By In Basketball, Joe Vault

A Basketball Carol

Red Klotz points out the sliding glass door at the ocean just 100 yards away.
Red:: Look out there.
Me: Yes. It’s beautiful.
Red: You know, every day it looks different. Every single day.
Me: Because of the weather?
Red: Because of the ocean.

(more…)

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By In Stuff

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Ed Price and I have been great friends for almost 20 years now — ever since we worked together in Augusta, Ga. — and I have great respect for him as both a person, a baseball writer and a thinker. He wrote something on Monday that I thought was heartfelt and thoughtful. I also happened to disagree with it.

Well, that’s not exactly right … I disagreed with two relatively minor parts of what he wrote. The main thing he wrote, in my mind, is that he believes that the Baseball Hall of Fame’s voting instructions — to choose players based on their “record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team” — demand that he not vote steroid users into the Hall. I think that is a fair interpretation of the Hall of Fame’s charge. I happen to think those words are absurdly outdated, and bizarrely vague, and there is absolutely no hint that the Hall of Fame voters have EVER taken them seriously based on the fact that the very first person voted in was Ty Cobb. But I cannot disagree with Ed taking the words literally. I think every voter has to make that judgment.

But there are two more minor parts of what he wrote that bother me:

1. That the Hall of Fame is not a “court of law” and as such does not demand the standard of “innocent until proven guilty.”

2. His announcement that he will now keep his votes private rather than publicly accuse players of PED use without evidence.

No. 1 was ably handled by the excellent Ken Davidoff but I thought I would throw a thought in here as well because we often hear the words: “This is not a court so I don’t have to go by the standard of innocent until proven guilty.” I think it’s kind of tragic to hear anyone say that. “Innocent until proven guilty” is not simply a standard for a court of law … it is a fundamental right of society. Perhaps what Ed and others really mean when they say that is that they don’t want to go by the rigid court standard of proving guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I can see someone arguing that reasonable-doubt is too stringent for something like the baseball Hall of Fame, especially when you consider how players fought drug testing, lied dramatically, and have hidden as much as they can hide.

But the basic concept of “innocent until proven guilty?” Are we really going to throw that one away? The concept goes back at least 700 years to the Jean Lemoine, a French Cardinal, who figured that since most people are not criminals they should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Are we going to start assuming that most people ARE criminals? And if we are going to assume that … does that even make them criminals?

I’m not trying to go all philosophical here … but don’t we believe in the concept of innocent until proven guilt in every facet of our life? If an employer charges you with stealing petty cash, if your parent charges you with breaking the living room vase, if your friend charges you with backstabbing her at a party, don’t they need at least SOME standard of proof? Every single day of our lives, we are faced with some test of innocent until proven guilty, and it seems to me that those words are not about legalities, they are about common decency.

I don’t think the Hall of Fame is a court. I don’t think a non-vote for the Hall of Fame is declaring guilt either. Ed is exactly right, when he says the Hall of Fame is an honor not a right. But you know what this part of the Baseball Hall of Fame really is? It’s a room in the baseball museum in Cooperstown where they put the plaques of the greatest players in baseball history. It’s a tourist attraction. It’s a place where fans go and remember their childhood, reminisce about the game, consider their connections. It’s so easy to get high and mighty about this thing, so easy to lose the whole point. I’m not sure how the Hall of Fame became about innocent and guilty in the first place. It’s a room overflowing with cheaters and liars and gamblers and fools. It’s a room overflowing with heroes and devoted fathers and good neighbors and nice men. But, really, it’s a room with the greatest baseball players ever along with some very good players along with some good players who had powerful lobbyists.

It seems to me that throwing away our standard of innocent until proven guilty when talking about a baseball museum … well, there’s just something kind of sad about it.

No. 2 … well, Ed absolutely has every right to keep his votes secret. Every voter has that right. And I realize that what Ed is saying and what he believes is that the burden of proof needed to suspect a steroid user and not vote him into the Hall of Fame is MUCH LOWER than the standard or proof needed to publicly call someone a steroid user. I don’t think I fully agree with the premise, but I don’t fully disagree either. I would prefer him and others raising the burden of proof for not voting someone into the Hall of Fame … but, yes, public condemnation is a serious matter.

I guess, even more: I don’t believe in things done in the dark. The Hall of Fame voting is an odd process. Players, assuming they get enough support, can stay on the ballot for 15 years. Why? As many, many people have pointed out, players don’t get any better after they retire.

I think the reasoning is two-fold: One, circumstances change. For instance: A player might find himself on an overcrowded ballot for a time, which would hurt his chances. This very thing probably happened to Luis Tiant.

Two, more importantly, viewpoints change. It has taken a long time for voters to move beyond their initial impressions and biases and finally vote Bert Blyleven into the Hall of Fame (we all think). I think that, as we move away from Rickey Henderson’s induction, people will begin to fully understand and appreciate the rare skills of Tim Raines. Some of the most cherished players in the Hall of Fame — Harmon Killebrew, Billy Williams, Eddie Mathews, Yogi Berra and many, many others — took time to get into the Hall.

So I think the Hall of Fame views evolution as an important part of the voting process. I think they want voters who are willing to keep developing their views and willing to change their minds. I think they want voters who will challenge their own convictions. And to me, keeping your vote secret encourages stubbornness and inflexibility. If you don’t want to defend your reasons publicly — where they will be disputed and mocked and protested — it seems unlikely to me that will want to defend your reasons privately either.

This is not true of Ed, who I know takes his voting very seriously and will always challenge his own views. He thinks about this stuff a lot and thoroughly. I honestly believe that he is taking an honest stand here. But I really dislike the concept of keeping things secret. If I get an anonymous email or letter, I throw it out without reading it. If I get an anonymous phone call, I pay no attention to it. I believe we should stand behind what we think or what we say. A person’s opinion, in my mind, is worthy of respect if he or she stands behind it. I’m not saying that anyone has to trumpet all their Hall of Fame picks or write stupid 15,000 word blog posts about it. But I think that the process is better if it’s an open dialogue. I think voting for the Hall of Fame is a pretty cool honor, and what we’re trying to do is create a living and breathing history of baseball. My own belief — and I know very smart people who strongly disagree with me — is that we should stand behind our votes.

When Buck O’Neil fell one vote short of the Hall of Fame in a special Negro Leagues election a few years ago, I thought the nay votes should have had the courage of their convictions and explained their reasoning. I suppose you could argue — some have argued — that by keeping the balloting secret they did not have to publicly embarrass Buck by saying that they thought he wasn’t a good enough player or his accomplishments were not quite enough or whatever reason they would have given. And some think a secret ballot is pure because you won’t vote based on public pressure. But I think all that’s kind of a copout. I have been led to believe — and probably will always believe — that some of the Buck O’Neil voting was political and petty and mean-spirited … and it’s a lot easier to be petty and mean spirited when you don’t have to stand publicly behind your vote.

I guess my point is that I believe in light. I think Ed is onto something here, and I think as these ballots get trickier and tricker more and more writers will follow his lead and simply stop giving out their ballots. I hope not. I don’t think we have reached any real consensus on what the Hall of Fame should look like after the baffling Selig Era. And I think we should reach a consensus. That’s our job as voters. We have been asked as a group to imagine the future Hall of Fame. I think for that we should have open dialogue, with all the bumps and bruises that go along with it.

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Twitter Expansion #2: Seahawks

@JPosnanski Gotta say I’m not bothered that 7-9 team made playoffs. I’m bothered that a spectacularly crappy 7-9 team is in the playoffs.

There were three 7-9 teams in the NFL this year. I would say the Seattle Seahawks were the worst of the three. Now, that is simply my opinion, and it is contradicted by the simple fact that Sunday night the Seahawks beat one of those 7-9 teams — the St. Louis Rams — in order to get into the playoffs. But the game was at home, and the Rams had beaten the Seahawks convincingly when the game was in St. Louis. I don’t think the Rams are a good team. But I think they’re probably better than Seattle. I feel sure the 7-9 Dolphins are better.

The Seahawks were outscored by almost 100 points this year. They were absolutely demolished by the Giants and Chiefs at home. They were crushed on the road by San Francisco, Oakland and Tampa Bay. They played only four playoff teams all year, and they went 1-3 and were beaten by an average of two touchdowns. They were the second-worst rushing team in the NFL, one of the league’s worst defenses both in yardage allowed and points allowed — and this against an absurdly easy schedule. The only great team they played all year, I think, was the Atlanta Falcons. And they got pummeled.

Now, my point is not that I think the rules should have been changed to prevent Seattle from making it. I don’t have any problem at all with the Seahawks making the playoffs. Everyone understood the rules before we began. And, I kind of like the division system. I kind of like that the atmosphere changes every year, and that sometimes you are in a murderous division and sometimes you’re in a horrible division but the singular goal of winning the division (using tiebreakers) remains the same. It keeps things interesting.

Still, it does seem obvious that this Seattle team is not even a good 7-9 team. Let’s take a look at the 7-9 teams from the last five years and their point differential:

2007 Bengals: -5
2009 Bears: -6
2006 Bills: -11
2007 Bears: -14
2009 Dolphins: -30
2006 Falcons: -36
2010 Rams: -39
2008 49ers: -42
2009 Bears: -48
2010 Dolphins: -60
2007 Broncos: -89
2009 Jagauars: -90
2010 Seahawks: -97
2007 Lions: -98
2007 Bills: -102
2006 49ers: -114

So the Seahawks do not have the worst point differential*, but they’re close. And the 2007 Bills hardly count since 77 of those 102 points came in two games against the 16-0 New England Patriots.

*The last 7-9 team to outscore their opponents? The 2004 Kansas City Chiefs, which figures. Dick Vermeil did some remarkable and odd things in his tenure as coach of the Chiefs because their offense was SO good and their defense SO bad (and Vermeil often didn’t seem to mind — as long as they were scoring points, he seemed reasonably happy).That year the Chiefs scored 483 points and had a losing record — that was BY FAR the most points ever scored by a team with a losing record. Those Chiefs outscored opponents by seven touchdowns, but still finished 7-9.

Now the Seahawks get into the playoffs and even get a home playoff game. I don’t think they will beat New Orleans, and I don’t think they will even stay particularly close. But at home … it’s not impossible. And, absolutely, it’s ridiculous. It’s also a nice reminder that playoffs are not the perfect culmination of a season like so many seem to think. Hey, I like playoffs … especially in football, basketball and hockey. I think they lift up the games and give us thrills.

But playoffs are not perfect — I think we forget this all the time, especially when ranting about college football’s ludicrous BCS system. I don’t think there’s any question the BCS system is impossibly flawed, and it is in place to protect special interests, and that a playoff would be more popular with the vast majority of college football fans. Most of the negative things people shout about the BCS are, in my mind, exactly right. I think it is absurd that this year TCU went undefeated and beat a very good Wisconsin team in the bowl game and has no access to winning what people widely consider the “national championship.”

