Big Papi leads my IBWAA Hall of Fame ballot

David Ortiz

David Ortiz, Hall of Famer in waiting. 

It would be nice to think that the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America’s annual Hall of Fame voting can be more than merely symbolic in the bigger picture. Not just because I happen to be a life member, but for reasons I enunciated in a previous essay addressing how to adjust the Hall vote.

Including that we of the IBWAA aren’t just a gaggle of bathrobe scribblers. We do have members of the Baseball Writers Association of America among us. But we also have a flock of very dedicated writers who watch baseball and think hard about the game we love, at least as hard as the average “legitimate” reporter/commentator.

We think hard about the Hall of Fame, too. We want to see the worthy get their due. We cringe with everyone else when the less worthy stand at the Cooperstown podium. We lament when the worthy don’t get their due. We want to see the Hall of Fame represent geniune greatness, not mere sentiment or a kind of gold or platinum watch.

Our baseball hearts break with anyone else’s, too, when we see men on the ballot we thought looked to be Hall of Famers in the making when they first hit the field or the mound only to be waylaid for assorted sad reasons.

There’s sadness enough on this year’s Hall ballot. But there’s also joy enough. And, additional or recurring controversy enough. That’s one, two, three bases, you’re in at the old ball game’s vote for the game’s highest known honour. Let’s hope that, this time, between the BBWAA, the Golden Era Committee, and the Early Baseball Committee, they step up with the bases loaded and knock it right out of the park.

We of the IBWAA vote only for those on the BBWAA ballot. More’s the pity, because I’d love to see us make ourselves known about the Golden Era and Early Baseball Committees’ candidates. (Frankly, I’d love to have even a symbolic hand in giving their due  to Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Bill Dahlen, John Donaldson, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Buck O’Neil, and Tubby Scales.)

Following will be my Hall votes this time around, and why, symbolic though they are. You may notice no review of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. That’s because the IBWAA already “elected” them and thus removed them from our annual ballot. In the real world, of course, neither Bonds nor Clemens are in yet. They’re also now on their final real-world BBWAA ballots. (So, for that matter, is Sammy Sosa.)

They’re still hobbled by, you know, that stuff with actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances. Never mind that a) they’re believed to have indulged during the pre-testing, so-called Wild West PED era of the 1990s/early Aughts; or, b) they had Hall of Fame credentials to burn before the points at which they became suspect.

But on with it. There’s only one BBWAA ballot newcomer getting my vote:

 

David Ortiz 

Big Papi is problematic for one reason only: that anonymous 2003 testing that 1) turned him up positive but 2) was supposed to be anonymous and to determine just how broad a testing program to come should be. And even Commissioner Nero has said, often enough, that there was enough false positive doubt to remove the taint from him.

Ortiz didn’t even know about that anonymously-tested positive for a few years to follow . . . and he never flunked a drug test in thirteen years once the mandatory testing programs began in earnest not long afterward.

The anti-DH bias doesn’t hold anymore, not with Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez in the Hall of Fame, it doesn’t. (Harold Baines, you say? Sorry, that was a Today’s Game Committee mistake—a big mistake. Baines was and remains a classic Hall of the Gold Watch player and nothing much more than that. The Today’s Game Committee decided to give him the platinum watch of a plaque in Cooperstown. Nobody says I have to agree with it or keep my mouth shut about it.)

But as a designated hitter, especially once he joined the Red Sox, this guy was a wrecking machine. Not given much of a shot with the Twins while they still played at home in the old Metrodome, Ortiz going to the Red Sox got a big boost right out of the chute: he moved from a home “park” that wasn’t so great for him to one that was.

He also moved from a team that wasn’t as good as the 2003 Red Sox were at putting men on base for him to drive in. He’d given previous hints to what he could do in the postseason; then, in 2004, he damn near became the postseason with what he did to help the Red Sox overthrow the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.

Ortiz helped the Red Sox break the actual or alleged Curse of the Bambino at last and helped them to two more World Series rings before he was finished at last. He was nothing to trifle with in the postseason overall (.289/.404/.543; seventeen home runs; .947 OPS) but he was a weapon of mass destruction in the World Series. (.455/.576/.795 in fourteen World Series games; 1.372 OPS; nine of twenty Series hits going for extra bases including three over the fences.)

Big Papi was must-see everything once he flipped the switch and went from good to great to off the charts at the plate. That’s before considering he finished his career with 541 home runs, 1,192 extra base hits total, and 48 percent of his hits going for extra bases overall. He’s also one of only three men to finish their careers with 500+ home runs and 600+ doubles: the others are Bonds and Hall of Famer Henry Aaron.

So how does Ortiz stack among the Hall of Fame DHs according to my Real Batting Average (RBA: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances)?

DH PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Frank Thomas 10,075 4550 1667 168 121 87 .654
David Ortiz 10,091 4765 1319 209 92 38 .637
Edgar Martinez 8674 3718 1283 113 77 89 .609
Harold Baines 11,092 4604 1062 187 99 14 .538
HOF AVG .610

Ortiz is only fourteen RBA points behind Thomas and 28 points ahead of Martinez, and he’s 27 points above the Hall average for DHs. (Yes, that’s Baines 72 points below the Hall’s DH average—considering those who spent all or the majority of their careers in the role.)

You know something? Yes, let’s get it out of the way, since there’s been more than a little carping from the anti-DH crowd: Ortiz played 265 games at first base lifetime . . . and he wasn’t terrible at it.

He didn’t have a lot of range, but he was only three points below his league average for fielding percentage, he was only seven defensive runs saved below the league average, and he had decent hands that enabled him to turn more than a few double plays. We’re not exactly talking about the second coming of Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart here.

But we are talking about the arguable second-greatest full-time DH ever to check in at the plate. We’re also talking about a guy who avoided more than a few Red Sox scandals during the heat of his career there (they don’t remember Papi Being Papi with due derision) and a guy who could and often did put the entire city on his back when disaster or terrible mass crime struck.

Who can forget This is our [fornicating] city! that Opening Day following the Marathon bombing and launching the Red Sox to their third World Series conquest with Ortiz in the lineup? Just pray that, during his Cooperstown induction speech, Big Papi doesn’t surrender to the overwhelming temptation to holler, This is our [fornicating] Hall of Fame!

 

The rest of my yes votes

Todd Helton—Unlike Hall of Famer Larry Walker, the Toddfather never got the chance to show what he could do with a park other than Coors Field 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. He was a rare bird who walked more than he struck out, was an on-base machine (.414. lifetime on-base percentage), and he was deadlier at the plate with men in scoring position than he was with the bases empty.

He wasn’t the second coming of Keith Hernandez at first base, but he was a well above-average defender. That still sounds like a Hall of Famer to me.

Andruw Jones—I’m pretty sure people still have a near-impossible time reconciling Jones’s too-staggering decline phase to his peak through age 29. It started with his final, injury-marred Atlanta season, and continued so profoundly in Los Angeles that he became indifferent enough to be a sad punch line before he was finally bought out of his deal.

But that peak should still be enough to make Jones a Hall of Famer. He wasn’t just a Hall-level hitter before those later-career health issues, but he was way off the proverbial charts as a run-preventive center fielder. He had a great throwing arm, a genius for finding sure routes to balls despite his habitual shallow positioning, and both elevated him where it mattered the most—and not just in the highlight reels, either.

