Every year, the ballot features a few players who, frankly, look kind of silly on a Hall of Fame ballot. The funny thing about most of these players is that they are probably better than we remember. For instance, last year Todd Zeile was on the Hall of Fame ballot. Todd Zeile? He did not receive a vote, to no one’s surprise.
But you know what? Todd Zeile was a good player. He got 2,000 hits in the Major Leagues. He drove in 90-plus runs five times. He played five positions, and even pitched a couple of innings.
He was not a Hall of Famer, not close to a Hall of Famer, but that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? To play 10 years of Major League Baseball — a qualification just to get on the ballot — means you must be one of the very best baseball players on earth .
You are better and more determined than all those players whose baseball lives stopped in little league, all those good enough to make their high school teams but no more, all those who went on to play college at some small school, all those good enough to go to a Division I school but were not drafted, all those promising and resolved young players drafted or signed outside of North America who stalled in the low end of the minor leagues, all those who topped out low Class A, in high Class A, in Class AA, in Class AAA, all those who made it through it all to get to a cup of coffee in the big leagues, all those who worked their way up to a small and temporary role in the big leagues, all those who endured and became regulars in the big leagues for two or three or four years before being retired.
To achieve so much … to reach the very height of your profession … it is an extraordinary thing to be a baseball player with 10 years of big league experience, an even more extraordinary thing to achieve enough to get on the Hall of Fame ballot. And then, you get there and it is STILL still miles and miles and miles to go before you get to the Hall of Famers. It is still the gap between Todd Zeile and Cooperstown.
Here are the 12 players on this year’s ballot who are clearly not Hall of Famers, but they are worth spending a few minutes remembering:
— Carlos Baerga: You know, 200 hits is a fairly rare thing. The last 50 years, it has been done by 110 players. And only 39 of those have done it more than once. Many of the players with more than one 200-hit season — Puckett, Gwynn, Molitor, Rice, Carew, Brock, Clemente, Billy Williams, Cal Ripken and George Brett — are already in the Hall of Fame and a few more like Ichiro and Derek Jeter will go someday.
The point is, it felt like something meaningful when Carlos Baerga had back-to-back 200-hit seasons at age 23 and 24. He was the first second baseman in seventy years to have a 200-hit, 20 homer, 100 RBI season, and he did it two years in a row. Only Rogers Hornsby among second basemen had done it two years in a row. Baerga could flat hit a baseball.
Then, he more or less stopped hitting. He had some injury problems. But, more, he seemed to age about 10 years overnight. He hit .314 and was an All-Star in 1996. He hit .271 with an OPS+ of 80 for five teams the rest of his career.
— Bret Boone: He was one of my favorite people when I wrote columns about the Cincinnati Reds from 1994-96. The Reds got him in a trade from Seattle before the 1994 season, and he responded with what at the time seemed like a career year. He was hitting .320 when the strike hit. He never really hit again in Cincinnati, but he seemed solid enough with the glove (there was a perpetual effort get him rewarded with a Gold Glove, an effort that finally paid off in 1998), and he seemed one of those reliable types who kept teams together through long seasons. He took on more than his share of media responsibility. He could gently — but convincingly — talk to teammates who had fallen into a rut. I always thought he was a solid professional, the kind managers like having around.
Then, in 2001, suddenly and absurdly he hit .331/.372/.578 with 206 hits, 37 homers, 118 runs scored and 141 RBIs. Two years later, he hit .294/.366/.535 with 35 homers, 111 runs and 117 RBIs. By Wins Above Replacement, his 2001 season was the greatest for any American League second baseman since World War II. His 2003 season was in the Top 10.
And then, just as suddenly and absurdly, he went back to being unable to hit. He was out of baseball after the 2005 season. The remarkable thing is those two historic seasons … well, they almost certainly hurt Bret Boone’s baseball legacy, if you want to call it that. Before those two years, he was viewed as a try-hard kind of player who could field a bit, hit a bit, help a team. Afterward, well, Boone was mentioned by Jose Canseco as an “obvious” steroid user. Boone has denied it vehemently. I have long stopped trying to guess about such things. What I do think is that Bret Boone’s two fabulous seasons don’t leave most people with the impression that he was a great player for a couple of years. The opposite, actually.
— Marquis Grissom: Until I looked it up, I had completely forgotten that Grissom had twice led the league in stolen bases as a young player. I remembered the middle-aged Grissom, a solid player, a good center fielder (he won two Gold Gloves), a pretty good hitter (hit .300 twice) with occasional power (hit 20 homers four times).
But he was actually a rare kind of power and speed player. Only 21 players have stolen 75 bases in a season. Only 10 of them have done it more than once.
And of the players who have stolen 75 or more bases multiple times, only two have also had 20-plus homer years at some point in their careers: Rickey Henderson and Marquis Grissom.
— Lenny Harris: I remember Lenny Harris too from my days writing about the mid-90s Cincinnati Reds. He was a fine pinch hitter.
