This time it counts!
OK, so maybe it always counts. Enshrinement is forever, so let's talk about the candidates. Once again, I'm using the tiered Hall approach from my 2004 Hall of Fame column:
The Hall of the Extremely Competent: These guys shouldn't get into Cooperstown without a ticket. Heaven knows, for many this will likely be their only turn on the ballot, most likely failing to make the required percentage of votes to carry over to next year. Still, we owe them our eternal gratitude, because at some point, just about every player on this list was someone's favorite, maybe even the best player on their team. Even if they weren't they were good enough to get ten years in at the big league level.
Jay Buhner -- I remember* August 19, 1988, after Buhner had been traded for Ken Phelps, and the Mariners were in town. Buhner came up against John Candelaria, with a man on. The Candyman delivered one of his mediocre sidearm fastballs--as he so often did toward the end of his career--and I remember Buhner swinging, with that huge "fatal" hitch to his swing that had caused hitting expert Lou Piniella to declare him a non-prospect based on what? Seventy at bats? And the ball flew dead center into the blackened bleachers in center field. Back in '88, before they started putting flubber in the baseballs, that meant something. And it was just this sinking feeling of "Oh, man, what did George do? This guy is going to kill us for years!" Buhner would just never stop haunting the Yanks, not for another ten or so years.
*By remember, I mean I remember it fuzzily, but it gets a lot clearer when I use the gamelogs at Baseball-Reference.com.
Bobby Witt -- Over the first 300-plus innings of his career, Bobby Witt walked 283 guys. In 1987, he walked an amazing 140 in 143 innings, for the highest single season BB/9 rate in the Baseball Prospectus sortable database (which goes back to 1960, I think). I don't know that we'll ever see again the kind of wildness that Witt brought to the table, much less for enough years that he'd be eligible for the HoF.
Devon White -- What I remember best about White was his 1987 strat-o-matic card, which was the perfect utility outfielder: rated with gold glove range at every outfield position, deadly arm, good speed...and if by any chance you got a hit with him, you could announce, "Devo whips it!" Not that I did that more than twenty or thirty times.
Wally Joyner -- I remember being annoyed at him early in his career because people dared compare him to Don Mattingly. Later on, those comparisons ran dry--1987 was the only season Wally cracked a .500 slugging percentage. Still, his career was one of unstilting competence, so long as you accepted the limitations.
Scott Brosius -- I can't talk objectively about Brosius, the guy who got salary-dumped on the Yankees, and wound up winning three world championships, and coming within a hair of a fourth. For the most part, Scott's bat was pretty rank, but I remember his smooth glovework fondly. Brosius retired off the third-best season in his career, according to WARP. That's a classy exit.
Dante Bichette -- Looked like a softball player, then went to Colorado, in the pre-humidor days when it looked like everyone was hitting with an aluminum bat. He provided the object lesson that finally got average fans to understand the concept of park effects. A valuable service, for which we thank you.
Bobby Bonilla -- Committed one of the classic blunders, like "never start a land war in Asia" (to paraphrase Vizzini): if you sign a big-money deal with a New York ballclub, never brag about how you're going to "handle" the New York media. Bonilla came to Flushing as a doubles machine with a reputation as a team leader. When he left the club, his rep was that of a thin-skinned, bullying clubhouse cancer. All told, a nice career, but not one where anyone would believe that at any point he was the highest paid player in the game.
Ken Caminiti -- Was actually a pretty bad player up until the the walk year of his first go-around with the Astros. Then there was the power spike, the pneumatic physique, the MVP...and all the problems with substances not steroids. Gets extra credit from some corners for admitting steroid use after his career was over. He really shouldn't. Also, someone needs to remind sports writers and editors out there that while he abused steroids, it was the other illegal drugs Caminiti also abused which led to his premature demise. Since all this is really very negative, I will say that my favorite part of Caminiti's game was his throwing arm--the man just shot laser beams out there. It was a pleasure to watch him field.
Prior Inductees: Jim Abbott, Tom Candiotti, Chili Davis, Mark Langston, Jack McDowell, Willie McGee, Jeff Montgomery, Otis Nixon, Tony Phillips, Terry Steinbach
The Hall of the Pretty Darn Good: This is the area for guys who had good, long careers, which didn't pack quite enough oomph! to go with the longetivity. Not Hall of Famers, but still great careers.
Tony Fernandez -- Of the trio of American League shortstops of the mid-80s, Fernandez was just behind Cal Ripken and Alan Trammell. Ripken was the hitter but Fernandez was the superior gloveman--it was left for Trammell to be the guy in between, neither fish nor foul. Trammell's candidacy doesn't seem to have picked up any traction, so it's unlikely that Fernandez will see many votes. At no point was Fernandez the Best Shortstop in Baseball, or even the American League--still, he was a personal favorite, as the top shortstop in All-Dominican teams I used to cobble together during that era.
Orel Hershiser -- Had one of the more amazing two-year runs I've ever seen from a pitcher, keeping his ERA below 2.50 in 1988 and 1989. Never quite the same after that--he had a shoulder injury after pitching more than a thousand innings from '86 to '89. Afterward, he was an innings-eater, often a very effective one.