Jones retired with the second-most defensive runs saved above his league average for any player at any position—only Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson’s +293 out-rank Jones’s +253. Jones is also +80 ahead of Hall of Famer Willie Mays, incidentally.

Don’t be silly. I’m not calling Jones a better player than Mays, or even Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr. They were just too much better all-around to kid yourself. I am saying, however, that taken strictly for his defense Jones was the most run-preventive defensive center fielder who ever played major league baseball.

Measure him by wins above replacement-level player (WAR), and Jones’s seven-year peak WAR is above that of the average Hall of Fame center fielder. There are plenty of peak-value Hall of Famers in Cooperstown. Jones’s Hall of Fame teammate, Chipper Jones, wasn’t just blowing smoke when he said upon his own induction that if you wanted to beat the 1990s Braves “you had to go through the Jones boys, too.”

That’s the way Hall of Famers play the game. And if the Hall now gives more value to defense than in the past, Jones assuredly deserves the honour even more.

Andruw Jones

Andruw Jones—the best in the game at center field for long enough, and the second-most run-preventive defender at any position, ever. That sounds like a Hall of Famer to me. 

Jeff Kent—The best-hitting second baseman of the expansion era was traded three times before finding a home with the Giants at 29. He was also a product of a high-scoring era, but he wasn’t a particlarly great defensive second baseman even if he was slick on the double play. That -42 defensive runs saved below his league average doesn’t enhance him.

Neither does his reputation as a personality often described as “prickly,” and its still to wonder whether Kent’s once-notorious attitude issues remain enough to keep the BBWAA from putting him in despite the continuing ballot crowd. More telling, though, is that both early-career mishandlings plus enough injuries over the second half of his career had big enough hands in his final performance papers.

Kent’s 351 home runs as a second baseman remain the most for any player playing that position. (The man most likely to have threatened that record, Robinson Canó, may not get the chance after all.) That helps his Hall case, as does his overall fine postseason record.

He wouldn’t be the worst man or second baseman in the Hall. I’ll vote for Kent on the record alone, but I do suspect he may yet find himself needing a future Era Committee to give him the second look he may yet need to get his plaque.

Scott Rolen—It wasn’t Rolen’s fault that he was villified and sullied during his early seasons in Philadelphia. He just wasn’t the kind of guy Loud Larry Bowa and Drill Sgt. Dallas Green loved. He was soft spoken, he let his prep and his play do his talking, and he didn’t blow up the nearest inanimate objects when a swing missed or a play faltered or a game was lost. You hear a lot of lip service to let’s just get ’em tomorrow. Rolen lived it.

If he’d been a fighter pilot, Rolen would have earned a rep as the classic maintain-an-even-strain type. The Right Stuff. Bowa, Green, and the Phillies front office misread Rolen as indifferent. Even if every teammate he had knew better. He hustled himself into injuries and that only added to the sullying, in Philadelphia and in St. Louis, where he ran afoul of Tony La Russa despite playing his usual kind of hard and delivering performances that helped the Cardinals to a few postseasons and a World Series ring.

Rolen fumed over La Russa souring on him for being injured in honest competition. If only he could have then-Brewers manager Ned Yost for a skipper. Yost called him “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.”

Then-Cardinals GM John Mozeliak came publicly to regret trading Rolen to the Blue Jays. Former Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty caught wind that Rolen wanted to play closer to home   and pried him out of the Jays for the Reds. Rolen helped the Reds to a couple of postseasons, too.

Rolen wasn’t the hitter Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones was, but Jones wasn’t the defender Rolen was, either. Not by about ten country miles. Rolen won eight Gold Gloves and they weren’t by reputation alone. Only Robinson and Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt have more such awards at third base.

Rolen had eleven seasons averaging ten or more runs saved at third and three in which he averaged twenty or more. His 140 defensive runs above league average are tied for sixth amont third basemen all time. Preferring to leave it on the field and at the plate without starving for publicity or acting like the star he did his best not to present himself being may have been Rolen’s number one career problem.

Every team should have that kind of problem, then sit back and watch themselves win a little bit more with it. Rolen’s Hall candidacy gets more traction year by year. He deserves a plaque in Cooperstown and he should get it before his ten years’ ballot eligibility expires.

Curt Schilling (with prejudice)—On the mound: no-questions-asked Hall of Famer. (Only Schilling plus Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez have ever struck 3000+ batters out and walked -1,000 batters.) He sought the biggest of the big games and delivered when he got them 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 he deleted at the speed of light 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.”

Schilling’s Phillies general manager Ed Wade once said he was a horse every five days and a horse’s ass the other four. I’ll say again: When you take your children to Cooperstown, and you see his plaque, just tell them he’s not the first and won’t be the last Hall of Famer at the ballpark who was a Hall of Shamer away from it.

I don’t have to love the man to respect and vote for the pitcher. But let’s let Jay Jaffe have the penultimate 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.

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 that wasn’t always justified.

His career happened mostly in a high-offense era, but he had an odd problem: he played too much in home ballparks that hated righthanded hitters. (Strangely, too, he did well enough in one of them, Dodger Stadium.) Marry that to the nagging injuries dogging him much of his career and he lands 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. Taken all-around, his lack of black and gray ink (top ten finishes) leaves Sheffield as borderline as it gets. His defensive deficiencies (-195 defensive runs below his league average) killed him for peak and career WAR, too.

Sheffield could be his own worst enemy but in some ways he’s also a wronged man. He tended to nuke more than burn bridges when he felt he was done wrong, but 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.

Dinged by the notorious BALCO steroids case when he really might have been tricked into using an actual/alleged PED, Sheffield’s ding, too, came before the formal testing/penalty program. Even the hardest-line writers against actual or alleged PEDs inclined to give Sheffield the benefit of the doubt. I do, too.

There are worse men in Cooperstown 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 has a real Hall of Fame case. And he won’t be half as controversial as some other Hall of Famers who might come to mind.

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.

Wagner 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.) He was a small man who made himself into a lefthanded assassin. (Two right arm fractures during his impoverished childhood compelled him to go portside.)

Billy the Kid 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 times? 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.

Maybe his only flaw was a Sheffield-like tendency to nuke bridges once he left town, though for far different reasons. Wagner waged war against those he thought didn’t share his competitiveness and determination. But he finally admitted in his memoir, A Way Out, “I learned a lot about criticism and how not to be a leader when I was traded.”

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 after leaving the park one last time. “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.”

If you must, call Wagner the Bert Blyleven of relief pitchers, with a Hall case that kinda sorta sneaks up on you upon deeper analysis. But he does deserve the honour.

The Rest of the Newcomers

I didn’t vote for the rest of the BBWAA ballot newcomers, but a few were geniunely sad:

Carl Crawford—On-base and speed machine ground down by injuries, especially when he tried playing through them anyway to avoid certain managers dismissing him as a quitter. He was a great defensive left fielder, too. (+99 runs saved above his league average.) Short enough of a Hall of Famer, but better than you remember him.