— Bobby Higginson: The thing that stands out for me about Bobby Higginson — and I admit, this is sad — is his contract. The Detroit Tigers had some amazing contracts in those days. I remember they gave Damion Easley some kind of absurd contract that paid him more than six million bucks in 2002, when he hit .224 in 85 games. They picked up Jose Lima’s contract in 2001and paid him more than $7 million that same year when he went 4-6 with a 7.77 ERA. They paid Dmitri Young something like $35 million for five years of fewer than 500 games.
But the big one was Higginson. He was a good young player. From 1996 to 1998, he posted a 130 OPS+. He was a no-nonsense kind of player, too, the kind of player who was often credited for being a good fielder (he had a very strong arm), the kind of player who didn’t shave much. The Tigers felt like he was the future. They signed him to a massive deal that would pay him almost $12 million as a 32-year-old and almost $9 million each as a 33- and 34-year old.
Sadly, he was finished as a player all three of those years. He had injuries, but basically he was done anyway — he hit .235/.331/.370 over those three years when he raked in about 40 million clams.
Also: He played 11 years and never once played for a team with a winning record.
— Charles Johnson: He won Gold Gloves his first four years in the big leagues and then, as if everyone at precisely the same time came to the conclusion that he was overrated defensively, he never won another. I’ve always been amazed how that works. Another ballot member, Benito Santiago, had the same odd Gold Glove pattern.
Johnson really was a marvel throwing out base runners in those early years — he threw out 48% in 1996 and 47% the next year when the Marlins won the World Series. But he obviously never quite fulfilled those “next Johnny Bench” predictions. Johnson hit well in that World Series, and in 2000 he hit .304/.379/.582 for two clubs with 31 home runs. But in general he was a disappointment as a hitter, and he stopped hitting at all after age 30.
— Al Leiter: He didn’t make it to the big leagues to stay until he was 27, and he had some serious early control problems — he led the league in walks in 1995 and 1996. He would generally have high walk totals throughout his career because he was trying to get by with a variety of curves and a sinkerball — there was no percentage in throwing the ball over the plate.
But he would make up for his walks it by allowing only 8.1 hits per nine innings over his career (almost precisely the same as Marichal, Drysdale and Lemon). He knew what worked for him, and he did not give in, and he won 129 games and pitched almost 2,000 innings after he turned 30 which is not in Jamie Moyer’s class but it’s pretty darned good.
— Tino Martinez: He knocked in 100-plus RBIs six out of seven years from 1995 to 2001. Even so, he was only SIXTH in total RBIs over those seven years, and he was more than 100 RBIs behind Sammy Sosa. That should tell you how crazy the offense was in those seven years.
— Raul Mondesi: Do you remember in the early years when people were comparing Mondesi to Roberto Clemente? Why not? He could hit (he hit .306 in 1994 when he won Rookie of the Year, he hit .310 in 1997), he had power (he hit 30 homers three straight years from 1997-99), he had speed (he stole 30 bases three times), he had this preposterously great arm in right field (he won two Gold Gloves, much of it based on his arm). As much as we talk about five-tool players, there really aren’t too many who have actually shown all five.
And then, suddenly, one day Mondesi was not viewed as the next Clemente. He was, instead, widely viewed as a bloated underachiever. I was never exactly sure how it happened. I guess he didn’t hustle much. And I guess he wasn’t much fun to have around. He played for five teams his last three years and was out of baseball at 34.
— Kirk Reuter: How about Kirk Reuter’s career start? He won the first 10 decisions of his career. As a rookie with Montreal he was 8-0 with a 2.73 ERA though it wasn’t too hard to see that wasn’t going to last. He had only 31 strikeouts in 85 innings. It’s hard to win games striking out fewer than four batters per nine innings.
But Reuter found ways throughout his career. He won 130 games while recording an absurdly low 3.84 strikeout per nine innings. In the last 30 years, Only Scott McGregor (3.75 Ks per nine) won more than 100 games striking out that few.
— Benito Santiago: The throwing-out-base-stealers-from-his-knees trick was pretty cool. It won him three Gold Gloves in his early years along with a Rookie of the Year award. He had two or three pretty good offensive years, including the one year he hit 30 homers in Philadelphia.
— B.J. Surhoff: He was a perfectly fine player who three times hit .300 and once hit .299 … and he is one of the few to have played all nine positions in the major leagues. His best year was probably 1999 when he played all 162 games and hit .308 with 28 homers and 107 RBIs. But offense was so out of control in 1999, that none of the three totals even ranked in the league’s Top 10.
You probably remember that Surhoff was the first pick of the 1985 draft out of North Carolina. Well, my buddy Chardon Jimmy has a brother who pitched for Ohio U around that time, and he once got to face Surhoff. Needless to say, it did not go well. Surhoff crushed a home run that, according to Jimmy, was still going up when it was last seen. It was a monster homer, the sort of brush with greatness that nobody in the family ever forgets. Whenever Surhoff would show up on television for the next two decades, Jimmy would call his brother and say: “Um, Surhoff is up. I was just thinking: Hey, you faced him. What would you throw him here?”