Measure of Success

The New York Times

January 26, 2009

by Doug Glanville

O.K., you got me. I didn’t get voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame the other week. A .277 batting average with 60 career home runs is cool, but it won’t garner you any votes unless you led the world in some other category.

But I often wonder whether a player who gets into the Hall should be automatically considered successful. And whether one who doesn’t should be seen as unsuccessful.

Two players were voted in for 2009. I had the pleasure of playing against one of them, Rickey Henderson. Rickey drove teams crazy by stealing bases and scoring runs. He wreaked havoc on defenses that could never relax for a second when he was on base. In effect, he ran teams out of house and home.

Also known for his quirkiness, Rickey often talked about himself in the third person. But take my word for it, playing against him made you feel like there was three of him on the bases anyway. His induction was a no-brainer: all-time leader in stolen bases and runs scored.

Jim Rice was a hitting machine, driving in runs like he was some sort of taxi service. Playing left field, in front of the Green Monster at Fenway Park, he was also a master of deception. When a ball was hit over his head, he would stand and watch without enthusiasm, and the batter would assume that the ball was going to end up somewhere on Lansdowne Street. Think again. Rice was just setting them up so he could throw them out at second base, after they’d lost a crucial step admiring their shot. You could make a great video of all the shocked faces of base runners who were cut down at second because they fell for this trick.

When a career is over, we reflect. I reviewed mine like I had a 15-year video reel in my head. I’d think about what I could have done better or how I would have handled a situation differently. Maybe I could have bunted more. Maybe I shouldn’t have charged that pitcher in Double-A. Maybe I could have turned over a table or two in Joe Torre’s office when the Yankees released me. But all in all, I feel good about my career. I know it could have been better, but I also know it could have been worse.

Still, somewhere in that internal dialogue you ask yourself, “Was I a success?” I suppose it is safe to say that if you are inducted into the Hall of Fame, you probably would answer “Yes.” But I tend to believe that personal success is much more elusive than that.

Even personal success, however, is hard to define without input from the masses. Baseball has a love affair with numbers; it’s how players are measured and, often, how they measure themselves. Their statistics are flipped around, analyzed to the nth degree, placed in boxes of homemade recipes. What did I hit on Astroturf? How many stolen bases did I have in day games? What did I hit against lefties from east of the Mississippi? Before long, it’s easy to find an angle that makes you the either the greatest player on the planet or the worst in history. I finished my career with a 293-game errorless streak on defense. I also hit .210 that last season. Still, can I get a vote?

But there are a few universally accepted measuring sticks that no one can escape. A World Series ring is one of them. Players come to spring training year in and year out obsessing about a championship season. It is hard to imagine, if you hang up the spikes without a ring on your finger, that you don’t have that moment of “Did I fall short?” Even if you are about to enter the Hall.

The more years I played, the more essential that ring came to seem. In my first year of free agency (six years into my major-league march) I preferred a place where I would have the opportunity to play the most. So I headed to Texas. After I got that out of my system, two seasons later, I went to where I thought I had the best chance to win: the New York Yankees. I wanted to end my career with an exclamation point. Finish it off as a winner and enjoy the ticker-tape parade into retirement. That was the plan, until the Yankees’ plan didn’t include my services.

Maybe I would have approached free agency differently if I’d had more playoff success earlier, before I’d earned the right to test the market. When all is said and done, I made it to the playoffs only once. There were a few second-place finishes, and a winter-league championship in Puerto Rico, but whenever my regular season hat featured an MLB logo, I was pretty much certain to be spending the off-season watching the playoffs on television.

I may not be on the committee that votes players into the Hall of Fame, but I can think of a lot of players who will never be inducted into the Hall, and who never were part of a World Championship team, but who nevertheless make you re-think what it means to be “successful.”

For instance: I saw former Cub Mark DeRosa recently (just after he was traded to the Indians) at an Athletes Against Drugs function, where he was speaking about leadership. He mentioned that if he’d ever won a World Series with the Cubs, he would first have celebrated with his teammates and family . . . and then looked to hug Ron Santo.

Santo is a Chicago Cub legend — an all-star third-baseman during the ‘60s and early ‘70s — who has become a rallying cry against the subjectivity of the Hall of Fame voting system. He has, so far, narrowly failed to be voted in (he will be eligible again in 2011), yet is recognized for his statistically amazing career, including being a nine-time all-star selection with five Gold Glove awards and more than 300 career home runs. If there is any criticism, it’s that he never made the playoffs. Not necessarily his fault.

Santo may not (yet) be in the Hall, but listen to DeRosa and you’ll hear a current player wax poetically about how Santo — retired now more than three decades — exemplifies success and passion. Santo has lost both his lower legs to diabetes, yet as an announcer for the Cubs he makes all the road trips and, when the team’s at home, hikes to the top of Wrigley Field to get in the booth. The city of Chicago loves him. And it is safe to assume he went about the game in the same fashion that he goes about his business today. As my dad used to say, “How you do one thing is how you do everything.”

So what is success? Maybe it’s Rico Brogna playing every day, generously and with a smile on his face, despite having a debilitating disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis. Maybe it’s Terry Shumpert crediting his faith for his commitment to put his family first — to the point where even when he had a half day off in Triple-A, he would stop home in between games in Kansas City. Or maybe it’s Tuffy Rhodes, from the rough side of Cincinnati, who didn’t find what he was looking for here in the States and went to Japan — where he tied the single-season home run record and became fluent in Japanese.

Maybe you played drug-free and left it to nature despite what some players were choosing to do. Or you could be like my minor-league teammate, Scott Weiss, who walked away from the game to explore the power of his Stanford economics degree because a promise of advance wasn’t kept. Or it could be someone like Amaury Telemaco, who grew up in the Dominican Republic without running water and a need to help take care of his siblings; he made it to the top as a pitcher and was one of the most honorable people I met in the game.

I will venture to say that gaining awards and accomplishments doesn’t always mean you will sleep well at night. The players with the most internal peace are those who know who they are and, as a result, have found personal success more accessible than the players who chase the illusions of the quantifiable.

My hat goes off to Rickey and Jim for a phenomenal run on the game. Hall of Fame inductees are 1 percent of the 1 percent, and unquestionably the best players in our great game. Rare by any standard. But it is even rarer to find players who have the peace of personal success. Then again, when you let other people tell you what success is, you already have no chance of ever finding it.


Republished from The New York Times


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