Don Sutton, RIP: Craftsman (har, har)

Don Sutton only looked like a surfer dude.

Last year’s sad parade of Hall of Famers going to the Elysian Fields waited at least until spring to begin. This year’s began with the year a mere seven days old and the nation battered by the Capitol riot a day earlier. Tommy Lasorda died of heart failure on 7 January; one of his pitchers, Hall of Famer Don Sutton, died of cancer Tuesday night.

Sutton got to the Hall of Fame by way of his unique durability. In 23 major league seasons he didn’t miss a starting assignment until his last season, 1988. He earned credit for 324 wins despite having a 20-win season only once (in 1976, winning 21). He led his league three times in strikeout-to-walk ratio and four in walks/hits per inning pitched but never led in strikeouts while leading his league in earned run average only once.

That’s despite spending his career in pitcher-friendly home ballparks. Sutton wasn’t too gapingly different on the road; enemy batters hit .247 against him on their home turf and .226 against him on his home turf, with a .606 OPS on his grounds and a .678 OPS on theirs. His forte was workman-like speed changing, smarts, and guile, heh heh heh.

As of this morning, Baseball-Reference lists Sutton as the number 73 starting pitcher of all time with the most-similar pitcher being fellow Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry. Most similar doesn’t exactly mean equal value, of course; Perry is slightly above the peak and career value averages for Hall of Fame pitchers and Sutton is somewhat below those averages.

All aboard for fun time? Like Perry, Sutton was suspected very frequently of, shall we say, extracurricular craftsmanship on the mound. Like Perry, Sutton knew how to ride the suspicions well enough, even if he wasn’t half as dedicated to psychological warfare as Perry was.

Both men had mischievous senses of humour about the suspicions versus the actualities. If Perry titled his memoir Me and the Spitter and went through a famous series of motions from head to torso when he wanted hitters just to think he was going to grease them, Sutton didn’t have any particular trademark suspect gestures.

Perry looked like the Carolinas peanut farmer he was in the off-season; Sutton, despite his Alabama sharecropping roots, resembled the classic California surf rat from his rookie season to his Hall of Fame induction speech. Perry preferred to live rent-free in a hitter’s head; Sutton preferred tweaking the powers that were.

Sutton took to leaving tiny notes in the fingers of his glove for umpires to discover when they or a protesting manager thought it wise to have him patted down and frisked on the mound. A classic: “You’re getting warmer. But it’s not here.”

After frequent enough accusations that “I ought to get a Black & Decker commercial out of it,” Sutton actually got just that. “The only fun I get now,” he once said to Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, “is hiding dirty notes in my uniform pockets for the umpires to find them when they search me.”

“Sutton has set such a fine example of defiance,” longtime Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller told Boswell, “that some day I expect to see a pitcher walk out to the mound with a utility belt on—you know, file, chisel, screwdriver, glue. He’ll throw a ball to the plate with bolts attached to it.”

Nobody expected Sutton to sue longtime respected umpire Doug Harvey when the latter ejected him over a “defaced” ball in 1978. While pitching against the Cardinals and leading 2-1 in the seventh on 14 July, Harvey gave Sutton the ho-heave. “I’m not saying Sutton was defacing it,” Harvey told reporters. “I’m saying he was pitching a defaced baseball and the rules state that anyone pitching a defaced ball shall be ejected from the park.”

United Press said the “defacement” may have involved Sutton scratching a mark into the ball with his fingernail. “I have one thing to say and then no questions,” he told reporters. “On the advice of my attorney, I’m to say nothing about this. I’m filing suit against Doug Harvey, the National League and whoever runs the umpiring.”

Said Lasorda, who played the game under protest: “[Harvey] is judge and jury, and depriving Sutton of his right to pitch. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen that; it’s the first time he’s ever been ejected.”

“It was not the first confrontation over doctored balls between Harvey and Sutton,” UPI noted. “At other times in his twelve‐year career, the pitcher has been accused of scratching the ball with his fingernail to rough the surface for a better grip.”

Sutton’s lawsuit didn’t exactly set new legal precedent. It didn’t exactly get far enough to set one, let us say. Since the only verified implement he used was his fingernail, you certainly couldn’t accuse him of applying a foreign substance. (“I don’t use foreign substances,” one-time Yankee pitcher George Frazier snarked. “Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.”)

