I want Vladimir Guerrero to be a member of the Nationals’ Ring of Honor

by Andrew Bailey

(via Reuters)

(via Reuters)

As the headline of this article plainly states, I want Vladimir Guerrero to someday become a member of the Nationals’ Ring of Honor. One of the key words in that statement, of course, is “want.” We all want things and in most cases the things we want aren’t subject to scrutiny and don’t require any kind of defense. There’s not much risk of being chastised for saying you want a heaping plate of hot wings and a cold beer. But this particular want, by its very nature, feels like it warrants some explanation and a fair stab at proving, all personal feelings aside, that it isn’t completely absurd.

Before I dig too deeply into the personal reasons and proposed evidence for why putting a player who never actually donned a Nationals jersey into the franchise’s Ring of Honor makes sense, I have to share some of my fundamental beliefs. It’s probably best to start with this: I’m a Big Hall guy. I’ve read the arguments for why the National Baseball Hall of Fame should be more strict or liberal with admission, I’ve weighed the opposing philosophies, and I’ve decided where I stand. I’d vote Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, and Roger Clemens in without a moment’s hesitation. I believe baseball fans are discerning enough to let history — the good and the bad — be the ultimate judge. We don’t need asterisks to guide us. This is a relevant opinion and, more importantly, it’s also one that isn’t going to change (at least not in the foreseeable future).

The second fundamental opinion that I’m not wavering on is that I’m completely in favor of the Nationals honoring their complete lineage, which includes 36 seasons as the Montreal Expos. If you think the Expos don’t have any place in Washington, that’s fine. But I disagree (and so do the official record books that outline the franchise’s history).

Similarly, I embrace the Nationals’ paying tribute to the history of the Senators, even though the team moved from Washington to Minnesota in 1961 and became the Twins, and the Negro leagues’ Homestead Grays. The way I see it, honoring the Expos is akin to saluting the history of the franchise and honoring the Senators and Grays is paying homage to the history of the city. I’m comfortable with and in favor of doing both.

So then, why campaign on behalf of Vladimir Guerrero instead of, say, Tim Raines? The latter played in more games as an Expo (1,452 across parts of 13 seasons) than Guerrero did (1,004 games over eight seasons) and is at least on the brink of getting into the Hall of Fame, an accomplishment that went a long way towards earning Andre Dawson and the late Gary Carter their ticket into the Ring of Honor at Nationals Park. In 2008, in Raines’ first year on the Hall of Fame ballot, he received only 24% of the vote. Seventy-five percent is required for induction. However, earlier this year, Raines received 52.2% of the vote, an upward trend that suggests his canonization will come eventually. Being that Raines played the bulk of his career in Montreal and put up his most productive seasons there, it only makes sense that he’d go into the Hall as an Expo and, well, that’s precisely the path Dawson and Carter took to receiving their placards in DC.

If you follow that logic, the next question becomes whether or not Guerrero’s playing career merits enshrinement in Cooperstown. It’s an important question that I’ll come back to, but first allow me to answer why I’m inclined to push for Guerrero specifically.

I’m pushing for Guerrero for about the simplest imaginable reason: he’s been a personal favorite dating back to 1998, the year he burst onto the scene in Montreal with 38 home runs, 109 RBI, and a .324 batting average. (His slash line that year was .324/.371/.589, but I was 13 in 1998 and “slash lines” weren’t really a widely circulated metric then.) I was drawn to his five tool skill set, his propensity for swinging — and hitting — pitches no matter where they were located, and his relative anonymity.

So, yeah, I want Raines to have a place in the Ring of Honor as well, but I don’t feel any sense of personal investment to broach making a case for him.

In 1998, the Expos stunk. They went 65-97 and hadn’t sniffed the postseason since 1981. They’d seen players leave for other cities and become superstars, they played in a stadium that might as well have been a parking lot with bleachers (the despicable playing surface of that park, by the way, did a number on Vlad’s back and legs robbed the man of a lot of his speed), and damn it, that dump of a stadium was in Canada. None of my peers paid attention to the Expos and when they would occasionally come up in conversation it was as the punch line of a joke. So for me, latching onto Guerrero was like discovering an incredible band that no one else had uncovered yet. He started amassing All-Star selections in 1999 and his numbers only got more inflated, but for whatever reason, he always seemed to be sliding by under the radar.

During that 1999 season, my father and I took a trip up to another decrepit mass of ballpark — Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia — specifically to see Guerrero and the Expos play the Phillies. I collected his baseball cards, Starting Lineup figures, and even had one of these toy trucks. Actually, I think they’re all stored away in box somewhere.