Prince Fielder—Finished at 32 thanks to neck injuries and surgery, but he sure looked like a Hall of Famer in the making for a few years with that big incendiary bat, didn’t he? I did zap him once in print for a seemingly indifferent take on the Tigers’ postseason elimination, but I changed my mind—you’d rather he trashed the clubhouse or wailed about the injustice of it all?

Ryan Howard—Everyone in Philadelphia would love to rewind the tape back to just before Howard’s Achilles tendon injury turned him almost overnight from the deadliest of the deadly to a journeyman who still had some pop but little else in the final five seasons of a thirteen-year career. No great defensive first baseman, the injury eroded Howard’s real ticket to Cooperstown, his thunderous bat.

Tim Lincecum—Won two Cy Young Awards in his first three seasons. A small guy who pitched big, maybe too big for his size, much like Mike Boddicker a few generations earlier. I’ve seen Lincecum described as an injury waiting to happen. His painful fadeaway was too sad especially because The Freak was extremely likeable as a person and known as that kind of teammate, too.

Justin Morneau—Had Hall of Fame talent, won a single American League Most Valuable Player award that he didn’t really deserve (going by WAR, Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana probably deserved that 2006 MVP, too, but if you won’t give it to pitchers Grady Sizemore among the position players really deserved that year’s MVP), and was done in gradually but surely by a few too many concussions.

Álex Rodríguez—Of course it’s sad that a guy who didn’t need help to be Hall of Fame-great went for it, anyway. First out of terrible insecurity after signing that mammoth deal with the Rangers; later, out of hubris at minimum. His post-career image-rehabilitation efforts may be laudable, if controversial. (He’s criticised at least as often as he’s praised.) But it’s going to be impossible to forget that—even if there were many compromising issues around baseball’s Biogenesis investigation—A-Rod did a splendid enough job compromising himself.

Jimmy Rollins—What Rollins has to sell is speed on the bases and solid shortstop defense. The bad news, part one: His 95 OPS+ (OPS adjusted to all parks, not just his home park) and .330 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot aren’t quite what a Hall of Fame leadoff man should have, and he didn’t steal enough bases to make himself a Lou Brock-like Hall case. The bad news part two: He’s 53rd all-time for defensive runs above his league average—with +38. At minimum there are eighteen men going nowhere near the Hall of Fame who were good for more.

Mark Teixiera—He looked like a Hall of Famer in the making, didn’t he? A few too many injuries keep him from pulling up far enough beyond several non-Hall first basemen, but when he was healthy the switch-hitting Teixiera was a genuinely great hitter and a well above-average first baseman.

Correa vs. Jeter vs. Syndergaard

Carlos Correa, Derek Jeter

Carlos Correa’s jab at Hall of Famer Derek Jeter’s Gold Glove awards inspired the New York Post to insert Jeter showing one of his Gloves into this action shot of Correa with the leather. But was Correa really out of line?

Carlos Correa versus Derek Jeter isn’t exactly the equivalent of a cage match, no matter what Noah Syndergaard might want to make of it. Correa has just finished his seventh major league season; Jeter is a Hall of Famer who played twenty major league seasons. Correa’s career has miles to go before it sleeps; Jeter’s baseball legacy is secure in Cooperstown.

Correa actually said, aboard a recent Me Gustan Los Deportes (I Like Sports) podcast: “Derek Jeter didn’t deserve any of the Gold Gloves he won.” Syndergaard, now a former Mets pitcher freshly signed with the Angels, was not amused: asked by MLB Network whom he’d like to strike out the most, Syndergaard didn’t flinch.

Thor’s preferred strikeout target is Correa. “Not just for the obvious reason, but just what he said about Derek Jeter not deserving his Gold Gloves,” he said. “I think that was a little ridiculous to say.”

The “obvious reason,” of course, is the lingering stench of Astrogate and Correa’s frequent willingness to embrace the villain role the scandal imposed on the Astros, an imposition too likely to remain until the last member of the 2017-18 Astros no longer wears their uniform.

The next-obvious reason might be Correa winning this year’s American League Gold Glove award for shortstop, plus being a free agent and drawing a lot of attention as a contract candidate for the Yankees and other teams looking for better than they’ve got at shortsop.

Jeter wouldn’t let himself be drawn in. Today the Marlins’ chief executive officer, Jeter simply dismissed Correa’s jab: “I didn’t think much about it. I don’t know how my name came up. My Spanish is not that good, I still haven’t seen it, I don’t know how my name was brought up, but it doesn’t even warrant a response. I mean I could go a lot of different directions but I won’t.”

That was the same kind of high-road travel for which Jeter was known well enough during the prime of his playing career. But was it actually that ridiculous to critique Jeter’s Gold Gloves?

When Jeter wasn’t yet eligible for Hall of Fame election, Jay Jaffe wrote The Cooperstown Casebook: Who’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Who Should Be In, and Who Should Pack Their Plaques in 2017. He did it position by position. When it came to the shortstops, Jaffe looked at Jeter in the chapter’s “Further Consideration (upcoming or overlooked candidates” subsection.  And this is what Jaffe concluded about Captain Clutch:

Seemingly engineered to withstand the spotlight’s glare, Jeter spent two decades in Yankee pinstripes pulling off the remarkable feat of simultaneously exuding charisma and remaining completely enigmatic, able to evade virtually every controversy that surrounded the franchise. A starter for sixteen playoff teams, seven pennant winners, and five [World Series] champions, he ranks among the position’s best hitters, collecting more hits than any other infielder, and ranking third in batting runs among shortstops (353) behind [Hall of Famer Honus] Wagner and [Hall of Famer Arky] Vaughan. Defensively, his strong arm, sure hands, and low error totals helped him pass the eye test of casual fans, broadcasters, and even the opposing managers who bestowed those Gold Gloves. However, his range was limited—he moved to his left about as well as Dick Cheney—and his -246 fielding runs is more than double the total of the next-closest shortatop; he was at least ten runs below average in three Gold Glove seasons. Still, Captain Clutch was unflappable in the big moments, hitting .304/.374/.465 with twenty homers in the postseason. Expect him to pull in at least 97 percent [of the Hall of Fame vote] in 2020.

Jeter ended up pulling 99.7 of the vote for his Hall of Fame election. He also inspired the strange phenomenon of Hall voters all but conspiring actively to make him the twenty-third Hall of Fame player to stand alone among incoming players on the Cooperstown podium.

The pan-damn-ic kept it from working out quite that way, of course. Jeter was inducted formally in 2021 with Ted Simmons and Larry Walker, both of whom were elected last winter, as was longtime Major League Baseball Players Association leader Marvin Miller posthumously. He didn’t quite get to stand alone.

But notice the text on Jeter’s Hall of Fame plaque:

Heartbeat of a Yankee dynasty defined a two-decade run of Bronx dominance that produced 17 postseason appearances, seven American League pennants and five World Series championships. Selected to 14 All-Star Games and named 1996 AL Rookie of the Year. Winner of five Gold Glove Awards, appearing in all of his 2,674 games in the field at shortstop. Totaled 200-or-more hits in eight seasons, retiring sixth all-time with 3,475. Scored 1,923 runs, with 100-or-more in 13 seasons. In a record 158 postseason games, batted .308 with 111 runs, 200 hits, 32 doubles. Earned 2000 World Series Most Valuable Player Award.

