How I vote on this year’s IBWAA Hall of Fame ballot

(Photo of the Hall of Fame by the Hall of Fame.)

The Internet Baseball Writers Association likes to vote for the Hall of Fame, too, even though it’s purely a symbolic vote, and never mind that some IBWAA members are also voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. As an IBWAA life member myself, the exercise is exhilarating and only occasionally frustrating.

Most of the time, the frustration is because there are those candidates still on the BBWAA Hall ballot whom the IBWAA previously “elected.” When an IBWAA vote into the Hall coincides with a BBWAA vote into the Hall, though, it’s a pleasant exhilaration. When we choose a Hall of Famer before the BBWAA does, we get to claim bragging rights for foresight and insight. (Don’t we?)

As I do pretty much every year, I vote in the IBWAA election and give my most reasonable explanations for my vote. Even knowing as I do that my opinion means three things (jack, diddley, and squat) in the big picture, and even knowing it would be easier to glean right reason from a politician’s fustian than to get me an official Hall of Fame vote, we of the IBWAA count for more than something so far as I’m concerned.

So, with six “yes” votes to be submitted to the IBWAA tally this time around—and equal support for the same voting transparency among the BBWAA—this is how I marked my IBWAA Hall ballot. First, my “yes” votes:

Todd Helton—Helton may be hurt by the Coors Canaveral factor even more than Larry Walker was for long enough. Unlike Walker, The Toddfather never got the chance to show what he could do with a park other than Coors as his home park. Even with the width of his home/road splits, though, Helton hit respectably enough on the road that you’d have a hard time convincing anyone that he wasn’t as Hall of Fame as a first baseman gets.

Helton also crosses the average Hall of Famer’s batting threshold according to Bill James’s Monitor and Standards measures, and his peak value is a few points above the average Hall of Fame first baseman.

One of those rare birds who walked more often than he struck out, Helton also struck fear enough into opponents with 185 intentional walks to prove it. He was an on-base machine (.414 lifetime OBP) with power to boot. And he was something else you can look up: he was deadlier at the plate with men on and/or in scoring position than he was with the bases empty.

Defensively, Helton wasn’t quite the second coming of Keith Hernandez, but he was an excellent defensive first baseman, too. All the above sound like a Hall of Famer to me.

Andruw Jones—His too-staggering decline phase, beginning in his final, injury-marred season in Atlanta, turned Jones into a punch line he didn’t exactly discourage when he came across as indifferent as well as ill-conditioned in Los Angeles and ended up being bought out of his deal.

So what makes Jones a Hall of Fame candidate? His peak through age 29. He was an above average hitter whose late-career health issues might have kept him from hitting 450 or even 500 lifetime home runs, but even more is that he was off the charts as a run-preventive center fielder.

Jones had a solid throwing arm and a genius for finding the right routes to balls despite his tendency to more shallow positioning. It might have cost him highlight-reel time but it elevated him where it matters most. The only player with more defensive runs above league average than Jones at any position is Brooks Robinson: +293 for Robinson, +253 for Jones, who’s also +80 ahead of Willie Mays.

Read carefully: I’m not calling Jones a better player than Mays, I’m not even calling him a better player than Ken Griffey, Jr., and I saw all three of them play in or while still in their primes. (Don’t ask about Griffey’s run prevention numbers alone—trust me when I say you’ll be embarrassed.) But I am saying Jones was the most run-preventive center fielder who ever hit the yard.

By wins above replacement-level player, Jones’s seven-year peak WAR is above the peak value of the average Hall of Fame center fielder. There is a large enough contingency of Hall of Famers who got to Cooperstown by their peak value. If the Hall really is giving defense more attention than in the past, Jones would not disgrace it by being there.

Jeff Kent—Yes, he’s the best-hitting second baseman of the expansion era. But despite his late settling-in (traded three times before he found a home with the Giants at 29), Kent was also product enough of a high-scoring era. For middle infielders, defense looms large enough, and Kent wasn’t a particularly great-fielding second baseman despite his deftness on the double play: -42 defensive runs below league average doesn’t bode well.

He was his own worst enemy with a personality often described as “prickly,” but a lot of his issues come down to his health. He incurred enough injuries later in his career that, married to his early-career mishandlings before reaching San Francisco, it puts him just outside the top twenty second basemen of all time.

Still, less crowded Hall ballots may give Kent a jump before his time on the BBWAA ballot ends. So might his 351 home runs as a second baseman, the most for any player playing that position. So might his overall fine postseason record. The question becomes whether Kent’s once-notorious attitude problems remain enough to keep the writers from putting him in no matter the ballot crowd.

I wasn’t exactly Kent’s biggest admirer myself for long enough, but I won’t object if he’s elected to the Hall in due course. If he doesn’t survive on the BBWAA ballots yet to come, a future Era Committee may give him a second and deeper look and elect him.

Scott Rolen—Why on earth would a player who was Rolen’s kind of near-perfect balance between an excellent hitter and a top-of-the-line fielding third baseman be villified and sullied?

If you were the Phillies with whom Rolen came up, and you were the kind of fellow who spoke softly, carried yourself likewise, and let your preparation and play do your talking for you, you just weren’t Loud Larry Bowa’s and Drill Sgt. Dallas Green’s type. They were fool enough to dismiss Rolen as an indifferent player when every teammate he had knew better.

And Rolen’s propensity to hustle himself into injuries actually added to the sullying. After the Phillies shipped him to the Cardinals, Rolen played the same kind of hard, delivered the kind of performances that helped the Cardinals to some postseasons including one ending in a World Series ring, but he ran afoul of Tony La Russa over, you guessed it, injuries.

It galled Rolen no end that his manager might sour on him for being injured in honest competition, and La Russa likely forced Rolen’s trade to Toronto, a trade then-Cardinals GM John Mozeliak publicly came to regret making. Former Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty knew better—hearing that Rolen wanted to play closer to home, he pried Rolen out of the Blue Jays for the Reds and Rolen helped them to a couple of postseasons, too.

The injuries might have kept Rolen from putting up fireworks-spectacular numbers at the plate but he was a great third baseman. Then-Brewers manager Ned Yost wasn’t blowing smoke when he called Rolen “the perfect baseball player. It’s his tenacity, his preparation, the way he plays. He tries to do everything fundamentally sound. And he puts the team first—there’s no fanfare with him.”

