Ken Griffey, Jr. has arrived. On the Hall of Fame ballot, that is. And if there’s justice it ought to be Trevor Time one more time.
Griffey and Trevor Hoffman are two of fourteen new entrants on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot, and among those they’re two who should be no-questions-asked Hall of Famers.
There are also seventeen players making return engagements, including a pair in their final year of BBWAA eligibility thanks to the rule change that shrank the eligibility period to ten years. The BBWAA also shrank the number of voters, too, casting away members who hadn’t voted on Hall of Fame ballots for ten years or better.
And it’s going to be difficult to top last year’s vote, when four—Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Craig Biggio—were elected to the Hall of Fame. That was the first time that many players were voted in on the same ballot. It could, conceivably, be the last, for a good while, anyway.
As always, we’ll start with the should-be shoo-ins, continue with the first-time ballot entrants, and finish with those making return engagements.
THE SHOULD-BE SHOO-INS:
KEN GRIFFEY, JR.—The only question about Junior’s Hall election may prove to be how big will be his first-ballot percentage. Unfortunately, there will always be fools who question these things on fatuous grounds. And, believe it or not, I can remember people questioning Griffey especially in his Cincinnati years.
There were actually those who thought Griffey’s too-frequent injuries could be attributed to a failure to stay in shape. And I had to wonder: did these fools actually see him play the game as opposed to reading about yet another injury in the papers?
It’s true that Griffey would have been a Hall of Famer by way of his Seattle seasons alone. But it’s also true that he missed plenty of significant playing time because of injuries—incurred not because of bad conditioning but because he played the game like he meant it, in the field and at the plate alike.
Watching him before the injuries finally began grinding him down in earnest was one of the genuine pleasures of his time no matter how his teams were doing, and he played on some pretty bad Mariners teams in addition to a few good ones. If it seemed like overnight he went from the eternal kid to a grumpy old young man (there was much criticism of Griffey’s clubhouse presence during those Cincinnati seasons), it begs the question of what it does to you that playing the game you love the way you’ve played it all your life finally begins and continues to cost you.
It came to a sad head when he returned to Seattle, helping perk up the team his first year back but a sad shell of his former self to start the second, even to the point of allegedly falling asleep in the clubhouse during the game. Nobody had to tell Griffey it was time to retire at last. He simply offered a short, honest statement—while he was on the road, driving all the way to his Florida home.
Arguably, Griffey might be one of the ten or fifteen best center fielders ever to play the game. All around. He could flat out hit; he was a terrific baserunner; he was a well-enough-above-league-average fielder (did you know he’s seventh all time for double plays as a center fielder?) who got to plenty of balls and whose errors were borne out of honest effort and not lazy or mispositioned play; he was tough enough to strike out when all was said and done and a little tougher to catch in a double play.
And, yes, it’s very likely that he would have hit more home runs than Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays if he could have stayed healthy. But I don’t think you’d sneeze at 630 bombs, either.
It would be a genuine shock, I think, if Griffey doesn’t become a first ballot Hall of Famer. Especially—it’s sad, but you have to think about this one as well, for better or worse—considering how many of the voting writers probably have it in the front of their minds that Griffey was never known or suspected to have dabbled even once with the actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances whose strongest known presence was during Griffey’s prime.
Not to mention how many of them joined how many fans in saying they wish Junior had been the one to bust the all-time home run record. But you don’t get to the Hall of Fame on wishes or might-have-beens or should-have beens. And Griffey doesn’t need anything but his record, especially those incredible Seattle seasons, to get there.
The absolute last thing you should be doing is thinking about what Griffey could have done or might have done or would have done or should have done. (Hands up to everyone who remembers similar ridiculousness being spouted about Mickey Mantle.) Because what he did done (thank you again, Bill James) is enough to make him a first ballot Hall of Famer.
TREVOR HOFFMAN—How does it feel to have a significant award named after you? Hoffman just might be able to tell you: the National League’s Relief Pitcher of the Year is named for him, just as the American League’s is named for Mariano Rivera. (For the record, Craig Kimbrel won the first Hoffman Award and, this year, Mark Melancon won the second.)
I don’t think you get real awards named after you if you’re any kind of baseball lamer. But it would have been nice, however, if Hoffman could have pitched for some better teams. He really only pitched on three real winners, the Padres’ National League West winners of 1996, 1998, and 2005-06.
And if you removed two gruesome home runs from his postseason flight jacket, Hoffman pitched very well in the postseasons he did reach. Atlanta’s Brian Jordan ruined him in Game Three of the 1996 division series with a tie-breaking two-run homer; and, of course, there was Scott Brosius’s World Series-turning three-run homer in the eighth of Game Three in 1998.
Of course there was also the 2007 wild card tiebreaker, in which Hoffman got touched for three extra base hits to lose the save and send the Padres to a rendezvous with Matt Holliday, his game-tying triple, and his game-winning score sliding over or past the back tip of the plate in the bottom of the twelfth.
Hoffman brooked no excuse and offered none. He never even mentioned the fact that he’d been warmed up several times earlier in the game and was probably spent by the time he took the mound at last. (Would you say he’d thrown the equivalent of six innings over those three or four previous warmups?) To this day those who were with the Padres speak mostly of how Hoffman faced the press and took full responsibility.
Hoffman became a Padre in the first place because of the club’s notorious 1993 fire sale; he went from the Florida Marlins to the Padres in the swap that sent Gary Sheffield and a no-name to the Fish while sending Hoffman and two no-names to the Padres.
He took over closing in 1994, survived rotator cuff surgery after pitching in shoulder pain all 1995, developed his tricky changeup, which he gripped like a palm ball, and from then until his sad 2009 departure* it was Trevor Time in San Diego if you didn’t count his missing most of 2003 after two off-season shoulder surgeries.
After Tony Gwynn’s retirement it was entirely fair to say Hoffman was the face of the franchise. But he picked the wrong time to struggle for thirty saves in 2008: owner John Moores’s pricy divorce imposed cost cutting on the Pads, and Hoffman refused a low-ball contract offer, signing with the Brewers where he had one fine season before struggling through elbow trouble—and landed in middle relief for spells—but still managed to land his 600th and 601st lifetime saves, a record destined to be smashed by The Mariano.
He only ever led the National League in saves twice (and he did that almost a decade part), but it’s his regular-season, career-value consistency that should make Hoffman a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Granted that the Hall still hasn’t really figured out just what ought to be the standards for relief pitchers, but Trevor Hoffman pulls up at 159 on the Bill James Hall of Fame pitching monitor. The average Hall of Fame pitcher pulls up at 100.
Remember: they don’t name significant awards after you if your idea of being a fireman is arson. Or if you’re considered clubhouse poison. (If anything, Hoffman was considered clubhouse balm. Name one other relief pitcher about whom it was ever said that his teams were his teams.)
I’m calling shoo-in, though you never really can tell. Right now Hoffman’s the best relief pitcher on the ballot. If he had to share with The Mariano, of course, he’d have to wait. And he’d probably be the first one to say so. He may yet have to wait, since a few worthy starters have been waiting (Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina, specifically), but he deserves to make it. (If Schilling and Messina were in already, Hoffman would definitely merit first-ballot election.)