But about a decade later, when Sutton was an Angel after some traveling from the Dodgers to the Astros, the Brewers, and the Athletics, he squared off in Anaheim Stadium against Tommy John, a former Dodger teammate then with the Yankees, and a pitcher Boswell described as able “to turn a tiny scratch into a double play grounder.”

Sutton during his years as a popular Braves broadcaster.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, watching from his Tampa home, decided Sutton was being a little too blatant about things, calling the Yankee dugout and manager Lou Piniella. Steinbrenner demanded Piniella have Sutton frisked, arrested, arraigned, bound over, tried, convicted, and executed on the spot. Piniella tried to reason with The Boss.

“George, do you know what the score is?” Piniella asked, according to Bill Madden and Moss Klein’s Damned Yankees, referring to the early 1-0 Yankee lead. “George, if I get the umpires to check Sutton, don’t you know that the Angels are going to check TJ? They’ll both get kicked out. Whatever they’re doing, TJ’s doing it better than Sutton. So let’s leave it alone for now.”

John was lifted after six and a third innings; Sutton pitched seven full. Each man surrendered a pair of earned runs, including Sutton surrendering a bomb to Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. After the 3-2 Yankee win, Madden and Klein recorded, a scout in the press box said, “Tommy John against Don Sutton. If anyone can find one smooth ball from that game, he ought to send it to Cooperstown.”

Sutton may have been puckish about his reputation for baseball carpentry but he often admitted candidly that he took baseball to be serious work perhaps too often. He was described often enough as a kind of blithe spirit but it seems to have been his way of protecting himself against the contradictions of the jock shop.

“[M]ost of us have similar abilities,” he once said, of fellow ballplayers and of people in general. “The differences are mental and emotional and the big thing is mental preparation. That’s where everything starts: the poise, the confidence, the concentration.” It didn’t hurt that Sutton’s rookie 1966 saw him the number four man behind a pair of Hall of Famers named Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and a stolid number three in Claude Osteen, either.

Raised a devout Christian, Sutton didn’t buy into Lasorda’s Big Dodger in the Sky routines or the manager’s celebrity style, probably because his first manager Walter Alston was the polar opposite and a man Sutton respected deeply for rejecting celebrity and respecting his players as men. Sutton often called Alston the most secure man he’d ever met in baseball and praised the manager for keeping problems and questions with his players behind closed doors.

Sometimes, Sutton discovered the hard way that a little honesty can get you into a nasty spat. When he was an Astro and admitted he hoped he could finish his career on the West Coast where his wife and children still lived, it provoked Astros general manager Al Rosen—who once ended his playing career early due to injuries and a desire to be more a family man—to spar with him in the press.

When still a Dodger in 1978, Sutton said candidly and somewhat benignly that similarly quiet outfielder Reggie Smith was the actual most valuable Dodger, praising the talented and silent Smith because he wasn’t “a facade or a Madison Avenue image.” Taken as the thinly-veiled poke at popular first baseman Steve Garvey that it was, it triggered a clubhouse argument turned brawl between Sutton and Garvey.

John once said that during the worst of the brawl, an unidentified Dodger hollered to break it up because they might kill each other—to which catcher Joe Ferguson replied, “Good.” The problem was that Sutton was actually right. Garvey’s OPS was .843 and his OPS+ for 1977-78 was 130. For the same two seasons, Smith’s OPS was .974 and his OPS+ was 165. Garvey also hit into 22 more double plays than Smith in that span, too. Garvey was worth 8.5 wins above replacement-level for those two seasons, but Smith was worth 10.6.

“I’ve tried over and over to figure out why this had to happen,” Sutton told reporters subsequently. “The only possible reason I can find is that my life isn’t being lived according to what I know, as a Christian, to be right.” That from the pitcher who once ruffled feathers, especially Lasorda’s, by saying unapologetically, “I believe in God, not the Big Dodger in the Sky.”

“It took a big man to say what Don said,” said Lasorda himself, who didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Sutton, “and it took God to inspire him to say it.”

Sutton’s post-pitching life was mostly as a popular Braves broadcaster, where their fans reveled as much in Sutton’s easygoing repartee as in the turnaround of the Braves from the gutter to greatness. (The Braves elected him to their team Hall of Fame in due course.) He was also an enthusiastic Hall of Fame presence following his own election in 1998.

