That’s the problem with Hall of Fame ballots. Other than the obvious there-because-it’s-five-years-retired players, picking the worthies from among the newcomers is both a challenge and a lot of fun, at least until you run into the ones you knew were good, even great, but not quite Hall of Fame great.
And several of these players have had some impeccable moments regardless of whether or not they shake out as Hall of Famers:
THE NEWCOMERS, CONTINUED . . .
* GARRET ANDERSON—He looked like a comer and was probably the Angels’ sleeper weapon for most of his first ten seasons. Reliable, productive, unflappable. And probably got kept from mounting a bona-fide Hall of Fame case by injuries and an astonishing ability to avoid walks. He was the second player to hit 30+ homers and walk fewer times than he hit them out (Ivan Rodriguez was the first); that trick has since been turned by Alfonso Soriano, Javy Lopez, Jose Guillen, Joe Crede, and Ryan Braun.
But Anderson was a terrific player who helped the Angels win a World Series and reach five postseasons. He was also damn near the Angels’ Invisible Man—quiet, unassuming, content to let what he did on the field and at the plate do his talking.
Hall of Famer? No. Expected ballot life? One and done wouldn’t be a shock, but you never know.
What Angel fans won’t forget—Anderson drove in all the Angel runs to nail down Game Seven and their (so far) only World Series title—including a three-run double—backing rookie John Lackey’s stout pitching.
Once more in the sun—A year later, Anderson stole the All-Star show by winning the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game’s Most Valuable Player award.
* BRAD AUSMUS—Now the Tigers’ manager, Ausmus had a respectable playing career in which he wasn’t all that much of a hitter but he was terrific behind the plate, ending his career third on the all-time catcher putouts list and tenth in fielding percentage and range factor. Very few catchers of his time were as good at handling pitching staffs.
Hall of Famer? No. Expected ballot life? Tossup between one-and-done and maybe lingering because of his fine behind-the-plate look. (If not Diane Sawyer’s lobbying . . . )
What fans won’t forget—Tiger legend Eldon Auker handing Ausmus the Tigers’ team flag at Tiger Stadium’s closing ceremonies, urging Ausmus to carry it to the new Comerica Park in a stirring speech.
What the news business won’t forget—Sawyer confessing—on the next day’s Good Morning, America yet—to having the hots for Ausmus when she was invited to throw out a first pitch before an Astros game in 1992:
I am moon-eyed-goofy for Brad Ausmus. We got out there and were told he wasn’t going to catch, that he was warming up the pitcher in the bullpen. So I’m ready for my little pathetic, girlie, dweebie, wimp, horrible pitch and I looked up and there he was, and I just wanted to drop the ball and jump on him.
Said Ausmus’s Astros teammate, future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio: “She’s taken it nationally. That’s pretty impressive. Women scream at a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes it’s best to leave those things alone.”
* LUIS CASTILLO—He’s probably remembered best for two things:
a) He was the Marlin who lofted the foul ball Moises Alou couldn’t catch but Steve Bartman could in Game Six of the 2003 National League Championship Series.
b) Dropping Alex Rodriguez’s popup for a game-ending error in a Mets-Yankees interleague game, marring what was otherwise a nice bounceback 2009 season for Castillo, a three-time Gold Glove winner.
Hall of Famer? Not on the best day of his life. Expected ballot status? One and done.
What Marlins fans might remember, maybe—Castillo was the only Marlin to be a member of both their World Series and not be traded after either Series.
What else Mets fans won’t let him forget—The day he, Carlos Beltran, and Oliver Perez demurred from a team visit to a hospital whose patients included soldiers who had lost limbs in combat. Castillo said at the time he would have been horrified to see them.
It shouldn’t really be held against him. Not all of us are born with the ability to withstand seeing our fellow humans in such conditions. And we shouldn’t be harsh with those who can’t.
* DAVID ECKSTEIN—A little big man. A pest at the plate and on the bases who had ways of wearing pitchers down even if he was liable to end an at-bat with a walk (often), a base hit (often enough), or a productive out; he was one of the most difficult strikeouts of his time. “The back of my baseball card,” he once said with a laugh, “reads, ‘Overachieving Smurf’.”
Eckstein personified the player who got the absolute most out of whatever ability he had. Made himself a pain in the ass to the other guys especially in two winning World Series, bagging himself a Series MVP in the second, with the 2006 Cardinals. And he was a better defensive middle infielder than people often credited him with being.
Hall of Famer? If you judge by attitude, he is. If you go by the performance papers, he isn’t. At least until the Hall builds a wing for overachieving Smurfs. But Eckstein was a terrific player for ten seasons. Expected ballot status? One and done, with more than a few regrets.
What Angel fans won’t forget: Eckstein of all people led the American League in grand slams in 2002 . . .including in back-to-back games against the Blue Jays, the second of which ended with Eckstein’s salami.
