch uniforms, the result would be reversed. And even awful teams can suit up a player who takes your breath away (think Kevin Garnett in his early days with Minnesota). Losing basketball teams are ugly, but they’re not painful.
But then there’s football. The sport of mud-stained gladiators, gnarled bloody hands, and the voice of John Facenda describing Ray Nitschke’s brand of menace. Football’s no game for the meek and whiny. No muscle flexing is necessary when making tackles and breaking tackles are elementary parts of the skill set. And trash talking goes as far as the next forearm shiver. Tough game to play and, when your team stinks, a tough, miserable game to watch.
When your football team is bad, you must concede that “their” line is stronger than yours, that “their” ball carriers are faster than your linebackers and defensive backs, that “their” quarterback ... hell, “their” quarterback is even better-looking than yours. Your coaching staff isn’t smart enough. Your special teams aren’t brave enough. And the cheerleaders look like a group of devil-fairies sent to the sideline to mock the atrocity you’re witnessing with every snap of the ball. Football is a tough game to watch when your team is lousy.
Worst of all, bad football seems to quell hope. Where do you start when your football team stinks? Fire the coach? It’s the easiest attempt at solution, but an unfair attachment of one face to a problem that defines a large group. Change quarterbacks? No matter how square-jawed and able-bodied the replacement seems to be, if that line can’t hold, or those receivers can’t separate, Joe Namath becomes Joey Harrington. And shoulders slump once again. Bad football is a tough culture to change, one that makes pessimism an instinct.
I haven’t turned to a paper sack yet. (Name the last time you saw fans in paper sacks at a Chicago Cubs game or Los Angeles Clippers game. Only in football.) But I’ve discovered more free time than I typically have on fall weekends. I’ll wear my team hats in public, absorb my share of barbs ... that comes with fandom. But witnessing the abuse for three hours (per game) when the sun is still shining (or a good book sits on my night stand)? Bad football is terribly painful to watch. The heartache will linger, but your eyes can turn away.