As a rookie during the once-fabled Koufax-Drysdale joint contract holdout of spring 1966, Sutton took the long view in due course. “Baseball players today,” he told Koufax biographer Jane Leavy, “owe a lot to Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. But Flood, Messersmith, and McNally owed a lot to Koufax and Drysdale. Because they were the first guys who really took a stand. This was the first challenge to the structure of baseball.”

At the Hall of Fame Sutton let himself be plain human. In the same speech in which he thanked Koufax for teaching him how to act like a baseball professional, he began by saying, “I’ve wanted this for forty years. Why am I now shaking like a leaf?” Then, he answered his own question: “I think part of it is because I’m standing in front of some of the people who were the greatest artists in a wonderful business that I’ve ever seen before.”

The man who often called himself a journeyman hack appreciated the art of the game, and of his own craft, after all. May the Lord in whom his faith was profound enough have welcomed Sutton home with the same appreciation.

Tommy Lasorda, RIP: “I made guys believe”

Tommy Lasorda (right) shares a handshake with Sandy Koufax near the Dodger clubhouse. “It took a Hall of Famer to get rid of me,” Lasorda loved to boast about Koufax’s bonus signing leading to Lasorda’s spring 1955 cut from the major league roster. (Los Angeles Dodgers photo.)

Last year’s losses of seven Hall of Fame players (eight, if Dick Allen is elected by the Modern Era Committee this year) were bad enough. Please, Lord, let Tommy Lasorda not begin a 2021 trend of Hall of Fame managers departing our island earth.

The odds may not be very good there. There are only four living Hall of Fame managers now that Lasorda is gone at 93: Bobby Cox, Whitey Herzog, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre. Cox, Herzog, and Torre remain elder statesmen of a sort. La Russa has returned to the game to manage the White Sox, hardly without controversy.

Lasorda took the Dodgers’ bridge from Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston in 1976. Twenty-two years later, he retired as an eight-time division winner, four-time pennant winner and two-time World Series winner. It didn’t exactly come the easy way for a man whose major league life began as the marginal relief pitcher cut for a bonus baby.

Under the 1950s bonus rule mandating players kept on big-league rosters two full seasons if their bonuses were higher than $4,000, the Dodgers had to keep such a green lad after signing him for 1955. The man they cut was Lasorda, who’s said to have taken one look at the kid and said, “He’ll never make it.”

It might have taken six seasons for the kid to come into his own and beyond, but the kid was Sandy Koufax. It wouldn’t be the last time Lasorda gave himself the chance to dine out on an old mistake in judgment.

“I did not have a lot of ability, but I’ll guarantee you one thing,” Lasorda said in 1997 when recalling his own pitching days. “When I stood on that hill of thrills, I didn’t believe that there was any man alive who could hit me. And if they did hit me, which they did, I thought it was an accident.” That from the man who dined out further on Koufax, saying, “It took a Hall of Famer to get rid of me.”

Lasorda’s three major league seasons—eight games with 1954-55 with the Dodgers, then eighteen with the 1956 Kansas City Athletics—show 53 accidents while facing 253 batters and posting a lifetime 6.48 earned run average.

Maybe it depended upon whom you asked. To Dodger fans Lasorda was the second-closest thing to a franchise face behind Koufax himself. To non-Dodger fans, Lasorda was either loved, tolerated, or waved away. Dodger fans loved Lasorda’s “Big Dodger in the Sky” schpritzing. Non-Dodger fans thought it was either sacrilege or malarkey.

Come to think of it, not all Lasorda’s players bought into it, either. “I believe in God,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton, “not the Big Dodger in the Sky.”

Lasorda was nothing if not both content to be a Dodger for the rest of his life, after his playing career ended in the minors in 1960, and to be Tommy Lasorda. He wasn’t exactly one of the most modest of men, and he rarely apologised for it.

When Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully asked about the pressure of following Alston—who’d won the only Brooklyn Dodgers World Series and three more to follow in Los Angeles—the reply was almost classic Lasorda: “I’m not worried about the guy I am following. I’m worried about the guy that is going to have to follow me.”

Well, it isn’t bragging if you can kinda sorta do it.