There you have it. Except for mentioning his five Gold Gloves almost in the middle of his other accomplishments, there’s not. one. single. word. about Jeter’s shortstop defense. Not one. Mentioning that he played every major league game of his career at the position is a question of presence, not performance. The plaque speaks essentially to what Jaffe isolated, Jeter being that great a batter among his fellow shortstops.

Let’s revisit where Jeter stands among his fellow post-World War II/post-integration/night ball-era Hall of Fame shortstops, according to my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances:

Shortstop PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Luis Aparicio 11230 3504 736 22 177 27 .398
Ozzie Smith 10778 3084 1072 79 277 33 .422
Phil Rizzuto 6719 2065 651 35 195 49 .446
Pee Wee Reese 9470 3038 1210 67 176 26 .477
Alan Trammell 9376 3442 850 48 200 37 .488
Robin Yount 12249 4730 966 95 227 48 .495
Derek Jeter 12602 4921 1082 39 155 170 .505
Barry Larkin 9057 3527 939 66 126 55 .520
Cal Ripken 12883 5168 1129 107 137 66 .539
Ernie Banks 10395 4706 763 202 141 70 .565
HOF SS AVG .486

There’s no question. Jeter is an above-average Hall of Fame shortstop at the plate; only Barry Larkin, Cal Ripken, and Ernie Banks (in ascending order) are past him there.

But that’s entirely at the plate. In the field, at shortstop, Jeter has a pocketful of isolated highlight-reel plays—the Flip, the Seat Dive, you name them—and they surely contributed to the image that he was an overall virtuoso with the leather and on the run. And that’s the problem. Perception is still everything to the casual observer and to the fanboi alike.

But perception is not evidence. The real evidence says that Jaffe had Jeter right in the field: he had the basic skills to enable him to pass the eye test with the minimum passing grade. But like the student who could pass his subjects without trying too hard wouldn’t advise anyone else to try it, you wouldn’t advise another shortstop to try passing the eye test with only the basics in the field unless he, too, is embedded on a passel of division/pennant winners and five-time World Series champions.

The table that follows is Derek Jeter’s fielding record during his five Gold Glove seasons, looking strictly at the number one job a defensive player has; namely, helping his team keep the other guys from putting runs on the scoreboard. The glossary is: DRS-defensive runs saved; RF/9-range factor per nine innings’ play; RF/9-LG-his league’s range factor per nine innings; RF/6-range factor per game; RF/6-LG-his league’s range factor per game.

Derek Jeter Gold Glove Years DRS RF/9 RF/9-LG RF/G RF-G/LG
2004 -13 4.46 4.56 4.32 4.53
2005 -27 4.76 4.60 4.56 4.55
2006 -16 4.14 4.60 3.97 4.42
2009 3 3.90 4.36 3.64 4.31
2010 -9 3.78 4.40 3.62 4.36
AVG-Gold Glove Years -15 4.21 4.50 4.02 4.43

Jeter won his first Gold Glove at age thirty, after he’d been the Yankees regular shortstop for nine years and after he and his Yankees already earned four pennants and World Series rings. There’s an awful lot of cred attached to him already just by dint of that kind of flight jacket.

He’d already shown his postseason mettle. He’d already proven himself money at the plate in those postseasons. He’d already secured his eternal image in Game Three of the 2001 American League division series with the fabled Flip—hustling down from his position across the first base line, grabbing an off-line throw home as he crossed the line a third of the way up from home plate, and throwing backward still on the run to get Oakland’s Jeremy Giambi at the plate.

The most likely reason Jeter won those five Gold Gloves to come was his image, the rep his image produced, perhaps the fact that he produced both as a Yankee—but not for his actual position performance. With the possible exception of his fellow Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, Jeter was the first player you thought of when someone mentioned the Core Five who brought the Yankees back to greatness during the first half of Jeter’s career.

He was a good defensive shortstop who had periodic highlight-film plays in him, and executed them memorably, but shook out in the long run as a slightly below-average defensive shortstop for his time and place. It’s no crime to look at the evidence and make that conclusion based on the evidence as a whole, surface and depth alike. It doesn’t diminish the plate skills, the leadership, the public carriage that really put Jeter in the Hall of Fame in the first place.

If you were to see a shortstop with those net results who didn’t wear the Yankee uniform during Jeter’s career, you’d probably laugh your head off at the suggestion that you’d seen a Gold Glove shortstop. Just don’t let yourself go there about whether Correa did or didn’t deserve his Gold Glove this year:

Carlos Correa’s Gold Glove DRS RF/9 RF/9-LG RF/G RF-G/LG
2021 20 3.91 3.81 3.83 3.72

You can see this year’s American League shortstops weren’t quite as rangy as they were during Jeter’s five Gold Glove seasons, but you can also see Correa standing well above the league average for saving runs from his position and standing at least ten points above his league average for getting to balls in the first place.

If someone other than Correa had said aloud, on the record, that Jeter didn’t deserve his five Gold Gloves, it wouldn’t have been even an eighth as momentarily controversial. Neither would it have broiled Noah Syndergaard into having to defend a boyhood baseball hero’s honour with an urge some think may not stop with just a strikeout.

Fixing the Hall of Fame vote, revisited

National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s time to look again at how to fix the Hall of Fame’s voting processes.

Last year’s Hall of Fame vote by the Baseball Writers Association of America was troubling enough, for more reasons than just Curt Schilling falling short sixteen votes and Schilling’s demand to be removed from their ballots. This year’s vote could prove just as big a pain in the rump roast.

It’s the last roundup for a few players thanks to the ten-year limit on the BBWAA ballot. Schilling is one of them. Others include some with that storm cloud of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances still hovering above them. (Good morning, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.) It’s also the first roundup for a couple of players above whom the cloud hovers (Alex Rodriguez) or gets pulled (David Ortiz).

Whatever those issues truly are, I’m still convinced we can agree upon this much: Something is still drastically wrong with the Hall of Fame vote. The vote still needs to be fixed. The question remains how to do it. The answers won’t be any more simple now than last year. But they’re worth revisiting.

Last year, the big sub-issue was the blank ballot. There was too much talk about some voting BBWAA members turning in blanks. What I said then still holds: how many blanks came in isn’t as relevant as thinking that, if you do submit a blank ballot, you should lose your Hall vote a spell.

What I didn’t suggest was how long following such a submission. Maybe losing your next two Hall votes should send the message: This isn’t the presidential election where, in some states, you’re entitled to answer to no parties producing candidates to your taste with a) the write-in vote; or, b) the ballot choice “none of these candidates.”

I’m not all that willing to allow the voting baseball writers a write-in vote. Some of their published arguments for or against certain Hall candidates cross into Cloud Cuckoo-Land as it is. But if a voting writer submits a complete blank, he or she should be blanked from the next two Hall votes.

At least, so long as the foolish ten-year limit for BBWAA ballot candidates remains in place. The far better course would be to re-open the eligibility window. It used to be fifteen. Why not make it twenty? You’d run far less risk of ballot logjams that might squeeze a Hall-worthy player out of the running through no fault of his own.

