Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Forget New Hampshire, What About Cooperstown?

Barry Larkin is a Hall of Famer.  The great Reds shortstop was the only player elected this year, and he is a very deserving choice.  Larkin followed Ozzie Smith an as the best shortstop of his time.  He played 19 years, all with the Reds, including the 1990 World Champs.  He had 12 All Star selections, 3 Gold Gloves and 9 Silver Slugger Awards (for best hitter at his position), and he was the 1995 National League MVP.

If I had a vote, I would have cast it for a few others.
Jack Morris had the most wins of any pitcher in the 1980s.  He was a 5-time All Star, with 3 All Star starts.  He pitched in 3 World Series with 3 teams, most notably for the Twins, winning the 1991 World Series MVP after pitching in three games, including an epic 10-inning shut out to win game seven against the Braves.

 Tim Raines also gets my vote.  Somewhat overshadowed by Rickey Henderson, he was, like Rickey, an incredibly exciting lead off hitter with the rare combination of speed and power.  "The Rock" was a 7-time All Star.  He scored 1,571 runs in his career, leading the league twice, and is fourth on the all-time steals list.

 Lee Arthur Smith compiled 478 saves in 18 seasons, third all time.  At 6 foot 6, with a blazing fastball, Smith was an incredibly intimidating reliever.  He was consistent and durable, saving  25 games or more 12 years in a row.  He won three Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the year awards and was an All Star seven times.

I would also vote for Jeff Bagwell.  Had he not played in Houston, he would have far greater notoriety.  He was a consistently great hitter, with eight 100-RBI seasons, nine 30-homer seasons, nine 100-runs seasons, a career .297 batting average.  He also won the NL MVP in 1994. Hit hit 449 homers despite playing half his games in the pitcher-friendly Astrodome. As Buster Olney points out, he is one of just "12 players in baseball history with 400 or more homers and a career on-base percentage of .400 or better," and in addition to his MVP, finished second in MVP voting another year and was in the top 10 six times.  He was also a very good defensive first baseman and rates as the eighth highest first basemen according to more modern metrics.

Unsubstantiated rumors have swirled around Bagwell that he may have used steroids, and some writers have acknowledged they didn't vote for his induction because of their suspicion that he had.

I've written this about this before.  It is unquestionable that steroids were used by a large group of players --  hitters and pitchers -- from about 1995 until 2005, when the baseball establishment, under pressure, finally began to crack down on the use of performance enhancing drugs.  During this time, when offensive numbers (and players’ heads) were suspiciously inflated, the fans cheered and the owners gleefully looked the other way.  For better or worse, steroids were part of the game and unless we are going to disqualify everyone who played during these years, we simply have to accept it.  (Not to mention that players in every era used whatever substances they thought could help them perform better -- amphetamines were in common use at least as early as the 1960s, and even Babe Ruth reportedly injected himself with an extract from sheep testicles).  Moreover, with the exception of the few players who have either admitted steroid use or whose tests have been made public, we have no way of knowing with any hope of accuracy the extent of who juiced and who didn’t.

In my opinion, the best and most dominant players of any era should be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and confirmed or suspected steroid use should not be a barrier to entry.  That being said, some of the gaudier offensive statistics need to be considered in the context of the times.  Hitting 500 career home runs and amassing 3000 hits was a far more impressive feat in the 1950s-1970s than it was in 1990s and early 2000s.  So, for example, I don’t think Rafael Palmiero should be in the Hall of Fame; not because he was a steroid user (or flagrantly lied to Congress about it) but because despite what are traditionally Hall of Fame numbers (over 500 homers and 3000 hits), he was not one of the dominant players of his generation.  And Bagwell should be in for the reasons discussed above, whether or not he used because he was one of the great players of his era.

And, I believe that Mark McGwire should be in the Hall as well.  Yes, his 583 home runs, and particulary his 70 in 1998, were inflated by steroid use.  But he was a sensation when he first arrived in the Big Leagues and was one of the most dominant first basemen of his time.  McGwire was the Rookie of the Year in 1987, when he hit 49 home runs, and was selected to be in 12 All Star games in his 16 year career, including six in a row from 1987-1992. 

And finally, a word about Edgar Martinez and Harold Baines. Two remarkable hitters with great numbers, who I loved to watch hit. But they were almost exclusively DH’s for a majority of their careers and my bias against the DH prevents me from voting for them.  (See Designated Hitters).  There's always next year.


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