That’s not to say Lasorda couldn’t be humbled when humility was the mandate. Maybe no manager this side of John McNamara was as humilitated in the 1980s as Lasorda was with the Dodgers one out from forcing a seventh National League Championship Series game in 1985.

With two Cardinals on and first base open, Lasorda decided it was absolutely safe to let Tom Niedenfuer pitch to Jack Clark instead of putting Clark aboard to pitch to Andy Van Slyke. And Jack the Ripper decided it was perfectly safe to hit Niedenfuer’s first pitch three quarters of the way up the left field bleachers.

“Lasorda wept in the clubhouse,” wrote Thomas Boswell in the Washington Post several years later, “went to the players to apologise, then went on with his life. At the moment he manages the [1988] world champions. Maybe Lasorda coped so well because he’d already gone to three Series and won one.”

The skipper who looked more like he’d be coming out to chat with you in his neighbourly Italian restaurant (“Two World Series Rings. Ate everything he wanted. Drank everything he wanted. 70 Years in the same work uniform. Lived For 93 Years. Absolute Legend,” tweeted sports business analyst Darren Rovell) loved being Tommy Lasorda almost as much as he loved the Dodgers.

He brought Hollywood back to the Dodgers once he realised the celebrities got as much of a kick out of him as he got out of them, and he wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet when it came to being an occasional pitchman. The problem—particularly remembering his once-familiar spots for Slim-Fast diet drink—was that he didn’t always shrink.

Of course, Lasorda’s celebrity provoked a little friendly mischief aimed his way by players who couldn’t resist tweaking him. His late utility outfielder Jay Johnstone often conspired with teammates Don (Stan the Man Unusual) Stanhouse and Jerry Reuss to swipe Lasorda’s wall of photos with him and various celebrities and substitute photos of themselves in their stead. And those were the more benign pranks at the skipper’s expense.

Which didn’t stop Lasorda from writing the introduction to Johnstone’s first book, Temporary Insanity: “[He] wrote a book? What with, a fire extinguisher? . . . What’s that they say about marching to a different drummer? Johnstone must hear a symphony out there . . . That’s some book title. But I’m not so sure about the temporary part.”

The skipper’s outsize personality sometimes masked that he was as inclusive and unprejudiced as the week was long. It didn’t matter if you were white, black, brown, beige, yellow, or paisley, whether you came from flyover America, urban America, outback Mexico, downtown Tokyo, or the penguins of Antarctica. (Which may be where some people thought the Dodgers found 1970s third base mainstay Ron [The Penguin] Cey.) If you could play to the standard the Dodgers prescribed, Lasorda wanted you in the worst way possible.

He preferred positive reinforcement with his players, which didn’t necessarily keep him from reading the proverbial riot act when necessary. There were times when those players perceived as Lasorda pets enjoyed less than consistently friendly relationships with others in the Dodger clubhouse. Sutton and longtime first baseman Steve Garvey didn’t have a clubhouse brawl once upon a time because Lasorda could make them  bosom buddies.

“I made guys believe; I made them believe they could win,” he said in a 2013 interview. “I did it by motivating them. I was asked all the time, ‘You mean baseball players that make $5 million, $8 million, $10 million a year need to be motivated?’ They do. That’s what I did.”

It’s not unreasonable to suggest Lasorda’s presence at last fall’s World Series had even a little hand in pushing the Dodgers back to the Promised Land they hadn’t seen since Lasorda himself managed Orel Hershiser, Kirk Gibson, and company in 1988.

“He was a fellow with limited ability and he pushed himself to be a very good Triple-A pitcher,” Scully said in a statement upon Lasorda’s death. “He never quite had that something extra that makes a major leaguer, but it wasn’t because he didn’t try. Those are some of the things: his competitive spirit, his determination and above all, this boundless energy and self-belief. His heart was bigger than his talent, and there were no foul lines for his enthusiasm.”