All that said, let me repeat what I wrote last year: Voting for the Hall of Fame isn’t exactly a right. The Hall gave the writers the privilege almost a century ago. With privilege comes responsibility, regardless of any controversies attached to any Hall candidates. The responsibility still includes the one holding the voting privilege doing his or her job—thinking hard, and voting.

It would be far simpler to exercise that responsibility without the ten-year eligibility limit. So here’s hoping the BBWAA thinks that one over and re-opens it to fifteen or twenty years’ eligibility.

Every year, the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America sends its membership a ballot for the Hall of Fame. Yes, it’s only symbolic, since the Hall of Fame doesn’t recognise us as a voting entity. No, the vote isn’t simple, cut, dried, or pre-natal surgery.

When I get my IBWAA Hall ballot, I take some time to think it all over. Then I vote. I even write about how and why I voted for the players I choose. I might now advocate returning the fifteen-year eligibility period or making a twenty-year period for candidates, but the flip side of that coin is that the BBWAA asked for it with the ten-year period—and, if I can do my symbolic job, they can do their real ones.

The ten-year maximum eligibility was imposed in the first place out of concern to do whatever the writers could think to keep those nefarious suspected users of actual/alleged PEDs from getting through. Aside from that jet taking off decades ago (greenies, anyone?), the bullets with which they shot themselves in the proverbial foot traveled far enough to delay or torpedo entirely more than a few legitimate Hall of Fame cases thanks among other things to several jammed ballots.

Kenny Lofton surely wasn’t the only man wondering why the number ten center fielder ever to play major league baseball can’t be in Cooperstown (pending a future Era Committee consideration) except as a visiting customer.

Everybody still with me? (All ten of you?) Good. Now hear (well, read) this. If we really want to fix the Hall of Fame vote, the Hall itself should step up, step in, and decide the BBWAA has played enough games for long enough. It’s time to broaden the Hall vote. It’s time for the BBWAA and the assorted Eras Committees to have company among those conferred the privilege of voting for the Hall of Fame.

Who else should be invited to the party? I had some ideas about that last year, and they’re worth revisiting with a couple of adjustments:

1) The living Hall of Fame players and managers themselves. No one should feel funny about allowing such as Jeff Bagwell, Johnny Bench, Craig Biggio, George Brett, Bobby Cox, Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Tom Glavine, Ken Griffey, Jr., Vladimir Guerrero, Rickey Henderson, Whitey Herzog, Trevor Hoffman, Derek Jeter, Randy Johnson, Chipper Jones, Sandy Koufax, Greg Maddux, Willie Mays, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Cal Ripken, Jr., Nolan Ryan, Mike Schmidt, Ted Simmons, Ozzie Smith, John Smoltz, Joe Torre, and Larry Walker, to name a few, voting for successors worthy of joining their fraternity.

Some of them get to be part of assorted sixteen-member Eras Committees, of course, which also include “executives, and veteran media members” according to the Hall itself. We can adjust that reasonably: The living Hall of Famers should have to choose whether to vote concurrent to the BBWAA or as members of one or another Era Committee considering overlooked/snubbed BBWAA candidates—but not both.

Left to right: Derek Jeter, Larry Walker, Ted Simmons. Why shouldn’t they and their fellow living Hall of Famers have Hall of Fame votes?

2) The living Ford C. Frick Award winning broadcasters, and those currently working in major league broadcast booths. They see as much of the games as the writers do. The Hall would not be disgraced by the like of Marty Brennaman, Joe Buck, Chip Caray, Bob Costas, Jaime Jarrin, Jim Kaat, Brian Kenny, Buck Martinez, Tim McCarver, Al Michaels, Jon Miller, Vin Scully, Bob Uecker, or Suzyn Waldman, among others, having a vote.

3) The statistics mavens, since statistics remain the life blood of baseball.  No, ladies and gentlemen, it would not be a travesty for Allen Barra, Bill James, Keith Law, Rob Neyer, or the folks at Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Reference, FanGraphsretrosheet, and The Elias Sports Bureau to be included in the Hall of Fame vote. So much of their work has provoked re-assessments of several subsequent Hall of Famers as well as incoming Hall candidates. They should not be regarded as voting interlopers.

4) Those writers/historians who were never admitted to the BBWAA ,but who’ve established themselves long and with particular distinctions as blessings to the game. Find us a valid reason for ageless Roger Angell plus Paul Dickson, Richard Goldstein, Peter Golenbock, John Helyar, Donald Honig, Peter Morris, George F. Will, or plenty of the fine excavators of the Society for American Baseball Research, just for openers, to be excluded from the Hall vote. You’ll have a simpler time finding Atlantis.

5) Umpires with above-average ratings. (God and His servant Doug Harvey only know you don’t even want to think of bringing Angel Hernandez or half the arbiters who worked this year’s postseason into the voting fold.) Those people had the second-best views of Hall of Fame candidates for themselves. (The first-best is probably a tossup among several.) The best umpires didn’t just call the pitches or the plays, they developed particular appreciation for players who strove for and achieved Hall of Fame-level excellence.

They would not lack credibility as Hall voters if allowed the chance. Should a voting umpire lose his (or her, in due course?) above-average rating, their Hall vote can be suspended for that year.

6) How about the IBWAA? As in, members not concurrent BBWAA members (we do have a few, including Spink Award Hall of Famer Jayson Stark) but whom the IBWAA leadership deems by their actual works to be worthy of a Hall of Fame vote to exercise wisely and diligently. (Fair disclosure: I’m not an IBWAA leader or officer yet.) The IBWAA is not just another gaggle of fans ranting our heads off. We’ve got some excellent observers, analysts, commentators among us who have earned the chance.

7) Establish a Pioneer Committee. This would be a group considering and giving due to those people—players, executives, statisticians, others—whom we’d consider to have changed the game profoundly in ways other than how they played or managed or administered the game. (It wouldn’t have let Marvin Miller wait until death did he part for his well-deserved Cooperstown enshrinement, either, if it lived while he did.)

The Pioneer Committee could begin with considering Curt Flood, who kicked the door to free agency open just enough with his reserve clause challenge. It could consider Andy Messersmith, who shoved the door open all the way by finishing what Flood started and prevailing right to the end. It could consider Tommy John, who enjoyed a long, distinguished second act after undergoing the first of the ligament-replacement elbow surgeries that’s long since borne his name.

They didn’t quite post Hall of Fame playing careers, but they all changed the game profoundly, and irrevocably. There should be a place in the Hall of Fame for all three.

This Pioneer Committee should also consider those such as Allan Roth, arguably the godfather of deep statistics. Bill James, who picked up where Roth left off, all but invented sabermetrics, and sired subsequent generations of deeper analysts many of whom came to play key roles in re-developing baseball organisations. Bob Kendrick, whose administration and representation of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum does invaluable work advancing the Negro Leagues legacy not as mummified artifacts but as a just portion of living, breathing major league baseball history.

If those are unworthy of consideration for having Hall of Fame votes, remember that my Antarctic beach club has yet to find a buyer.