He wasn’t the hitter Chipper Jones was, but Jones wasn’t the defender Rolen was, either. (Rolen’s 122 OPS+ is ninth among third basemen all time.) Rolen won eight Gold Gloves and they weren’t given to him by reputation alone; among third basemen, only Hall of Famers Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt have more. He had eleven seasons of averaging ten or more runs saved and three in which he averaged twenty or more; his 140 total defensive runs above league average is the nineteenth-highest of any defender at any field position anywhere and tied for sixth among third basemen.

Rolen’s number one problem his entire career was that he didn’t present himself as a star. He preferred to leave it on the field and at the plate; he wasn’t a publicity hound and never really tried to become one.

His Hall candidacy has received more traction each year he’s been on the ballot. Considering this year’s absolute paucity of first-time candidates who really belong in the Hall of Fame, Rolen’s vote could jump even more profoundly than it did last year. A third baseman whose number one selling point is strong hitting and top of the line defense deserves better.

Curt Schilling (with prejudice)—On the mound: no-questions-asked Hall of Famer. One of only four pitchers to strike 3,000+ out and walk less than 1,000, and he did it in a glandular time for hitting. (The others: Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez.)  He all but demanded the big-game heat and delivered when he got it most of the time.

Off the mound: no-questioned-asked jerk. It only begins with eleven words: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required,” on a T-shirt; “OK, so much awesome here,” in a tweet Schilling deleted swiftly enough when the you-know-what hit the you-know-what and he pleaded sarcasm. He also said of it in due course, “Gotta own the times you go off the rails.”

Let’s let Jay Jaffe have the ultimate word, from The Cooperstown Casebook:

I wouldn’t invite Schilling into my own home, and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to view him as a role model, but in my view nothing in his career leaves a doubt that he belongs in Cooperstown. He ranks among the all-time greats via his run prevention skill, his dominance in the game’s most elemental battle of balls and strikes, and his repeated ability to rise to the occasion when the on-field stakes were highest.

I don’t have to love or respect Schilling as a person to respect what he did on the mound. When you take your children to Cooperstown, and you see Schilling’s plaque, just tell them he isn’t the first and won’t be the last to be a Hall of Famer at the ballpark and a Hall of Shamer away from it.

Gary Sheffield—Strictly by his counting statistics Sheffield has a Hall of Fame case. His talent was as outsized as his reputation for self-centricity.

He was a study in pending destruction at the plate and he had a one-for-one-and-all-for-Gary reputation. He also had a very strange problem for a guy whose career came largely in a high-offense era and who could invoke terror with one swing: he played too much in home parks that didn’t really favour righthanded hitters. (His time in Dodger Stadium was an exception; he hit very well there.)

That plus the nagging injuries he battled for much of his career land Sheffield in a strange position. For all his home runs (509), for all that he sits in the top 25 for walks and runs created, his offensive winning percentage (.687) puts him just inside the top one hundred. A player that talented with his kind of stats should have pulled up a lot higher.

Sheffield played on several pennant contenders and won a World Series ring with the 1997 Marlins. (He also got dumped among the many in the notorious fire sale following that triumph.) His home runs may make you (and him) think he’s a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer, but taken all around his paucity of black and gray (top-ten finishing) ink leaves him at pronounced tweener status. He looks as borderline as borderline gets.

If you look at him according to WAR, Sheffield’s defensive deficiences slaughtered him: he had a fine throwing arm but his -195 fielding runs below league average left him the second lowest of all time. It’s the reason why his peak and career WAR are well below the Hall of Fame standard for right fielders.

In some ways Sheffield was a wronged man. When the Brewers sent him down early in his career after accusing him of faking an injury, he wanted out and badly. He tended to nuke more than burn bridges when he felt he was done wrong. He was also accused falsely of tanking plays with the Brewers after a hard wild throw in the minors caused a rift with a manager who subsequently apologised to him.

He got dinged by the BALCO case when it turned out he really might have been tricked into using an actual or alleged performance-enhancing substance. It’s also important to know that that occurred before baseball finally faced the issue and implemented testings and penalties, and Sheffield didn’t exactly make it his life’s indulgence. Even the hardest-line writers against actual or alleged PEDs inclined to give Sheffield the benefit of the doubt.

So do I. There are worse men in the Hall of Fame than Sheffield, and there are Hall of Famers who were their own worst enemies to a far greater extent. He may end up having to wait for an Era Committee to send him there, but Sheffield wasn’t just a study in likely destruction at the plate, he has a real Hall of Fame case.

And he won’t be even a hundredth as controversial a Hall of Famer as Harold Baines (for his record, not his person) is or Curt Schilling (for his person, not his record) may yet become.

Billy Wagner—Maybe the most underrated relief pitcher of his and just about any time. He was as lights out as relief pitchers got and then some, even allowing that nobody yet has really figured out a final objective and definitive way to rate relief pitchers of any era.

He yanked himself to a pinnacle following a childhood about which “hard scrabble” might be an understatement. (Too-frequent home changes; poverty so profound that peanut butter on a cracker equaled dinner often enough.)

Billy the Kid was a small guy who made himself into a lefthanded assassin (two right arm fractures during his impoverished childhood compelled him to go portside); he finished his fifteen-year career with a 0.99 walks/hits per inning pitched rate; and, when it comes to win probability added, Wagner has only four relievers ahead of him, Hall of Famers all: in ascending order, Trevor Hoffman, Goose Gossage, Hoyt Wilhelm, Dennis Eckersley, and The Mariano.

He was also on his own planet when it came to missing bats. In fifteen full major league seasons (he had a cup of coffee with the 1995 Astros), his strikeouts-per-nine innings rate fell below 10.0 only once; he retired with a lifetime 11.9 rate. Nobody could hit this guy too often: the lifetime batting average against him is .187. Here’s how the hitters did against the other Hall of Fame relievers:

Lee Smith—.235.
Rollie Fingers—.232.
Bruce Sutter—.230.
Goose Gossage—.228.
Dennis Eckersley—.225.
Hoyt Wilhelm—.213.
Trevor Hoffman—.211.
Mariano Rivera—.211.

Would you like to be reminded whom among those men pitched in the most hitter-friendly time? That would be Smith (in the final third of his career), Hoffman, The Mariano, and Billy the Kid. It’s to wonder how much more stupefying the record might be if Wagner could have avoided assorted injuries including late-career Tommy John surgery.

If Wagner had any flaw, it was his almost Sheffield-like tendency to nuke bridges once he left town, though for very different reasons. Neither player came up the easy way before entering baseball, but Wagner waged war against those he thought didn’t share his competitiveness and determination.

When the Astros traded him to the Phillies and subsequently remade their roster for their run to the 2005 World Series, Wagner lamented publicly that he wished they’d done it the year they traded him. With the Phillies in 2005, he questioned the team’s commitment publicly and ripped them after leaving for the Mets.