There were if someone went nuclear against his Dodgers with bombs that didn’t sail foul.   Lasorda’s wild postgame rant after then-Cubs outfielder Dave Kingman destroyed the Dodgers with three mammoth home runs starting in the sixth inning of a fifteen-inning marathon in 1979—the Cubs won in the fifteenth after Kingman hit a three-run shot—is considered one of the greatest managerial fly acts in baseball history:

What’s my opinion of Kingman’s performance? What the [fornicate] do you think is my opinion of it? I think it was [fornicating] horseshit. Put that in. I don’t [fornicating] . . . opinion of his performance? Jesus Christ, he beat us with three [fornicating] home runs. What the [fornicate] do you mean what is my opinion of his performance? How can you ask me a question like that? What is my opinion of his p – of his p-p-performance? Jesus Christ he hit three home runs. Jesus Christ. I’m [fornicating urinated] off to lose the [fornicating] game, and you ask me my opinion of his performance. Jesus Christ. I mean that’s a tough question to ask me, isn’t it? What is my opinion of his performance?

Lasorda probably survived only because a) he was the defending National League champions’ manager, b) he had his Dodgers in the thick of the National League West race at the time, and c) he was Tommy Lasorda, liable to go from celebrity pennant winning skipper to everybody’s crazy uncle on the terrazza in the proverbial New York minute.

The hapless Los Angeles radio reporter who asked Lasorda the fateful question was Paul Olden. When Lasorda ran into Olden at a subsequent charity dinner, Lasorda apologised to Olden, even as the reporter admitted it wasn’t a brilliant question in the first place. In due course, Lasorda expanded upon it:

You know Paul said to me he was sorry he did that, I said “Hey, you did your job Paul. Don’t worry about it”. He asked me, ‘What is your opinion of Kingman’s performance?’ Nobody asked me about an opinion. They’ve always asked me, ‘Well, Kingman hit three home runs’, ‘What did he hit’, ‘What did it do to you’, so and so. This guy says, ‘What is your opinion’. So I proceeded to give him what was my opinion of Kingman’s performance. I’d like to have the rights on that, on that tape, because what happened, uh . . . was when it was first played on the Jim Healy show, I guess Gene Autry heard it and he wanted a copy of the real tape. And then all of a sudden, within a two week period, that tape had gone from the west coast to the east coast. Everybody had that tape. Within a month’s time, I couldn’t go anywhere without somebody telling me they had the tape—the real tape of that, uh, opinion. I think it was finally translated into Japanese.

That tells you something right there. Tommy Lasorda may have been one of baseball’s most unforgettable managers, but he had a sense of humour about it, even delayed, if you weren’t always inclined to agree with him.

Which is why he now steps through the gates to the Elysian Fields with the Lord in whom he devoutly believes saying, “For you, I’ll be the Big Dodger in the Sky. Better that than a bum.”

On renaming the J.G. Taylor Spink Award

A Red Smith Award or Wendell Smith Award for Hall of Fame writers?

Did you forget that the Baseball Writers Association of America is thinking of changing the name of another award, too? Much was written and said over taking Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s name off the Most Valuable Player award, and the BBWAA also ponders taking J.G. Taylor Spink’s name off the Hall of Fame award given to a distinguished baseball writer every year.

Being a baseball writer myself if not a member of the BBWAA, I have particular interest in the Spink Award, even if I have more chance of winning the Howitzer Prize for Extinguished Commentary than the Spink. The BBWAA wants to change the name because Spink himself, the longtime publisher of The Sporting News, opposed “organised baseball’s” integration, and they are not wrong.

“In August 1942 [Spink] wrote an editorial saying that baseball did not have a color line, but that segregation was in the best interests of both blacks and whites because the mixing of races would create riots in the stands,” Daryl Russell Grigsby reminded us in Celebrating Ourselves: African-Americans and the Promise of Baseball. ” . . . Spink’s defense of segregation was largely not based on fact but on fear and prejudice.”

Claire Smith, an African-American lady and the first of her gender to receive the Spink Award, has nailed it herself. “If this is the time of introspection,’’ she told USA Today baseball columnist Bob Nightengale last summer, “if Mississippi can change the flag, and Confederate statues can be removed from state capitals, we can do this.” If Landis can be removed from the MVP award because of his active enforcement of baseball’s old and disgraceful colour line, then yes, Spink can be removed from the Hall of Fame honourarium still bearing his name.

The BBWAA is voting on that as I write. Remove Spink’s name, though, and for whom would you re-name the award?

With the MVP the choices may be simpler. You can choose Happy Chandler, the commissioner who refused to disallow Branch Rickey signing Jackie Robinson and breaking the colour line at last; you can choose Rickey himself. You can choose instead the African-American player who remains the only one to win the MVP in each of the National and the American Leagues, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

The choices to re-name the Spink Award? One can think of quite the handful, Spink winners all, including a Pulitzer Prize winner or three while thinking.

