The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 5, 2012

A Steve Goldman column: Breaking some new ground

By STEVE GOLDMAN
For the Star Beacon

— Like everyone, I have my ups and downs. I have my moments where everything seems to be in the right place within my world, and others when I wish I could just leave everything behind temporarily and sneak back in unnoticed after a few days.

Then, there are times when something happens that validates what I am doing professionally — something that provides reassurance that I’m not wasting my time and energy in doing what I’m doing, and in some cases sends a message that I do it well.

As it pertains to sports writing, the most meaningful of such instances come from you, the readers. I always need to remember that what I write is for you, so the best affirmation I can get toward that end is when I get positive feedback from you. But about a month ago, I received a different kind of affirmation when I learned that I had become eligible to vote for the inductees to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

In order to be eligible to vote for the Hall of Fame, one must have been a member of the Baseball Writers ‘ Association of America for at least 10 consecutive years. Last year, a total of 581 ballots were cast, and the total number of people who were eligible to vote was probably less than 700. So it is truly a privilege to be given this right, and I also consider it to be an honor.

I thought I would share my 2012 voting selections with you. See whether you agree or disagree.

First, a brief description of the voting process is in order. A player must play in at least 10 seasons in the major leagues in order to be eligible. He cannot appear on the ballot until he has not played in five seasons (with an exception in the event of death). After that, a screening committee pares down the list of first-year eligibles to those who will be included on the ballot.

A voter may select up to 10 candidates. Candidates who get at least 75 percent of the votes are elected to the Hall of Fame. The others will return in the following year, unless they have appeared on the ballot 15 times, or fail to receive five percent of the vote, in which case they will be removed.

A player who ultimately does not get elected by the BBWAA can still be voted in later by the Veterans’ Committee. For example, this committee voted Ron Santo in as a member a month ago, and he will be enshrined in the summer, along with whomever is elected by the BBWAA. The deadline for BBWAA voting was Dec. 31, and the results will be announced Monday.

This year’s ballot listed 33 players. Though all had to achieve at a certain level even to be named on the ballot, I would not consider this year’s crop of candidates as being a particularly strong one, as such crops go, when taking everything into consideration. For one thing, of the 13 first-year eligibles, I don’t consider any to be worthy of induction. The best of that class, in my opinion, is Bernie Williams. A fine player, certainly, but I don’t think he belongs in the HOF.

There are six players on the ballot who I do believe should be included, and those are the ones for whom I voted. Here they are, listed in no particular order:

JEFF BAGWELL (2nd year on the ballot) — Let me say first Bagwell has never been linked to use of steroids or other illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Yet I will address that touchy issue here.

Because of this issue, especially with regard to steroids, specifically, this is not an easy time to enter as a first-time voter. Not only does it touch on a lot of other issues, but in



the cases involving many individuals, it is difficult to ascertain what the truth is.

There has been no official position stated as to how illegal drug use should be reflected in the voting. However, the HOF election rules list among the six voting criteria those of integrity, sportsmanship and character. If one adheres to these criteria, I believe that use of performance-enhancing drugs should be taken into account. This is not to say that no one who ever used these drugs should ever be considered — just that this factor should be taken into account.

Why do I bring this up here, under the discussion regarding Bagwell? Because despite the lack of evidence that he used illegal drugs, the issue is reportedly hurting him in the BBWAA vote.

In his first eligible year, Bagwell was named on 41.7 percent of the ballots cast, and that just doesn’t mesh with what he did as a player. Supposedly, the fact he was a power hitter in the steroid era, along with the fact his power developed after he became a major-leaguer, is hurting him, because that makes people suspect that he used steroids.

This is not a court of law, and the “innocent until proven guilty” standard does not apply. Still, in order to keep a player out because of alleged steroid use, one should at least have some tangible evidence. There is none here.

Bagwell played his entire career with the Houston Astros, only once missing a significant number of games in any of the years from 1991 to 2004, and batted .297. An impressive total of 1,401 walks included seven straight seasons with more than 100, and helped his on-base percentage to an awesome .408. He had 449 homers and 488 doubles, and carried a .540 slugging average. He won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award in the strike-shortened 1994 season, although his numbers were nothing less than phenomenal for the amount of games played in that campaign.

Bagwell finished in the top 10 in MVP voting five other times, including one second-place and one third-place finish. He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1990, was selected to the All-Star Game four times, and won three Silver Slugger awards and one Gold Glove at first base. He totaled 1,558 RBI and 1,517 runs scored in his career.

Those credentials are good enough for the Hall of Fame, and it would be a shame if he were denied admission just because of an impression that is completely unfounded.

LEE SMITH (10th year) — Though I don’t understand why Bagwell isn’t getting more support, I am having even more trouble comprehending Smith’s situation.

There is no one number that by itself guarantees a player election, and that will be further evidenced when Barry Bonds first appears on the ballot next year. But this one should come close: 478 saves.

That total ranks Smith third on the career list behind Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, and you have to go all the way down to number 24 on the list (Francisco Rodriguez, 291) before you find someone else who has a reasonable chance to achieve his total.

I presented this to someone, who then asked me who Smith would be compared to in consideration of whether he should be elected.

Really?

What I want to say in response to that is, when it comes down to it, what difference does it make? Who does 478 saves need to be compared to? What possible argument could be made that Smith does not belong in the HOF?

But...

