Let’s get one thing straight, right from the beginning: I take Game of Thrones far too seriously. How about that season finale? Can you believe they killed off that one guy who did the thing?
No, wait—I’m saving that piece for Cincinnati Magazine’s Fantasy Fanboy column that doesn’t actually exist yet. What I meant to say is this: I take the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame way too seriously.
I really do. I care about who’s in and who’s out, which current inductees don’t belong and which current players have a chance to make it. It’s just as interesting as the Cooperstown discussion that gets revved up every year when the voting begins.
It’s clear that the Reds take their club Hall of Fame pretty seriously, too. Have you been to the museum lately? I can’t imagine any team in any sport having a better Hall of Fame/museum.
Of course, the Reds didn’t always take it particularly seriously. Inductees were elected strictly by the fans for a long time, which led to some odd choices, such as Harry Craft (career: .253./294/.380, 3.9 WAR), Mike McCormick (.278/.324/.349, 3.0 WAR), and Larry Kopf (.250/.305/.309, 5.2 WAR). Heck, no one was elected at all between 1988 and 1998.
But these days, the Reds have demonstrated a commitment to the Hall of Fame, with elections occurring every other year. Last week, the club announced the Modern Player Ballot, with six names, one of whom will be elected to the Reds Hall of Fame. (The fans are still entrusted with the responsibility for selecting the next Famer, as the fan vote is taken along with the votes of various media members and Reds alumni.)
I care about the Reds Hall of Fame. The club cares about it. And I think you should care about it, too. Which is why it’s time to correct an egregious error: It’s time for the fans to honor Reggie Sanders.
There are six players on this year’s ballot—John Franco, Sanders, Danny Graves, Adam Dunn, Aaron Boone, and Scott Rolen. Each of them has an argument for eventual inclusion in the Hall of Fame. It’s pretty clear, however, that three of the six have better claims than the others.
Dunn, of course, should be a no-doubter. He’s fourth on the club’s all-time home run list, with 270 bombs over parts of eight seasons in a Reds uniform. He holds the club record for most 40 home run seasons (4) and led the team in homers each season from 2002-2008. Even more impressively, Dunn is 3rd in franchise history in slugging percentage and OPS, and he’s 7th in on-base percentage and walks.
Franco should probably already be in the Hall of Fame, too. He’s third on the Reds’ all-time saves list, with 148, and has the sixth-lowest career ERA in club history (2.49). Franco is remembered mostly, at least among non-Cincinnatians, for his time with the New York Mets, but he was a three-time All-Star for the Reds and a shutdown lefty reliever.
Dunn, Franco, and Sanders all had HOF-worthy careers, and all should be enshrined. (You can also make strong arguments for Graves, Boone, and Rolen, though I won’t attempt to make those arguments in this space. At least not today.) But it’s Reggie Sanders who stands out to me as the most interesting of these candidates. He had a brilliant Reds career, but it’s a career that seems to have been lost to history among everyday Reds fans, the great things he accomplished obscured in the minds of Joe Fan amidst the haze created by one bad playoff series.
Sanders is one of the most underrated and underappreciated Reds of recent vintage.* Did you know, for example, that Sanders ranks 23rd all-time among Reds position players in WAR? Really: top 25 of all-time. Every single player ahead of him on that list is either already in the Hall of Fame or is still active (Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips are 6th and 16th on that list, respectively).
*Truthfully, Dunn and Franco probably belong on that list, too. I’m beginning to sense a theme.
