Part I: A short history
First, just a little bit of history. The Baseball Hall of Fame, more or less, was the brainchild of two people. The first knew nothing whatsoever about baseball. The second romanticized the game beyond all reason.
You can think about whose spirit still lingers over Cooperstown, N.Y.
The first was a man named Alexander Cleland, a businessman who had come from Scotland when he was 27 years old. To say he knew nothing about baseball probably undersells the truth. But according to James Vlasich’s book “A Legend for the Legendary,” one day in 1934, on other business, Cleland was walking around Cooperstown and he saw workers expanding Doubleday Field. He struck up a conversation with one of the guys, who happened to mention that everyone in Cooperstown was very excited because the 100th anniversary of baseball’s invention in Cooperstown was coming up in just five years.
Of course, baseball was not really invented in Cooperstown. It was certainly not invented in Cooperstown in 1839 by a future Civil War hero named Abner Doubleday, who was not even there. But this was a time when that myth was powerful, and Cleland was struck by a brilliant business idea: Cooperstown ought to have a baseball museum. “Fathers,” he would write in his proposal to his boss Stephen Clark, “would be interested to stop at Cooperstown and show the building to their sons and perhaps throw a baseball or two on the field.”
He estimated that “Hundreds of visitors would be attracted to the shopping district right in the heart of Cooperstown.”
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Cleland did not dream up this project as a Hall of Fame. He thought of it as a museum with “funny old uniforms” and “baseballs thrown out and autographed by presidents,” and the “bats of baseball’s greatest players.” In other words, he saw it as a fun place that celebrated the game. He did not know baseball. But he understood there was business in nostalgia.
The Hall of Fame part was thought up by a man named Ford Frick, who is probably best known today for trying to slap an asterisk on Roger Maris’ single-season home run record. Frick was a sportswriter (he was ghost-writer for Babe Ruth’s autobiography), then a baseball executive and finally the commissioner of baseball. His love for baseball was deep and rosy and idealized.
Here’s a a representative paragraph from his essay, “Why Baseball Is National Pastime:”
“I think baseball is our National Pastime because the qualities it develops in its contests — the team play, cooperation of all the members toward one purpose, with stardom achievable only through and with such cooperation — come closer to representing the fundamental principles that make up the spirit of the American people than is true in the case of any other sport on the calendar.”
Frick came up with the idea of a Baseball Hall of Fame after he visited the Hall of Fame for Great Americans — then on the campus of New York University — and saw the busts of people like George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant and Phillips Brooks and Maria Mitchell. Frick thought such an idea would work perfectly for baseball. The Hall of Great Americans is still around on the grounds of what is now Bronx Community College. There are a few questionable choices in there too.
Frick’s dream for a Hall of Fame to honor the greatest players, combined with Cleland’s business vision for a baseball museum, proved to be a powerful combination. Frick was a strict believer in the Doubleday myth, so Cooperstown was the only place it could be built. The Baseball Hall of Fame — which would have Cleland’s museum with memorabilia AND Frick’s Hall of Fame lionizing the game’s greatest players — would open in 1939.
You will notice that up to this point, nobody had worked out how to actually PICK the greatest players. This is because nobody even thought about it. The Hall of Fame election process wasn’t even discussed enough to be fairly called an afterthought. The Hall of Fame founders simply dumped that part on the most obvious group of the 1930s, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The BBWAA was really the only option at the time — this was years before television, and owners were still reluctant to have their baseball games on the radio. The Hall gave the BBWAA almost no instruction. Best I can tell, there were only two directives:
1. Pick the best players — and there should be 75 percent agreement.
2. Players should be considered based on their record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to their various teams.
The second of these directives has come to be called the “character clause” because, as you can see, it includes integrity AND sportsmanship AND character, as if you didn’t get the point. Nobody seems too sure who put the clause in. Writer Bill James thinks it might have been Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who, of course, was charged with cleaning up the game after the Black Sox Scandal. More and more, though, I think it was Ford Frick. It sounds like him. Through the years the clause has been, like a smoke alarm, mostly ignored until it goes off in the middle of the night because of a worn-down battery.