There’s Red Smith, as close to a poet laureate of daily baseball writing as the game has known from his years with the New York Herald-Tribune and the New York Times. There’s Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times fixture whose wit made you think he was what Fred Allen might have been if Allen had chosen sportswriting instead of radio comedy. There’s Shirley Povich, the grand old man of Washington baseball, who practically raised the Washington Post‘s sports section by himself. Practically.

There’s Damon Runyon, who wrote eloquently, edgily, and wittily about baseball when he wasn’t celebrating Broadway. (You really should hunt down his anthology, Guys, Dolls, and Curveballs: Damon Runyon on Baseball.) There’s Ring Lardner, baseball storyteller and reporter alike, at least before the Black Sox scandal put the first serious dent into his love of the game. (The live ball era finished what the Black Sox started for Lardner.)

There’s Wendell Smith, whose reporting for the Pittsburgh Courier was a phenomenal pressure point toward baseball’s integration, which also begs the question why the best of his baseball writings haven’t been anthologised for today’s generations who need to know the arguable most powerful black press voice toward Jackie Robinson’s advent.

There’s Smith’s African-American colleague Sam Lacy, who did with the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American what Smith did with the Courier. He became one of the first black members of the BBWAA while he was at it. (Lacy published a memoir, but his baseball and sports journalism, too, has yet to be anthologised so far as I know.)

And, especially, there’s Roger Angell, about whom it’s been said (by me, to a fare-thee-well, but tough tarantulas) that he isn’t baseball’s Homer, Homer was ancient Greece’s Roger Angell. He was also the first non-BBWAA member and first non-daily baseball reporter to be honoured with the Spink Award.

Any one of those writers’ names would absolutely grace the award. But I have another dog in the hunt, by way of a journalism legend named Murray Kempton.

Kempton once attended the Meyer Berger Award luncheon at Columbia University. His Newsday colleague Jim Dwyer heard him say, “You know, I never won the Berger Award.” A New York Times honouree, Sara Rimer, said, “Murray, you just won the Pulitzer!” The courtly Kempton reminded her, “The Pulitzer is named for a publisher. The Meyer Berger is named for a reporter.”

In 1993, Kempton told David Remnick for a New Yorker profile (which included the aforementioned tale), during one of New York’s too-frequent tabloid wars, “In the end, my view of this so-called tabloid war is that I just don’t consider the character of publishers. I’m rooting for my friends—the reporters.”

(Harking back to a 1962 issue of Sport, Kempton wrote then of the Polo Grounds’ re-opening with the birth of the Mets: The return of the Polo Grounds to the National League was like the raising of a sunken cathedral. It is a place sacred in the history and hallowed in the memory. Christy Mathewson used to make his home on the bluff above the Polo Grounds. When he was working, Mrs. Mathewson could look out her window at the scoreboard and, when the seventh inning came, put the roast in the oven secure in the knowledge that her husband would be finished and showered and home from the plough in an hour.)

For re-naming the Spink Award, I’m rooting for my kindred, too—the reporters.

Dick Allen, RIP: Big stick, bigger man

Dick Allen’s big stick hit home runs that should have had astronauts aboard.

Around noontime Monday (PST), his family announced it on his own Twitter account. I came home from a morning errand to see the news, and I could only open his Twitter and write, without clicking on the heart symbol for a like, “How can you like the passing of a great ballplayer and a good man?”

Dick Allen is dead at 78 after a battle with cancer. There’d been a swell of support for his election to the Hall of Fame in recent years. He might have made it via the Golden Era Committee this year. Except the committee decided that, well, if they couldn’t meet in person to discuss and vote, by God they weren’t going to meet until next year.

When they made that announcement in late August, I zapped the Hall of Fame and the Committee for suddenly discovering their inner Luddism: “Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark seems to think, erroneously, that technology mustn’t overcome the coronavirus’s travel confusions and constrictions to compromise Era Committee nominations and elections.”

They never heard of setting up a Zoom remote conference? Trust me, since I just took part in my own first one. They can be set up simply, such a conference is restricted to invited guests via meeting codes and passwords, and none would have compromised the integrity of the discussions and votes.