In due course, though, Wagner admitted in his memoir, A Way Out, “I learned a lot about criticism and how not to be a leader when I was traded,” he wrote, specifying leaving the Astros but applicable to the rest of his career, too. When he walked away after 2010, he decided his family was a lot more important to him than whatever else he could accomplish as a pitcher.

“There’s nothing left for me to do in baseball,” Wagner admitted thinking the final time he drove away from the ballpark but into retirement. “I’m not going to change anyone’s mind about whether I’m a Hall of Famer. People are either going to like me or hate me, and I can’t change their minds. Besides, life is about a lot more than this game.”

His Hall vote from the BBWAA jumped from 16.7 percent in 2019 to 31.7 percent last January. The guy from whom The Mariano swiped “Enter Sandman” as his entrance music just might have a surprise or three left that just might finish with him standing where he belongs in Cooperstown.

Now, the no votes. First-time ballot entrants are marked with an asterisk.

Bobby Abreu—When Abreu retired, I noticed that he was a lot closer to being a Hall of Famer than people thought. He was a five-tool player; he was one of the most disciplined hitters of his time; he had power and speed to burn together; and few players in his time were as good at wearing pitchers down as he was.

He didn’t quite cross the thresholds to Hall of Fame performance in the end, unfortunately, even if he managed to remain an on-base machine. Defensively, he was the least appreciated top-of-the-line right fielder in his first eight seasons, yet he didn’t win a Gold Glove until 2005 when his defense already turned to the negatives for run prevention.

Abreu’s career deserves second, third, even fourth looks regardless. He may not quite be a Hall of Famer after those, either, but he was a terrific player.

Mark Buehrle*—A no-hitter and a perfect game enhance his career, and he was a fine pitcher who was excellent on more than a few occasions. (He was also a pretty sharp fielder at his position.) But neither the traditional nor the advanced analyses get him through the door, nor does his postseason record overall enhance him. Buehrle shakes out as the number 90 starting pitcher of all time.

He might linger a little past the five percent threshold in year one of his Hall eligibility, but I can’t see him going past that.

A.J. Burnett*—It’s not a stretch to guess that the injury-prone Burnett reached the Hall of Fame ballot purely because he’s retired five years. He had a seventeen-year career that landed him number 352 on the all-time starting pitching survey, and it’s to wonder whether his injuries—including Tommy John surgery that cost him most of 2003 and a third of 2004—kept him from performing equal to his talent.

Burnett’s career was also stained when the Marlins asked him to leave the team down the stretch in September 2005, after he ripped the faltering Fish to reporters saying, “We played scared. We managed scared. We coached scared,” after a 5-3 loss to the Braves. He apologised in due course, but he went on to the Blue Jays, the Yankees, the Pirates, and the Phillies. The injuries continued.

Michael Cuddyer*—Dependable hitter, a fan favourite in Minnesota, but nowhere within rear-view visual distance of a Hall of Famer. He has a place in baseball history, though: he’s the only major leaguer to hit for the cycle and hit two home runs in the same inning during the same season. (He turned that trick in 2009.)

Dan Haren*—Sure looked like a Hall of Famer in the making early in his career. It didn’t stay that way, although the oft-traveled pitcher did post a fine career in the end.

LaTroy Hawkins*— A Hall of the Gold Watch candidate, but that’s all. He was good enough to be in bullpens for sixteen major league seasons after spending his first five as a fifth starter. The enemy batters hit .257 off him lifetime when he came out of the pen, though with 78 home runs against him lifetime as a reliever he wasn’t a pushover for the long ball out of the pen, either.

Tim Hudson*—He looked even more like a Hall of Famer in the making when he was making his bones in Oakland, but he didn’t look that much like one after leaving Oakland. But he could be and often was a terrific pitcher who worked in quite a bit of hard luck.

Torii Hunter*—He looked more like a Hall of Famer at the peak of his career than he really was, and he might survive a ballot or three before falling away. But Hunter was a terrific player who hit well and played center field around the league averages on the plus side, though not well enough to save as many runs as his skills and Gold Gloves suggested. He was also well respected in his clubhouses.

Andy Pettitte—Turn away permanently from the actual or alleged performance-enhancing substance issue and face the fact once and for all: Pettitte used human growth hormone briefly and to recover from an elbow injury. He wasn’t looking for another edge on the mound.

In 2002 I was injured. I had heard that human growth hormone could promote faster healing for my elbow. I felt an obligation to get back to my team as soon as possible. For this reason, and only this reason, for two days I tried human growth hormone. Though it was not against baseball rules, I was not comfortable with what I was doing, so I stopped.

Everybody with me? Good. Now hear this: Pettitte was practically the same pitcher in the regular season as he was in the postseason—what Jaffe has called a plowhorse rather than a racehorse. Regular-season ERA: 3.85. Postseason ERA: 3.81. World Series ERA: 4.06. He was durable and dependable, and that was all.

The lefthander was famous for his look of peering out over his upraised glove while taking his signs, while living on the ground ball with his sinkers and cutters. But he piled Hall of Fame-looking win totals as much on high run support as his own ability (his run support was 10 percent better than the park-adjusted league average before his first attempt at retirement, Jaffe has recorded), and he wasn’t as good at missing bats as a lot of contemporaries who won’t be seen in Cooperstown except among the guests.

Pettitte’s a classic example of truly tenacious competitor who was really an above-average pitcher and occasionally great. But the Hall of Fame isn’t just about “above average,” unfortunately. Which is a shame because Pettitte was one of those Yankees who earned respect even from those to whom just the mere mention of the team’s name is enough to send them through the ceiling.

He ends up at this writing as number 91 among all-time starting pitchers. Didn’t I mention Mark Buehrle is number 90?

Aramis Ramirez*—He looked most like a Hall of Famer during his first five seasons with the Cubs. For an eighteen-season career that’s not even close to enough. He actually out-homered a few Hall of Fame third basemen in the end, but he played in a higher-offense time and he wasn’t that good a defensive third baseman.

Manny Ramirez—His Hall of Fame case is entirely in his bat. He’s got the numbers at the plate for enshrinement. No questions asked. He also has the attitude history (Manny Being Manny) and issues that made him as big a pain in the butt to his own teams as he was to opposing pitchers.

The amusement factor of Manny Being Manny died long before his career did. He was deadly in the regular and the postseason (and a World Series MVP for the 2004 Red Sox, where he said memorably through his exhaustion, “I don’t believe in curse, I believe you make your own destiny”); he was arguably the worst such enemy of any player who was his own worst enemy.