Hal Baines -- Baines is 39th on the all-time hit list, with 2,844. Everyone ahead of him is either in the Hall of Fame, or is not yet eligible (today, the list of people not in the Hall ahead of him will get shorter by two). There were days when I used to worry what would happen if Baines got hit # 3,000, because I was certain he isn't a Hall of Famer. It looks like time has caught up with me, because Baines isn't getting much traction for the Hall, people accepting that he was merely pretty darn good.
Paul O'Neill -- My dad hated Paul O'Neill. Dad's baseball agnostic, but he started rooting for the Yankees when he saw how much it meant to my brothers and me. And every time O'Neill came up, Dad would get upset. We would see the same thing four or five hundred times a season: O'Neill misses a pitch and yells at himself, O'Neill takes a strike and gives the ump a stare and a full dose of John McEnroe "What? Are you crazy?" body language, O'Neill strikes out, grounds out, or pops out and slams his helmet against the ground, his face turning so red you're sure he's going to rupture a blood vessel. Every time, my dad complained about O'Neill's sportsmanship as if he'd never seen him play before. I say thanks for the memories, Paulie. One of the great crimes in baseball history is that the 1994 strike prematurely stopped the insane year O'Neill was having--.359/.460/.603 through August 14.
Prior Inductees: Dave Concepcion, Andre Dawson, Steve Garvey, Jack Morris, Dave Parker, Lee Smith
The Hall of the Prematurely Bronzed Plaques: These guys looked Cooperstown-bound, but fell off the pace and instead wind up here.
Brett Saberhagen -- Brett Saberhagen notched his 92nd major league win prior to his 26th birthday. His career continued for another 11 years after that, during which time he'd only manage 75 wins. After throwing over 779 innings in 1987-1989, Saberhagen fought arm trouble the rest of his career. He was the type of player who had two modes--effective, or unavailable. Still, it's disappointing for anyone who saw his 1985 season to remember that the expectations were higher than this.
Jose Canseco -- The 1986 Rookie of the Year was second in the league in RBI, and fourth in homers. Two years later, he's leading the league with 42 homers, and 124 RBI (the numbers are a lot more impressive when you remember that these were the low-offense 80s, and Canseco played in a bad park). Jose missed the triple crown, finishing ninth with a .307 average, but he tossed in 40 steals to become the majors' first 40/40 man. The A's went to the world series for the first of three straight seasons. One hundred and ten homers before the age of 25 ain't bad, and there looked like nothing could stop this fast, powerful beast of a man, except maybe his anything-goes lifestyle. After '88, Canseco had good years, but the rest became a farce. We now know what every opposing fan merely believed back then, that Canseco's amazing physique was chemically-inflated, and that parts of it were ready to pop like a balloon. I don't know which bumbling Canseco memory I like best--the homer off his head when he was a Red Sock, or his begging and pleading to get a chance to pitch with the Rangers in '93 (Canseco was a pitcher when he was drafted by the A's) and then getting raked in his one inning of work, and managing to hurt himself, to boot! At least he was entertaining...
Eric Davis -- Talk about entertaining! In his rookie season, E.D. stole 80 bases. In his second season, he hit 37 homers to go with 50 steals. That's in addition to Gold Glove center field defense. He was just getting started...but it was all downhill from there. Davis had all sorts of injuries in his career, the most serious being a lacerated kidney sustained during the Reds' successful World Series run in 1990. He never got 500 at bats in a season, not even once. We're all left wondering what might have been.
Prior Inductees: Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy, Jim Rice, Darryl Strawberry
The Hall of Maybe: Now we're talking about guys legitimately on the fence. One of our prior inductees, Bruce Sutter, was last year's Hall-of-Famer. This year, there's only one guy on that level.
Albert Belle -- I know, it's not his first time on the ballot, but I didn't do this exercise last year. Probably belongs with Canseco and Davis in the previous section, because there was a point in his career when Albert "Don't Call Me Joey!" Belle looked like a real threat for a bronze plaque upstate. Still, because his career ended about a month after his 34th birthday, Albert never got to the point where he'd make it difficult for those voters who might want to keep him out of the Hall because of characters issues: use of a corked bat, bad behavior toward reporters of the female persuasion, violence toward fans, near violence toward umps. Add to that his recent conviction for using a GPS device to stalk an ex-girlfriend and I expect him to fall off the ballot this season. Still, if you saw this guy with a bat in his hand during the 90s...you knew you were witnessing greatness. There was no question, he was just amazing.
Prior Inductees: Tommy John, Bruce Sutter, Alan Trammel
The Hall of, Well, Duh! Okay, now we're getting to the obvious candidates. Since last we checked in, Ryno's made it to the Actual Hall, but Blyleven and Goose are still cooling their heels on the outside. I'm not going to rehash those arguments, waiting instead to start new fights, but it sure would be nice for Gossage to get some good news tomorrow, along with the two guys who are certain to make it.