The Committee pushed the meeting back to winter 2021. They just might elect Allen this time around. (He missed by one vote the last time around, in 2014.) Only he’ll be well serene and happy in the company of the angels and not on earth to accept the plaque I’m sure his family will accept proudly when it’s awarded.

It’s not that my opinion means two figs, but I’ve championed Allen’s Hall of Fame election for long enough now, and I’ve seen nothing to change my mind about it. I was on the fence about it for a good long while before that, alas, but once and for all I took as deep a look into the record as it was as I could and became convinced. Allen has a no-questions-should-be-asked case as a peak value Hall of Famer.

If you consider his peak to be 1964-1972, Allen’s .936 OPS and 164 OPS+ should say most of it, especially considering most of that peak came in one of the toughest hitting eras ever. If you consider the absolutely unfair and out-of-line racism he was forced to face and fight, especially as a Phillie, it’s to wonder and marvel that he could even check in at the plate, never mind play as he did when he was healthy.

Let’s look at Allen and his big stick by way of my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric. When I first examined Allen that way two years ago, I discovered a flaw: I shouldn’t have included sacrifice bunts or excluded times he was hit by pitches. The former’s flaw: you shouldn’t be credited when you’re surrendering outs willingly; outs are precious. The latter’s flaw: if the pitcher’s fool enough to drill you, let it be on his head and to your credit.

The RBA metric otherwise is a bid to atone for the incompleteness of the traditional batting average, one of the single most flawed statistics ever devised. Hits divided by official at-bats treats all hits equally and misses too much of what batters do to create and produce runs on the scoreboard. (You still think all hits are equal? Tell me why a single’s as good as a double, triple, or home run and vice versa. Didn’t think so.)

My RBA adds total bases (which treats hits the unequal way they deserve), walks, intentional walks (one more time: you should damn well get credit when the other guys prefer you take your base than their heads off), sacrifice flies (you didn’t intend to fly out but it scored a run so credit to you!), and times you were hit by pitches, and divides the sum by your total plate appearances.

And, this is Dick Allen’s peak according to RBA:

Years PA TB BB IBB HBP SF RBA
1964-72 5,457 2,592 685 120 11 33 .631
Career 7,315 3,379 894 138 16 53 .612

Rest assured that these numbers helped rank Allen among the top twenty third basemen who ever played major league baseball. They would also show him with the third-highest RBA of all post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era Hall of Fame third basemen except two: in ascending order, Chipper Jones and Mike Schmidt.

This is before revisiting his breathtaking power or mentioning that Allen was one of the smartest and most effective baserunners of his time. (Did you know Allen took extra bases on followup hits 53 percent of the time he reached base?) And, before lamenting that early enough injuries impacted his defense either at third base or the position to which his injury-weakened throwing arm finally sent him full time, first base.

Allen didn’t just hit home runs. Phrased politely, they didn’t need the proverbial meals and stewardesses aboard. What he hit typically should have had astronauts. When first analysing his performance two years ago, I concluded based on the evidence that, if he’d been far more healthy and uninjured, Allen might have finished his career with 525 home runs or thereabout.

Dick Allen sharing a big laugh with his old Phillies teammate Jim Bunning at an old-timers’ event in Citizens Bank Park.

Hall of Famer Willie Stargell once tried to take the sting out of the Philadelphia boo birds’ booing Allen by suggesting the reason they booed him was that his home runs didn’t always stay in the park to become souvenirs.

That’s putting things too politely. Allen once told a Phillies historian (and an Allen biographer), William C. Kashatus, “I thought of myself as a victim of racism. I was also something of a jerk. There were others who had to deal with racism, and some of them handled it better than I did. But that’s all in the past. I’m at peace with my career, and grateful that the Lord gave me the opportunity.”

A man who grew up in a racially tolerant and accommodating Pennsylvania hamlet, but whom the Phillies sent to 1963 Little Rock with no support system, who once remembered, “Maybe if the Phillies had called me in, man to man, like the Dodgers had done with Jackie Robinson, and said, “Dick, this is what we have in mind. It’s going to be very difficult but we’re with you”—at least I would have been prepared,” has no reason to apologise.