But, granting all of that, the BCS system IS giving us a fascinating game between Oregon and Auburn, two undefeated teams that had remarkable seasons. A playoff might not give us that game. The best playoff system I have seen is the Death To The BCS 16-game playoff featuring champions from every conference. That system would give us college football fans a thrilling month of football that would tower over the bizarre bowl setup we have now. But it would also, every single year, give us inferior Seattle Seahawks playoff teams while clearly superior teams who had much better seasons were left at home.

The point is that when it comes to crowning a champion, you have to pick your poison. You can make the season more or less important. You can make the postseason tournament more or less important. You can come up with all sorts of tiebreakers, and division setups and wildcard entries. You can put the tension wherever you want. Every ending has its positives and every ending has its problems. The best ending in sports history, in my opinion, was a World Series that matched up the two best teams from each league as determined over 154 or 162 games. And they messed that up with playoffs.

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Twitter Expansion #1

Twitter is a not a great thing for me. I have a lot of unformed thoughts — some of them dumb but many of them vapid — and Twitter makes it too easy to type out a quick sentence and send these unformed thoughts out into the world. Because these thoughts are unformed, and because clarity isn’t necessarily a 140-character trait, I often find myself thinking: I should explain that more. I usually don’t. But today, I will. Today, I’ll post a few Twitter Expansions. “Why?” you ask. I have long stopped asking why when it comes to this blog.

@JPosnanski Just ran into former star Jeff Montgomery, who told me about 3 colleges that told him he’d never make it in baseball. #dontstopbelievin

* * *

I have this theory about talent. It’s not a fully formed theory — unless by “fully formed” we actually mean “stupid” — but it’s something I have been thinking about ever since I was a little kid. My theory is that “talent,” in a way, is the capacity to make time repeat.

Here’s the best way I can explain it: Let’s say that you like to play golf. Maybe you’re an 18 handicapper — you shoot around 90, sometimes you shoot in the 80s, sometimes when nothing is going well you shoot 100. To shoot around 90, you already know, is to be a million miles away from being on the PGA Tour.

BUT, what if you had some sort of watch that allowed you to manipulate time so that you could actually shoot every shot over and over until you were able to hit the very best shot within your capabilities. That is, you hook a drive out of bounds, you rewind, you slice your drive into the trees, rewind, you top the ball, rewind, you hit a 240-yard drive down to the left, rewind, you hit a 270-yard drive down the middle … eventually you will hit a great shot. Maybe it will take you 10 shots, 20 shots, 50 shots, a thousand shots, but eventually you will hit a great shot.

If you had this kind of watch, and you had the fortitude to keep swinging until the shot was just right, you would make every long putt. You would make chip shots that would leave everyone in awe. People would call you the most talented player who ever lived — and this is YOU, right now, with no more ability than you have as you read these words.

I have usually connected my time theory to golf because it’s the starkest example, but I think it would work in most sports — assuming you have some ability and are allowed to see the results before rewinding and, more than anything, are relentless. Nothing matters more than being relentless. If you were a basketball player, and behind the timewall you had an unlimited number of chances, you could make every halfcourt shot you tried. You could get hits every time you came up to the plate (assuming you didn’t lose patience after swinging and missing 100 times or 500 times or 1000 times). You would never miss a pool shot.

There are some things that that my time theory doesn’t seem to cover — I’m not sure that it would work with some of the most physical events. I’m not sure that by running the 100 meter dash over and over and over or swimming the 200 meter butterfly over and over and over you would ever win Olympic Gold. But maybe you would. Maybe the act of doing it so many times, many many more times than anyone in the world, would get you to the finish line first.

Of course, no one gets that sort of time-manipulation watch — and if someone ever did invent the watch they probably would not waste its powers on getting really good at golf. But that gets to my point. I don’t think “talent” is great ability, or a natural knack for something, or a stunning burst of inspiration. I think talent just might be what we call hunger, the unquenchable desire to hit the golf ball 10 times or 50 times or 1,000 times, long after everyone else has grown bored or frustrated or disappointed, long after it makes any sort of sense, to keep hitting that ball until you hit the great shot. We have all seen this in sports so many times. The stories grow cliche after a while, but I think it’s telling that Michael Jordan once failed to make his high school team, that Albert Pujols wasn’t drafted after high school, that Kurt Warner worked in a grocery store after college, that three colleges told Jeff Montgomery that he wasn’t cut out for big time baseball.

I saw Jeff on Sunday as I was getting on a plane heading home. We have had a long and interesting relationship, Jeff and I, but at the end we have come to a place of mutual respect, I think. And he told me a story I had never heard. Jeff grew up in a little town, Wellston, OH, about 25 miles away from Ohio University. And the Ohio University coach was one of three Ohio schools that simply didn’t offer him a scholarship. The Ohio U coach was the most devastating though, since he grew up right down the street.

The coach offered to pay for Jeff’s books — probably out of guilt since he was a local kid. But Jeff knew he would not get a chance. So he found a school — Marshall — that gave him a real chance. He worked insanely hard. He pitched brilliantly. He was a ninth round pick out of college. He spent five years in the minors proving himself again and again — he was viewed as too small, without an out pitch. He worked insanely hard. And you know the ending: He made it to the big leagues, and from 1989-93, five years with Kansas City, he saved 159 games with a 2.22 ERA and twice appeared in the All-Star game. He was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame after his career was over.

The point is that he kept working insanely hard, and he kept believing in himself, and he kept seeing the happy ending. I don’t think many people can do that. I guess in the end I’m saying THAT is talent.

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Hall of Fame: The Borderline Five

OK, so there are five players left on my ballot … and I’m exhausted. I have written about 15,000 words about the Hall of Fame already this week, and I’m not even through the entire ballot? You have got to be kidding me.

No, it’s worse than that. I have left what are, for me, the five toughest calls. If you read Thursday’s installment of Hall of Fame Week, then you know that I have used up eight of my 10 Hall of Fame votes (I have never entirely understood why the Hall of Fame limits writers to 10 … but they do). So I have two votes left and five players who in my mind all have both strong Hall of Fame cases AND serious flaws in their Hall of Fame cases. I voted for two of the five. I suspect these final two will not match many other ballots.

Here we go:

— Kevin Brown: OK, this is an oversimplification — just like most of my arguments. But it seems to me there’s a pretty good chance that every single pitcher with at least 3,000 innings pitched and an ERA+ of better than 120 will end up in the Hall of Fame … every one of them except two. This is, I admit, using my own projections, and it is certainly possible that I’m wrong about who will and won’t go into the Hall of Fame.

But here is the list of the 3,000 inning/121-or-better ERA+ pitchers who are not in the Hall of Fame.

1. Roger Clemens (143 ERA+): I think he will have some serious blowback because of the steroids stain, but he has an argument as the greatest pitcher of all time and I think that will win out. He will get in.

2. Randy Johnson (136 ERA+): First ballot.

3. Greg Maddux (132 ERA+): I think he will break Tom Seaver’s record for highest percentage of the vote (originally remembered Nolan Ryan with highest, but Seaver’s percentage was 98.84% and Ryan’s 98.79%).

4. Curt Schilling (128 ERA+): It won’t be an easy ride, but I think in the end his great postseason record and impact on the game will get him in. More on Schilling in a minute.

5. John Smoltz (125 ERA+): With his dominance as both a starter and closer, I think he will be a first ballot pick.

6. Mike Mussina (123 ERA+): I could be wrong here, but I think 270 wins, a .636 winning percentage and retiring while on top will eventually send Mussina to Cooperstown.

So who are the two who I think will not get in? Well, one is Eddie Cicotte, who you might remember was played by Edward R. Murrow in the movie “8 Men Out.” Cicotte was banned from baseball for his pro-communist statements on television, no, wait, I’m confusing things. Anyway, he’s banned from baseball forever and no one even seems to be fighting for him anymore.

The other is Kevin Brown. I admit to having mixed emotions about him. He was an undeniably dominant pitchers at times in his career. He twice led the league in ERA, finished second two other times — when it comes to preventing teams from scoring runs (which many would say is the pitcher’s No. 1 goal) he was undoubtedly one of the best at it of his generation. He ranks 10th among non-Hall of Famers in another little stat I like called “Runs Saved Against Average” — he saved 304 runs above average, just one behind certain Hall of Famer Tom Glavine.

But Brown’s case is still borderline. His case is, on the surface anyway, the same case as Schilling. It is NOT the same case Schilling, but it is on the surface. First the similarities:

Kevin Brown: 211-144, 3.28 ERA, 127 ERA+.
Curt Schilling: 216-146, 3.46 ERA, 128 ERA+.

Awfully close. Kevin Brown is Schilling’s No. 1 comp on Baseball Reference. And Schilling is Kevin Brown’s No. 7 comp (Higher up on the Brown comp list are No.1 Bob Welch, No. 2 Orel Hershiser and then a couple of Hall of Famers, No. 3 Don Drysdale and No. 4 Catfish Hunter).

But here are a couple of key differences: Schilling’s strikeout-to-walk (3,116 to 711) is is historic, the best ratio since 1900. I mentioned above that many people would say a pitcher’s No. 1 goal is preventing runs, but the numbers strongly suggest that there are only so many ways a pitcher can do this — walks and strikeouts are two of the very few things somewhat within a pitcher’s control. Brown’s strikeout-to-walk is is very good too (2,397 to 901) but obviously not in Schilling’s stratosphere. When you consider they are both borderline Hall of Fame choices, this seems a big advantage for Schilling.

The other thing, as mentioned, is Schilling’s remarkable postseason record — 11-2, 2.23 ERA (4-1 with a 2.06 ERA in the World Series). He pitched the famous bloody sock game. He was breathtaking enough in the 2001 World Series to be SI’s co-Sportsman of the Year. People have different views on how much postseason performance should be considered when talking about the Hall of Fame, but this is a big checkmark in Schilling’s column. Brown, meanwhile, was generally blah in the postseason, and his 0-3, 6.04 World Series record is less than blah.

And this is Brown’s biggest Hall of Fame problem for me: He was a terrific pitcher. But when you have a borderline Hall of Fame case, I think you need to bring something extra, something that separates you from all the other borderline Hall of Fame cases. As I have grown older, I have come to believe that greatness is not simply a line … Willie Mays wasn’t great simply because he hit well and fielded well and ran well. Greatness is a multilayered, three dimensional thing. Brown’s often brilliant pitching earns him his day in court, but in the end, is the verdict that he he great? He was at points in his career. But he was also a surly pitcher who did not seem to add much to team chemistry, and he did not distinguish himself in the postseason. He signed a gigantic contract at age 34 but did not age well, to the point where at the end he was considered an albatross. He falls short of the Hall of Fame for me, but not by much.