There’s also that little matter of his using actual or alleged PEDs after the so-called Wild West Era during which the rules were that there were no rules. Ramirez got suspended  twice for them after baseball’s belated crackdown, and the second drove him out of the majors once and for all. And, away from reaching the Hall of Fame.

Sammy Sosa—Does it seem at times as though he’s baseball’s forgotten man? Sure it does. It seems surreal to those who saw Sosa in his prime becoming one of the game’s most popular players. Even to those who saw him turn into a player divisive enough to alienate his clubhouse before his time with the Cubs, where he became a gigastar in the first place, was done.

Remove every suspicion you ever had about Sosa and actual or alleged PEDs, every moment of his infamous Congressional appearance, every doubt the leaked 2003 test results planted even if you, too, suspect he might have been a false positive as some of those results turned out. Look at Sosa the player objectively.

His biggest claims to fame and the Hall of Fame are his home run prowess. If you assumed the PED thing inflated his numbers, reasonable analysis says Sosa might have joined the 500 home run club without them, whether or not he’d have run with Mark McGwire in the 1998 home run chase.

That would put him in the Hall of Fame regardless, until you consider that when Sosa blossomed at last as a power hitter he shrank in just about all other aspects of his and the game—and I once saw him hit a pair of monstrous home runs in one game at Dodger Stadium.

And he’s still the only player in history to hit 60+ homers in three out of five seasons without leading the league while leading it twice hitting 50 and 49, respectively. That’s surreal no matter how you look at it.

If he’s not the best player on the ballot, he’s not getting a Hall of Fame vote. (Defensively, Sosa flipped entirely: he’d been an above average right fielder before his power plant finally went online and a below-average one after it.) And his time on the BBWAA ballot is running out.

Sosa’s career WAR are 1.4 below Bobby Abreu. Believe it or not. If anything, that makes more of a case that Abreu was better than we think than that Sosa’s a Hall of Famer. I’m not voting for them now, but I could be persuaded in the other direction in the future, even if it means Sosa’s case going to an Era Committee’s consideration and Abreu really was the kind of Hall of Famer who sneaks up on you.

Nick Swisher*—He was useful enough, well liked in his clubhouses, and had good power while switch hitting. He had a career year in 2005 and was useful enough as a Yankee to win his only World Series ring in 2009. But he’s not going to the Hall of Fame. Some think it might be a shock if he gets even one sentimental vote, but such a vote wouldn’t surprise me.

Shane Victorino*—He played at elite or near-elite levels when he could play. The Flyin’ Hawaiian was something of a late bloomer, and late-career injury issues took care of his Hall of Fame prospects. But when he could play Victorino was something to behold.

Tell me that you didn’t also love Victorino’s contributions to the Phillies’ 2008 World Series triumph or (especially) what he did for the 2013 Red Sox—the Game Six grand slam in the ALCS; the three-run double off the Monster in World Series Game Six to start the Red Sox toward the Promised Land. And he has his place in baseball history: one of only two players (the other: Hall of Famer Jim Thome) with two postseason salamis.

Omar Vizquel—I sketched a rather elaborate take recently on why you should vote for him if you’re going to vote for him. It hooked mostly around a) he wasn’t as close to being the second coming of Ozzie Smith as people remember him being though he looked that way; but, b) he was the outstanding defensive shortstop of the 1990s.

He was just that—if you’re talking about players whose major or sole selling point is defense and enough of it and have the highlight reels to back them up. He was a highlight reel often enough to convince lots of Gold Glove voters in those years. But the bad news is that Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. was better with the glove in that decade . . . and he didn’t play the position past 1996 except for three games in 1998.

Even playing less of the decade than Vizquel, Ripken was worth a lot more defensive runs above the league average. He wasn’t the acrobat Vizquel often was, but Ripken in the field did the job very well above league average. Vizquel was worth +128 fielding runs lifetime; Ripken was worth that just from 1990-96.

If you want to put a defense-first lineup out there, take the shortstop worth +181 lifetime fielding runs (third in history behind Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith) over the one worth +128. Now, think of the two-way lineup. Who are you going really to choose at shortstop—the guy with the 112 OPS+ (Ripken) or the guy with the 82 OPS+ (Vizquel)?

Vizquel turned up a few hits shy of 3,000 in 22 seasons, but it isn’t just milestones or totals that make a Hall of Famer. His real other apparent selling point is his longevity, and I’ve bumped into only too many people around the baseball forums who want to put him in on the Harold Baines factor: that the Hall of Fame won’t be soiled if it’s the Hall of the Gold Watch.

Well, yes it will, and yes it is. That argument doesn’t fly. Just because one Era Committee was foolish enough to elect Baines it doesn’t mean Baines should be a Hall of Fame standard. It’s rare enough for a player to get two decades in the big leagues, but by itself that isn’t and shouldn’t be enough for the Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame is supposed to be about greatness, not time in service, other than the ten-season minimum for eligibility. Greatness, not mere acrobatics. (Anyone who thinks Brooks Robinson or Ozzie Smith got to Cooperstown merely by being acrobats on the left side of the infield doesn’t know their actual run-prevention records.) Greatness, not merely showing up for work every day. (Once and for all: there was a lot more to Cal Ripken, Jr. than just breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak.)

Vizquel shakes out as the number 42 shortstop of all-time. Ripken, in case you wondered, shakes out as number three. Alex Rodriguez shakes out as number two, but bank on it: he’s there strictly because of his hitting—he wasn’t anywhere near Vizquel or Ripken defensively. I’m not entirely convinced that being just inside the top fifty by eight equals a Hall of Famer.

Even if I believe the Hall should pay a lot more attention to run prevention, and I do, I’m not settled firmly on either side of yes or no regarding Vizquel. And if I’m not firmly on the plus side of yes, I can’t vote for him.

Barry Zito*—Did any pitcher of his time have a sadder-looking story? (Maybe Tim Lincecum and Dontrelle Willis.) He looked like a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer in the making in Oakland, pitching like one with his array of off-speed breaking balls (and a Cy Young Award in the bargain), and with a delightfully quirky personality to match. Zito was many things, but boring wasn’t one of them.

Then he signed his notorious big deal with the Giants . . . and collapsed with no apparent reason or rhyme. He didn’t look anything like what the Giants paid for until the 2012 postseason, when he pitched 7.2 shutout innings in NLCS Game Five and (with a lot of help from Pablo Sandoval’s three home runs) out-pitched Justin Verlander in Game One of the World Series sweep-to-be.

