Every baseball Hall of Fame election brings controversy. Players get in who seem a bit less than elite – recall Don Sutton, No. 3 pitcher for the Dodgers who was nicknamed “Six and Skip” when he played for Houston. More dominant players are left out – Jack Morris and Craig Biggio this year – who seem deserving of induction.
But overall, the system of election to Cooperstown turned out better last week than it usually does. Who can quarrel about the qualifications of Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine?
And who can yet muster any tears for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, all of them poster boys for steroid body-building, being far back in the pack?
In his first year of eligibility, Thomas, the Chicago White Sox power plant, appeared on 83.7 % of the ballots – far exceeding the 75% requirement. He’s one of only 21 major leaguers to achieve career records of .300 batting, .400 on base and .500 slugging.
And as he proclaimed—with no evidence to contradict him — “I did it without cheating.”
He would like the door to Cooperstown to remain closed to those tainted by steroids. “They shouldn’t get in. There shouldn’t be cheating allowed to get into the Hall of Fame.”
He overlooks, among others, the renowned spit-baller Gaylord Perry.
There always have been cheaters in baseball and every other business, and there always will be, and it’s often hard to tell for sure.
Thomas, however, has never been suspected of chemical enhancement. He was 6-5, 250 pounds when he entered the majors, having been a football player at Auburn. Unlike Bonds, Sosa, McGwire and others, he did not grow larger and stronger with age.
The only knock on Thomas — “The Big Hurt” – is that he was primarily a designated hitter for most of his career – the first DH to enter the Hall. But he was a DH not because he couldn’t field first base but because the team wanted to protect him from injury. In his twilight years he became known as “The Big Always Hurt.”
No one ever would suspect Maddux and Glavine of using steroids. These were two sunken-chested, small-muscled, barely 6-footers who were among the least physically imposing pitchers in baseball. And yet, their Hall of Fame worthiness is beyond dispute.
Both were 300-game winners, impeccably behaved, and stalwarts of the Atlanta Braves, pitching ahead of the much taller, stronger and almost as effective Smokin’ John Smoltz.
Maddux was the ace, though Glavine would cringe if you said that around him. They were best of friends – golfing buddies on Atlanta’s soaring verdant courses – but tenacious competitors. Both contended for the Cy Young Award, Glavine winning it twice and Maddux winning four in a row.
Maddux won 355 games and 18 Gold Gloves (the most of any player in history). Early in his career he threw 93-94 mph, but he achieved greatness when he throttled down to 88-89 and developed a whiplike swerve at the end of the pitch.
“It was unbelievable throwing 89 with that type of movement,” Thomas said. “You knew what was coming and you couldn’t hit it.”
Asked the key to his success, Maddux said, “Have a good moving fastball that does something the last ten feet, and be able to locate.”
Maddux, whose studious approach and demeanor inspired the nickname “The Professor,” concentrated on keeping the same release point on every pitch.
Glavine, who could not create as much spin and movement as Maddux, had just as much control. But the lefty preferred throwing an inch off the plate rather than on it. It was said that Maddux “throws strikes that look like balls, and Glavine throws balls that look like strikes.”
Umpires were so impressed by Glavine’s ability to deliver the ball perfectly to his “spot” that they usually called the near-strike a strike. He threw no harder than Maddux but kept batters off stride with a circle changeup that ended up – as did almost all his pitches – on or just off the low outside corner.
As for the inevitable snubs, Morris was the winningest pitcher of the 1980s, 254-186. And he was 7-4 in the postseason, whereas Maddux and Glavine were both under .500. Morris was instrumental in four world championships. It was said of Morris that if you wanted one pitcher to win one game, he’s the one you wanted.
His defining moment came in the 1991 World Series when he was with Minnesota. Feverish and visibly suffering from flu – his face sallow and ashen – he pitched 10 scoreless innings to clinch a World Series championship against Atlanta. He had the same quality Maddux admired in Glavine: “He could be less than 100 percent physically and still pitch effectively.”
Voters fault Morris for his 3.90 ERA – higher than any Hall of Famer. They should consider that he pitched most of his career in home-run biased parks, Tiger Stadium and the Metrodome. He still can make it to Cooperstown, but it will have to be via the Veterans Committee.
Biggio missed election this year by two votes, with credentials that seem Hall-caliber: 600 doubles, 250 homers, 3000 hits, 400 steals, All-Star appearances as both a catcher and second baseman. His long-time teammate Jeff Bagwell considered it an outrage that he fell short. “He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever seen in my life,” Bagwell said.
Biggio released a statement that sounded almost morose. “Disappointed to come that close. I feel for my family, the organization and the fans. Hopefully, next year.”
Easy, Bidge. You’ll make it.
Morris, making his 15th and final appearance on the ballot, was more sanguine. Or perhaps more sardonic. “I’m very glad it’s over,” he said. “Fifteen years of being critiqued ought to be enough for anybody.”