The point is, in my own personal baseball history, Guerrero is a central figure. When he became a free agent in October 2003 and flirted with the Baltimore Orioles, I went to sleep at night salivating at the thought of my favorite player signing with my hometown team. I rooted for him so fiercely and with such devotion that even when he chose the Anaheim Angels, one of a handful of teams that I’ve always felt a sense of loathing toward, I continued cheering for him individually. I love that he had a resurgence for the Texas Rangers in 2010 and was thrilled when he signed to play in Baltimore a year later, even as a 36-year-old player who was clearly beyond his prime.

Of course, if getting into the Hall of Fame is a prerequisite for a spot in the Nats’ Ring of Honor — and you can safely make that assumption given Dawson and Carter are in and Raines is not — all of this is moot if Guerrero’s career doesn’t get him to Cooperstown.

In July 2010, Baseball Reference laid out the arguments for and against Guerrero being inducted and included a poll for their readers to vote on. It was posted in the midst of Guerrero’s minor renaissance in Texas and before his respectable final season in Baltimore, so some of his counting statistics have been padded since the post first went up, but nothing particularly compelling happened to sway matters one way or the other (the Rangers did win the American League, so if you give players credit for team accomplishments, there’s that). Of the 2,661 people who voted, 1,757 (66.03%) would induct Guerrero based on his numbers at the time. Another 25.82% said “probably yes” and only 67 people total said “no.” It’s an admittedly small sample size, but at least it suggests that I’m not letting my personal attachments get in the way of common sense.

So let’s say he gets voted into the Hall of Fame. Here’s the next dilemma: Dawson, Carter, and even Raines retired well before the Nationals debuted in Washington. The same is not true of Guerrero, who signed with Anaheim a year before the move and played his final seven seasons in a world where the Nationals existed and the Expos did not. Whereas it would have been impossible for Dawson or Carter to put on a Nationals uniform and play in DC, Guerrero theoretically could have made ties with the team under their new identity. He faced the Nationals 10 times in his playing career, in fact. But after leaving Montreal, Dawson played against the Expos 111 times and Carter opposed his former team 79 times. Plenty of players go on to face franchises they used to play for and it doesn’t erase any of their lineage. Just because one of those franchises happened to relocate while a player’s career was still ongoing doesn’t mean the evaluations need to be different. Equivalently, Dawson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010 — five years after the Expos moved to DC — and the cap on his plaque is still adorned with the Expos’ logo. Baseball history is quite powerful.

But while Dawson had arguably his greatest season as a member of the Chicago Cubs in 1987, he still played in far more games across more seasons with the Expos, and so the cap selection is easy to justify. Guerrero, on the other hand, played 1,004 games for the Expos and another 846 for Anaheim (who would eventually undergo their own identity change, becoming the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2005), but arguably reached greater individual heights with the Angels, winning the 2004 American League MVP Award.

You could probably argue that if Guerrero does make the Hall of Fame and is enshrined with an Angels cap, his bond to the Expos organization is cut enough to sever even the remote chance of a nameplate in Nationals Park. Fair enough, I suppose.

But here’s perhaps the most compelling reason for Guerrero to be immortalized by the franchise: the official Washington Nationals record books, as alluded to earlier. Guerrero is the franchise leader in numerous categories and, in fact, heads more categories than Carter or Dawson.

Nationals Single Season Franchise Records Held by Guerrero:

Consecutive games played (276; 1998-99)
Batting average (.345; 2000)
Slugging percentage (.664; 2000)
OPS (1.074; 2000)
Hits (206; 2002)
Multi-HR games (8; 2000)
Runs batted in (131; 1999)
Intentional walks (32; 2002)
Total bases (379; 2000)

Nationals Career Franchise Records Held by Guerrero:

Batting average (.323)
Slugging percentage (.588)
OPS (.978)
Home runs (234)
Intentional walks (130)

The numbers speak for themselves and, frankly, whether you’re a proponent of the Nationals honoring their Expos lineage or not, the record books are what they are. They weren’t officially wiped when the organization relocated and, as I mentioned earlier, baseball fans are savvy enough to take the facts of history and frame them however is appropriate for them. The Nationals used to be the Expos. That’s an indisputable fact.

(via The Score)

(via The Score)

Now, do I honestly envision a day where Guerrero’s name is entrenched beside Carter and Dawson’s? Not really. Even being generous, it’s a long shot. But for my money, the framework of logic is in place to make it happen and, as someone who thinks wholeheartedly that baseball has the richest history of any sport and should make every effort to tap into that history, it’s a move I’d unquestionably support.

Of course, we’re talking about one of my all-time favorites here and I want what I want, after all.

ED. NOTE: This post is cross-posted and initially appeared on Red Porch Report.