Whether you believe he was a jerk or just immature, some people persist in believing Allen’s career was shortened by it. Not so, argued Rob Neyer when writing The Big Book of Baseball Lineups: “I don’t think his immaturity had much to do with the length of his career. He just got hurt, and so he didn’t enjoy the sort of late career that most great hitters do. It’s that, as much as all the other stuff, that has kept him out of the Hall of Fame.”

Oh, the sad irony. When the Phillies finally traded Allen out of town, to the St. Louis Cardinals, they thought they were getting Curt Flood in return in the package. To Flood, the trade smacked of treating even a $90,000 a year center fielder as a piece of property like a slave. To Allen, who’d been to hell and back almost daily in Philadelphia and rooted for Flood’s reserve clause lawsuit, the trade was his Emancipation Proclamation.

Allen incurred assorted nagging injuries and severe leg injuries after leaving Philadelphia and especially during his otherwise shining time with the Chicago White Sox. (He won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in his first White Sox season.) “[W]hat he did for us in Chicago was amazing,” said Allen’s White Sox manager, Chuck Tanner.

Dick was the leader of our team, the captain, the manager on the field. He took care of the young kids, took them under his wing. And he played every game as if it was his last day on earth . . . He played hurt for us so many times that they thought he was Superman.  But he wasn’t; he was human.  If anything, he was hurting himself trying to come back too soon.

The best short summary of the hell through which Allen was put so unconscionably in his Philadelphia years—by Little Rock, by a Philadelphia sports press and population uncertain or unthinking about the city’s racial growing pains, by some teammates likewise uncertain or unthinking—belongs to Jay Jaffe, in The Cooperstown Casebook:

[C]hoosing to vote for him means focusing on that considerable peak while giving him the benefit of the doubt on the factors that shortened his career. From here, the litany is sizable enough to justify that. Allen did nothing to deserve the racism and hatred he battled in Little Rock and Philadelphia, or the condescension of the lily-white media that refused to even call him by his correct name. To underplay the extent to which those forces shaped his conduct and his public persona thereafter is to hold him to an impossibly high standard; not everyone can be Jackie Robinson or Ernie Banks. The distortions that influenced the negative views of him . . . were damaging. To give them the upper hand is to reject honest inquiry into his career.

His death before the Hall election he deserves inflicts a final injustice upon a man accompanied by too many injustices too long. It elevates him and reduces his critics further that he eventually found equilibrium in his life and peace with baseball.

Allen knew and survived heartbreak enough outside of the racial buffetings: a painful divorce, the unexpected murder of his daughter, Terri, the electrical-fire destruction of the farm on which he hoped to raise thoroughbred horses. (“If my horse can’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it,” he once cracked about artificial turf.)

He overcame those to re-marry happily, keep friends and family close, become one of the most popular members of the Phillies’ speakers’ bureau under a very different organisation than the one for which he played, and a friendly social media presence who beamed justifiably when the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame inducted him in 2018.

When the Phillies finally retired Allen’s uniform number 15 in September, the Philadelphia Inquirer suggested the timing might have been intended partially to push for Allen’s at-last enshrinement in Cooperstown. Allen himself once told Kashatus, “What I’ve done, I’m pretty happy with it. So whatever happens with the Hall of Fame, I’m fine with it. Besides, I’m just a name. God gave me the talent to hit a baseball, and I used it the best I could. I just thank Him for blessing me with that ability and allowing me to play the game when I did.”

Former Phillies pitcher Larry Christenson, an Allen teammate when the latter returned to Philadelphia in 1975, remembered then a teammate’s teammate who preferred to lead by quiet example and humanness. Allen often invited Christenson to lunch on road trips and once signed a bat for him as a memento: “To L.C., two homers with my bat. How about that? Dick Allen.”

Christenson once borrowed Allen’s once-fabled 40-ounce bat in a game. “Son,” Allen told the pitcher, “if you can swing it, you can use it.” Christenson used it to hit a home run in that day’s game.

Bereft on earth now are Allen’s loving wife, Willa, his family, his friends, and all of those who saw through the cluttering, clattering nonsense and saw the player and the real young man who didn’t deserve his seasons in hell and deserved election to the Hall of Fame. Now that election will have to be posthumous on earth, damn it.

But surely the Lord’s angels escorted Allen kindly and gently to the Elysian Fields, and that was the only other thing we could ask through our own loss.

————————————————————————–

Some portions of this essay have been published by the author previously.

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.