— Fred McGriff: I have a soft spot in my heart for McGriff. To me, he was an awful a friendlier and shorter-lived version of Eddie Murray … at least from an offensive perspective. Murray hit .287/.359/.476 with a 129 OPS+. McGriff hit .284/.377/.509 with a 133 OPS+. Murray played in 8 All-Star Games and started one. McGriff played in only five All-Star Games but started three. Neither won an MVP award, though Murray finished second two times. They were both very solid hitting first basemen with remarkable, almost mystical, powers of consistency.

That said, there are some important differences. Murray was a far superior defender. And Murray was good enough for long enough to hit 500 homers and amass 3,000 hits. McGriff fell just short on the homers (493) and well short on the hits (2,490). Murray’s career value (66.7 WAR) is quite a bit higher than McGriff’s (50.5).

I’m a big fan of Jay Jaffe’s Hall of Fame posts — I think he has the most sensible numbers approach to the Hall of Fame question by measuring a players career AND his peak. Jay’s research shows McGriff falls just short of the Average Hall of Fame first baseman in both career value and peak value. To keep the Murray comparison going, Murray’s peak was just a touch higher than McGriff bit it is also borderline for the Hall of Fame. But Murray’s career value soars. I think in the end, when it comes to the Hall of Fame, you need to offer something sensational. A sensational peak. Sensational career totals. Something. I guess my feeling is that McGriff wasn’t quite good enough for LONG enough. The vote is a regretful no. But I plan to look at it again next year — and every year he’s on the ballot.

— Dale Murphy: People who have followed my Hall of Fame votes (this would include my mother and perhaps my father) know that Dale Murphy is my Hall of Fame weakness. I have voted for him every year. And I have done this knowing full well that he has a tragically flawed Hall of Fame case.

The problem with Murphy is that his career is almost all peak value. He had six great years. He had one or two decent years in addition, but just one or two. And everything else was pretty awful. His heights, I think, were markedly higher than Jim Rice and Andre Dawson, the last two outfielders voted into the Hall of Fame. But Dawson had nine good-but-not-great seasons; Rice had four or five. Murphy had those one or two. And that is why they are in the Hall and Murphy probably won’t get there.

I get that. But I keep voting for Murphy anyway. I don’t know that six exceptional years is enough to make someone a Hall of Famer if they can’t back it up with some value in other years. Jimmy Wynn had seven terrific seasons, and, impossibly, did not get a single Hall of Fame vote (even Tommy Helms got a vote that year). But maybe that’s because people didn’t appreciate Wynn’s great seasons (so much of his value was tied up in his ability to walk).

People did appreciate Murphy. He won two MVP awards, he won five straight Gold Gloves, he was the singular star for the SuperStation Braves teams of the 1980s who fitfully wore the self-proclaimed mantle as “America’s Team.” He, as much as anyone I suspect, spread the gospel of baseball in the South with the way he played and the way he carried himself.

Murph, you probably know, began his career as a catcher. The line at the time was that one day the Braves decided he was too tall to catch. The Braves made him a first baseman, where he wasn’t very good, and they came to realize that his great athletic ability might play in center field. At 6-foot-4, there was a gnawing feeling he was too tall for center field too, but at the point they had to do SOMETHING with the guy. He was 24 years old, had a gigantic hole in his swing and his position was still up in the air.

But in 1980, he had his first great year, hitting .281/349/.510 with 33 homers and he made a stunning defensive transition to center field. He was fluid, and he rarely made mistakes, and he showed off a strong arm. After an uneven strike year, he jumped into the conversation of best player in baseball. He won his first MVP in 1982 (.281/.378/.507) and his second in 1983 (.302/.393/.540 — led league in slugging and had a 30-30 season). He was helped out by his ballpark — the affectionately named Launching Pad — and a great defensive reputation that people still argue about (he won Gold Gloves both years but some say Murphy did not have enough range to play center). Still, he was legitimately great both those years, and pretty close to great the next two years after. And he probably had his best season in 1987 when he hit .295/.417/.580 with 44 home runs and a good transition to right field.

And then … he fell off a cliff. He didn’t just fall a cliff, he did a Wile E. Coyote fall off a cliff and then had a big chunk of rock fall on top of him. After his a decent 1988, he hit .236/.304/.403/.388 the rest of his career was was just barely above replacement level.

Is that enough to make a Hall of Fame career? Most would say no. I wrote yesterday that I loathe the Hall of Fame character clause and I do. But if it is going to be there — and I have no illusions that it will ever go away — shouldn’t it be there to REWARD class and dignity as much as to PUNISH players who don’t quite live up to standards? Bill James suggests — and I concur — that the clause may have been a direct effort to reward a player like Eddie Grant, a light hitting infielder from the early part of the 20th Century who hit .249/.300/.295 over 10 seasons for four teams from 1905 to 1915. But he went to Harvard, was widely respected in baseball, and he gave the last full measure of devotion when he died in battle in France during World War I. Our guess is that Kenesaw Mountain Landis may have written the Hall of Fame character clause to encourage people to vote for Eddie Grant. Few actually bought the argument — Grant never received more than three votes. But it seems likely the clause was not put in to exclude as much as INCLUDE.

Murphy tried to be a role model … he took that seriously. He was a class act, and he promoted the best of the game with the way he played and the way he carried himself. Like Musial, I would say you probably can’t find anyone who dealt with Dale Murphy — teammates, fans, media, anyone — who did not love and admire the guy. I’m not saying this alone should get him into the Hall of fame. But I do think it can be part of his case.

I’m under no illusions that Murphy will ever get any Hall of Fame momentum. He is drawing fewer votes now than he did his first couple of years, and I suspect with the loaded ballot this year he will take a big drop. I was torn about who to give my 10th vote to … but in the end I decided to stick with Murphy for another year. At his peak, he was a Hall of Famer, and a six-year peak is pretty strong historically. I voted yes.

But, yes, I’ll admit, I wish he’d had a few even reasonably productive years after age 32. If he did, I think he’d be a solid Hall of Famer. Through age 31, his numbers compared very well with Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield. Those guys had a second act. Murphy decidedly did not. It seems silly that what is keeping Murphy out of the Hall of Fame is not additional greatness but rather a few years of solid mediocrity. But baseball is a tricky game.

— Rafael Palmeiro: The question that I suppose can be asked here is — should Rafael Palmeiro’s positive drug test have a different impact on Hall of Fame voters than the drug noise the surrounds Mark McGwire Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez and so on?

Maybe. Maybe not. I can’t tell anymore. I guess the point is that none of those others ever failed a drug test … or at least not a drug test where the results were to be made public. More to the point, Palmeiro’s failed drug test came at a time when baseball WAS testing. I think we can argue nonstop for the next month about what the baseball guru’s stance was about steroids in the 1990s. But to me the trump card is that, for whatever reason, baseball did not test. And because baseball was not testing, I do not think they can make any legitimate claim that they were trying to discourage players from using steroids.

But then steroids in baseball became a real embarrassment, and testing was instituted, and by then there could be no mistaking baseball’s stance: They wanted performance enhancing drugs out of the game. That’s when Palmeiro tested positive. It is not impossible — or even entirely improbable — that it was a false positive (as Palmeiro claims). These things DO happen more than anyone wants to admit. But considering that Palmeiro was widely viewed as a steroid user, and considering that he was probably the most obnoxious of the deniers at the Congressional Hearing, he certainly wasn’t going to get the benefit of the public doubt.

I vote for Mark McGwire, so I am openly voting for someone who has admitted taking steroids. Is Palmeiro different because of the timing, because he tested positive when steroids was CLEARLY AND INDISPUTABLY against the rules? Maybe. Maybe not. Like I say, I can’t tell anymore. Palmeiro’s Hall of Fame case is pretty clear and pretty forceful from a career perspective. He had 3,000 hits AND 500 home runs, and both of those have been magic Hall of Fame numbers.

But … again I turn to Jay Jaffe. Rafael Palmeiro’s peak just wasn’t quite Hall of Fame. His career numbers are awesome, as mentioned, but he played in one of the greatest offensive offensive eras in baseball history, and he spent his career in terrific hitters parks. In many ways, I think he is simply Fred McGriff in a more favorable hitting environment. Look at their neutralized statistics (that is putting their numbers into a 716-run environment):

McGriff: .284/.377/.511
Palmeiro: .287/.369/.510

Comme ci, comme ca.

There are players in the Hall of Fame with great career numbers and uninspiring peaks. I think Palmeiro has a powerful case because of those career numbers, but it’s a borderline case. And the big question is: If Rafael Palmeiro has a borderline case, does his positive drug test tilt the scales to “No?”

With my ballot bursting already, I decided this year: No.

— Larry Walker: How good does someone have to hit at Coors Field to be considered an all-time great? It’s a fascinating question. It’s funny — Coors Field seems to be the first park that has actually altered how the average fans views baseball players. Whenever you would tell people that, say, Jim Rice’s numbers or Don Drysdale’s numbers or, yes, Dale Murphy’s numbers were greatly aided by their home park, people would generally shrug. So what? But I get the impression that many people, maybe even most people, look at Larry Walker’s great numbers and think only “Yeah, mirage, Coors Field.”

The player whose Hall of Fame election probably has most to do with home park was Chuck Klein. From 1928-33, Klein played in the absurd Baker Bowl … one of the most ridiculous hitters parks in baseball history. The right field wall was only 280 feet from home plate, and right center was only 300 feet away. It was so ludicrously close to home plate, that they kept adding height to it just to give it some semblance of fairness. They never could make it tall enough.

Here is what Chuck Klein hit at the Baker Bowl:

1929: .391/.434/.734 with 25 doubles and 25 homers in 71 games.
1930: .439/.483/.794 with 32 doubles and 26 homers in 77 games.
1931: .401/.469/.740 with 23 doubles and 22 homers in 76 games.
1932: .423/.464/.799 with 26 doubles and 25 homers in 81 games.
1933: .467/.516/.789 with 25 doubles and 17 homers in 74 games.

OK, that’s just laughable, right?* In those five years, He led the league in homers four times, in doubles twice, in runs three times, in RBIs twice and he won the triple crown in 1933 (despite hitting .280/.338/.436 on the road). Well, OF COURSE he did. He was traded to the Cubs for three players and $65,000 in 1933. And he never led the league in anything again. He hit .278/.343/.447 the rest of his career.

*Other great Baker Bowl feats:

— In 1929, Lefty O’Doul — who was trying to remake himself as a hitter after his pitching career was halted by an arm injury — led the league with a .398 batting average. He hit .453 at the Baker Bowl.

— In 1930, the entire Philadelphia team hit .344 at the Baker Bowl.

— That’s OK. In 1939, opponents hit .359 at the Baker Bowl.

Chuck Klein is in the Hall of Fame, though it should be said he never got much support from the writers. The veteran’s committee voted him in. He was inducted in 1980, long after his death in 1958. That always makes me sad. If you’re going to put a man in the Hall of Fame, you should put him in while he’s alive and can celebrate it.