I did say that no one number should be enough of a qualification by itself, so we should take a “closer” look, if you will. The closer role as it exists today is one that has only existed in relatively recent years, and there is still an apparent bias in the voting that exists because of that. To date, only five relief pitchers — Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Hoyt Wilhelm — have been enshrined, and of those five, one (Wilhelm) pitched before the current role of closer was defined, and one (Eckersley) also had some success as a starter. Also, Smith isn’t one of the pitchers who one tends to think about when the most dominant closers come to mind, the way Rivera, or any of the other four listed in this paragraph, do. Further, Smith didn’t have one of those jaw-dropping years, where he went out and saved 53 of 54 chances, for example, as Hoffman did in 1998. In other words, when someone mentions “Hall of Fame closer,” Smith is generally not the first person to come to mind.

To use that logic conclusively would be wrong, though. What Smith did do was perform very consistently at a high level for a long period of time. He had three consecutive years with more than 40 saves in 1991-93, leading his league in the first two of those seasons and peaking at 47 in 1991, and he probably would have made it four if not for the strike in 1994, in which he led the AL with 33. He had 10 years with 30 or more saves, and also led his league with 29 saves in 1983. He racked up 1,022 appearances, which ranks 11th all-time. He had almost as many strikeouts (1,251) as innings pitched (1,289.1), and had a fine career earned run average (3.03) and WHIP (1.256). He was named to seven All-Star teams, and ranked in the top 10 in Cy Young Award voting on four occasions, including a second-place finish.

In this day and age, we see many closers put in excellent years. But it is a difficult role to sustain effectively. Smith did so for a long period of time. Yet in 2011, his ninth year on the ballot, he received only 45.3 percent of the vote. The guy must be wondering exactly what he would have had to do.

BARRY LARKIN (3rd year) — After garnering 62.1 percent of the vote in his second year of eligibility, Larkin is the most likely candidate to be voted into the Hall this year.

Larkin was known for much of his career as the second-best shortstop in the NL, behind Ozzie Smith. But even to be considered the second-best player at your position in your league for a long period of time is very significant, and he was likely the best for a period after Smith’s decline in his later years.

Larkin was a very consistent hitter during his 19-year career, all of which came with the Cincinnati Reds. He batted .295 with an on-base percentage of .371 while slugging at a .444 clip. He had 441 doubles, and his 198 homers ranks ninth all-time among shortstops. He scored 1,329 runs while knocking in 960. He stole 379 bases with an outstanding 83.1 percent success rate.

Larkin won the NL MVP award in 1995 and a World Series ring in 1990. He earned nine Silver Slugger awards and three Gold Gloves, despite being shut out by Smith for the latter over almost the first half of his career. He became a 30-30 player in 1996. But perhaps his most telling accomplishment is the fact he was a 12-time All-Star selection.

Shortstop is one position that has had a tendency not to be given enough attention in the HOF voting. This guy was one of the best.

TIM RAINES (5th year) — Raines ranks fifth all-time in stolen bases with 808. For a time, it looked as though he would join Rickey Henderson in beating the old record-holder, Lou Brock. But then stolen bases in general declined across the majors, as the game incurred a shift in philosophy, with the juiced ball a likely contributor.

What makes Raines’ stolen base total even more remarkable is the fact he was caught only 146 times, for a success rate of 84.7 percent, which is a record.

Raines’ accomplishments extended to more than base stealing. He played in parts of 23 seasons, collecting 10,359 plate appearances, and totaled 2,605 hits and 1,330 walks for a batting average of .294 and an on-base percentage of .385. He scored 1,571 runs and batted in 966. He was selected to the All-Star Game seven times and won the Silver Slugger award once.

ALAN TRAMMELL (11th year) — I said in the Larkin comment that shortstops tend not to get enough attention in the voting. Like Larkin, Trammell wasn’t ever generally considered the best shortstop in his league for any length of time. Through most of his career, that distinction belonged to Cal Ripken, and in the first several years, Robin Yount.

Trammell isn’t Ripken or Yount. But he is Alan Trammell, and that should be good enough.

Trammell is yet another player who stayed with one franchise throughout his career, in his case of course with the Detroit Tigers. He played eight full years before the “juiced ball” era began in 1986, and still batted .285 overall while slugging .415-very good numbers for a shortstop. The fact he was such a good hitter for a shortstop is further evidenced by his three Silver Slugger awards. And a large part of his qualifications lie in the fact he was one of the best at his position defensively. He won four Gold Gloves, and was one of the best at turning double plays. He was a six-time All-Star, was the 1984 World Series MVP while earning a ring, and finished second in AL MVP voting in 1987.

Most of the voters aren’t convinced, as Trammell received less than one-quarter of the vote in his 10th year. His best chance appears to be with the Veterans’ Committee.

FRED McGRIFF (3rd year) — McGriff, who received only 17.9 percent of the vote in his second year, is apparently being hurt by factors similar to those impacting Bagwell — specifically, that he was a slugger who played in the steroid era. But like Bagwell, there have never been any ties between “Crime Dog” and steroids or any other illegal performance-enhancing drug.

Unlike Bagwell, however, McGriff was a borderline choice for me, and apparently others agree that Bagwell ranks above him. But McGriff did hit 493 home runs, and had seven years in a row with more than 30. He batted .284, and with the help of 1,305 walks, posted a .377 on-base percentage. He had a slugging percentage of .509, aided by 441 doubles. He scored 1,349 runs and batted in 1,550 while playing for six teams in a career that spanned the years 1986-2004. He was a five-time All-Star selection, won three Silver Slugger awards and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting on six occasions, and also won one World Series ring that the Indians fans among us won’t talk about right now.

One thing that hurts McGriff is that, although he cleared 100 RBI eight times, he never had a really big year in that department, maxing out with 107 in 1996. But for me, considering all his accomplishments, that’s a reason not to rank him higher than a borderline choice — not a reason not to vote for him.

Goldman, who has covered Indians home games for the Star Beacon for 13 years, is a freelance writer from South Euclid. Reach him at steve558@roadrunner.com.