The character clause is beeping like crazy now.
So what’s the point of all this? It’s good to know history. The Hall of Fame, in my view, has never really married its two founding visions. Some people still view it as Cleland’s place for parents and children to enjoy the history of baseball and maybe go to the field for a catch. Some view it the way Frick did, as baseball’s “Hall of Great Americans,” to honor players who represent the fundamental principles that make up the spirit of the American people. This divide has never been wider than it is right now, and on the subject of performance enhancing drugs.
One final point on the history: The Hall of Great Americans had one rule of election that Frick did not bring to the Baseball Hall of Fame. To get into the Hall of Great Americans, a person had to be dead. For 25 years. That certainly simplified things.
Part II: Players who fall just short
This year’s Hall of Fame ballot — the results of which will be released Wednesday — was the most challenging in my decade-plus of voting, because I believe there are at least 15 players on it who belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The limit is 10, so I had to leave out five people I believe are fully qualified Hall of Famers, as well as a few more I think have strong cases. There is a temptation to play games with the Hall of Fame voting. For instance, I’m a big supporter of Alan Trammell’s Hall of Fame case. So I reasonably could have left off a worthy player I know will get elected — someone like Tom Glavine — to give support to Trammell, who needs it more.
I didn’t do that. I decided that was not voting in the spirit of the Hall. I don’t believe I bring much expertise to the table here, but whatever expertise I do bring would be because I have spent a lot of time learning about baseball. I chose the 10 baseball players who I think are most worthy and and regretfully did not check the boxes of five others who I hope will stay on the ballot. No, it’s not ideal. But, realistically, the entire process seems broken to me. That’s a topic for another time.
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I ranked 24 players who I think have at least a mild Hall of Fame case, based on their worthiness. Here’s the list I came up with, in reverse order:
24. Kenny Rogers. He’s an easy player to dismiss because of his career 4.27 ERA and the fact he only once received ANY Cy Young votes and because you just don’t think of Kenny Rogers and Hall of Fame together. Kenny Rogers and chicken: Yes. But Rogers is probably better than you remember. He threw 3,000 innings with a 107 ERA+ (100 ERA+ is average — Rogers’ career ERA was roughly 7 percent better than league average). He also threw a perfect game and pitched a dominant game in the 2006 World Series. He’s probably as good as two or three pitchers in the Hall, and his case might be, for some, uncomfortably similar to Jack Morris’. Rogers falls well short for me, but he was a very good pitcher.
23. Luis Gonzalez. I pulled this little trick earlier on my blog: Name the only player in baseball history who hit 575 doubles and 350 homers, drove in 1,400 RBIs, stole 100 bases and was hit by pitch more than 100 times.
The answer is Luis Gonzalez. He’s the only one. That’s looks pretty impressive. But the real trick is to get someone to say, “Come on, who cares about how many times he was hit by pitch?” Because then you can say, fine, forget that, who are the only players to hit 575 doubles, 350 homers, drive in 1,400 RBIs and steal 100 bases? They say: Who?
You say: Hank Aaron. Carl Yastrzemski. Barry Bonds. And Luis Gonzalez.
This is just playing with numbers, though. Gonzalez had one ridiculously great year, 2001, when he hit .325 with 57 homers, scored 128 runs, drove in 142. But it’s worth mentioning that those 57 home runs were only good enough for THIRD in the National League that year, to give you an idea about the insane offense of the time. Gonzalez had two or three other excellent years and several good ones. It was a fine career.
22. Lee Smith. I don’t know what to do with relievers. Should they be treated like punters and kickers are treated by the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Right now there is just one full-time kicker in the Hall of Fame (Jan Stenerud) and no punters (though Ray Guy might get in this year). The football thinking is that these positions are so specialized that unless you were the very best who ever lived, literally the very best, you cannot be considered one of the greatest football players ever.
Lee Smith was a superb closer for many, many years. His consistency still amazes. He led the league in saves four times and, when he retired, held the all-time saves record of 478. But the save record has since been smashed by Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, and anyway saves are a pretty flawed statistic. Smith was a specialist (he pitched fewer than 1,300 innings), and a first-class one. I just don’t see him as a Hall of Famer.