Remarkably, Zito kept his head up, offered no excuses, and carried himself like a professional during his Giants seasons. If there was a Hall of Fame where class and musical pedigree alone matter—he’s a self-taught guitarist who’s had his music turn up in film; he’s the son of a one-time arranger for Nat King Cole—Zito would be elected in a walk.

The right reason to send Vizquel to Cooperstown

Omar Vizquel leaping over Charlie Hayers to avoid getting clobbered while possible thinking double play turn in 1997.

Omar Vizquel’s Hall of Fame candidacy sometimes seems a product mostly of the perception that he was the second coming of a Hall of Fame shortstop whose career overlapped his for a few seasons. The perception comes mostly from Vizquel’s more voluminous presence on highlight reels.

It’s not that the Other Guy was obscure, of course, but the continuing metastasis of cable sports in the 1990s showed Vizquel’s acrobatics far more often than they showed the Other Guy’s—and the Other Guy got exposure enough by way of fans watching his teams play against three cable superstation teams, the Braves, the Cubs, and the Mets. (Not to mention a few World Series.)

When Sports Center and Baseball Tonight metastasised in the 1990s, so did the looks at Vizquel’s own acrobatics. They were real enough. And shown frequently enough, more so than the Other Guy got despite his teams’ contests against the superstation teams. That ubiquity of the highlight-reel plays made it simple to forget that Vizquel—who got to play in a few postseasons himself—had a modest throwing arm who made up for it with his field positionings and his marshmallow-soft hands.

What made him more delightful to watch, too, was that he was a not-so-huge guy (well, he’d resemble Hercules if positioned next to Jose Altuve) who played like a pest. He was at least as much fun to watch in the field as the Other Guy was, and it proved worth only two fewer Gold Gloves than the Other Guy won.

The perception of Vizquel also comes, I think, from people understanding how long it took the Hall of Fame and its voters to grok (with one or two exceptions) that preventing runs is just as important as producing them, and that Vizquel looked like one of the greatest run preventers you ever saw at his position. No point in your team putting up crooked numbers if they can’t keep the other guys from putting up just as many, right?

Right. And when it comes to what he did at the plate, Vizquel wasn’t exactly of the Cal Ripken, Jr. breed of big-hitting shortstops, but he was as close as you could get to the Other Guy. They were both slap-and-tickle hitters who knew how to reach base by hook, crook, and practically anything else available to them. They played with brains as well as arms, hands and legs.

Look at Vizquel and the Other Guy by way of their Real Batting Averages—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances. (Sorry, sac bunts aren’t included: these two guys were smart bunters, but I don’t give credit for surrendering precious outs deliberately.) This pair could be fraternal twins, practically.

If you disallow that Vizquel played mostly in a far more hitter-friendly time than the Other Guy did, the Other Guy hitting his mid-30s by the time his career careened into that hitter-friendlier time, there’s only a hair between Vizquel and the Other Guy. (The Other Guy hit most of his career in a far tougher park for hitters, too.) They both used up just about the same number of outs to produce at the plate, even if the Other Guy was a little better at taking walks:

Player PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Omar Vizquel 12,013 3,727 1,028 25 94 49 .409
The Other Guy 10778 3,084 1,072 79 63 33 .402

I don’t care that Vizquel came up 123 hits short of 3,000 lifetime. For one thing, the Other Guy would have crossed the 3,000 threshold if he’d gotten to play 24 seasons. Bank on it. For another thing, how many hits you get matter less than what you and those hits really did to help your teams win. Vizquel averaged 72 runs created a year; the Other Guy averaged 73. They were practically the same batter.

Did you know that once he reached base Omar Vizquel was worth +8 runs lifetime but the Other Guy was worth +102? Did you also know that Vizquel took extra bases on followup hits 42 percent of the time . . . but the Other Guy did it 53 percent of the time? Did you know Vizquel has a .707 stolen base percentage . . . but the Other Guy has a .797?

And we haven’t yet gone deeper into the number one factor that keeps people comparing Omar Vizquel to the Other Guy—defense. Vizquel was an above average defensive shortstop in his prime, but we need to remind ourselves this isn’t the Hall of Above Average. (It sure as hell isn’t the Hall of the Gold Watch, either, Harold Baines’s election notwithstanding.)

Vizquel’s prime didn’t last quite as long as the Other Guy, and he spent his final four seasons as a utility man while the Other Guy was kept strictly as a shortstop even when he became a part-timer in his final three or four seasons. So let’s look at whether Vizquel really was the second coming of the Other Guy at shortstop.

Uh-oh.

Vizquel totals +128 putting total zone runs and defensive runs above average together—but the Other Guy totals +110 more. Vizquel’s range factor is 0.1 above league average—but the Other Guy is 0.44 above average. It isn’t even that close between Vizquel and the Other Guy, and close counts only in horseshoes, hand grenades, nuclear weapons, and bad plate umpire pitch calling.

It’s even less close between Vizquel and Mark Belanger, a shortstop whose prime preceded the Other Guy’s but whose all-time high of +241 total zone/defensive runs above average (113 more than Vizquel) still won’t put him into the Hall of Fame because of one problem: compared to Belanger, Vizquel and the Other Guy hit like Cal Ripken, Jr.

(It’s the same thing that keeps Clete Boyer out of the Hall of Fame: Boyer may have been the greatest defensive third baseman ever, even better than Brooks Robinson, but 1) Robinson could and did hit a lot more than a little; and, 2) Boyer couldn’t hit if you paid him by contact frequency.)

And I haven’t even thought about wins above replacement-level player until now. Well, now. Vizquel’s 45.6 career WAR are 1) 31.3 fewer than the Other Guy; and, 2) 21.9 below the average Hall of Fame shortstop. His 26.8 seven-season peak WAR are 1) 15.7 below the Other Guy; and, 2) 16.3 below the average Hall of Fame shortstop’s seven-season peak. (For the record: Vizquel broke into his league’s top ten WAR only once; the Other Guy did it six times.)

The Other Guy, of course, is Ozzie Smith.

(And we didn’t even think about Smith’s famous cartwheeling back flips out to his position for the home fans.)

I’m not arguing against Vizquel being elected to Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame should continue recognising run prevention as equal to run creation and run production. (If nothing else, it’s the number one reason Rabbit Maranville made it into the Hall of Fame on deep thought: he couldn’t hit if you set the ball on a tee for him, but Maranville was a reputed gazelle at shortstop.) Vizquel was the best defensive shortstop of the 1990s and the early Aughts.