8) Dump once and for all the prejudice against first-time votes/first-ballot Hall of Famers. If you think a player or manager belongs in the Hall of Fame, vote him in the first time. (Again, raising the eligibility limit back to fifteen years or all the way to twenty years should help.) You don’t need reminders of how many Hall of Famers you assumed to be locks waited five or more times to get their due. Or, of how often you wrote fuming over that sad fact.

People still think it’s more than a little surreal, if not insane, that Yogi Berra, Craig Biggio, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Hank Greenberg, Lefty Grove, Vladimir Guerrero, Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, and Cy Young aren’t first-ballot Hall of Famers. Even if things worked out well enough for Ford that he got in on his second try, the following year—next to his old running mate Mickey Mantle, on Mantle’s first.

By now you’ve probably noticed no mention of Joe and Jane Fan into the Hall vote discussion. There’s one bloody good reason not to even think of handing them a Hall vote: the hash they’ve made over All-Star Game votes, too many times, either with ballot-box stuffings or choosing to confer gold watches.

The All-Star Game vote needs a complete overhaul, too, though that’s still a subject for another day for now. But do you really want to know how much worse Joe and Jane Fan would make the Hall than the Today’s Game Committee that decided Harold Baines deserved a platinum watch?

Portions of the foregoing essay have been published previously.—JK.

Marvin and Ted, a love story revisited

Marvin Miller, Joe Torre

Marvin Miller (left) with then-Cardinals catcher-turned-third baseman Joe Torre at a 1972 press conference.

Yes, Marvin Miller decided before his death that being elected to the Hall of Fame was no longer worth it. Not even if it was no less than his due. “At the age of 91,” he said, “I can do without farce.”

But there’ll be a nice synergy in Miller and catcher Ted Simmons being inducted into Cooperstown Wednesday, along with two more from last year’s class, Derek Jeter and Larry Walker. Miller and Simmons were joined in an unlikely way early in Simmons’s career.

The pan-damn-ic then told the new Hall of Famers, “Wait ’till next year.” Wherever he reposes in the Elysian Fields, perhaps Miller has bumped into Charlie Watts, the lifelong drummer for a band that once sang, “You can’t always get what you want/but if you try sometimes, you just might find/you get what you need.”

What Miller and Simmons needed from the last-convened Modern Era Committee in 2019 was twelve votes minimum. Miller got the twelve, one shy of Simmons’s thirteen. Both men deserved Hall of Fame plaques long enough before they finally got them. And one inadvertently provided the other with invaluable intelligence.

At age 22 Simmons found himself the Cardinals’ regular catcher entering spring training 1972. Self-aware enough, Simmons decided his emergence should be worth more than a $6,000 raise. He refused to sign a new contract that would pay him one penny less than $30,000. The Cardinals’ general manager, Bing Devine, said not so fast, son, holding the team’s offer to somewhere in the lower $20,000s.

That was while Curt Flood’s reserve clause challenge awaited its day in the Supreme Court. (Flood, alas, would lose there, but he’d kick open a door that refused to be shut again.) Simmons started the reason without a signed new contract. The Cardinals renewed him automatically as the rules of the time allowed.

Everyone in baseball trained their eyes upon the sophomore catcher who belied the usual athletic stereotypes. (Among other things, Simmons would serve active and knowledgeable time on the board of a St. Louis art museum in due course.) They also trained their eyes on the reserve clause abused so long by the owners to bind their players like chattel, until they damn well felt like selling, trading, or releasing them.

Simmons played his way onto the National League’s 1972 All-Star team as its backup catcher. Once he went to Atlanta for the game, Devine rang his hotel phone post haste. Would Simmons kindly accept a mere $75,000—as in, the $30,000 he wanted for 1972 in the first place, plus $45,000 for 1973?

Miller watched Simmons a little nervously, too, knowing the kid pondered taking it to court himself. He understood completely when Simmons accepted Devine’s new proposal. But Simmons handed Miller intelligence you couldn’t buy even on the black market: Those  owners would rather have handed a barely-seasoned kid $75,000 than let any arbitrator get a look at the reserve clause even long distance through a telescope.

Miller had once been a United Steelworkers of America economist. After a players committee including two Hall of Famers (pitchers Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning) and two respected other veterans (pitcher Bob Friend, outfielder Harvey Kuenn) chose him to run their embryonic union, Miller won the rest of the players over by being just who he was—a brain, not a bludgeon. It didn’t hurt that Miller instilled an open-door policy: “It’s your union,” he insisted.

Miller didn’t follow the stereotypical union playbook, either. He may have kept the players’ eyes on the ultimate prize, but he knew and convinced them reasonably that it had to be done step by step, from pension and clubhouse issues forward. Even as he told them, as often as need be, “You are the game. Without you, there is no game.”

His two signature triumphs came almost by accident. The first was when then-Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment to Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter. Hunter filed a grievance and won. He also became subject of a game-wide bidding war that reached the millions and ended with him taking the third-most lucrative offer put in front of him.

Why only the third? Because the Yankees (whose representative Clyde Kluttz was the former A’s scout who signed Hunter for the A’s in the first place) were willing to divide the dollars Hunter’s way, right down to a certain amount put into an annuity to guarantee his children’s education. It was still enough to make Hunter a rich man on a fair, open market.

But Hunter was a single, isolated case. His triumph didn’t mean the end of the reserve era just yet. To do that, it took then-Dodgers general manager Al Campanis making contract talks far too personal for pitcher Andy Messersmith’s taste in spring training 1975. Messersmith promptly refused to talk to anyone below team president Peter O’Malley. He also refused to sign any contract that didn’t include a no-trade clause.

The Dodgers merely harrumphed that they’d never given no-trade clauses before and they weren’t about to start now. Messersmith said, essentially, that he’d rather be caught naked in a barracuda school than let the Al Campanises dictate his baseball future. He, too, refused to sign a 1975 contract. The Dodgers, too, renewed him automatically under the old rules.

Messersmith pitched on and pitched very well. (He’d lead the National League in starts, complete games, and innings pitched, while throwing seven shutouts and finishing second with a 2.29 ERA.) He withstood the snark of both indignant, ignorant fans and indignant, artery-hardened sportswriters.

“Every time he took the ball,” Simmons once said, “everybody in management wanted him to fail and everybody from the players wanted him to succeed.” Just as long as they didn’t have to bat against him. (The National League’s hitters batted a mere .213 against Messersmith in 1975.)

By that August, Messersmith found himself receiving two things: continuing Dodger offers for then-glandular dollars, and an education from Miller about the reserve clause itself. He was also the only active player left that season who hadn’t signed a 1975 contract. By September, the Dodgers offered him a pot of $540,000 for three years including 1975. “Where’s that no-trade clause?” Messersmith retorted, essentially. Without it, he wouldn’t budge.

When Peter came up with the dough, I was adamant. The money was incredible, but they wouldn’t bring the no-trade to the table. I’d gotten stimulated by Marvin and Dick [Moss, the players’ union’s general counsel]. Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.

Ted Simmons

Now a Hall of Fame catcher, Ted Simmons as a Cardinal helped Miller build his leverage against the old reserve clause abuse.

That August, too, Messersmith agreed to file a grievance seeking his free agency if he remained unsigned. The season ended; Messersmith’s stout pitching alone couldn’t keep the Dodgers from finishing second in the National League West. He filed the grievance.