What Cardinal fans won’t forget: Eckstein going 4-for-5 with three doubles in Game Four of the 2006 World Series en route his Series MVP—making him one of an extremely few shortstops to win World Series rings in each league.
* JIM EDMONDS—Rangy, eight time Gold Glove center fielder whose specialties included some of the most acrobatic catches of his time. Power hitter, run producer who had four 100+ RBI seasons. Injuries probably compromised his career to a certain extent but there were seasons aplenty when Edmonds was at least one of the ten best in the game at his position.
He was so even-keeled on the field and off it that there were those who thought Edmonds was either dogging it or didn’t care whether he won or lost. In 1997, there were said to be grumblings in the Angel clubhouse because Edmonds didn’t seem to take losing as hard as other Angels such as Darin Erstad or Gary DiSarcina.
That was a season in which Edmonds hit 25 home runs and drove in 91 runs and won his second Gold Glove. Not to mention hitting .340 in the September stretch, the only Angel to hit that way as the Rangers overtook them down the stretch. Two years later, Edmonds was lost for over half a season following shoulder surgery—and assorted mates accused him of waiting too long to have it done.
(Funny, isn’t it, that they carped on Edmonds’s alleged nonchalance but couldn’t bring themselves to give the guy props for trying to play through a bum shoulder.)
A lot of solid, above-average players with similarly even-keeled demeanors have been accused likewise, and just as falsely, of not caring. (Scott Rolen was another such player, to name one.) Look more closely and I’ll bet you could think about winning a pennant with a lot of them.
Hall of Famer? Thanks to the injury quotient, mostly, Edmonds pulls up short enough of one. But he sure looked like a Hall of Famer in his better seasons. Expected ballot status? Edmonds might actually catch enough support to stay on one more ballot. Might.
What Angel fans won’t forget: Edmonds running a long fly down to deep dead center in Kauffmann Stadium and catching the fly diving outstretched for it, June 1997.
What Cardinal fans won’t forget: The home run Edmonds took away from Cincinnati’s Jason LaRue, running the drive down to the wall and taking it back from over the right center field fence, July 2004.
* TROY GLAUS—The World Series MVP for the 2002 Angels. Power hitting third baseman (he led the American League with 47 bombs in 2000), four-time All Star, his Angel tenure ended after he missed much of 2004 with a shoulder injury and his contract expired. The Angels decided to let Glaus go in favour of a prospect named Dallas McPherson—whose career began with promise but was ruined by persistent back trouble.
Glaus was tainted for a short time when he was named in the Mitchell Report investigating actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. Glaus was one of the players who’d dealt with Signature Pharmacy; he’d gotten prescriptions for nandrolone and testosterone in 2003-04 from a California physician whom he didn’t know had prescribed them illegally.
Glaus faced no discipline as a result because then-commissioner Bud Selig seemed to understand the third baseman thought he was receiving a legal prescription. The same applied to such players as Rick Ankiel, Paul Byrd, Gary Matthews, Jr., and Matt Williams.
Hall of Famer? He might have been if it hadn’t been for almost career-long back and shoulder issues. Expected ballot status? Probably one and done. Probably.
What Angel fans won’t forget: Glaus hitting two homers in Game One, one in Game Four, and driving in eight runs, 2002 World Series.
* MARK GRUDZIELANEK—Journeyman middle infielder who had a serviceable but unspectacular career. If anyone remembers anything about him, it’s liable to be Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully’s inability to pronounce Grudzielanek’s surname properly. (Scully invariably pronounced it “Gradzielanek.”)
Hall of Famer? Even he wouldn’t say he was. Expected ballot status? One and done.
* MIKE HAMPTON—Better remembered for signing what was, at the time, the fattest contract in the history of professional sports—and cratering in his first couple of Colorado seasons before becoming an injury-addled, often absentee Atlanta Brave—than as, once upon a time, a terrific pitcher who was good enough to be named the 2000 National League Championship Series MVP.
Hall of Famer? He looked like one once upon a time. Then came Coors Canaveral and the injuries. Expected ballot status? One, done, and probably a few nastygrams about That Contract.
* JASON KENDALL—Sound defensive catcher blessed with unusual speed for someone playing the position full time. Kendall actually looked like he was on the Hall of Fame track for his first eight or nine seasons.
He was also a grinder who thought nothing of crowding the plate looking to be hit by pitches and not minding the bench-clearing brawls that practise sometimes started. Several surgeries compromised his throwing arm, which wasn’t that great in the first place, and probably his bat, too.
Hall of Famer? Not even close. Expected ballot status? Probably one and done.
What Pirate fans won’t forget: Strangely enough, Kendall was the first Pirate to hit for the cycle in old Three Rivers Stadium—in 2000, three decades after the park opened in the first place.