But electing the Little O to the Hall of Fame on the grounds that he was the second coming of the Wizard of Oz would be false. There hasn’t been a shortstop yet who’s that second coming, and you don’t have to be the new Wiz to earn a Cooperstown plaque. Elect Vizquel for who he really was, not for whom you only think he was.

Kim Ng, inside the box

Kim Ng (right) with Don Mattingly, when Mattingly managed the Dodgers and Ng was their assistant GM. Ng is now, among other things, Mattingly’s new boss in Miami.

Whatever you do otherwise, please don’t call Kim Ng’s hiring as the Miami Marlins’ new general manager “outside the box” thinking. It’s an insult to hers and the Marlins’ intelligence, and it should be to anyone else’s, too.

Yes, Ng is the first woman and the first Asian-American to hold such a job. But yes, she also has three decades worth of experience in baseball operations which only began when she joined the White Sox as a front office intern and worked her way to becoming the team’s assistant director for baseball operations.

The Marlins hired her away from baseball government itself, where Ng just finished her ninth year as the Show’s senior vice president for baseball operations, focused specifically on tightening up and administering MLB’s international baseball reach and operations, working with MLB front offices and international organisations alike, and enforcing international signing rules.

In between her term with the White Sox and in the Show’s government, Ng became the youngest assistant GM (at 29) ever when she took that job with the Yankees, then joined the Dodgers as an assistant GM, her performances of which jobs plus her performance in MLB’s organisation itself put her on several team radars as a GM to be.

Outside the box? Ng is about as inside the baseball box as you can get with her experience and reputation. The only thing outside the box about her is that, well, she’s a lady, and she’s the daughter of a Chinese American father who worked as a financial analyst and a Chinese Thai mother who worked as a banker.

She’s Indianapolis born but New York raised, and she grew up among other things playing stickball on the Queens streets before going to the University of Chicago, earning a degree in public policy, and, oh yes, winning a Most Valuable Player award as an infielder on the university’s softball team.

“[I]t is the honor of my career to lead the Miami Marlins as their next General Manager,” Ng says in a formal statement. “We are building for the long term in South Florida, developing a forward-thinking, collaborative, creative baseball operation made up of incredibly talented and dedicated staff who have, over the last few years, laid a great foundation for success.”

When was the last time you heard terms like “forward-thinking” or “collaborative” or “creative baseball operation” applied to the Marlins? OK, so that might be outside-the-box—the Marlins’ box, that is.

“This challenge is one I don’t take lightly,” she continues. “When I got into this business, it seemed unlikely a woman would lead a Major League team, but I am dogged in the pursuit of my goals. My goal is now to bring championship baseball to Miami. I am both humbled and eager to continue building the winning culture our fans expect and deserve.”

It’s a recent enough expectation, of course, but one that doesn’t lend itself to gags now that manager Don Mattingly was named the National League’s Manager of the Year for shepherding the Fish to a second-place irregular season finish in the National League East and as far as a division series in the postseason.

Ng has knocked on history’s door more than a few times in her career. With the White Sox, she was the first woman and youngest human to present and win a salary arbitration case, for pitcher Alex Fernandez. When the Yankees hired her as an assistant GM, Ng became one of only four women ever to hold the position, joining Elaine Weddington Steward and Raquel Ferreira of the Red Sox and fellow Yankee Jean Afterman.

She started showing up on team radars as GM material in 2005, when the Dodgers interviewed her. They handed the GM job to Ned Colletti, but Colletti almost immediately kept her as an assistant GM. She’s since been interviewed for such jobs by the Angels, the Giants, the Mariners, and the Padres.

When she left the Dodgers to take her MLB job, there were those pondering aloud whether Ng had a chance to become the first woman ever named as baseball commissioner. So much for that idea, so far. She’s content to have gotten where she is now. But would you really object to the idea down the road apiece?

Ng won’t exactly be wading into virgin territory with the Marlins. Chief executive officer Derek Jeter was en route his Hall of Fame career as a Yankee shortstop while Ng worked in their front office. Mattingly’s playing career ended a few years before the Yankees made her an assistant GM, but he was a coach for them while she was there. And, he managed the Dodgers while Ng was still their assistant GM.

Jeter’s own formal statement cites Ng’s “wealth of knowledge and championship-level experience.” The Yankees won three straight World Series while she worked there; the Dodgers challenged for or won a few NL Wests while she worked in their front-office brain pool. As a front-office executive Ng has gone to eight postseasons total.

“Her leadership of our baseball operations team will play a major role on our path toward sustained success,” Jeter continues. “Additionally, her extensive work in expanding youth baseball and softball initiatives will enhance our efforts to grow the game among our local youth as we continue to make a positive impact on the South Florida community.”

The lady is a champ who just might deliver when it comes to making the Marlins champs. Just don’t accuse the Fish of going that far outside the box by hiring her in the first place.

Two Miracle Mets committed to one major pension repair

Rod Gaspar and Bobby Pfeil, as shown on their 1970 baseball cards. Proud to be ’69 Mets, they’re determined to see redress for pre-1980 short-career major league players frozen out of baseball pensions.

When new Mets owner Steve Cohen met the press Tuesday afternoon, he spoke of making the Mets meaningful again, and not just for another isolated period. “I’m not in this for the short-term fix,” he insisted in his low-enough-keyed manner. “I’m not in this to be mediocre.”

As he spoke of commitments to excellence, and emphasised people making the difference from the field to the front office, a reporter asked Cohen—like me, a Met fan since the day they were born—to name his outstanding Mets memories. God knew I had a warehouse worth of them myself, so this should have proven interesting.

It did. And how. The first such memory Cohen named named was left fielder Cleon Jones, two hands upraised, waiting for and hauling down future Mets manager Davey Johnson’s 1969 World Series-ending fly out, bringing his hands between his legs as he kneeled to finish what God as played by George Burns (in 1977’s Oh, God!) would call His last miracle.

Funny that Cohen should mention that first. This week I had the pleasure of speaking with two 1969 Mets: Rod Gaspar, the fourth outfielder, and reserve infielder Bobby Pfeil. Both still cherish their days as ’69 Mets. Both also care passionately about another baseball cause.

Gaspar and Pfeil want to see redress for short-career major league players such as themselves who were frozen entirely out of a major pension plan realignment in 1980 itself. The new plan changed pension vesting to 43 days major league service and health care vesting to a single day’s major league time. But the change excluded players with short careers who played between 1949 and 1980.

Both men live in California today. Neither are financially distressed themselves. They’ve both been successful in their post baseball lives, Gaspar in the financial services business, Pfeil as a builder/co-administrator of apartment complexes in California and other states.

