By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
THE LONG ROAD TO COOPERSTOWN
Which current Red Sox player do you think has the best chance of being enshrined
someday in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown?
I imagine that most people would say Mookie Betts, and certainly he’s playing like a Hall
of Famer right now. In his five full seasons in the big leagues he has compiled a batting
average of .303, he’s hit 110 home runs, and he’s driven in 390. And that doesn’t tell the
whole story, not by a long shot; he’s won a Most Valuable Player award, a batting
championship, and three Gold Gloves. He’s on the right track to Cooperstown, but it’s a
long and winding road, and he’s got to stay on it for at least another decade.
A generation ago the Red Sox had another great player who seemed to be on that same
road, but he never did make it to Cooperstown. After five seasons in the majors Nomar
Garciaparra had compiled a stunning batting average of .335; he was the first right-
handed hitter in sixty years to win American League back-to-back batting championships,
hitting .357 in 1999 and .372 in 2000 (Joe DiMaggio had done it in 1939 and 1940). At
shortstop, Nomar was a wonder, with great range and a buggy-whip arm.
Cooperstown, here we come!
Not so fast. We didn’t know it then, but after five years, and at only 27 years of age, his
career had already begun its downward spiral. During the winter of 2000/2001 he hurt his
wrist while working out, the same wrist that had been hit by a pitch back in 1999. He
appeared in only 29 games the next season, and his batting average fell from .372 to .289.
The damaged wrist slowed down his lightning-quick bat, and he was never the same
hitter again. Added to that was an achilles tendon problem that slowed him down in the
field. He fell out of favor with the Red Sox and with some of the fan base and was traded
to the Chicago Cubs in mid-season of 2004. He finished his career in 2010 as a very good
but but not great player and lasted only two years on the Hall of Fame ballot before
falling below the 5% required number of votes to remain in consideration. But let the
record show that for those few years at the beginning of his career he was the greatest
shortstop in Red Sox history.
Before Nomar there was Fred Lynn. He looked like he had ticket to Cooperstown, too,
but got side-tracked along the way. After his first five years he had an average of .308,
five points higher than Mookie; he hit the same number of homers, 110; and he had 450
runs batted in, 60 more than Mookie has. And he matched Mookie with three Gold
Gloves and one batting championship in his first five seasons. Not only that, but in 1975
he became the first player in baseball history to win both Rookie of the Year and Most
Valuable Player awards in the same season (a feat since matched by Ichiro Suzuki).
Lynn had the perfect swing for a left-handed hitter at Fenway Park; he could pull the ball
with power to right, and he could tattoo the wall in left.
Unfortunately for him – and for us – he got into a contract dispute with the team, and,
following the 1980 season, he was traded to the Los Angeles Angels. He no longer had
that left field wall to tattoo, and he seemed to be injured a lot of the time. As a result, he
never again batted as high as .300. Like Nomar, he finished his career as a good but not
great player; and, like Nomar, he fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after just two years.
So we can only hope that Mookie stays healthy and stays consistent - and stays in a Red
Sox uniform – for the long run.
Who else on the Red Sox might merit Hall of Fame consideration? Well, there is Dustin
Pedroia, who has batted an even .300 hundred for his career, been terrific on defense, and
provided real leadership from the very beginning. But some Hall of Fame voters tend to
weigh statistics rather than measure them, and Pedroia probably needs another three years
of productivity to punch his ticket to Cooperstown. If his bad knee prevents him from
doing that, we will have Manny Machado to thank for injuring him with that dirty slide
back in 2017.
What about pitchers David Price and Chris Sale? It’s too early to tell; they have 143 and
101 wins respectively, and that’s still a long way from Hall of Fame territory.
J.D. Martinez did not develop into a real power hitter until 2015. He has 195 homers
now, and he’s thiry-one years old. He’ll have to average 40 or so homers a year until his
Andrew Benintendi hasn’t yet fully developed yet, but he always looks like he’s right on
the verge of breaking out. Xander Bogaerts is really good, but is he great? There is still
time for him, though. The Red Sox once had a player who was very good but not great in
the first five years of his career. He had compiled an average of .298 and had shown only
fair power. He was nowhere near the road Cooperstown at that point. But in 1967, his
seventh with the Red Sox, Carl Yastrzemski got himself into terrific condition, changed
his swing, won the Triple Crown, and hopped on the express train to the Hall of Fame.
The Red Sox and their fans have been blessed in that for more than eighty years they
almost always have had at least one Hall of Fame player in their lineup. The only dry
spell was in the 1990s, but in those pre-sterioid years they had Roger Clemens, and we all
knew that he was Hall of Fame worthy. He just fell into a ditch by the side of the road
after he left the Sox.
Still, Clemens had a great run while he was here, and so have Red Sox fans - for more
than eight decades.