History

Pete Rose, Jim Thome, And A Small Wall Of Fame

thome.jpgIt’s still a vivid memory. I’m walking through the parking lot across the street from Bright House Field, and a taller, older man is charging straight at me. He’s pointing at me, an angry pair of eyes fixed on me. I begin to shake.

He closes in on me.

“Why the hell did you rank Pete Rose so low on the Greatest Phillies list?!”

Within an instant we’re laughing. Well, he’s patting my back and laughing, glad to meet me and give me a scare. I’m still a little jumpy from the joke, but I realize he’s a good guy and, at the end of the day, my ranking of Pete Rose at No. 54 in the original 2009 list of the 100 Greatest Phillies – while controversial – was not going to land me in a Clearwater gutter.

Still, it’s vivid, mostly because it was my decision to rank Rose so low (FYI, I’d rank him slightly higher if I re-ranked them today) was so controversial that people recognized me away from Philadelphia and pointed it out to me. I was so frustrated about the constant Rose backlash that I wrote an entire Greatest Phillies entry for Kevin Stocker. Joke back and maybe people will calm down. I could tell people could tell that I was pretty thin-skinned seven years ago.

I still have sensitive skin (I moisturize every day without fail), but I still stand behind the core belief of my original Rose ranking: Pete Rose wasn’t that great of a Phillie.

Which leads me to Bob Brookover’s column Sunday, which suggested Rose should be installed on the Phillies Wall of Fame.

Now, those who know me know that, to me, baseball is fun. It’s ultimately entertainment for us humans while we spend this very short time alive on this Earth. To take it too seriously (or, really, to take anything seriously besides, say, personal relationships) is to lose sight of its purpose.

That said, I’m writing about baseball, so I should probably take a few stands. And me? I’m a Small Hall guy. A Small Wall guy. The game is fun and shouldn’t be taken seriously, but to me, a Hall of Fame or Wall of Fame is supposed to represent the best of the best. That is, there are “best” people, but not all of them should be honored the same.

Take Mike Lieberthal, a great guy and very good player over 13 seasons with the Phillies. For a few years Lieberthal provided oddly sound offensive production and, as a good catcher for a relatively bad team for many years, played the most games at the position than any Phillie before. His final Phillie statistics: .275/.338/.450 with 150 home runs and 609 runs batted in. A two-time All Star and one-time Gold Glove winner. If not for Mike Piazza, Lieberthal is arguably the top hitting catcher in the National League over several seasons.

In all, very good numbers for a catcher who played more than 1,100 games behind the plate. But to me, not a Wall of Fame guy.

I need exceptional numbers plus a number of exceptional moments that defined the player’s Philadelphia tenure.

And I need more than a couple seasons. Jim Thome, inducted last weekend into the Wall of Fame, played in Philly for parts of four seasons – 391 games total. His numbers? Nearly worthy: .260/.384/.541, 101 home runs and 281 RBI. But the four seasons? I’m not exactly sure. And if I’m not exactly sure, I err on the side of denial.

Of course, Thome has symbolic meaning in Philadelphia. He was the first big move to big-market stardom, the kind of marquee player that helped push the Phillies into the pennant chase. I agree to an extent – Citizens Bank Park was coming, giving the Phils much more money to play with. If it wasn’t Thome in 2003, it was going to be someone else. Plus, the Phils do nothing without the combination of Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell and Chase Utley (for starters). And Ryan Howard not only substituted Thome’s production, but he eclipsed it in helping the Phils reach the postseason.

I’m not trying to diminish Thome’s time in Philly – please, I had a jersey like so many others. But I’m a small Wall guy, which means I have a shorter rope for symbolism.

Which brings me back to Rose. For many, Rose represents the final piece of the Phils’ world championship puzzle, the necessary element that got them to the next level.

I’m not so sold on it. The 1976 Phillies (without Rose) won a then-team-record 101 games. They, of course, lost the National League Championship Series to Rose’s Reds. But the Phils were back in the NLCS in ‘77 and ‘78, losing both times to the Dodgers. They did so with a very effective first baseman in Richie Hebner (an on-base machine with pop).

And as for Rose’s leadership abilities? There’s merit there, but the 1979 Phils – with Rose – underachieved terribly, and the champion Phils of ‘80 were a mess up until the very last month of the year and nearly lost the division to the (arguably more talented) Expos. That Expos team, by the way, took the Phils down in the 1981 divisional playoff.

Anyway, Rose was statistically good during his time in Philly. That shouldn’t be disputed. In ‘79 he hit .331/.418/.430 with 208 hits, 95 walks and 32 strikeouts. That’s phenomenal. He was merely average in 1980 (.282/.352/.354, which isn’t strong enough at first base) but came back strong in the truncated ‘81 season (.325/.391/.390). He was back to being average in ‘82 (.271/.345/.338) and took a swan dive in the pennant-winning ‘83 season (.245/.316/.286). Those numbers were a detriment to that team, which won primarily on the strength of pitching.

All in all, Rose had a good Phillies career. Two very good seasons, two average seasons, one bad season. And he was a veteran leader, which counts for something.

But a Wall of Fame guy? Listen, he’s close to making my Wall, but he’s not on it. Nor is Lieberthal (though he’s close). Nor is Thome. And yes, I’m not putting Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee on my Walls, either (though I could flip on Lee). Call me grumpy and old-fashioned, but I guess that’s what I am here.

I do put Bobby Abreu on my Wall in a hot second. In over 1,300 games he went .303/.416/.513 with 195 home runs as a Phillie. He’s one of the greatest Phils ever. He deserves it.

Scott Rolen? I’d argue for him, though he’s toward the end of my small Wall.

The 2008 team? Clear yes on Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels (each has some sort of argument for a number retirement, though with the Phils that typically corresponds with a Hall of Fame induction). To argue Carlos Ruiz is to argue Lieberthal, but Ruiz has many more “moments.” So that can go both ways. Hard no on Jayson Werth, soft no on Shane Victorino. No on Brad Lidge. A soft no on Ryan Madson, but that’s another good argument (I can flip on him).

Pete Rose, however, is on my Wall of Very Good Phillies. Now you may charge at me in parking lots.

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