Both are delighted to talk of their 1969 Mets and of the game in general. Get these two friendly, accommodating men talking about the pension freeze-out for short-career major leaguers, and they become just as passionate as they were as reserves always at the ready for the 1969 Mets and the manager they still admire, Gil Hodges.

The pension re-alignment affected over 1,100 short-career players originally. Life’s attrition has long since reduced the surviving number to 619. The ranks diminished to that number Sunday when Ray Daviault—a righthanded pitcher whose only major league time after nine seasons in the minors was 36 games as an original, 1962 Met—died at 86 in a pool accident at his Quebec home.

“They have no guts at all when it comes to running my particular game, baseball,” Gaspar says of the owners and players who agreed on the 1980 pension change and those today who bypass or ignore it. “I love baseball. I don’t like what they’ve done with the pension, eliminating guys who didn’t have the four full years, there’s a lot of guys out there who are hurting.”

In 2011, then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-Major League Baseball Players Association director Michael Weiner developed a small redress. They agreed the pre-1980 short-career players would get $625 a quarter for every 43 days major league service time, up to four years. Though it was a beginning, it didn’t allow the players to pass those monies on to their families upon their deaths, and those players were still not allowed into the players’ health plans.

Marvin Miller is known to have regretted not revisiting the pension re-alignment before he retired as the union’s director. Several of the frozen-out pre-1980 players have suggested the freeze-out tied to a perception that enough of the players in question were September call-ups who didn’t always make their major league teams out of spring training.

“I don’t think we’re important enough to pay attention to,” Pfeil says of the game’s attitude toward those short-career players. “We didn’t really have a unity, or a group, that was pursuing any changes. It kind of went away with nobody [pursuing] the reform of it.”

It may have taken until journalist Douglas J. Gladstone first wrote A Bitter Cup of Coffee, in 2010, before the freeze-out registered to even small degrees with people outside baseball. (Gladstone published an updated edition in early 2019.) Gladstone and others including New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden have written since about both the union’s and the Major League Baseball Players’ Alumni Association’s post-Wiener lack of interest in addressing any degree of the freeze-out.

“[T]hey . . . didn’t hesitate one bit taking my dues when I was a major league player,” former pitcher David Clyde told me of the union’s lack of response last year. “But as soon as you’re no longer a major league player, they basically don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

Pfeil says he once contacted the Alumni Association’s then-leader, former Expos pitcher Steve Rogers (who is still on the group’s board), leaving a voice mail to which he got no answer. That lack of response, too, is not atypical among their fellow freeze-outs.

“I’m not real happy that they left out players who actually played in the big leagues,” says Gaspar, who made the 1969 Mets out of spring training and ultimately scored the winning run in the tenth in Game Four of the 1969 World Series. “But think about it. They have so much money, the owners, the players’ union, they have so much money, how much money would it cost them to give the guys who are still alive the pension?”

Gaspar answered his own question quickly. He says that if a combination of the owners and the players’ union wanted to offer even the minimum $10,000 a year pension to the still-living, pre-1980 short career players, it might cost a little over six million dollars a year. “What is that to baseball?” he says. “A drop in the bag, probably.”

“All we hear about is the money that’s in the game,” Pfeil says, “and I think we’ve been a forgotten group that helped them get to where they attained this.”

Both former Mets think the issue might have gotten further redress if Weiner—who died of brain cancer in 2013—had lived instead. Why wouldn’t Tony Clark, the former first baseman who succeeded Weiner and is the first player to serve as the union’s director, take more interest in aiding former players whose major league careers didn’t endure?

“I think he’s working on things that he thinks are more important,” Pfeil says, “and we’re easy to forget about.”

“You think the players union cares about these retired ballplayers? You think the owners care? No, they don’t care,” Gaspar says. “I’m probably better off than most, and I feel badly for these guys. I know a number of them. I’ve been back to reunions and stuff, most of them have done fine . . . if it changes, to me that’d be wonderful for the guys who are still alive. I don’t see it happening because it’s a non-issue for the baseball players union and the owners.”

Gaspar and Pfeil are no strangers to collaboration. On 30 August 1969, they collaborated on one of the season’s strangest double plays in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. With the Mets’ defense shading Hall of Famer Willie McCovey to pull to the right side, McCovey hit a long double to left in the bottom of the ninth.

Gaspar had to run from his positioning to try flagging it down, settling for extracting the ball when it landed and somehow became stuck in deep left. He dislodged the ball, wheeled, and threw home. “I threw it blind,” he still insists of the Hail Mary-like throw.

Blind or not, the throw hit Mets catcher Jerry Grote in textbook style to bag Giants right fielder Bob Burda with what would have been the winning run. But the usually heads-up Grote suffered a momentary brain fart: he thought Burda was the third out and rolled the ball back to the mound. An alert Mets first baseman Donn Clendenon charged, pounced on the ball, and whipped a throw to Pfeil at third to bag McCovey trying to advance on the mishap.

“I was playing like left center field, [center fielder Tommie] Agee’s over in right center, [right fielder Ron] Swoboda’s down the right field line,” Gaspar says. “McCovey’s a dead pull hitter. But he hit it about 300 feet down the left field line. It was about, I don’t know, two, three, or four feet fair. As soon as he hit it, I took off, because I knew [Burda] was going to try to score. And I got to the ball, right in front of the warning track, I think down the line it was 330 . . . I just pivoted and threw from that point. That was probably the best play I ever made.”

The 7-2-3-5 double play sent the game to the tenth inning, where Clendenon—with two out and, ironically enough, Gaspar and Pfeil batting on either side of him in the lineup—tore what proved a game-winning solo home run out of Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry.

Both Gaspar and Pfeil say they’re impressed with the way Cohen has put himself forth soliciting fan input and declaring his commitment to turning the Mets around for the longer haul. Is it possible, then, to get Cohen himself to think about the pension issue and seek a way to make things right at least for still-living, short-career, pre-1980 Mets players? Could Cohen, acting himself or soliciting help for those players from the team he’s rooted for since its birth, start a team-by-team snowball toward that redress.

“I think he sounds like a person that would be willing to do something like that,” says Pfeil, mindful that, if he could or does, it wouldn’t happen overnight. “I think he’s got bigger fish to fry for a couple of years, he’s got a few other issues to get in place in the next six months.”

Perhaps Cohen’s equally philanthropic and enthusiastic wife, Alex, whom he’s designated to administer the Mets’ foundation for community and charitable outreach, might be receptive to entreaties on behalf of just such pre-1980 Mets as Gaspar and Pfeil.