Tony Gwynn -- He hit .289 as a rookie in 1982, playing 54 games. That was the last time he'd be under .300. Toward the end of his career, Gwynn was at least forty pounds over his playing weight, had no knees, and he could still hit over .320. Gwynn had one overwhelming skill--a skill that statheads have spent 20+ years saying is the most overrated of all skills. It's still plenty good enough to make him a no-question Hall of Famer. The man simply owned the hole between shortstop and third, having a stronger claim to it than Ozzie Smith and Brooks Robinson combined.
Mark McGwire -- The day McGwire retired, he was a no-brain Hall of Famer. Not much has happened since then that changes anything about what he did on the field. Just because McGwire didn't want to "talk about the past" doesn't mean the past is changed. You say we "discovered" that McGwire was using steroids? At the height of his popularity, back in 1998, a bottle of androstenedione was in plain sight in his locker. All the holier-than-thou types who are making a big noise about not voting for McGwire now were all baseball writers back in '98. Here's a simple deal--show us your article, back then, condemning McGwire's steroid use, and you can bloviate all you want about how he's dirty and undeserving and you're so morally superior. Don't have one from '98? How about 1999?
I don't think that too many of our suddenly-righteous brethren can come up with their vintage 90's article taking down Mark McGwire, steroids user. Back then, they didn't dare. Now, they want to re-write history--some of them, to the extent of claiming that McGwire wasn't great player, steroids or no. He was too "one dimensional." All he did was hit home runs!
Now that my eyes have stopped rolling, a couple of points. Folks talk about how Mcgwire was skinny as a rookie and a tree trunk when he retired, but he didn't just get bulky right before he made a run at the home run record in '98. Look at video of the 1990 World Series, and I suspect you'll see that McGwire was pretty damn built up already. He was ripped during the worst season of his career, 1991, when he barely managed to stay over the Mendoza line. His muscle-bound physique was actually blamed for the two years he missed to injury, in 1993 and 1994. Up til that point, the most homers McG hit in his career were in 1987, his "skinny" rookie year. Y'know, when he was skinny, ergo not using 'roids, or so we say.
The second point is that McGwire isn't Pete Rose. Rose committed an offense which was clearly at the time punishable by expulsion from the game. Everyone knew what the penalty was going in, ever since the Black Sox scandal--you bet on baseball, you're out. McGwire is thought to have committed an offense for which there was no at penalty at the time, and only the merest suggestion that it was even against baseball's rules. Now that there is a punishment protocol for steroids in baseball, the first offense does not call for expulsion from the game on a first offense, or not even on the second. Yet so many reporters are giving him the death penalty for...a rumor of an offense.
The fact is, folks had plenty of opportunities to rail about steroids while Mark McGwire was still in the game. The folks who bring up Operation Equine tend to forget the part where the FBI agent supposedly warned the Commissioner's office that players were juiced in the early 90's. Nobody did anything. Not Bud Selig, not the other team owners, not the press. Everyone turned a blind eye. Now some members of the press want to write cloying articles in which they ask, "How can I look my kids in the eye if I vote for Mark McGwire?" Sadly, you should have been thinking about your kids back in the day, when you were trumpeting McGwire's achievements. Too late to grow a spine now. Let him in.
Prior Inductees: Bert Blyleven, Goose Gossage, Ryne Sandberg
The Broom Closet of the Immortals: We need something more exclusive than the Hall of Fame sometimes. Someplace where transcendent talents like Babe Ruth and Willie Mays don't have to rub elbows with the lesser lights. These guys are more than just no-question Hall of Famers or guys who should be in on the first ballot, they're the inner circle, the best of the best. And like the exclusive club like this is, only one guy gets in this year...
Cal Ripken -- Somewhere along the way, the word "overrated" got stuck to Cal Ripken, even if it was only in my head. At a number of points in his career, it seemed like the consecutive games played streak had become an end onto itself, and like maybe it wouldn't kill him to sit out a game once in a while--and maybe it was hurting the club that he wasn't. During the last eight or nine seasons of his career, he had a lot of middling or even bad seasons, at a time when the new breed of shortstops was actively outshining him, but he was still the starting shortstop at the All Star game just about every year. There are more excuses out there why someone might not think of Ripken as a full-fledged, say-his-name-in-hushed-tones baseball diety--and they're all wrong.
The second I took a good look at his record for this column, I knew that all the "overrated" thoughts were bunk. Ripken's first nine years in the league were flat-out dominant. He followed that stretch up with one of the best seasons ever by a baseball player, in 1991. He retired the all-time leader in homers at his position. Oh, and he played every day for the longest stretch of anyone in history. It's an odd accomplishment, but an accomplishment nontheless.
But it's more than that. The best players change the game. Guys like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez got to play shortstop in the majors, in large part because Cal Ripken showed people that a guy who's 6'4" could handle the position. Without Ripken's example, those guys probably get shunted off to third base or the outfield before reaching the Show, some coach in the minors sitting them down and telling them "You know, son? They don't call it tall-stop..."
For all of that, Cal Ripken, Jr. is more than a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame. Anyone who didn't vote for him should have their BWAA card torn up right in front of their face.
Prior Inductees: Wade Boggs