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Tomase: Steroids kept Red Sox great Dwight Evans out of Hall of Fame -- advanced stats could've put him in

John Tomase
July 17, 2017 - 11:46 am
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Dwight Evans certainly doesn't look bitter. On a recent March morning, the all-time Red Sox great saunters around a practice field at JetBlue Park, helping former teammate Rich Gedman gather scattered balls following batting practice.

As he returns to the clubhouse, he spies career minor leaguer Dan Butler.

"Hey BUT!" Evans yells, smiling broadly.

"I want to see this kid get to the big leagues," Evans says, his enthusiasm palpable. "He's so good. He's a solid catcher. He's learned how to hit. If he gets one year, he'll get five or six. He's 30, but he's in great shape, he's a great kid, and pitchers love throwing to him. Those are the kind of guys you really want. That's what I'm about now."

Bitter? Far from it. Twenty-six years after retiring, Evans values his place in the Red Sox organization as a player development consultant and mentor to prospects who could otherwise fall through the cracks.

But one subject rankles him, because it has impacted his place in history.

The Hall of Fame.

Evans spent 20 years in the big leagues, including 19 with the Red Sox before retiring as a member of the Orioles in 1991. He quietly compiled an impressive resume, finishing with 385 home runs, eight Gold Gloves, and a pair of top-four MVP finishes.

He led baseball in extra-base hits (605) and the American League in home runs (256) during the 1980s. His lifetime WAR of 67.2 ranks ahead of nine Hall of Fame right fielders, including contemporary Dave Winfield, and only slightly behind first-ballot inductee Tony Gwynn. Tim Raines, everyone's favorite cause this past vote, finished at 69.1. Evans' Hall of Fame teammate, Jim Rice, finished his career at only 47.4.

The skills that made Evans so valuable -- on-base percentage, defense, extra-base ability -- weren't fully appreciated during his playing days, and they meant practically nothing once he hit the Hall of Fame ballot, thanks to the exploits of two men.

Evans appeared on barely five percent of the ballot in 1997, in between 52- and 58-home run seasons by Mark McGwire. Then came 1998, and the great Home Run Chase between McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Who'd win the race to 60? Would one of them top 70?

Suddenly, Evans' 385 lifetime homers looked positively puny. After topping 10 percent of the Hall vote in 1998, Evans fell off the ballot completely in 1999 with only 3.6 percent of writers selecting him, doomed not just by the power-hitting assault on the record books, but a loaded rookie class that included George Brett, Robin Yount, and Nolan Ryan, not to mention former teammate Carlton Fisk, who'd need to wait another year to gain enshrinement.

Evans earned only 18 votes, eight behind Mickey Lolich, and also trailing inferior players like Dave Parker, Dave Concepcion, and Bob Boone. Of the 28 players on the ballot, Evans finished 22nd.

Is he a Hall of Famer? Realistically, his case is borderline. He didn't really hit his stride until age 29 under the tutelage of hitting coach Walter Hriniak. He's the rare player whose latter years far surpassed his prime ones.

But he also knows this: steroids cost him tremendously.

"When I retired, I think I was 29th in home runs," Evans said. "Now I'm 57th or 58th [He's 65th]. What happened in between? Well, there was a steroid issue and people say, 'Well, you still had to hit the ball,' and I agree with that. But when you hit the ball and you max out at 420, 430, and then all of a sudden you're hitting it 500 feet, the balls you miss are 20 rows back, 10 rows back. The balls I missed? Warning track.

"People say I'm crying. I'm not crying. Am I bitter? I'm not. I think it's a sense of accomplishment when you get in. I see that with Jimmy. All that hard work, and he got in, it was a job well done."

Evans is a prime example of a player whose career would be viewed very differently if he played today. He led the league in on base percentage once, OPS twice, and walks three times. As one of the game's more unconventional leadoff hitters in 1985 -- he never stole more than eight bases in a season -- he walked 114 times and scored 110 runs. Drop him to fifth or sixth, as the Red Sox did during the rabbit-ball year of 1987, and he responded with the best power numbers of his career, hitting .305 with 34 homers and 123 RBIs and finishing fourth in the MVP voting.

Evans rejoined the organization in 2001 as a minor-league outfield coach and became big league hitting coach in 2002. He shifted to his current role in 2003, when Theo Epstein became general manager.

"I worked with Theo for seven or eight years, he goes, 'If you were playing today, you're the kind of player I'd be going after,'" Evans said. "That was a compliment. Ben Cherington said the same thing. It was nice to hear."

Evans hit the ballot at the wrong time, as part of baseball's overlooked generation. The only players with at least 65 lifetime WAR who earned fewer Hall votes are contemporaries Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich, as well as 2000s star Kenny Lofton. The voters righted one potential wrong by electing Raines in his final year of eligibility; he'll be inducted on July 30 with Astros slugger Jeff Bagwell and Rangers catcher Pudge Rodriguez.

Had Evans come along 20 years later, he might've earned his own chapter in Moneyball. Put him on the Hall of Fame ballot today, and the advanced stats crowd might get his vote totals into the 200s, at least, as opposed to his max of 49 in 1998.

"Sabermetrics?" Evans asks. "I don't even know what that is."

What he does know is that he suffered because of the era in which he played, and he shudders to think what he might've been tempted to do if he had come along a little later.

"I really didn't do well when I was in front of the writers," he said. "But then again, you had Sosa and McGwire hitting 60 home runs, and I heard comments like, '400 is no longer a criteria for the Hall of Fame. Now it's 550.' I think there were inflated numbers in that era. And yet those guys were also great ballplayers, too."

Could Evans have said no to the chemical enhancement that seemed necessary to keep a job in the early 2000s?

"I'm glad I wasn't in that era," he said. "I'm not saying I wouldn't have. The temptation, the money, and it wasn't illegal early on. But we heard -- '91 was my last year -- Canseco, maybe McGwire, nothing really on McGwire. [Lenny] Dykstra. No one talks about him. He was 170 [pounds] as a player, then comes to spring training 220, and he looked like the Hulk. I just feel those numbers were inflated. I look at [Rafael] Palmeiro. Gosh, I looked at his stats, what did he have, 580 home runs? But he got busted. Sosa, too."

Maybe someday the Veterans Committee will take up Evans' cause. It's a longshot, and he knows it. As he wanders the back fields of spring training, offering insight gleaned from two decades as an underappreciated superstar, he doesn't need outside validation to establish his place in history.

"When I first appeared on the ballot, sure, I was curious," he said. "I was disappointed [to fall off the ballot] because the first part of my career wasn't . . . the second part was better. I didn't know this until I got to Baltimore, but they said, 'Did you know you led the American League in home runs in the '80s?' I honestly didn't. They said, 'Did you know you led all of baseball in extra base hits?' I didn't. I wasn't about that. I didn't need stroking or whatever.

"In those years, you had [Mike] Schmidt. You had Brett. You had Winfield. You had Jim Rice. Those were all great players that are in the Hall of Fame."

Evans pauses for a second as he ponders his contemporaries. For a decade, he stood right there alongside all of them, no matter what Cooperstown says.

"I guess in my mind, I know," he says. "I know that I know."

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