(Arm-and-shoulder-troubled pitcher Dave McNally, technically unsigned but intending to stay retired after leaving the Expos in June, agreed to join the grievance in August, upon Miller’s persuasion—as insurance, in case the Dodger dollars finally seduced Messersmith, who refused to be seduced by dollars alone.)

The owners had no essential argument better than “this is the way we’ve always done it.” The evidence in the grievance included a newspaper article, in which penurious Twins owner Calvin Griffith basically admitted proper reserve clause application allowed a player’s free agency after one contracted season and a second team option season and no more.

Messersmith won. (The owners promptly fired arbitrator Peter Seitz.) The Lords of the Realm author John Helyar described Simmons as “choked up” when he said, “Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for us all.”

Miller was smart enough not to demand immediate free agency for all. Even he recognised teams had certain rights in players they developed, even as he insisted baseball players deserved the same rights as any other American—from the greenest labourer to the most seasoned executive—to test their value on a fair, open job market when no longer under contract.

It did far more for the good of the game than the artery-hardened hysterics of 1975 would have had you believe, especially when they mourned the death of “competitive balance.” Pace Mark Twain, the rumours of that death would prove greatly exaggerated. More teams have won the World Series since the Messersmith triumph than won the Series before it.

It’s not the players’ fault that the owners since have tried everything in their power, and sometimes beyond it, to try putting them back into their “places.” (The 1980s collusion, anyone? Isolated front-office executives willingly handing the gold to players who’d barely proven themselves worth copper? The 1994 strike born of the owners insisting the players stop them before they overspent/mis-spent/mal-spent again? Tanking?)

And they said free agency would destroy the undestroyable game. If you’d asked former commissioner Fay Vincent about that, he’d tell you what he told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick in 2009: Blaming Miller for “destroying” baseball was “like blaming Thomas Edison for putting the candle industry out of business,” which didn’t happen, either.

Perhaps the only thing more astonishing than the owners’ post-Messersmith chicaneries was the years passing by with the idea of Miller in the Hall of Fame not so popular with his former clients (he left the union in 1982) as his work on their behalf. No less than Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said the Hall of Fame should be for players only. You wonder what he thought when the Hall inducted Effa Manley—co-owner of the Negro National League’s Newark Eagles—as a pioneer in 2006.

“Instead of pointing to the sky,” the late Jim Bouton told Crasnick, referring to gestures often made by players crossing the plate after hitting home runs, “today’s players should be pointing to Marvin Miller.” As also to Curt Flood, Ted Simmons, Catfish Hunter, Andy Messersmith, and others who collaborated to do the once unthinkable.

Simmons himself went on to enjoy a career that should have gotten him elected to Cooperstown. His peak value matches that of the average Hall of Fame catcher. He went one and done in his only year’s eligibility on the Baseball Writers Association of America’s Hall ballot. Exactly why never really seemed clear. If he was a better hitter than catcher, the metrics simple and complex alike still show him the number eleven catcher ever to strap it on.

Maybe it was residual ill will over Simmons’s late-career tangle with Whitey Herzog. (Herzog traded him to the Brewers citing defensive shortcomings, after he declined moving to another field position. Yet Herzog eventually became a member of the Modern Era Committee that finally elected Simmons.) Maybe they had a problem marrying baseball’s most honorific museum to an art museum board member.

Miller died in 2012 with only one other regret: not having been able to convince the MLBPA to revisit the 1980 pension realignment that froze players with short careers prior to 1980 out of the pension plan. Players since 1980 need only 43 days major league time to receive a pension and one day to receive health benefits.

The only thing the frozen-out have received since comes from a 2011 deal between then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-MLBPA leader Michael Weiner: $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service time for up to four years. Before you say that’s something, at least, be reminded that they can’t pass those dollars to their loved ones if they pass before the final dollars are collected.

The MLBPA leadership since Miller’s departure has little to no known desire anywhere in its ranks to redress that or anything else involving the pension freeze-out. Attrition has reduced the number of affected players from over 1,100 to just over 600. Would anyone with leverage in the game now think to resolve Miller’s regret?

“Nobody has picked it up,” former Twins pitcher Tom Johnson, one of the affected, told me last December. “Don Fehr [Miller’s successor] didn’t pick it up, [present MLBPA director] Tony Clark hasn’t picked it up, nobody has picked it up and cared about it. I wish they’d go back and listen to that.”

Listening was one of Miller’s strong suits. “It took forever for each of us to get in,” Simmons has said. “He was the real deal. During my career, Marvin was the Players Association. He was an incredible man who was very special to me specifically. It’s an honor to be inducted with him. It’s bittersweet for his family but I’m lucky I can arrive in the flesh.”

Simmons has also said he hoped restoring the Hall inductions would be a stride in the right direction of returning life to something resembling normalcy. Surely he knows that “normalcy” doesn’t always mean without hiccups or pratfalls, both of which baseball has had in abundance for too long.

Portions of this essay have been published previously.

Call him anything, but don’t call him a thief

Albert Pujols, Mike Trout

This wasn’t just a celebratory hug after Pujols walked a win off with a sacrifice fly; Albert Pujols made Mike Trout a friend as well as a protege.

When the Angels decided it was time at last to let Albert Pujols go as gently as possible into that good gray baseball night, I wasn’t the only baseball observer to say it was heartbreaking. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, either, to say his decline following his first Anaheim season was just as heartbreaking.

But I’m still astonished, if not sickened to my stomach, from seeing assorted social media denizens speaking as one such baseball group member did after the Dodgers dropped more than a few jaws by signing Pujols as a bench and very occasional role player for the rest of the season.

“Where are they going to put him? There’s [sic] no [designated hitter] in the NL, and hopefully there never will be one,” said one in particular. “He can afford a rocking chair with all the money he stole from the Angels.”

Stole?

Bad enough the gentleman writing those words clings to one of baseball’s most nebulous and negative traditions. (Pitchers overall have hit .158/.207/.199 from the end of the 1910s until the end of 2020, for a big fat .406 OPS. As of this morning, they’re hitting .102/.136/.137 in 2021, for a whopping .273 OPS.)

But “all that money he stole from the Angels?” Rest assured, this gentleman probably isn’t even close to the only fan who feels that way. He just so happened to put it into cold print,  and I just so happened to catch it in cold print.

What he and anyone else thinking like that is really saying is that a player ground down as Pujols was because of injuries is nothing but a common thief. Well, I heard and saw Yankee fans and observers say similar things about now-retired Jacoby Ellsbury, too. As if they held their teams at gunpoint for x number of seasons.

If you thought Joe and Jane Fan believe losing is practically mortal sin, there are times that seems nothing compared to what they seem to think about being injured on the job.

When the Yankees gave up the ghost and elected to pay Ellsbury the $26 million left on his contract not to play for them any longer, I wondered aloud what it might have done to a man knowing he couldn’t do his job because his body kept him from doing it no matter what his heart and mind desired—and, because it made him a hate object among the witless.

“It’s as if being injured on the job at all equals a character flaw, especially if you happen to be paid a phenomenally handsome salary,” I wrote then. “On the flip side, it’s as if being paid a phenomenally handsome salary equals some sort of immunity to earthly harm. Here’s a bulletin for you: Handing Clark Kent a nine-figure payday doesn’t make him Superman.”