Both players cherish their memories as 1969 Mets and the friendships that remain among various members of the team, but they hope for the pension mistake to be redressed. “I believe in miracles,” Gaspar says. “I’m a Miracle Met. But some things just don’t get to happen and I believe this is one of those things. But I wish I was wrong, I really do.”

So do 617 more former players asking only that the game they love forget no longer that they, too, played the game in more ways than one.

The Nats extend an Opening Day first-pitch invite

President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill, in Phillies gear, watching a game at Citzens Bank Park.

When Donald Trump first took the job he will vacate in January, the Washington Nationals hastened to invite him to throw out a ceremonial Opening Day first pitch. At least, the team and the White House were in “talks” toward arranging it. The then-new president seemingly hastened not to accept the invitation thanks to a “scheduling conflict.”

That was then, this is now. Trump is on the threshold of departing office as only the second sitting American president not to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at any major league baseball game since William Howard Taft introduced the practise in the first place. Who would have thought Trump shared common ground with Jimmy Carter?

President-elect Joe Biden is known to be a longtime Philadelphia Phillies fan but not otherwise sinister on a personal level. (He likes to joke that being a Phillies fan allows him to sleep with his wife.) That didn’t stop the Nationals from extending him a post-victory invitation to come to Nationals Park, just about any old time he chooses, Opening Day preferably, and throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

Spotting the invitation on Twitter myself during a Saturday visit, I couldn’t resist replying to the Nats as I’d replied to Jesse Dougherty, the Washington Post‘s Nationals beat writer: Biden should do well throwing out such a first pitch. He won at last by standing on the mound with the bases loaded, two out, and a full count in the bottom of the ninth, and freezing Trump with a called strike three on the low outside corner.

“[Biden] was up by 4 million+ runs, so not a save situation,” tweeted one respondent. No, but I probably should have made clear that Biden and Trump dueled in a complete game that went to extra innings before Biden finally delivered the game-ending strikeout.

Complete games have become baseball outliers over a longer period of time than stubborn baseball “traditionalists” want to admit or care to research. (The last time half or more of a season’s games were complete games: 1922; the last time forty percent or more were such games: 1946; the last time thirty percent of more were such games: 1959.) So don’t fault the respondent for not knowing one when he saw one.

Biden/Trump wasn’t quite analogous to the most fabled extra-innings complete game, between Harvey Haddix and Lew Burdette in 1959, but the Biden/Trump game in presidential politics is even more of an outlier than was Haddix taking a perfect game to the bottom of the thirteenth.

Trump, of course, pitched the extra innings under protest. No few of his arguments compared to the kind a frustrated 1960 Yankee fan might have made, when he or she noticed the Yankees out-scored the Pittsburgh Pirates (55-27) in the World Series the Pirates won and proclaimed thus that those Yankees were the true Series winners. Well, no, they weren’t.

Those Yankees weren’t exactly outliers, either. Eighteen other teams in World Series history have out-scored the opposition while losing the Series. The Yankees themselves had three other such Series, in 1957 (they out-scored the Braves by two), 1964 (they out-scored the Cardinals by one), and 2003. (They out-scored the Marlins by four.) They’ve also been outscored in three Series (1962, 1977, 1996) they won.

But I digress. Give Trump credit where due: he may have performed the most unusual first-pitch ceremony of all time in September 2004. Invited to throw out the first pitch for the Somerfield (NJ) Patriots, Trump audaciously landed his corporate helicopter in center field, then strode to the mound to wind up and throw. For the record, he threw something arriving just under the floor of the strike zone that might have meant a swinging strikeout in actual competition. Might.

Trump did interrupt a coronavirus briefing from the White House in July to say he’d be throwing a first pitch out at Yankee Stadium come 15 August, before a game between the Empire Emeritus and the Boston Red Sox. The president spoke about an hour and a half before Dr. Anthony Fauci threw one out at Nationals Park on baseball’s pandemically-delayed Opening Day. (We do mean “out”: Fauci’s pitch would have been a strike . . . if the low outside corner was more adjacent to the on-deck circle than the plate.)

It proved to be news to the Yankees, more or less; they told reporters the president hadn’t actually been given an invitation for that date. Trump countered that he’d gotten the invite straight from the Yankees’ team president Randy Levine, who’d once been rumoured to be on Trump’s list of candidates for his White House chief of staff.

Levine didn’t affirm or deny, but another Yankee official said subsequently that the invite was on. The invite may have been on but that Trump first pitch ended up not happening.

Biden has said since his win that he’d like to work in a bipartisan spirit as best as possible in (speaking politely) contentious Washington. I have a suggestion for the president-elect and the Nats that might show he means business when Opening Day arrives next April.

He could do as then-president George W. Bush did when major league baseball returned to Washington in 2005. Bush was presented a unique baseball to throw for the ceremonial first pitch, owned by the late Washington Senators relief pitcher Joe Grzenda, who’d saved it from the final Senators game, ever.

Grzenda intended to throw that ball to Yankee second baseman Horace Clarke at the plate, with two out and the Senators looking to say farewell with a 7-5 win on 30 September 1971. Thanks to heartsick Senators fans bursting the fences, swarming the field, leaving the RFK Stadium field and scoreboard resembling the remains of a terrorist attack, and forcing the umpires to forfeit the game to the Yankees, Grzenda never got to pitch to Clarke.

But he kept the ball and, at long enough last, got the invite to throw it as a first pitch in RFK in 2005 before the freshly transplanted (from Montreal) Nationals opened for new business. Instead, he handed the ball to Bush, likewise clad in a Nationals jacket, and Bush—ironically, a former co-owner of the Texas Rangers that the Senators became—threw a neat breaking ball up to the plate.

Nats catcher Brian Schneider caught the Bush pitch. He had ideas about keeping the ball until Grzenda asked to have it back and the memorabilia-happy catcher obliged.

Grzenda died in July 2019. (Clarke passed away three months ago.) Assuming his family still possesses the ball—which Grzenda pitched to get Bobby Murcer on a grounder for the second out before being unable to pitch to Clarke—Biden’s people might think to ask them for the honour of throwing that ball out for the Opening Day first pitch.

The Nats might also think about making that particular ball an annual Opening Day first pitch tradition. They don’t have to worry about weird mojo attaching to the ball. Their 2019 World Series triumph took plenty of care of that.

If Biden jinxes or fouls his own presidency, it won’t be because he throws the last ball of Washington Senators baseball. Just be sure he doesn’t get any bright ideas about arriving at Nationals Park to do it by way of landing Marine One in center field.