Sanders is higher on the club’s all-time WAR list than recent inductees Sean Casey, Chris Sabo, Dan Driessen, Dave Parker, Ron Oester, and Ken Griffey Jr. Sanders accumulated more WAR (21.4) than any of the current nominees, as well:
–Adam Dunn (16.4 career WAR)
–John Franco (13.0)
–Aaron Boone (11.7)
–Scott Rolen (7.6)
–Danny Graves (6.6)
If you listen to my podcast, you already know that Sanders’ brilliant 1995 campaign—in which he hit .306/.397/.579 with 28 homers, 99 RBI, 36 stolen bases, 6.6 WAR, and was named to the NL All-Star team—is one of the best individual seasons, by WAR, that a Reds right fielder has ever put together. In fact, only one right fielder in club history has ever put up a better season: the legendary Frank Robinson. (Of course, Robinson put up three seasons better than Sanders’ best, but Frank is already in the Hall of Fame; otherwise, I’d be writing a different column right now.)
An interesting note about the 1995 Reds: you probably know that Barry Larkin won the National League MVP award that season. No one will argue Larkin’s greatness, at least not around me. But Larkin didn’t lead the Reds in wins above replacement that year. Yep, you guessed it: Reggie Sanders’ 6.6 WAR was better than Larkin’s 5.9.
By the numbers, there is really no argument whatsoever against the proposition that Sanders deserves to be a Reds Hall of Famer. So why isn’t he already enshrined?
Well…it’s complicated. Let’s start with that 1995 season, which is front and center in Sanders’ case for inclusion. But it’s also the reason why a significant segment of Reds fans seem to have forgotten just how good he was. The end of the season left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.
If you’re old enough, I’m sure you remember that National League Championship Series well. The Reds had finished first in the NL Central in the strike-shortened 1994 season, and Davey Johnson’s Redlegs marched right back to the top in 1995, winning the Central again. They swept the Dodgers in the NL Division Series and moved on to face the Atlanta Braves for the right to advance to the club’s second World Series in six years.
Let’s not sugarcoat it: Sanders had a rough series (2-for-16 with 10 strikeouts) as the Reds were swept by the Braves. Cincinnati did not make it back to the playoffs for fifteen more years after that heartbreaking loss. And now, even today, every time Sanders’ name gets mentioned, some wiseguy has to chime in: “Yeah, but what about all those strikeouts against the Braves???” It’s uncanny. For whatever reason, that seems to be the only thing many people remember about Sanders. And it’s a shame.
After all, it’s not like Sanders was alone in struggling in that series. Only one Red did any damage in the NLCS: Larkin, who was 7-for-18 with two doubles and a triple. As a team, the Reds hit .209/.282/.261 (and that includes Larkin’s numbers). Yes, Reggie struck out a lot, but let’s not pretend that he is the only player deserving of blame for Cincinnati’s offensive woes.
Let’s also not forget that the Reds were facing (a) a team that would go on to win the 1995 World Series and (b) had three Hall of Fame pitchers in their starting rotation (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz). Is it really so surprising that the Reds would struggle in a short series against that club?
Alas, they did, and for some reason, that NLCS loss got pinned on Sanders. To this day, that one failure has attached to him like a scarlet letter among some fans, and it’s a crying shame. Between that series and a series of injuries that Sanders suffered, Cincinnati soured on him. He was traded to San Diego in 1999, and the Queen City quickly forgot him.
How else can you explain the fact that Casey, Sabo, and Junior—all of whom had worse careers, statistically speaking, than Sanders—have all been elected, and Sanders hasn’t even sniffed the Reds HOF conversation until this year? It’s a popularity contest. Those guys are more popular.
No more: It’s time to celebrate Reggie Sanders. This is a guy who put up a better Reds career than most players who ever put on the uniform, and he did it with class every single day. He donated time to the community while in Cincinnati, adopting an entire public school and packing backpacks for each student at the beginning of the school year. These days, he devotes his time to his nonprofit foundation that works to provide a comprehensive network of support for children and families living with Autism Spectrum Disorders. (Not all former Reds greats are necessarily quality human beings, as you’ve probably read in the news lately.)
(And, next time around, we can work on getting Dunn into the Hall, okay?)
Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, ESPN’s SweetSpot blog, and the founder of Redleg Nation. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.