Ellsbury was talented and tenacious (and a two-time World Series champion) when he could play. He wasn’t a Pujols-level talent, but he could and often did break a game open with his own skill set, too. Yet one of the reasons Ellsbury wouldn’t even think about returning to the Red Sox when he hit free agency was because, appropriately, he was fed up over incessant clubhouse whispers that he took too much of his own sweet time recovering from injuries.

“It’s hell if you do and hell if you don’t for a professional athlete,” I wrote then, too. “Return too soon from an injury and you risk re-injury; return not soon enough (in whose sound medical opinion?) and you risk being dismissed as a fragile goldbrick.”

For Joe and Jane Fan, the paradox which is borderline hypocrisy is that they put on pedestals ballplayers who play through injuries regardless of whether that might lead to further injury, as it usually does—but then Joe and Jane Fan become the first to denounce the big jerks for playing through the earlier injuries only to incur bigger and more costly ones.

Pujols’s problems in Anaheim began when he developed plantar fasciitis in one of his heels during spring training 2013. He’d had a first season with the Angels in 2012 that resembled a down season on his terms but a career year for mere mortals.

Then, in late July 2013, he suffered a tear to that bothersome area during a game against the Athletics, while running out a ninth-inning base hit off Grant Balfour. He rehabbed the foot and heel as best he could until the Angels, out of contention by then, shut him down for the rest of that season.

It never got better for him. What nobody outside the Angels clubhouse really knew was that if his feet and legs could drain him, nothing and no one could drain Pujols’s iron will.

“He could easily have shut down a couple of these years. But just the toughness is off the charts,” said Mike Trout to The Athletic‘s Fabian Ardaya in 2019. “A lot of guys would have shut it down for good. He plays banged-up, doesn’t complain. I think that’s what people don’t see.”

“I’ll remember,” said ESPN writer Alden Gonzalez, after the Angels finally designated Pujols for assignment, “that even though his lower half was shot and he wasn’t quick enough to get around on the devastating stuff pitchers throw these days, he still showed up early, still spent hours in the training room to get ready for games, still took batting practice with intent, still crouched really low on defense and still looked for any opportunity to take an extra base. He might not have been productive, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.”

Trout was right. Showing up at the ballpark early and spending hours in the training room despite the physical sappings is what Joe and Jane Fan didn’t see. Maybe they didn’t want to see. Maybe they couldn’t believe the guy who’d played as off the charts as Pujols did as a Cardinal was forced into a far steeper decline phase to his career than he should have been.

Maybe they still clung to the illusion that a nine-figure payday in and of itself could keep a man Superman despite his body turning him into Clark Kent.

In only one way did Pujols have himself to blame for the outside perception that he was just going downhill at warp speed no matter how much money he was paid. He wasn’t the type to lament continuously over his lower body’s continuing betrayals. So much so that, when he finally did speak up about it, in the same 2019 Athletic piece, Joe and Jane Fan didn’t and wouldn’t listen.

“It’s made my move here so tough,” Pujols said to Ardaya then. “I don’t wish that anyone would have had those lower-half injuries, because I know that when I’m healthy, I know what I can do. To come over here and just be pounded by injury after injury, year after year . . . This game is tough when you’re at 100 percent with no injuries. Then imagine dealing with knee, heel, elbow, everything. It’s just tough, man.”

Pujols isn’t the only baseball player who ever kept believing to his soul that all he had to do was return to reasonable health to be what he once was. He isn’t the only player who’s learning the hardest way possible that there comes a time when the badly compromised body married to your age just wouldn’t let you be that anymore.

But not all such players get paid $255 million over ten years, whether they’re future Hall of Famers or future Hall of Shamers.

Nobody held the Angels at gunpoint, either, to offer Pujols that deal in the first place when nobody else was considering it, including the Cardinals (who didn’t until Pujols was practically taking measurements for his Angels uniform), or to keep him on the field when his body was clearly and cruelly draining him faster than a proper decline phase should have done.

Writing in The Inside Game last year, Keith Law came right out and said the Angels were foolish to keep suiting Pujols up even as a designated hitter, despite that iron will, because his body compromised him too deeply.

“If you have already paid for something,” Law wrote, nodding toward the guaranteed deal, “your choice of whether to use it should be a function of whether you want or need to use it, not a function of the money that is already gone regardless of what you do.” Don’t even go there about “eating money” if that’s what the Angels had elected to do. “Major league baseball player contracts are guaranteed,” Law wrote. “[T]here is no way to un-eat that meal.”

It’s one thing to argue against guaranteed long-term baseball contracts in all but the most unique circumstances. It’s something else entirely to argue against one retroactively because the player who signed one got hit unexpectedly with one of the worst injury bugs in baseball history a year after he finished his first season under such a deal.

The clumsiness with which the Angels parted with Pujols speaks only further ill of a team whose administrative culture makes a pratfalling putz resemble Joe DiMaggio roaming center field. The Dodgers’ willingness to bring him aboard even as a part-time bench player, perhaps an occasional first base fill-in, would look a lot better if there wasn’t even the momentary sense that it was a concurrent chance to stick it to their down-freeway rival.

It won’t cost the Dodgers a dollar beyond the pro-rated minimum major league salary to give Pujols one more chance at possible postseason triumph and a possible third World Series ring that the Angels couldn’t. (The Angels’ chronic inability to build a viable pitching staff has harmed them several years; if the Pujols deal tied their hands financially, the Angels haven’t been brilliant at drafting pitching or even acquiring low-cost/high-enough-performance arms, either.)

Personally, I’d hoped Pujols would surrender to his body’s betrayals and call it a career sooner, if only because he wasn’t really Albert Pujols anymore and hadn’t really been for too long through no fault of his own. I wanted him to be as close to Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt as possible, Schmidt having retired in May 1989 because, essentially, he didn’t believe he was Mike Schmidt anymore.

Such Hall of Famers as Willie Mays and Steve Carlton couldn’t do it, either; we saw their baseball ghosts a little too long. Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax did do it when he was still ten dimensions beyond the top of his game: “I don’t regret one minute of the past twelve seasons, but I might regret the season that was one too many.” Even more so than Schmidt, Koufax left the world wanting more, not less.

Whether mere mortal or Hall of Fame immortal, not every player is as self-aware as Koufax and Schmidt. But there’s another kind of self-awareness that imposes a cruelty of its own. It’s the kind Pujols has, the kind that kept him grinding his way back in search of the trans-dimensional greatness he once evoked. The kind that guaranteed him a berth in the Hall of Fame before his body left him nothing but his will.

Knowing what we should know now of that stubborn will no matter what Mother Health and Father Time declared otherwise, we should accept that Pujols earned the chance to leave the field with whatever remains of his professional dignity intact. Maybe he has one more game- or set-changing swing left in him. Maybe he doesn’t.

But calling him the thief who stole all that money from the Angels, however, is way out of line, Joe and Jane Fan. It exposes you as the couple too witless to comprehend just what Pujols put himself through to live up to that contract no matter how often his body told his heart and mind where to shove it.