Larry Walker put up three or four of the most remarkable offensive seasons in baseball history while playing in the pre-humidor Coors Field. I’ve tried to make this point many times in many ways, but I don’t know if I ever have fully made it: The number effects that people attribute to steroids can be reproduced simply and legally with a great hitters park or a livelier baseball. Walker was a very good player in Montreal from 1990 to 1994 — his OPS+ was 130, and in 1994 he hit .322 and led the league in doubles with 44. He could hit a baseball hard.

Then he went to Coors and in 1997 he hit .366 with 46 doubles, 49 homers … you know how many other players in baseball history have hit .350 or better with 45 doubles AND 45 homers in the same season? One. Lou Gehrig in 1927. It was pure lunacy.

So what did Walker do the next year? He hit .363. And the next? He hit .379/.458/.710 — you bet, he led the National League in the all three of those splits. In 2001, he hit .350 (led the league again) with 38 homers, 123 RBIs, 107 runs scored. In all, he hit .334/.425/.618 his years in Colorado.

How much of that was Coors Field? A lot of it. Over his career, Walker hit .381 at Coors Field and he slugged .710. Overall, Walker hit 70 points better at home (.348 to .278) and slugged 142 points higher at home (.637 to .495).

But if you have done your math, you know that I’m voting for Walker. I think he was a great all around player. His 140 career OPS+ — and that, of course, takes into account his ballpark — is significantly better than Dawson (119), Rickey Henderson (127), Rice (128), Tony Gwynn (132), Dave Winfield (130) and Kirby Puckett (124) — the outfielders who have been voted in since 2000. Obviously, they each have different cases (Henderson’s OPS+ is entirely beside the point when looking at his career), but it shows how good a hitter Walker was. His .278/.370/.495 split for road game certainly pales against his home numbers, but those are still very good road numbers — yes, he played in a good offensive era, but it’s worth point out that his road on-base percentage is better than George Brett’s CAREER on-base percentage, and that .495 road slugging is higher than Reggie Jackson’s CAREER slugging.

Walker was also a fabulous right fielder, based both on reputation (seven Gold Gloves) and numbers (his defensive WAR is 9.6 which is very high). He was an outstanding base runner and base stealer (he stole 230 bases at a 75% rate).

There are not many players in baseball history who were really good at everything. Larry Walker was really good at everything. Injuries shortened and interrupted his career, and he definitely got a huge numbers boost from his home park. But the Larry Walker I remember hit the ball hard, ran the bases brilliantly, played superior defense and kept finding ways to be productive even as his body was breaking down on him. He had a huge peak, and took advantage of his home ballpark to put up some of the best seasons in baseball history. For that, he got my 10th and final vote.

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By In Stuff

Hall of Fame: The Eight Definites

In my mind, there are eight players on this year’s ballot who are clearly above my Hall of Fame standard. That does not mean that they are without their flaws. A couple of them have significant flaws … I refused to vote for one of them for a while until my thoughts about him and what he did crystallized somewhat.

In any case, when I first got the Hall of Fame ballot I gave it a quick glance and counted the players who seemed like easy Hall of Fame choices. These were the eight who came up.

— Roberto Alomar: There are differences of opinion about Roberto Alomar’s fielding. He won a Gold Glove every year but one from 1991 to 2001. That’s 10 Gold Gloves, and the general consensus at the time seemed to be that he was a brilliant defensive second baseman, one of the best of all time. But, since then, a few people studied the subject — Bill James for one — and came away with the contrary conclusion that Alomar was wildly overrated defensively. Sean Smith’s Total Zone Rating concludes that Alomar was actually a below average defensive second baseman for his career, and was below average every year from 1993 to 1996, when he won four of those Gold Gloves.

I bring this up because I think Alomar’s legacy depends on how you feel about his defense. If you feel that he was a solid but overrated defender — which probably sums up the anti-Alomar-defense stance — then he is one of the 10 best second basemen in baseball history. I would say only Morgan, Ryne Sandberg and Craig Biggio could match Alomar’s combination of power and speed. Alomar also hit .300 for his career, he walked more than he struck out, and he had three or four MVP type years. Yes, even without his defensive reputation, he is one of the best to ever play second base.

But … if you believe Alomar was a GREAT defensive player, as many people do, then he’s one of the five best second basemen ever and should be in the discussion with Joe Morgan and Rogers Hornsby.

All of which is to say: He’s a Hall of Famer either way. I think it was sad that Alomar was not elected to the Hall of Fame last year. His snub seemed to be based on some sort of wordless anger about Alomar’s infamous spitting incident and perhaps some of his post-career troubles. I should say here (and I’ll come back to this in a minute) that I truly loathe the fact that there is a character clause in the Hall of Fame voting instructions, a clause (perhaps written by Kenesaw Mountain Landis himself) that states: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.” I think that clause frees up voters to make moral judgments. And I think that kind of freedom often brings out the worst in people.

That’s not say that people who did not vote in Alomar last year were wrong. The beauty of the Hall of Fame voting is also the biggest problem with it: It’s messy. You have several hundred people (539 last year) with different standards, different ideals, different priorities, different moral attitudes, different point of views. They all vote based on what they are and what they believe. This leads to all sorts of interesting, sometimes bizarre, sometimes shameful individual votes — you already know that some people did not vote for Willie Mays or Hank Aaron or Stan Musial — but the hope is that the large number of Hall of Fame voters, and the high threshold of 75% needed for induction, will give us the worthiest candidates.

It was that high threshold that cost Alomar the Hall of Fame in his first year. He should get elected this year.

— Jeff Bagwell: OK, let me say this as clearly as I possible can say it: Jeff Bagwell, in my opinion, is one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. His 149 OPS+ ranks 19th all-time among players with 8,000 plate appearances. He is one of only 16 players to finish a lengthy career with an on-base percentage higher than .400 (.408) and a slugging percentage higher than .500 (.540). Among those 16, only Ty Cobb and Barry Bonds stole more bases.

He was a breathtaking offensive player, almost without weakness. He hit for average, he hit for power, he drew walks, he stole bases, he scored runs, he drove in runs, and he looked like a serious badass doing all of it. Remember how everyone talked about Jim Rice’s intimidation factor, so much so that after a while it became kind of a joke. Well, Jeff Bagwell was a scary hitter. He would plant himself into that wide stance, and he would swing the bat with ferocity, and I never knew if it was scarier to be the pitcher or the third baseman or some seated in a low seat without a net in front. There was enough fear for everyone. The guy was like a cartoon character.

It’s true that Bagwell played in huge offensive time. But he demolished the era. Every single year he was good for a .300 or so average, a .400 or so on-base percentage, 35 homers, 100 walks, 110 RBIs, 110 runs scored … that was just the starting point for Bagwell. A couple of times, he demolished even those numbers. His aborted 1994 season — when he hit .368/.451/.750 — is untouchable in any era. But his 1996 season, when he hit .315/.451/.570 isn’t far behind. In 1999 he walked 149 times and scored 143 runs. In 1997, he became just the sixth National Leaguer to hit 40 homers and 40 doubles in the same year*.

*And two of those six (Larry Walker and Todd Helton) did it Colorado, another one (Chuck Klein) did it in the old Baker Bowl — two absurd hitters ballparks. Bagwell did it in the bleeping ASTRODOME, a legendarily bad hitter’s park. Nobody had ever hit 40 homer runs playing half their games in the Astrodome. And this guy added 40 doubles to the trick.

Bagwell was a force of nature until he turned 35. By then, his shoulder was beginning to deteriorate. He had some sort of arthritic condition there … and it made his career end suddenly. At 35 he hit 39 homers, walked 88 times, and received an MVP vote. At 37, he was done.

Bagwell, to me, looks like a first-ballot, slam-dunk, didn’t have to think twice Hall of Famer. His rare combination of power and speed (he’s the only first baseman to have a 30-homer, 30-stolen base season, and he did it twice) along with his solid defense (he won one Gold Glove, but was generally viewed year-in, year-out as a very good defender), along with his ability to get on base, along with his solid nature and spectacular peak makes him seem like the surest of sure things.

But it doesn’t look that way. It looks like Bagwell will fall well short. And I can only come up with two somewhat related reasons:

1. The crazy offensive Selig Era has made us jaded about spectacular offensive numbers. That’s understandable, I guess. Bagwell’s six seasons of 39-plus home runs would have seemed otherworldly twenty years ago. After all, that’s as many as Willie Mays had, more than Mickey Mantle had, as many as Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt COMBINED. But the Selig Era has taken the jolt out of those numbers, in part because of steroids but also in part because we simply have grown numb after seeing home run after home run after home run after home run.

2. Jeff Bagwell — though he never tested positive for steroids, never was implicated in any public way, was not named in the Mitchell Report or by anyone on the record as a suspected user, and is not even on this rather comprehensive list of players linked to steroids or HGH — seems to have become in some voter’s minds a player who used performance enhancing drugs.

I can’t even begin to describe my disgust at No. 2 … it makes me absolutely sick to my stomach. This is PRECISELY what I was talking about when I said how much I hate the character clause in the Hall of Fame voting. I think it encourages people to believe their own nonsense, to stand up on high and be judge and jury. It’s something my friend Bill James calls the “I see it in his eyes” tripe. Bill has finished a book on crime — it is, he says, actually about crime books as much as crime — and one thing he kept running into in his research was people who claimed that they could pinpoint the murderer because “it was in their eyes.” Well, as Bill says, that’s a whole lot of garbage. Eyes are eyes. Some people look guilty when they’re innocent, and some people look innocent when they’re guilty, and most people don’t look innocent OR guilty except when we want to see that something in their eyes. Oh, but we love to believe we know. It’s one of the flaws of humanity. And the Hall of Fame character clause gives voters carte blanche to judge the eyes and hearts and souls of players.

I think my e-migo Craig Calcaterra has made this point on Twitter, but I’d like to also make it as strongly as I can: I’d rather a hundred steroid users were mistakenly voted into the Hall of Fame over keeping one non-user out. I don’t know if Jeff Bagwell used or didn’t use steroids. But there was no testing. There is no convincing evidence that he used (or, as far as I know, even unconvincing evidence). So what separates him from EVERY OTHER PLAYER on the ballot? Were his numbers too good? That’s why you suspect him?

Bagwell has written (or spoken) a story defending himself from the steroid charges. This is the takeaway: “I’m so sick and tired of all the steroids crap, it’s messed up my whole thinking on the subject. … If I ever do get to the Hall of Fame and there are 40 guys sitting behind me thinking, ‘He took steroids,’ then it’s not even worth it to me.”

I would say this to those people who would not vote for Jeff Bagwell because they simply believe he used steroids, based on how he looked or some whispers they heard. I have a better idea: Let’s just burn him at the stake. If he survives, you will know you were right.

— Bert Blyleven: My colleague and friend Jon Heyman wrote an entire column this year about why he did not vote for Blyleven, and it’s fair to say that I didn’t agree with much of it. Jon’s main point seems to be that though Blyleven’s career numbers may be impressive, his career lacked impact. He never won a Cy Young award (or finished higher than third), he never was a factor in the MVP voting, he only made two All-Star teams.

