One of the cinema’s best lines came in the toga comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” when the slave Pseudolus, played by the great Zero Mostel, picked up a bottle of wine and asked , “Was 1 a good year?”
I can’t recall the answer but I can tell you that when it comes to baseball’s version of immortality the coming year 2012 won’t be vintage. The crop of first timers on the game’s Hall of Fame ballot, just out, is among the weakest in memory. Chances are that few of them will garner the 5% of the sportswriters’ vote needed to appear on next year’s ballot, much less set sculptors to work chiseling reliefs.
It works that way sometimes. Like in other things, there are good years and bad in baseball, and since ballplayers retire more or less randomly there’s no assurance that H of F spots will be filled in a steady manner. Election to Cooperstown in a player’s first year of eligibility isn’t the norm, and we present or former baseball writers who make up the 575-member electorate usually can rally around someone (1996 was the last year no one received the required 75% vote), but I can’t recall a less apt group of new eligibles than this one.
The 13, all of whom retired after the 2006 season, are as follows: Jeromy Burnitz, Vinny Castilla, Brian Jordan, Javy Lopez, Bill Mueller, Terry Mulholland, Phil Nevin, Brad Radke, Tim Salmon, Ruben Sierra, Bernie Williams, Tony Womack and Eric Young. All played the in the Major Leagues for at least 10 years, have been retired for five and were nominated by at least two of the Baseball Writers Association of America’s six-member committee formed for the purpose, the sole requirements for appearance on the ballot.
All had careers that ranged from good to very good and many were (are) nice fellas as well. Still, I’ll vote for none of them and can see only two—Lopez and Williams—even passing muster for a continued ballot presence. If you ever mentioned in the same breath the Hall of Fame and Burnitz, Jordan, Mueller, Mulholland, Nevin, Womack or Young, I’d be astonished. I never did.
It’s true, of course, that the line between good and great in a complex sport like baseball can be thin, and subject to interpretation. That the Hall doesn’t lack for members whose qualifications can be questioned is one of the things that enlivens the voting process and the commentary that always follows it. On every ballot are players whose accomplishments aren’t much different from those of, say, Bill Mazeroski or George Kell, whose plaques hang in Cooperstown, and there always are people who’ll say that if those guys are in there so should good old so and so, naming their choice of the moment.
In my editing days at the Wall Street Journal I’d occasionally find it necessary to tell a writer his piece wasn’t fit for publication. When he’d reply that we’d published worse, I’d tell him that I found that argument unpersuasive. So, too, do most of the Hall’s voters, which is why the Veterans Committee was formed to reconsider players we’d passed over in their permitted 15 years on our ballot. If you have a bone to pick regarding Maz or Kell, or quite a few others, take it up with the Vets, former players, managers and execs whose standards are less stringent than those of us scribes.
Withal, though, what’s bad news for some is good news for others. I’ll be voting for five players this year, all of whom I’ve supported before, and it’s likely that the absence of compelling new names will ease some paths to Cooperstown.
I’m hoping that one of those will be Jack Morris, who’s been knocking on the Hall’s door for 13 years now without being admitted. Why this is so is a mystery to me; he has a sterling won-lost record (254-186) and a mantle full of trophies including a World Series MVP (for 1991), and was a big-game pitcher without peer. His 10-inning shutout for the Minnesota Twins against the Atlanta Braves and John Smoltz in game seven of the ’91 Series was the best such performance I’ve seen.
I have a soft spot in my heart for shortstops, who are the best athletes on most teams, and I’ll be voting for two of them—Barry Larkin and Alan Trammell. The marvelous Larkin, a career Cincinnati Red, came up third in the voting in his first year on the ballot last year—at 62% behind selectees Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven-- and is a good bet to make it this time. Trammell’s election would be a surprise because he was mentioned on just 24% of last year’s ballots, but he was at or near the top of his position in most of his 20 big-league campaigns with the Detroit Tigers, and I find him no less worthy than Larkin.
I’ll vote for Lee Smith, a dominant relief pitcher with several teams, and Edgar Martinez, the Seattle Mariners’ peerless designated hitter. I’m not crazy about the DH in general, but it’s here to stay and I see no reason why its best practitioners shouldn’t be honored. On the same ground I’ll be backing Jim Thome when he comes up for a vote several years down the road.
I’m hoping my aforementioned five do well this year because the going is due to get tougher. As dim as this year’s new eligibles were, next year’s will be brilliant, including Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling and Craig Biggio. Room on that bus is going to be scarce.