21. Don Mattingly. Donnie Baseball had a stretch, from 1984-87, or so, where he was pretty widely viewed as the best player in the American League and maybe in baseball. In retrospect, he probably wasn’t quite THAT good — Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken were all probably better – but he was damned good and, more, he was the kind of player you admired. The eyeblack. The mustache. The cool crouched stance. The slick way he would scoop bad throws out of the dirt.
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If Mattingly’s back had not gone out on him, sapping his power and consistency, I feel sure he would be a Hall of Famer. That’s not an uncommon story, though. As it was, Mattingly’s career descended too quickly and ended too young. But he remains an icon of the 1980s.
20 Jack Morris. Speaking of 1980s icons. I have written way, way too much about Jack Morris’ Hall of Fame case through the years. There’s no point in rehashing it all. Morris was a remarkably durable pitcher and he pitched one of the greatest World Series games ever. He was a conspicuous pitcher because of his mustache and competitiveness and unwillingness to come out of games. He is, I think, remembered by his fans as being better than he was.
If I had to guess, Morris will probably not be elected this year (a victim, I think, of the overloaded ballot). But the good news for him is that means he finally will be off the BBWAA ballot and can put his fate with the veteran’s committee. I suspect they will be more sympathetic to his case. I think within five years Jack Morris will be in the Hall of Fame.
19. Jeff Kent. Other people like his case more than I do. He was an excellent hitter — his .500 slugging percentage ranks him third among second basemen, after Hornsby and Robbie Cano — and his 377 home runs are the most ever for the position. But, in my mind, much of this was time and place. He was a very good hitter hitting behind Barry Bonds in a time when home runs were flying like crazy. He was a subpar fielder, he couldn’t really run, and he only had three of four seasons you would qualify as outstanding. He does have a compelling Hall of Fame case, but in my view it’s not as good as the cases of Lou Whitaker or Bobby Grich.
18. Rafael Palmeiro. Is there any difference between someone who used steroids before testing began and someone who tested positive after? This might be nitpicking, but I say yes. I say that, while it was certainly wrong to use steroids before testing, performance-enhancing drugs were baseball’s happy little secret. The game needed several jolts of good feeling after the 1994 strike left everybody embittered, and the home run helped bring the game back. People came back to the ballpark. Baseball players became national figures again. Chicks, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine assured us, dig the longball.
How do you get more longballs? It’s really not that complicated. You lighten the baseballs and harden the bats and give players body armor and and bring in the fences and shrink the strike zone and build more weight rooms and cover your ears when whispers of steroid abuse make their way around. I will always believe that the extensive steroid use in baseball was a league-wide effort, which is why I find it disingenuous to throw all the blame on the players.
But after home runs grew tiresome, after it became clear that steroids and human growth hormone and other PEDs were powerfully tainting the game, after it became so blatant that everyone agreed to drug testing … yes, I think using at that point is different. It feels a bit like the difference between making a racist statement in 1918 and making the same one in 2008. Rafael Palmeiro’s positive test for anabolic steroids — shortly after pointing during a congressional hearing and saying “I have never used steroids” — is different to me. So is Ryan Braun’s shenanigans and Alex Rodriguez’s nonsense and so on.
Anyway, that’s not why I’m passing on Palmeiro (he has always continued to deny using steroids, by the way). His 500 homers and 3,000 hits are obviously Hall of Fame-worthy — at least before the 1990s — but I think those numbers are a reflection of durability and the time when he played. Was Palmeiro a truly great player at his peak? That’s a tough question. He never topped 7.0 Wins Above Replacement in a season. Not one. Here are the first basemen/DHs just of Palmeiro’s time who had at least one season of 7.0 WAR.