The facts are there, but I guess it depends what you mean by impact. Blyleven STILL ranks fifth on the all-time list for strikeouts — wedged between a couple of guys named Carlton and Seaver — and strikeouts seem to have some impact on the game. He ranks ninth all-time in shutouts, fourth if you only count the years after the deadball era — and shutouts seem to have some impact on the game. He won more games 1-0 than any pitcher in 90 years — and 1-0 victories seem to have some impact on the game. I guess I would like to believe more in those than in the award voters who often underrated him* or All-Star Game managers who usually have their own agendas.

*Blyleven was probably the best pitcher in the American League in 1973. This was not seen in his 20-17 record, but he was second in the league in ERA, first in ERA+, first in shutouts and he threw a staggering 325 innings. You may or may not have use for Wins Above Replacement, but he finished first in the league in WAR — not just for pitchers but for ALL players. The MVP voters were 30-plus years too young for WAR, however, and gave him one 10th place vote.

But Jon is hardly the first person to say, essentially, that Blyleven does not FEEL like a Hall of Famer. Blyleven was rarely talked about as one of the great pitchers of his time (though people did acknowledge his historically great curveball). I have never thought this should matter — after all, I can remember Steve Garvey, Fred Lynn, George Foster, Dave Parker and many others referred to as “future Hall of Famers” when they were at their peak, and it didn’t quite work out that way. This, I think, is why we wait five years before voting on a retired player. We want to let a lot of that nonsense dissipate.

And it should have dissipated. Maybe Bert Blyleven did not have a reputation as a great big-game pitcher, but 5-1, 2.47 ERA in the postseason (one of those wins coming over sainted big-game pitcher Jack Morris) and his record in 1-0 games suggest that he didn’t really let that reputation stop him from pitching well in big games.

Maybe Bert Blyleven did not get a lot of Cy Young support, but six times he had a higher WAR than the guy who actually won the Cy Young, which can only mean one of three things:

1. WAR is impossibly flawed and the voters were right.
2. The voters picked a lot of really bad Cy Young winners.
3. Bert Blyleven was absurdly underrated by the Cy Young voters.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be just ONE of those three three things. It could be all of them.

Anyway, yes, Blyleven’s Hall of Fame case has some lumps in it. I don’t think even the most devoted of Blyleven’s supporters — I would be in the team photograph, I suspect — would deny that. His winning percentage should have been better, he was kind of a pain in the neck, he was fairly mediocre for three or four years in the middle of his career, and he really only had one good year after age 36. He’s not Greg Maddux (who I think really should have a chance at being voted unanimously). He’s one of the 30 best starting pitchers in baseball history, I think. But if you want to find flaws, there are some there.

But I guess there was something else about Jon’s Blyleven piece that really bugged me … and he knew it was really bug a bunch of people. He said so right in the piece. He said: “Blyleven’s backers sometimes will also act astounded or even apoplectic over the fact that some, including myself, support Jack Morris over Blyleven.”

Yes. Apoplectic is the word. This, I find, is precisely where I stop being reasonable. I saw three or four stories from other people who voted for Morris over Blyleven, and it so boggles my mind that I have to keep myself from ranting. And I’m never very good about keeping myself from ranting.

I guess my simple comparison of Blyleven and Morris is this: Bert Blyleven won more games with an ERA more than a half run lower and an ERA+ advantage of 118-105. Blyleven struck out 1,223 more batters but, even more remarkably, walked 68 fewer batters. Why are the walks more remarkable? Because Blyleven threw 1,146 more innings than Morris. That’s 127 nine inning games if you are scoring at home. And he still walked fewer batters.

Blyleven had a reputation as a gopherball pitcher — well earned since his 50 homers allowed in 1986 is still the record — but he gave up fewer homers per nine than Morris. Blyleven threw more than twice as many shutouts, threw 70 more complete games, had a significantly lower WHIP, and he has more than twice as many wins above replacement (90.1 to 39.3). Morris had the better winning percentage, but it has been shown that is almost entirely attributable to Morris’ superior teams. Blyleven also has the better overall postseason numbers. I’ve written about this a million times, it’s out there on the internets if you want to go into greater detail.

Here’s the thing that bugs me most: Jack Morris has a Hall of Fame case. I don’t buy in, but I can see the case. He was an extremely durable pitcher who completed a lot of games and won a lot of games and pitched one of the more famous World Series games ever. There’s a case for him. But to make that case, logic insists that you MUST ACKNOWLEDGE Bert Blyleven first. Because Blyleven was better than Morris in every way that Morris was good. He was MORE durable, and completed MORE games, and he won MORE games, and he was so clearly more dominant in every way that can be recorded. And, as mentioned, when they faced each other in the postseason, Blyleven’s team won.

But some people have simply dug in against Blyleven. The stuff that Jon wrote about Blyleven not having impact — him not being a factor in Cy Young voting or MVP voting — is essentially true about Morris too. He never won a Cy Young. He never was a factor in the MVP race.

Jon’s essential explanation for his Morris support is to say “to some degree, you had to be there.” I sometimes say that very thing about a Midnight OIl concert I went to in 1994 — to understand Midnight Oil’s greatness you had to be there. But I would probably concede that doesn’t make Midnight Oil into the Beatles.

I should also say that I think Blyleven will get in this year and we can finally end these kinds of posts.

— Barry Larkin: Bill James and I have each done a list of our 32 Best All-Around Players in baseball history. Well, I don’t think Bill’s list is quite 32, and I’m not entirely sure we had the same thing in mind when thinking what “best all-around players” even means. We’ll run that thing out there sometime in January to keep the hot stove talk burning.

But I can tell you now that Barry Larkin is on both of our lists. He did everything. He hit. He hit with power. He ran. He defended. He threw. He walked. He played the game with a high level of intelligence and verve. I think he was a deserving winner of the MVP in 1995 (assuming you weren’t going to give it to Bonds every year), and he was probably even better in 1996.

The knock on Larkin is simply his durability — he only played 150 games in a season three times. But he was a fabulous player from 1991-98. That’s eight seasons when he posted a 134 OPS+ (Take Cal Ripken’s eight best seasons — not even in a row — and you get a 132 OPS+), he stole 206 out of 240 bases, he won two Gold Gloves, he slugged .487. There are not many shortstops in baseball history that can give you eight seasons like that. And he offered value in other years too. I think he’s a clear cut Hall of Famer.

— Edgar Martinez: I’ve made my peace with Edgar Martinez as designated hitter. Here’s why: It seems to me that had Martinez come along before the designated hitter, he would have played third base or first base left field or something. And he probably would have been well below average. But he still would have played. And he still would have hit as few have ever hit. The Hall of Fame has lousy defenders in it. Harmon Killebrew tried hard everywhere he played, but nobody ever viewed him as a great fielder. Ted Williams rather famously regretted how little effort he put into playing outfield. Willie Stargell was viewed as a subpar defender. Dave WInfield scored a minus-9.2 defensive WAR for his career, which is (A) the worst among Hall of Famers and (B) startling because he was widely viewed as a very good defender.

Anyway … the point remains. Martinez was a hard-working player and undoubtedly would have worked as hard as he could on defense if that had been his fate. But he had a different fate. He came up in the American League in the late 1980s. He did not play his first full season until he was 27, and that first full year he hit .302 and walked more than he struck out. He was almost exclusively a third baseman. The next year he hit .307, walked 85 times, increased his power somewhat, and played almost exclusively at third base again.The next year he hit .343 and led the league in hitting. He was still a third baseman.

And then he had injuries. He only played 131 games in 1993 and 1994. In 1995, he was 32 years old, coming off injury, the Mariners made him a DH. And he he had an absolutely remarkable season; he hit .356/.479/.628 with 52 doubles, 29 homers, 121 runs scored, 111 RBIs. That .479 on-base percentage is the second-best in the American League the last 40 years (behind only Frank Thomas’ 1994 season).

The Mariners struggled to find an effective third baseman to fill Martinez’s spot. But after 1995, there was no way the Mariners were going to put him back at third base and take any chances losing that bat. Over the next five years, Martinez never hit worse than .322, never had a lower on-base percentage than .423, never slugged lower than .554. His combined OPS+ those five years — and remember that DOES NOT EVEN INCLUDE HIS SICK 1995 SEASON — was 160.

The year after that, when he was 38 years old, he hit .306/.423/.543. His OPS+? Yep: 160.

Above, when I wrote about Jeff Bagwell, I mentioned that Bags was one of only 16 players to finish a career (min. 5,000 plate appearances) with an on base percentage higher than .400 and a slugging percentage higher than .500. Martinez is one of those 16. He’s one of only 13 to also hit better than .300. Throw in his 300 homers, his 500 doubles … the names are suddenly: Ruth, Gehrig, Hornsby, Williams, Musial, Bonds and Martinez.

He was a fabulous hitter — an all-time fabulous hitter. I understand people being a bit hesitant about naming a one-dimensional designated hitter to the Hall, but there is some precedent (Paul Molitor played more games at DH than any other individual position), and if we really consider being a great offensive player who offers little to no defensive value as “one dimensional” then the Hall of Fame has quite a few one dimensional players. I do think that for a designated hitter to be a Hall of Famer he needs to be a truly extraordinary hitter. I think Martinez was a truly extraordinary hitter.

— Mark McGwire: Last year, after I wrote how I felt about the Mark McGwire apology, I got a phone call from Mark McGwire. It was a bit of a strange phone call because, best I remember, I have never talked to McGwire in a one-on-one setting. Also, I was never really sure how he got my phone number.

Also, he didn’t exactly say why he was calling. We just kind of got to talking about things, and it was a good conversation, and before he hung up he thanked me for writing what I wrote. That was nice, but I can tell you: The McGwire saga is one of the most baffling things I can ever remember in sports. I have spent more time thinking about it than just almost anything else with the probably exception of Bruce Springsteen’s music and the remarkable appeal of Snuggies. And, after all this time, I still can’t say with any certainty that I have it right. Most people seem to be pretty sure I have it wrong, to tell the truth. But no matter how many times I spin it around in my mind, I keep coming back to the same place.

And that place is this: I think Mark McGwire belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame. I think it now more than ever. I didn’t always think this way. The first couple of years, I did not vote for him. But, as time has gone on, I have started to see steroids usage as a part of McGwire’s era. It’s not a happy part of the era — just like amphetamines was not a happy part of baseball, just like the color barrier was not a happy part of baseball, just like spitballs and corked bats and the electric system rigged up by the 1951 Giants are not a happy part of baseball.

