Posted by: Mark Nielsen | January 13, 2009

On Halls of Fame, CSI Swan Songs, Playboy and Character

Two significant developments in the world of sports yesterday:  the Baseball Hall of Fame vote announcements for Ricky Henderson and Jim Rice, and the retirement of Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy.

I was listening to ESPN’s Mike & Mike on the radio this morning, and they read a note from a NY sportswriter who did not vote for Henderson (I can’t track down his name online, and can’t remember it now).  How, they wondered, could one not vote for a player with that kind of longevity and accomplishment, holding the all-time most runs scored record, most steals record, and the leadoff-homer record (among others)?

Turns out it was a protest vote, on the basis of character and Henderson’s frequent lack of effort on the field. The writer had watched Rickey “dog it” on the Yanks and Mets too many times to just let this go unnoticed, and he knew this ‘no’ vote would likely be the best if not the only chance he’d have to go against the crowd and talk about it. Turns out, 28 other voters agreed. (For the record, the only unanimous HoF vote in the modern era was for Lou Gehrig… and it should probably stay that way.)

Debates about Hall of Fame voting criteria are good, honest fun, …but they do get annoying at times, don’t they? (Been to Cooperstown? It’s great. Get there.) Differences are brought up over the role of statistics alone, what era a player played in, what team they were on (Ron Santo comes to mind) , what city they were unnoticed and “wasting away” in (see Tim Raines and Bert Blyleven), whether or not they were “juiced” (McGwire, Bonds, Sosa: the Unholy 3, though they’re just the scapegoats for hundreds of others), and whether or not their respective teams won a lot of championships.

And, of course, the character thing comes up, and whether or not somebody is liked by the actual voters (journalists and former players who represent the public, though not always accurately). And character actually counts, in my book. So I don’t mind a bit that a few people decided the original baseball diva, Rickey Henderson, would not get their vote, despite the majority opinion that he was a “no-brainer”. If we all just cave in on everything the majority opinion calls a no-brainer, gradually no one will be using their brains at all. Popular opinions aren’t always right,  just popular.

For Jim Rice, it was his last chance on the ballot, and I’m glad that he got in, despite having to inch up the ballot every year and not having the kind of stats that some writers and fans say are necessary. He was still a star in all the important ways, representative of a big-time baseball town (Boston), of a certain era, and of a certain kind of player (the crotchety one-tool athlete who doesn’t enjoy the limelight or the controversies, just the game itself, and gets a bad rep from reporters who feel slighted). Rice still seems to be a person of character. He just doesn’t like talking very much. It’s no crime to be a grouch.

I actually met Rice once, sort of. As part of a “documentary” camera crew, I was in the Red Sox locker room in 1987, as future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs traded places for a day with a Playboy photographer here in Chicago. (Speaking of Boggs, now there’s a guy who would never get into the Hall if character was a major factor in voting. Check out this funny, uncomplimentary blog  post from Ken Levine, a former writer on “Cheers”, about his encounter with Boggs.) The image of Rice sitting alone, quiet, maybe disdainful, as our little Playboy TV circus buzzed around in the locker room, is burned in my memory. In what may have been his last season in the majors, Rice was the classic sleeping dog: prickly, maybe not a bad guy –but not looking to buddy up with the young’uns, either.

As for Tony Dungy, he’s one of the top five “character” guys in any list, running across all professional sports figures or celebrities in the U.S. combined. He’s also a shoo-in for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio (been there, too), despite only one Super Bowl win as a head coach. Dungy is a man of deep faith, writes entire bestselling books on character  and– unlike other writer/coaches such as the NBA’s Phil Jackson– lives it out every single, challenging day. He will be missed, but he’s making the right decision for all concerned, and he’s going out on top.

I’ve noted a similar “retirement” development recently in the arena of entertainment, with the long-awaited departure of actor William Petersen from CSI. Hollywood, of course, is often considered a place where character and decisions to stop chasing the money are even less common than in pro sports. But Billy’s a real meat-and-potatoes actor and a genuine artist, so he knew it would be necessary to take a risk and get back to his local theater roots in order to keep growing, as both a person and an artist. So he’s coming home, to the Steppenwolf ensemble (I did a separate blog on this  about a month ago). Petersen’s still an exec producer on CSI, which is great, because he’s the actor/advocate who has pushed hard for an ensemble/teamwork attitude on that show all along.

Billy’s also shown poise and self-sacrifice throughout the long departure process (he was supposed to leave last season, but the writer’s strike changed things up). So like Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher, and a few other sports figures who talk about “going out on top”, he’s a hero as much for how he’s done his job, and for what he won’t do, as he is for what he’s done and how it looks on paper, or to awards-voters.

Here’s a classically humble Petersen quote from the CNN article:

 “I think there’s a way for the audience to remember him [the Gil Grissom character], like losing a great co-worker they’ve known for years,” says the actor, who hasn’t ruled out starring in another TV show — someday. “He didn’t die in a plane crash, he didn’t get a brain tumor. He’s out there.”

So congrats to Rickey and Jim, best of luck and a thousand blessings on Tony and Billy in the next chapter of your lives, and as for you, Wade, I suspect you’ll get what’s comin’ to you in the long run.



  1. […] was considering these matters (aging, pride, character) on  my other blog today, in a post about the retirement of football coach Tony Dungy, a man of deep faith. He’s […]

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