Cal and the 3000
Last night, Cal Ripken became the latest member of the 3000 hit club. Getting to 3000 hits has meant certain induction to the Hall of Fame. For Cal, the Hall has long been a foregone conclusion. He is the all-time record holder for home runs by a shortstop, owner of two league MVP awards and a gold glove or two. He'll finish his career in the top 25 all time for hits, doubles, homers, total bases, runs and RBI. He set the modern day standard for offense from the shortstop position and has redefined the position for player size. Before Cal, it was rare to see a shortstop over 6 foot tall because the general thinking was that a man that tall wouldn't be agile enough or possess the necessary quickness for the demands of the position. Seems kind of funny now that it's relatively common to find shortstops that big. It's highly unlikely that Ripken getting 3000 hits will have any effect on his chances at the Hall of Fame. He was a first ballot Hall of Famer before, and a good candidate to surpass Tom Seaver's record of being named on 98+% of the votes. This is little more than a footnote to his substantial resume.
However, the question could be should 3000 hits mean as much as it once did? When Cap Anson became the first to reach the mark in the late 1800s, there wasn't even a regulation for how many games were played. Teams played around 130 games but it wasn't written in stone. When Honus Wagner surpassed 3 K in the early part of the 1900s, teams played 152 game schedule. When Hank Aaron did it, teams were up to the current 162 games played. To show what kind of advantage the modern player has over his predecessors, Cal Ripken has played in 8 more games in his 18 year career than Honus Wagner did in his 21 year career. Of course, part of that has to do with Cal's Iron Man streak, but the point is still valid. More games per season, more chances to hit.
Another advantage for the modern player is the designated hitter. A player doesn't have to play the field everyday in order to get an opportunity to hit. By avoiding the field, he also avoids the potential for injury that comes from throwing or the extra running or the collisions. One of the nice things about Ripken's achievement is that he attained all three thousand hits without ever DHing. Very few of the recent members of the 3000 hits club can say that. Before Tony Gwynn did it last year, the last to reach 3000 while playing in the field was Carl Yastremski, meaning Wade Boggs, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, Rod Carew, George Brett, and Al Kaline might not have reached 3000 had they had to play in the field every day. For some perspective, that's over a third of the membership.
Even more to the point, what happens when Harold Baines reaches the 3000 hit milestone sometime next year? Does he become a lock for the Hall? He'll also probably have 400 home runs to his credit as well. Only 7 other players have achieved both. But the other 7 played the field for most, if not all of their careers. Baines hasn't played the field regularly since 1986, playing a total of 81 games in the field in the last 14 seasons. So what kind of criteria should there be for a hitter who's missed two thirds of his sport (catching and throwing) for over 2000 games?
The solution should be to abandon the idea of milestones and measure players against their contemporaries. How often did a player rank amongst the top 10 or 20 in the game? For Ripken, it occurred quite often; for Baines, rather rarely. Or one could add the numbers of the league leaders for each year a player was in the majors and if he finishes within 10% of the total of all the leaders in several categories, then he should be considered. This could work both offensively and defensively, with a demand that the player had to finish above a certain percentage in a minimum number of categories. Of course, that's a lot more involved than just saying, "but he's got 3000 hits."
Anyway, for now, we get to revel in the achievements of one of the great players the game has ever known; a player who reminds of us of the way things used to be and the way the game used to be played.