But I believe steroids were a significant part of the game. As Buck O’Neil always said, players will constantly search for an edge (“The reason we didn’t use steroids,” he said, “was ’cause we didn’t have ’em.”). I find myself marveling these days at the NFL’s efforts to temper violent hits in football games. Who is fighting the NFL hardest of all? THE PLAYERS, that’s who, the very people who the NFL is trying to protect. This is because players don’t want to give up their right to pummel each other, health risks be damned. “That’s football,” they say. They want to push envelopes, stretch rules, come back too early from injuries, reach for the very boundary of whatever happens to be considered “fair play.” That sort of striving is hard-wired in the brains of many, many elite athletes — maybe even most of them.

When baseball did not test for steroids, what many players heard was: “Go ahead. Cheat. We don’t mind” And players don’t need to be told twice.

This is doubly true for steroids because I can see how easy it would be to convince yourself that it’s NOT cheating. After all, it’s only an injection. How much different is it than taking some of these “legal” supplements. Sure, it helps players work out longer, but the players still have to work out, they still have to deal with the pain and exhaustion of working out. Yes, it helps players get stronger, but they still have to connect with the pitch or throw it in the strike zone. Yes, it might help a player come back from injury quicker and maybe it will hold off the years — but, inevitably, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t the whole point of training staffs to get players to come back from injuries quicker and hold off the years?

And most of all: Yes, it’s illegal, and it’s wrong, and it’s dangerous and can have long-lasting health risks … but if nobody’s even testing, how wrong and dangerous could it be?

I’m honestly not trying to explain away the moral choices these players made. I admire the players who didn’t take steroids. I wish I knew for sure who those players were so we could celebrate them more. No, I’m simply saying that I have come to believe steroid use (and HGH) was widespread, and that a lot of people with authority looked the other away, and that it all became part of the game. And we will probably never know the full scope of it or all the players who did it.

I believe Mark McGwire when he says he used steroids at that point in his life when he was hurt and worried that his baseball career was over. It seems believable to me. I’m not saying he never did them before … I don’t know. I’m just saying It seems to me that faced with the choice of using steroids to help you come back or face life after baseball when you’re only 30 years old, yeah, it seems believable to me. Mark McGwire used steroids, and he worked out like a mad-man, and he reworked his swing, and he became the greatest home run hitter the world had ever seen.

And I finally decided that, for me, that last part — the greatest home run hitter the world had ever seen — merited my Hall of Fame vote. I don’t know what part steroids played in his historic home run performance, and I would suggest nobody else does either. If people believe steroids was the biggest factor, the crucial factor, then they will not vote for McGwire, and I get that. I believe steroids were probably not as big a factor as others believed. Yes, I think they helped him keep healthy. Yes, I think they helped him increase his strength. But, I also think McGwire made himself into a rare hitting talent. There were a lot of advantages to being a power hitter in the 1990s that had nothing to do with steroids (smaller strike zones, smaller parks, harder bats, perhaps even livelier baseballs). Also lots of players — hitters and pitchers — were using steroids. Only McGwire hit a home run once every 10.6 at-bats. It’s a better percentage than Ruth, better than Bonds, better than Mantle and better than Kiner. McGwire also walked a lot, offered some defensive value early in his career and put on an unprecedented show in 1998 just when baseball really needed something to capture America’s attention again.

I don’t think Mark McGwire will get into the Hall of Fame. I have written quite a bit about timing when it comes to the Hall of Fame, and I think McGwire’s timing is kind of lousy. I believe that the general fury about steroids in baseball will gradually fade. I think people may start to realize that taking steroids and taking amphetamines are not very different, at least on moral grounds, and nobody seems to care at all about the effect of amphetamines on baseball going back fifty years and more. I think legal supplements will only get better and more effective. I think people will start to wonder why they were so angry about steroids in baseball when it is undoubtedly a much bigger problem in football, where bulk and strength are more directly connected.

But by the time the fury dissipates, I think McGwire’s Hall of Fame case will be lost. Maybe that’s a fair price for what McGwire did. I’m not saying it isn’t. I’m saying that I have one vote, and I will use it to vote for Mark McGwire.

One final thing: I vote for Mark McGwire this year with a little bit of extra emphasis. And that is because of last year’s apology. This is probably where many people will disagree with me most. I think most people found McGwire’s apology to be inauthentic and self-serving and incomplete.

But I was thinking about this: How many players have voluntarily come forward and admitted steroid use? I’m not talking about players who got caught and THEN admitted it. I’m also not talking about players who were trying to get attention or sell books. I’m asking: How many players have come out of private life and admitted that they used steroids?

There have been two that come to mind. Ken Caminiti did. And Mark McGwire did. There may be others but those are the only two I can think of at the moment. Yes, you might say McGwire came forward because he wanted to get back into baseball as a hitting coach. I say: Isn’t that actually admirable? He wanted to come back and contribute in the game he loves (in a role that isn’t exactly glamorous). And to come back to the game he came forward and settled old scores and admitted what he did.

Yes, you might say McGwire refused to say that steroids made him the player he became and until he admits that he can’t really be sorry. I say: I think he’s sorry for taking steroids. I also think he refuses to believe they were a major reason he was a great player. You may disagree. But that doesn’t mean you’re right.

And, finally, I’m not sure we have come to appreciate just how extraordinary a thing it was for McGwire to come forward the way he did. Almost nobody else has done it. McGwire may have, along the way, lied to protect himself. But when he was pulled before Congress, he refused to lie. He was not ready to tell the truth, but he refused to lie. He became a private person and, as far as I know, at that point he never once lied about steroids. And then, one day, he came forward and said what he said. He did not blame anyone else. He asked for forgiveness. Did he tell everything? Was he hard enough on himself? Was he contrite enough? I don’t have any better answer than anyone else.

I just think when you compare him with all the other retired baseball players who have come forward to admit they used steroids and apologize for it, he looks pretty damned good.

— Tim Raines: The other day, I wrote that if there had never been a Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines might have been the greatest leadoff man in baseball history.

My friend King Kaufman didn’t buy the premise. He asked on Twitter “Who is the best No.2 hitter?”* His point — and it’s a solid one — is that it can be kind of pointless to break down hitters by batting order since the best ever No. 3 hitter — say it’s Babe Ruth — would also have been the world’s best No. 4 hitter, or No. 5 hitter, or No. 2 hitter or leadoff hitter too.

*I responded Wade Boggs or Rod Carew … Ty Cobb would have been one helluva No. 2 hitter, but Ty Cobb — like Babe Ruth — would have been a helluva wherever-he-hit hitter.

King is right … but it’s not exactly what I was trying to get across. By leadoff hitter, I didn’t mean a player who leads off the game (though, in seeing how silly that sentence looks, I can understand why it might have come across that way). There is a certain skill set that I think is suggested by the words “leadoff hitter.” I think it as follows:

1. A fast player.
2. Gets on base a lot.
3. Has some power just to add some spice to offensive contribution.
4. Steals bases at a high percentage.
5. Scores lots of runs.

There have been 41 players who have stolen 400-plus bases in their careers. That would get us through the No. 1 quality of my mythical idea of a leadoff hitter. Of those 41, fewer than half — 17 — have an on-base percentage greater than .360. Of those, 11 hit at least 100 home runs. I realize that we’re just slicing this list in an haphazard way, but I think the 11 remaining would be a good list of the 11 best potential leadoff hitters (by on-base percentage):

1. Barry Bonds.
2. Ty Cobb
3. Tris Speaker
4. Rickey Henderson
5. Joe Morgan
6. Tim Raines
7. Kenny Lofton
8. Roberto Alomar
9. Paul Molitor
10. Frankie Frisch
11. Craig Biggio

Bonds, Cobb and Speaker were not leadoff hitters, not in the way I am defining them here. They could have been, sure, but they all slugged .500 or better and were better suited for positions a couple of of spots lower in the lineup.

So the list would look like this ranked by on-base percentage:

1. Rickey Henderson
2. Joe Morgan
3. Tim Raines
4. Kenny Lofton
5. Roberto Alomar
6. Paul Molitor
7. Frankie Frisch
8. Craig Biggio

That’s a pretty solid quick list, I think. Morgan actually did not spend a lot of time in the leadoff spot in his career — 469 games compared to 1,136 games in the No. 2 spot, and 817 games int he No. 3 — but I do think that he was just about the perfect leadoff hitter and worthy of the No. 2 spot on this list.

And so is Raines. It makes me sad that people could see and appreciate Rickey Henderson’s greatness but simply overlook Tim Raines greatness. When you combine career 808 stolen bases (and a staggering 84.7% success rate) with a .385 on-base percentage with more times-on-base than Tony Gwynn with a great four-year peak in Montreal when he hit .323/.409/.477 and averaged more than 100 runs and 66 stolen bases … that spells surefire Hall of Famer for me.

The other thing about that “great leadoff hitters” list? Yeah, Kenny Lofton was probably a better player than you remembered.

— Alan Trammell: It really was a lot easier to decide what a Hall of Fame shortstop looked like back when shortstops couldn’t hit. Of the 14 shortstops who were inducted into the Hall of Fame when Alan Trammell played (15 if you count Ernie Banks*), six of them were below average hitters by OPS+. Another couple were barely above average. I’d say the only two great-hitting shortstops in the Hall of Fame then (again, not counting Banks) were Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughan, and the first played in the Deadball Era, the second was so wildly under-appreciated that the writers never even gave him one third of their vote.

*Banks played fewer than half his games at shortstop, though I got a thoughtful and pointed email on Wednesday from Tom Tango pointing out that I was inaccurate in calling Andre Dawson “a corner outfielder.” Tom’s point, a strong one, is that even though Dawson might have played more games at the corner, he was in fact a centerfielder. There was where he provided the most value. That’s where he was at his best. It’s a fair point, and in that same way, Ernie Banks is a shortstop.

So it seems great shortstop was expected to field the hell out of the ball, take some kind of leadership role and offer some value offensively, perhaps by stealing bases. But around the time when Alan Trammell was ending his classic great shortstop career, the rules had begun to change. Cal Ripken finished a career where he slugged 431home runs (no shortstop in the Hall had more than 170 homers) and he became the first shortstop to get to 3,000 hits, and of course he set the iron man record. Who could ever have imagined a SHORTSTOP breaking Gehrig’s record? And right around when Trammell retired, a new kind of shortstop emerged. That very year, Barry Larkin became the first shortstop to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in a season. Alex Rodriguez could do ANYTHING with the bat and the glove. Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra crushed the ball — really, hit the ball ridiculously hard. Soon enough, Hanley Ramirez would come along.

Standards change in baseball … and maybe the classic nature of Alan Trammell’s career loses some of its power as bionic shortstops emerge. But Trammell really was a great player. He was very good offensively. He posted a 124 OPS+ during his eight-year prime, and probably should have been the MVP in 1987. That’s very Cal Ripken like.

Trammell was also a very good defensive player, a good base runner, and a solid leader for some very good Detroit Tigers teams. I realize that people generally did not view Trammell as an all-time great player when he played. But I think that should be one of the missions of the Hall of Fame: To point out that sometimes we all miss greatness.