* MIKE LOWELL—Solid third baseman who could hit a good bit, didn’t embarrass anyone in the field, and played on two World Series winners. One of them, in fact, traded him to the other, when the Marlins wouldn’t let the Red Sox have Josh Beckett unless they were willing to take Lowell on as well.
Surprise! Lowell and Beckett proved mainstays of the Red Sox’s 2007 World Series winner, and Lowell’s six runs scored, four driven in, and .400 batting average landed him a Series MVP. The injury bug got him a year later and he’d never be the same player again.
Hall of Famer? No. But when healthy he was a solid player. Expected ballot status? One and done, with a few regrets.
What Red Sox fans also won’t forget: 3 August 2010, Lowell’s return from two months on the disabled list. He hit the first pitch he saw over the fence.
* MIKE SWEENEY—Long the heart and soul of some terrible Royals teams. Solid defensive first baseman, solid hitter, five-time All-Star, and almost won the 2002 American League batting championship with the second-highest average (.340) in team history.
Soon-to-be chronic back issues compromised him into journeyman status after 2003-04, and knee troubles added to it. But he had a fine career.
Hall of Famer? “Fine” doesn’t equal “Hall of Famer” here. Expected ballot status: See Jason Kendall.
What Royals fans also won’t forget: The bench clearing brawl Sweeney started against the Tigers, after he charged Jeff Weaver on the mound. Sweeney’d asked the plate ump to ask Weaver to move the resin bag away from the top of the mound, provoking Weaver to hold his glove in front of his face and say something that offended Sweeney. Sweeney charged the mound and frisbeed his helmet toward Weaver as the benches emptied.
But Royals fans also won’t forget the quail he dumped into right as a ninth-inning pinch hitter to bust the Twins’ Scott Baker’s would-be no-hitter.
* BILLY WAGNER—Threw as hard with his arm as he sometimes did with his mouth. A top of the line relief pitcher, Wagner was actually better than a few Hall of Fame relievers. His reputation may be compromised by some of the problems he had leaving Houston and Philadelphia, not to mention his role (non-role?) in the Mets’ stupefying 2007 collapse, but Wagner was a Hall of Fame-great relief pitcher.
In fact, according to FanGraphs, Billy Wagner is the number two relief pitcher of all time in reducing run expetancy during his assignments—behind only Mariano Rivera, who’s going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, don’t even kid yourself otherwise. Wagner’s teams overall had that much better chance of securing a win with him on the mound.
But a man who leaves Houston zapping the team for failing to build a World Series winner, who leaves Philadelphia after spending a season insisting the team had no chance of making the postseason no matter who did what, and who couldn’t stop the 2007 Mets collapse if he tried—it emerged subsequently that Wagner was pitching through back spasms; the Mets had just about nobody else capable of doing his job at the time—doesn’t look that obviously like a Hall of Famer.
Neither does a guy whose postseason record shows a 10.00+ ERA in several tries. But you can find a lot of Hall of Famers who just weren’t that good in the postseason.
A shame, too.
Hall of Famer? Yes. First ballot? Probably not. Trevor Hoffman just looks too good when you say his name, and the line of Cooperstown-worthy relief pitchers otherwise begins with The Mariano. But Wagner does deserve the honour. Expected ballot status? Hard to predict the vote, of course, but it could take Wagner about four ballots to make it.
* RANDY WINN—Would probably fall under the category of a better person than ballplayer, if the Hall of Fame had such a category. The switch-hitting outfielder who was once traded for Lou Piniella—the Mariners demanded Winn as compensation when Piniella became the Rays’ manager—was probably more valued for his heart and his hustle. Among other things, Winn these days is the president of the Baseball Assistance Team that helps pre-free agency players who didn’t have a chance to earn the big money of the post-free agency era.
Winn was an outfielder who had the skill set of a top-of-the-order man with more than a little power. A look at his career splits tells you he probably should have been batted leadoff to stay; he put in more combined time hitting nos. two and three, and was shifted all around the order often enough, and that probably hurt him, though batting second he was only a sliver shy of his performance batting leadoff.
Left alone to hit leadoff (his lifetime OBP in that slot: .346) or second (lifetime OBP: .342), Winn might have created more runs and produced better stats all over. (He also had a .646 stolen base percentage batting leadoff and a .670 stolen base percentage hitting second.) He hit one point higher batting second than leading off; his slugging percentage batting second was a mere .022 difference. He was a tough enough man to double up and, when hitting later in games, averaged a mere nine groundings into double plays per 162 games.
But Winn was solid enough all around to average 2.1 wins above a replacement player over a thirteen-year career that saw him top 4.0 WAR three times and get to within a fragment of 5.0 WAR once. (In 2002, Winn’s lone All-Star season.)
Hall of Famer? Not even close. Perhaps playing even when hurting, as he did often enough, kept him from making more out of his career. Expected ballot status? Most likely, one and done.