1. Albert Pujols, 8 seasons
2. Jeff Bagwell, 4 seasons
3. Todd Helton, 3 seasons
(tie) Jason Giambi, 3 seasons
5. John Olerud, 2 seasons
(tie) Frank Thomas, 2 seasons
(tie) Jim Thome, 2 seasons
8. Derrek Lee, 1 season
(tie) Mark Teixeira, 1 season
(tie) Carlos Delgado, 1 season
(tie) Mark McGwire, 1 season
(tie) Edgar Martinez, 1 season
For a first baseman/DH to stand out in this era, he had to be some kind of sensational. Palmeiro was very good for a very long time. But I don’t think Palmeiro was ever the best first baseman in his own league, must less the game’s overall best player, not even for a single season.
17. Sammy Sosa. He hit 60-plus home runs three times in his career — and did not lead the league in any of those three seasons. I love that bit of trivia. Offers a pretty good idea of what the era was like.
Sosa put up numbers — particularly the 609 home runs — that would traditionally be viewed as slam-dunk Hall of Fame numbers. And it’s easy to forget now but, for a time, he was perhaps the most beloved player in baseball, a guy who ran around the outfield, could throw like crazy and was a joy to watch.
Steroid suspicions have hurt him unquestionably but for me there are other questions. Sosa’s career on-base percentage was quite low (.344). He became an indifferent, often dreadful, outfielder as his home run numbers skyrocketed. He could really run as a young man but, again, after the home runs, he became a liability as a baserunner. The joy sapped out of him.
When looking at the Steroid Era — even beyond the questions of cheating, morality and so on — there might be a more fundamental question to ask: With all the home runs flying around during the time, are home runs (and home runs alone) enough to make someone a Hall of Famer? I don’t know. Sosa’s case is basically that: 60 homers three times, 609 homers total. Is that enough? I think maybe not. I do know Sosa could fall off the ballot this year.
16. Fred McGriff. The Crime Dog was a fantastic hitter — and a remarkably consistent one. He hit between 30 and 37 home runs 10 times in his career. He drove in between 100 and 107 runs eight times. He probably had his four best seasons before the numbers explosion that was the Steroid Era. The two times he led the league in home runs were with 36 and 35. Compare that with our previous candidate.
Was McGriff a Hall of Famer? Wow, that’s close. Like Palmeiro, his peak feels a bit short to me. No MVP awards and, in retrospect, I don’t think he quite ever deserved one. He too never had even one season with a 7.0 WAR. He was a subpar fielder and he couldn’t run, so all of his value was really in his power and his ability to walk. I guess I look at it this way: Is he the best first baseman/DH not in the Hall of Fame? Just on this ballot, I have Jeff Bagwell, Mark McGwire, Edgar Martinez and Frank Thomas ahead of him. Many would put Palmeiro ahead too. How about off the ballot? Was he better than John Olerud? Will Clark? How about Keith Hernandez? Awfully close.
I think the Hall of Fame line is more or less right down McGriff’s back. Fantastic player. He would be better than many players already in the Hall of Fame. I will look closely again next year. This year, he’s just outside.
Part III: The five I left off
So, now, there are 15 players I believe are Hall of Famers. I could only vote for 10. Here are the five that I had to leave off.
15. Mark McGwire. I just asked the question in the Sosa section: Is hitting home runs in the steroid era enough to make someone a Hall of Famer? McGwire couldn’t run at all, and he was a defensive liability (despite the Gold Glove he won in 1990). But McGwire has two advantages over Sosa.
One, his on-base percentage was 50 points higher. That’s a pretty big deal.
And two — McGwire, by the numbers, was not just great at hitting home runs. He was better at hitting home runs than anyone who ever lived. He hit a home run for every 10.6 at-bats. Nobody in baseball history is even close to that, not Ruth, not Bonds, not anybody. I know people dismiss that entirely because of his admitted steroid use. But those home runs happened anyway.
McGwire is also, as far as I know, the only Hall of Fame candidate who (1) Has fully admitted taking steroids; (2) Has shown true contrition about it and (3) Has worked to educate young people about them. At some point, once people get beyond the anger, I think this should matter. He has no chance whatsoever of ever getting elected by the BBWAA — and he has accepted this fate — but I think he’s a Hall of Famer and would vote for him if I had enough spots.