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Hall of Fame: The Second Round

OK, so this is the second round of Hall of Fame week — these are players who, for me, are good enough to merit some extra consideration for the Hall of Fame but players who didn’t quite make it to the final cut.

— Harold Baines: He played 22 seasons. In 19 of them, he posted an OPS+ between 108 and and 144. I’m not saying OPS+ is the end all statistic, but in Baines case I think it gives a very clear picture of his career. I have never been entirely sure what the phrase “professional hitter” means, but nobody in baseball history had a career quite that concentrated. Here is the list of players who had the most seasons with an OPS+ greater than 100 (average) but less than 150 (where MVP consideration often begins):

1. Harold Baines (19 seasons)
2 (tie). Tony Gwynn (17 seasons)
2 (tie). Lou Whitaker (17 seasons)
2 (tie). Dwight Evans (17 seasons)
2 (tie). Carl Yastrzemski (17 seasons)
2 (tie). Sam Rice (17 seasons)

Kind of an interesting six, isn’t it? Of those six players, Gwynn, Yaz and Rice are in the Hall of Fame. But Gwynn and Yaz don’t quite fit into this category because they each had multiple great seasons in addition to their many, many professional hitter years. Gwynn had three seasons with OPS+ greater than 150, and Yaz had four seasons greater than 150 including his legendary ’67 season. So they don’t quite fit into the Baines Professional Hitter category.

Sam Rice, however, might fit into the category. He made it to the Hall of Fame (via veteran’s committee) without ever having a great OPS+ season. Sam Rice’s best season was a 139 OPS+. There is nobody in the Hall of Fame quite like Sam Rice — he did not play his first full season until he was 27, then he missed almost of his entire 28 year while the Great War was going on. He was not at all like Baines — he was a high average hitter (he hit .330 or better six times) who rather famously never swung at the first pitcher. He rarely struck out, and he could run (he led the league in 1920 with 63 stolen bases) and he had almost no home run power, though he did hit at least 10 triples every year from 1921 to 1930. He also retired with 2,987 hits because 3,000 hits wasn’t considered a milestone then.

So, yeah, Rice was a bit different. Baines was a consistency marvel. He hit between .295 and .313 11 times, hit between 20 and 29 homers 11 times, hit 29 doubles five times. Rice wasn’t quite like that. But Rice IS one of the few who got into the Hall of Fame with many, many good seasons and no great ones. That is usually the Hall of Fame kiss of death. Whitaker’s great consistency got him booted off the ballot after one year (one of the great Hall of Fame injustices). Evans’ great consistency (he also had two seasons with OPS+ better than 150) kept him on the ballot for only three unsatisfying years. And Baines has been teetering on the ballot for four years — he has gotten between 5 and 6% each of those four years. He could fall off the ballot this year. In many ways, that’s a perfect reflection of his solid and under-appreciated career.

— John Franco: Here’s an interesting little bit of baseball trivia … you probably know that the 1990 Cincinnati Reds had one of the greatest and most celebrated bullpens in baseball history. That year Randy Myers (2.08 ERA, 31 saves, 98 Ks in 86 2/3 innings), Rob Dibble (8 wins, 1.74 ERA, 136 Ks in 98 innings, .980 WHIP) and Norm Charlton (who was both a starter and reliever in 1990) formed what became known as the Nasty Boys, a trio of hard-throwing relievers who helped lift up what seemed an only mediocre rotation and lineup and played a huge role in the Reds’ World Series championship.

But what people don’t remember is that the Reds traded perhaps their BEST TWO relievers before that season. In 1988, they traded Jeff Montgomery to Kansas City for Van Snider (who probably hit the longest home run I’ve ever seen in person — or anyway it seemed that way). Montgomery saved 159 games with a 2.22 ERA and a 400-to-137 strikeout to walk from 1989 to 1993.

And just before the season they traded Franco to the Mets. In return, they got Randy Myers … who knew that would be a trade of two of the greatest lefty closers ever. It turns out that Franco and Myers are 1st and 3rd on the all-time save list for lefties

Franco saved 424 games, just two more than Billy Wagner, who seems like he will stay retired. There have not been many longtime lefty closers in baseball. There are 18 righties who have saved 300 or more games. There are only three lefties — Franco, Wagner and Myers. And there is no lefty closer on the horizon. Brian Fuentes has saved 187 games in his career and might go on for a while longer. After him, the active lefty with the most saves is George Sherrill with 56.

Nobody seems to knows what to do with relievers on the Hall of Fame ballot. Franco was very good, and his career is comparable with fellow ballot member Lee Smith (in fact, Smith is Franco’s No. 1 Baseball Reference comp, and Franco is Smith’s No. 3 comp). But while Smith has been gaining at least some Hall momentum, I suspect Franco will be one and done on the ballot. These are the quirks of Hall of Fame balloting (see entry on Smith, Lee).

— Juan Gonzalez: I got a very nice and glossy brochure in the mail a couple of weeks ago that made the Hall of Fame case for Juan Gonzalez. Well, it was in my mailbox … but it went on the DL before I could get it into the house.

The Juan Gone hall of Fame case is not too hard to make. He won two MVPs, and he led the league in home runs two OTHER years. He hit 40-plus home runs five times. He hit 434 career homers in just 7,155 plate appearances. Among the members of the 47-member 400-club, only Albert Pujols has had fewer plate appearances than Gonzalez. That suggests pretty high impact in a short career.

He did have impact in the early part of his career, though it seems impossible to talk about Juan Gone without pointing out that few have finished their career with less dignity. I remember Juan Gonzalez absolutely quitting on the Kansas City Royals in 2004 based on a day-to-day injury that somehow ended his season. And then, bizarrely, he came back for one at-bat with Cleveland in 2005.

Here’s a question: Did Gonzalez actually deserve either one of his MVP awards? It’s pretty clear in 1996 he did not. That’s one of the real low moments in BBWAA voting, I think. I’ll show you two rows of basic numbers, you tell me who is the MVP.

Player 1: .314/.368/.643, 33 doubles, 2 triples, 47 homers, 89 runs, 144 RBIs, 145 OPS+.
Player 2: .311/.410/.623, 38 doubles, 3 triples, 48 homers, 124 runs, 148 RBis, 158 OPS+.

Is this really hard to figure? Player 2 had about 40 points of on-base percentage, more doubles, more triples, more homers, scored 35 more runs and had more RBIs. Even if your MVP voting is based on the most dubious of considerations — homers and RBIs — there is simply no way you could vote Player 1 over Player 2, is there? Especially when both teams made the playoffs, and Player 2’s team was actually BETTER.

Player 1 is Juan Gonzalez, of course. Player 2 is Albert Belle.

Here’s the thing: Belle didn’t deserve the MVP in 1996. Ken Griffey had significantly better year than either of them and he played centerfield. Alex Rodriguez hit .358/.414/.631 and played shortstop. Chuck Knoblauch had a sensational year playing second base. Jim Thome had a crazy year with a .450 on-base percentage and 38 homers. Mark McGwire had an even better on-base percentage (.467) and he hit 52 homers. Brady Anderson hit 50 homers and stole 21 bases. All of them had more wins above replacement than Belle.

But I’m saying, straight up, plain as day, Juan Gone very clearly did not have as good as year as Albert Belle. Put it this way: There were 20 players who received American League MVP votes in 1996. Juan Gonzalez had the lowest WAR of the 20 (2.8). An awful choice.

Gonzalez had a better case when he won the MVP in 1998. His 5.1 WAR at least puts him in the discussion. He hit .318 with 45 home runs and a league leading 157 RBIs. He also led the league with 50 doubles.

But I still he was still the wrong choice. Gonzalez offered almost nothing as a defender or as a base runner. He almost never walked, so while hit .318 batting average looks good, his .366 on-base percentage is nothing special. Again, Albert Belle had what pretty clearly looks like the better year … his on-base percentage was 33 points higher, he hit more home runs, he scored more runs, he was just behind in RBIs (152) and doubles (48), and he led the league in slugging.

And again, probably Belle wasn’t the right choice either. Alex Rodriguez (7.9 WAR) or Derek Jeter (7.8 WAR) would almost certainly have been the best MVP choices. Really, it’s kind of stunning — Derek Jeter was still underrated in1998. How the writers could have picked anyone except a Yankee that year — considering the Yankees won 114 games and dominated baseball all year — is kind of baffling. People talk all the time about East Coast Bias. Show them 1998.

— Don Mattingly: Every year, I have bring up the Bill James definition of Mattingly: 100% ballplayer. 0% bullshit.

The Mattingly Hall of Fame lobbyists almost always bring up Kirby Puckett when making their case. You can see their point. Their career numbers look similar.

Puckett: 7,831 PAs, 2,304 hits, 414 doubles, 57 triples, 207 homers, 1,071 runs, 1085 RBIs, 124 OPS+.
Mattingly: 7,721 PAs, 2,153 hits, 442 doubles, 20 triples, 222 homers, 1007 runs, 1,099 RBIs, 127 OPS+.

Quite similar. But, I actually think Puckett is a bad example for those who want to make Mattingly’s case. Puckett was a center fielder and was widely viewed as a great one. Great defensive centerfielders who hit .318 with a 124 OPS+ for a career are pretty rare. Kirby Puckett was somewhat like Earl Averill and Edd Roush and Richie Ashburn, all of whom are in the Hall of fame.

On the other hand, Mattingly was a first baseman. And even though he was excellent defensively as well, that’s simply not the same thing. I’ve written before how similar Mattingly’s case is to Keith Hernandez, who got stunningly little Hall of Fame support (though he is widely viewed as the greatest defensive first baseman ever). See, centerfield is a demanding enough defensive position that most center fielders tend to be about league average hitters, maybe slightly above. Last year, 18 of the 23 centerfielders had a 109 OPS+ or less — and the highest OPS+ was 130. First basemen on the other hand BETTER hit. Last year Last year, SEVEN first baseman had OPS+ of greater than 150 (Justin Morneau, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Albert Pujols, Paul Konerko, Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez).

In baseball history, 28 different first baseman with 5,000 or more plate appearances have a higher OPS+ than Don Mattingly, and these include John Olerud, Bob Watson, Boog Powell, Will Clark ….

Mattingly was a terrific ballplayer. His main offensive skill — hitting baseballs really hard — made him one of the most fun players of his generation to watch. For four years, he was otherworldly — from 1984-87, he hit .337 with a .560 slugging percentage and a 155 OPS+. Few have been that good. But he hit .292/.342/.424 the last eight years of his career. The real Hall of Fame argument to make is that four spectacularly great years is enough to make someone a Hall of Famer. I loved Mattingly and would love to make that case. But I just don’t think four years is enough.

— Jack Morris: OK, here we go.