14. Edgar Martinez. One of the great hitters in baseball history. That’s no exaggeration. Among players with 7,500 plate appearances in the big leagues, Martinez is 12th in career on-base percentage (.418), which I think is the single most most important offensive statistic. He’s just behind Stan Musial, just ahead of Frank Thomas.
He hit .312/.418/.515 in his extraordinary career. And this is true though he didn’t play a full season until he was 27 years old because the Mariners, for reasons that are still not clear, kept sending him back to Class AAA Calgary. even though he hit .329 there when he was 24, hit .363 there when he was 25 and hit .345 there when he was 26.
Martinez’s problem, then — and his Hall of Fame problem now — was that he really didn’t have a defensive position. The Mariners finally made him a full-time DH finally in 1995 when he was 32 years old. He promptly hit a league-leading .356 with a league-leading 52 doubles and 121 runs. For the next five years, he never hit less than .322, and he led the league in on-base percentage two more times.
How should a DH be viewed by Hall of Fame voters? Well, I look at it this way: There are four relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame — five if you count Dennis Eckersley — and soon Mariano Rivera will go, Trevor Hoffman will probably go and Lee Smith has a chance too. That’s eight.
There is no pure DH in the Hall of Fame. Paul Molitor is the closest — he was a DH about 45 percent of the time. I think a great DH should be viewed like a great relief pitcher. If anything, a great DH contributes more than a great reliever. Martinez is a definite Hall of Famer for me.
13. Larry Walker. I’m a bit worried that Walker might fall off the ballot this year. He’s hurt by the shortness of his carer and the fact that his people tend to discount the extraordinary heart of his career, between 1997 and 2002, because he was playing in that hitting haven that was Coors Field. In those six seasons, Walker hit and almost unbelievable .353/.441/.648 and scored 630 runs in 775 games.
The Hall of Fame has honored players who took advantage of great home ballparks. I’ve done this before but it’s always fun. Let’s take a look at a typical Larry Walker season.
Home: .361/416/690, 28 homers, 75 RBIs.
Road: .269/.325/.512, 18 homers, 64 RBIs.
That’s a huge difference but … wait, that’s not Larry Walker. That’s Jim Rice at Fenway Park in 1978. OK, here’s a real Walker season.
Home: .467/.516/.789, 20 homers, 81 RBIs, 62 runs.
Road: .280/.338/.436, 8 homers, 39 RBIs, 39 runs.
That’s just ridiculous but … yeah, you didn’t fall for it that time. That’s Chuck Klein’s triple crown season in 1933. Let’s do one more.
Home: .358/.422/.673, 28 homers, 88 RBIs, 78 runs.
Road: .286/.359/.498, 14 homers, 41 RBIs, 59 runs.
No, not Walker. That’s Billy Williams in 1970 at hitter-haven Wrigley Field.
The career was short, yes. But Walker’s case is that he did everything well in a way only a handful of players ever have. He hit for average (.313 lifetime), hit for power (.565 slugging), got on base (.400 career OBP), ran the bases, stole bases, played first-class outfield and could throw like crazy. Think how many players could do all those things. Now think about how many are not in the Hall of Fame. Not many.
12. Alan Trammell. It breaks my heart not to vote for Alan Trammell for the first time this year. I think he’s one of the most underrated players in baseball history. But this year, because of the backlog, he falls just outside my Top 10. Trammell hit, had some power, stole some bases, played terrific shortstop and was the MVP in the one World Series he played in. He was a victim of his time, a time when Cal Ripken was redefining offense for a shortstop and Ozzie Smith was redefining defense. He suffered by comparison*.
*Trammell couldn’t hit like Ripken, but I do like playing this game. From 1984-90 — seven season in both of their primes — pick which one was which:
Player A: .270/.348/.447 with 170 homers, 19 steals, 676 runs created, 121 OPS+.
Player B: .294/.359/.448 with 110 homers, 108 steals, 632 runs created, 123 OPS+.
Obviously, by the steals you should know, that Player B is Trammell. And it’s not a a fair comparison because I managed to pick the years between Ripken’s MVP seasons. But the point is that for many seasons in their careers, Trammell was actually the better hitter.
I’ve written before: Trammell absolutely should have won the 1987 MVP award. He was robbed by voters who wildly overvalued George Bell’s 47 home runs. If Tram had won that award. maybe people would better appreciate just how great he really was.
11. Mike Mussina. After Greg Maddux, I felt like there were three pitchers all pretty equally deserving of the Hall of Fame. One, Tom Glavine, will probably get elected overwhelmingly because he did things that catch the eye, like win 300 games and two Cy Young Awards. The second, Curt Schilling, will probably finish around 40 percent because he’s famous and was such a great postseason pitcher.
And Mike Mussina, I suspect, will finish not only behind those two but also behind Jack Morris* and maybe even Lee Smith because his greatness is harder to sum up in a single sentence. Mussina didn’t win 300 games (he won 270). He didn’t win a Cy Young (he finished Top 5 six times). He won 20 just once (and won 18 or 19 five other times). He didn’t have a bloody sock game. He’s not the ESPN color commentator for Sunday Night Baseball.
*By the way, I don’t understand how anyone could vote for Morris and not vote for Mussina. I literally do not get it. Even by the plainest standards, Mussina won more games, lost fewer, had a superior won-loss record, a lower ERA, struck out 300 more batters, walked 600 fewer, had a lower postseason ERA, virtually the same World Seres ERA, and even won five Gold Gloves to Morris’ zero. Hey, if you want to vote for Morris, please, vote for the guy. But vote for Mussina too. Be reasonable about this thing already.
But Mussina was basically every bit the pitcher than Glavine and Schilling were. Fangraphs WAR — which judges pitchers based on their strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed — actually ranks Mussina MUCH HIGHER than Glavine. It’s easy to see why when you compare the numbers.
Mussina struck out 7.1 per nine innings, Glavine just 5.3 per nine.
Mussina walked two per nine innings, Glavine walked 3.06 per nine.
Mussina gave up more home runs, but he also pitched in easy home run parks.
I did not have room on the ballot for all three. I very seriously considered voting Mussina over Glavine, but in the end, I took Glavine. It wasn’t a fun decision to make. I certainly hope the ballot clears up a bit so I can vote for Mussina next year.
Part IV: The 10 on my Hall of Fame ballot
10. Tim Raines. One of the best players in baseball from 1981-87, perhaps the best pure base-stealer in the history of the game. Here’s a simple argument for Raines: In a career that was almost identical in length to his contemporary Tony Gwynn, Raines reached base just 18 fewer times and he scored 200 more runs. If Gwynn is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer (and he is) then Tim Raines belongs in the Hall of Fame, as well.
9. Craig Biggio. He has the career numbers Hall of Fame voters like — more than 3,000 hits, fifth all-time with 668 career doubles, 15th all-time with 1,844 runs scored — but I think of him as a Hall of Famer because his prime is better than most people remember. In 1997, for instance, he might have been the best player in baseball. He hit .309/.415/.501, won a Gold Glove at second base, banged 22 homers, stole 47 bases, scored 146 runs and did not hit into a double play all season. He had two or three other seasons that were almost as good.
8. Roger Clemens. Let’s write one short paragraph about Clemens without mentioning you know what. One MVP. Seven Cy Youngs. Seven ERA titles. Five-time strikeout king. Six-time shutout leader. Third all-time in strikeouts. Fifth all-time in WAR. Won a Cy Young at 23. Won a Cy Young at 41. Based purely on what he did on the field, Clemens is probably the greatest pitcher who ever lived.
7. Barry Bonds. Let’s write one short paragraph about Bonds without mentioning you know what. Seven MVPs, including four in a row. All-time home run leader, career and single-season. Only player with 500 homers and 500 steals. Only player with 400 homers and 400 steals. All-time walk leader. Eight Gold Gloves. Here’s an absurd one: Had more intentional walks than Roberto Clemente or Andre Dawson had TOTAL walks. Based purely on what he did on the field, Bonds is one of the five greatest players who ever lived.
6. Tom Glavine. Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs called him a left-handed Jim Palmer, and I think that’s a perfect description. Glavine, like Palmer, was extremely smart, overwhelmingly competitive, and he knew how to work the umpires. He never struck out 200 in a season, and he was often among the league leaders in walks and home runs allowed. But, like Palmer, he’d battle and claw and hang in there and keep finding ways to survive and advance.
Palmer, you probably know, never gave up a grand slam in his career — that’s in 213 chances. In a way Glavine’s record is even more impressive. Glavine faced the bases loaded 428 times in his career — only Nolan Ryan faced more. He allowed only two home runs.*
*Ryan, who was one of the hardest guys to hit a home run off of in baseball history, gave up 10 grand slams.
5. Curt Schilling. Bloody sock. The 2001 postseason. The best strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball history.*
*Not counting Tommy Bond who retired in 1884 and pitched when it took eight balls to draw a walk. It actually annoys me that he’s listed in the record books.
4. Mike Piazza. He’s probably the best hitting catcher in baseball history. His 427 homers are 38 more than second-place Johnny Bench. His .545 slugging percentage is 45 points higher than second-place Roy Campanella. Ivan Rodriguez did have 20 more runs created than Piazza, but it took him 2,500 more plate appearances. Piazza was a suspect catcher — well, he couldn’t throw — but he had some strengths defensively as well. Will he get in this year? It’s going to be close … he might need one more year.
3. Jeff Bagwell. He’s probably the wrong guy to use for this point, but I have to make it at some point: Every year, when I make my votes, I think hard about the steroid issue. My feeling now is that I will mark down a player a bit for acknowledged or demonstrated PED abuse during the era before testing — this is why I have Bonds and Clemens a little bit down the list — but it is not a disqualifier for me. My feeling is that players who used steroids before testing, well, I’m not happy about it, but it was woven into the fabric of the game. When the Hall of Fame puts together a committee that unanimously elects Tony La Russa into the Hall of Fame — a man who for years managed the most infamous steroid-infused team of the time — I realize that there are different rules at play, and there should not be. Steroids were a part of the game. A sad part. But a part just the same.
I’m not opposed to changing my viewpoint if there’s a compelling enough reason to do so. As I’ve written before, I’d love for the Hall of Fame to take the lead and offer guidance. I think they should. In the meantime, though, I figure the only reason I have a vote is because I supposedly know something about baseball. I’ll vote based on baseball.
Jeff Bagwell is as good a reason as any to do so. I don’t know if Jeff Bagwell used. He says he didn’t. There’s nothing more than some weak circumstantial evidence that he did. And Bagwell was a fantastic baseball player. He hit, he slugged, he got on base, he ran well, he won a Gold Glove, and he was mesmerizing to watch. These kinds of players come along so rarely. If Bagwell gets into the Hall of Fame and then we find out he used steroids, I won’t feel cheated. I feel sure there are players — multiple players — already in the Hall of Fame who used steroids. They were wrong for doing it. They were also great baseball players.
2. Frank Thomas. The Big Hurt is a great nickname, no? From 1991-97, Frank Thomas hit .330/.452/.604 and averaged 36 homers, 118 RBIs, 107 runs scored, he won two MVP awards, led the league in on-base percentage four times, OPS four times, walks four times. He was on pace then to battle Hornsby or Foxx or Mays or Aaron or DiMaggio as the greatest right-handed hitter ever. He wasn’t quite as good after that, though he still had a couple great years. He’s one of the 10 best right-handed hitters ever, I think.
1. Greg Maddux. One of my all-time favorite players. I could write another 6,000 words just on him right now, but I won’t. There’s no way to sum up Maddux, anyway. You could go with the four Cy Young Awards, the 355 wins, the 2.15 ERA from 1992-98 — much of it during the heart of the Steroid Era. But, no, it was more poetic than that. Maddux wasn’t a pitcher as much as he was a zen master. He bent batters (and umpires) to his will. He pitched the corners, just off the corners, just off the off-corners, he moved the ball high, dropped it low, never walked anybody, made every defensive play (best fielding pitcher I ever saw), hit enough batters to keep them honest, pitched around home runs, and left everybody thinking, “Damn, I just missed!” Remember the line the kid says in “The Matrix” about how there is no spoon? With Maddux, there was no spoon.