I have spent way too much of my life explaining why I don’t think think Jack Morris is quite a Hall of Famer. I have made the point that his 3.90 ERA would be the highest in the Hall of Fame, and I simply don’t see what Morris did that would make his Hall of Fame case especially compelling beyond that. He did not win 300 (254), he did not strike out 3,000 (2,478), he did not have any historically great years (he never even finished a season with a sub-3.00 ERA). His WHIP (1.206) and strikeout to walk ratio (1.78-to-1) are nothing special.

And I’ve made this comparison before:

Jack Morris: 527 starts, 3.90 ERA, 105 ERA+.
Rick Reuschel: 529 starts, 3.37 ERA, 114 ERA+.

The cases made for Morris have been, in my opinion, not particularly convincing or even intellectually honest. That Morris won more games than any pitcher in the 1980s is a nice piece of trivia, but even if you stay in the fairly uninteresting realm of pitcher wins it’s worth pointing out that Morris did not solely lead baseball in wins EVEN ONCE in the 1980s. Not a single time. In the strike year of 1981, if you want to count that year, his 14 wins tied him with Dennis Martinez, Tom Seaver, Pete Vuckovich and Steve McCatty for most wins. You would think even the most passionate Morris fan would not trumpet that. But there is no other year to trumpet. Other than than that year, he did not tie for the lead even a single time in the 1980s.

This would make Morris, in that pointed phrase that Morris fans seem to despise, a “compiler of stats.”

The other argument, that he was a big-game pitcher, is mostly built around his gutsy Game 7 performance in the 1991 World Series. He was very good that whole series, winning Game 1 and pitching six strong innings in Game 4, but it was his 10 shutout innings in Game 7 that secured his legend. The thing is that Morris already had a reputation as a big game pitcher — baseball people always wanted to believe in Jack Morris as force of nature. Game 7 against Atlanta in 1991 clinched that reputation forever.

Was Morris a big game pitcher? This has been argued endlessly already, and there is both supporting and opposing evidence. I think the opposing evidence tends to be a bit more convincing. Bill James last year did an interesting study about how teams did against good and bad teams. It suggests no pitcher in baseball history got more wins out of beating up bad teams than Jack Morris. He was 92-114 against the teams Bill calls Class A and Class B teams — those are the average to better than average teams. Considering that he spent most of his career playing on a very good Detroit Tigers team, that’s not too impressive.

I’ve written all this before, as mentioned. I guess my point here is to ask those people who think Jack Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame to PLEASE make more appealing arguments. I’ll have quite a bit more to say to those who irrationally put Jack Morris on their Hall of Fame ballot but not Bert Blyleven, but for now let me just say that if I were pushing Jack Morris’ Hall of Fame case I would build my case as follows:

1. Morris was a remarkably durable pitcher. He completed 175 of his 529 starts — that’s almost exactly one-third of his starts. He was, in many ways, the last of the great war-horse pitchers.

2. Morris absolutely DID have a big impact on two different postseasons — 1984 and 1991 — and that’s a pretty rare achievement. He and Sandy Koufax are the only two pitchers to twice be named World Series MVPs, and any time you can get your name up there with Koufax you should use that for all its worth.

3. Morris won 15 or more 12 times. Only nine pitchers in baseball history have done it more. I know that’s not the sort of statistic that seems to appeal to most Morris fans. I know they would prefer to mention that Morris won 20 three times to point out that he was more than just a very good pitcher for a long time, but: (1) having three 20-win seasons is not historically riveting (53 pitchers have done it at least four); (2) Morris’ last 20-win season with Toronto was almost entirely built around historic run support*; (3) He WAS a very good pitcher for a long time, that really is his Hall of Fame case.

*The Blue Jays scored 5.56 runs per game for Morris — this in a time when the league average 4.45 runs per game. Morris won five times despite allowing six runs or more.

— John Olerud: You know, in some ways Olerud’s case is similar to Mattingly’s. They were both good fielding first basemen who played hard, couldn’t run and, when right, hit scorching line drives all over the field. Olerud, like Mattingly, had a handful of spectacular seasons. Olerud’s 1993 was actually a better year than anything Mattingly had — he hit .363/.467/.599 with 54 doubles. I saw him play three games early that season in Cleveland, and he went seven for 12 with two home runs.

“Man,” I said to my buddy Chardon Jimmy, “this guy’s going to hit .400.”

He was hitting .400 as late as August 2nd.

And in 1998, with the Mets, Olerud hit .354/.447/.551.

But other than those two seasons, unlike Mattingly, Olerud did not hit for high averages. He only hit .300 twice more, and just barely those years (.302 and .300). Then again, unlike Mattingly, Olerud walked a lot. Though Mattingly outhit Olerud (.307 to .295), Olerud’s career on-base percentage is much higher (.398 to .358). Olerud’s career was about 450 games longer, and so all of Olerud’s numbers are generally greater than Mattingly’s. I’d say Mattingly’s four-year prime was longer and higher — Olerud never really put two sensational years together. But Olerud’s overall career had more value.

— Dave Parker: I have to say that Parker’s Hall of Fame case should take a small step forward with the elections the last two years of Jim Rice and Andre Dawson, two corner outfielders with similar Hall of Fame cases.

Rice and Parker were widely acknowledged to be the best offensive players in the game in the late 1970s.

Rice (1977-79): .320/.376/.596 with 93 doubles, 36 triples, 124 homers, 342 runs, 383 RBIs, 153 OPS+.
Parker (1977-79): .327/.390/.546 with 121 doubles, 27 triples, 76 homers, 318 runs, 299 RBIs, 150 OPS+.

Rice, of course, had the advantage of one of the best-hitting parks of the last last 50 years, the 1970s version of Fenway Park, while Parker played in the good-hitting but more neutral Three Rivers Stadium. And Parker was viewed as a fabulous defensive player (he won three Gold Gloves those three years) while Rice was not. They were quite comparable those three years — Parker was probably better when everything is taken into context. Parker’s WAR was 20.7. Rice’s was 17.

Of course, their careers at that point diverged. Rice slumped somewhat but was still a good player, and he twice re-emerged as a very good player, 1983 and 1986. Parker, meanwhile, slid into a cocaine abyss and from 1981 to 1983 he had injuries and slumps and was a barely even a replacement level player. He then somewhat put his career back together, though he was no longer than lithe and deadly player who had been called “Cobra.” He could not run anymore, and he was mostly a defensive liability, but he did once again hit with some force. In 1985, he banged 42 doubles, 34 homers, drove in 125 runs. He played for five different teams his last six years, a bat for hire, and he did drive in 500 more runs after he turned 35.

Was it enough? Well, for a career, Parker does have more hits than Rice, he scored more runs, he drove in more runs.

One knock on Parker’s career is that he didn’t get on base much … his .339 career on-base percentage is not much above league average. But that’s where Andre Dawson comes in. Dawson was elected into the Hall of Fame with .323 on-base percentage … clearly the voters in total will not let on-base percentage stand in their way when they want to vote someone into the Hall of Fame.

I did not vote for either Rice or Dawson, and so I have never voted for Parker either. My feeling on it is that had Parker not had that three-year lull in his prime, he would have been a certain Hall of Famer. But he did have that lull. In the end, I can see the argument that Rice had a more complete career than Parker, and Dawson offered more dimensions than Parker. The three of them seemed to me to have more or less the same Hall of Fame case, but Parker was the one who lost his prime to injuries and drugs.

— Lee Smith: Charlie Joiner is the Pro Football Hall of Fame because, when he retired in 1986, he held the record for most receptions (750) and most receiving yards (12,146). Now, Joiner was an excellent football player. But the truth is, he built those big career numbers because he happened to play for the Dan Fouts Chargers team that was a few years ahead of its time when it came to passing the football. Joiner only made three Pro Bowls. Joiner was only once named first-team All-Pro. It’s possible — probably even — that Joiner was under-appreciated during his playing days.

But the larger truth seems to be that the game was changing, and Joiner was sort of the canary in the coal mine. He retired less than 25 years ago, but already he ranks 29th on the receptions list and 17th in receiving yards. And he is getting passed by new players every year. Anquan Boldin, a very good receiver but not one I have not yet heard described as an all-time greats, could pass Joiner’s reception total next year and he just turned 30 in October.

Joiner’s place in the Hall of Fame is as much about timing as anything else. The same could probably be said for pitcher Catfish Hunter, who won only 224 games for generally great teams, and who posted a bland 105 ERA+, but he managed to get into the Hall of Fame before the historic run of 300-game winners (Carlton, Seaver, Perry, Niekro, Sutton) blotted out the sun. Luis Tiant, who had every bit the career that Hunter did, retired three years later and he did not beat the rush.

Timing. Lee Smith seemed to have Hall of Fame good timing. Like Joiner, he retired with a famous record — Smith’s 478 saves was the saves record for nine years after he retired. And like Hunter, his time on the ballot seemed fortuitous. He was on the ballot with a couple of closers Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter, but he had many, many more saves than either one.

And his first year on the ballot suggested that he would make the Hall of Fame fairly quickly. He garnered 42.3% of the vote, more than Gossage did his first year (33.3%) and significantly more than Sutter did his first year (23.9%). but then, suddenly, his support stalled. More than that, it went backward. Dennis Eckersley went on the ballot in 2004, and for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me, the voters absolutely loved him. Eck received 83.2% of the vote for his unique career as half starter (151-128, 3.67 ERA, 111 ERA+) and half reliever (2.96 ERA, 387 saves, 0.999 WHIP).

Smith only got 36.6% of the vote that second year. The next year, with Eckersley in the Hall, Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage started to gain heavy support while Smith’s numbers continued to stall. Sutter was just one of those pitchers that the voters insisted on loving, and in 2006 they voted him into the Hall of Fame. Gossage was moved to the brink. And Smith, in his fourth year of voting, had barely more support than he had in his first.

Gossage went into the Hall in 2008, and Smith managed 43.3% of the vote — almost exactly what he had gotten in his first year. There was simply no momentum for his Hall of Fame case. His totals have gone up slightly the last two years, but not enough to give any indication that he will someday get 75%. And you wonder if his time has passed. Smith no longer has the saves record, of course. In fact his 478 are dwarfed by Trevor Hoffman’s 601, and nobody knows where Mariano Rivera’s save total will end up. And the ballots are going to be absolutely loaded the next few years. You can’t help but think that Lee Smith’s case can get lost.

Was Smith a Hall of Famer? Well, it is not easy to understand the voters’ standards for relievers, but for 13 straight years — from 1985 to 1996 — Smith had at least 25 saves. The only other person to manage that was Mariano himself. The save stat is not one of my favorites, and I think there are already too many closers in the Hall of Fame. But there’s no question that Lee Smith did his job brutally well, and he did set the saves record, and his case is certainly as good or better than Bruce Sutter’s, just for one.

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Hall of Fame: The First Round

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?”

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Hall of Fame Week

You know how crazy I am when it comes to writing about the Baseball Hall of Fame. Well, this is Hall of Fame week — the ballots are due by Dec. 31. And I have been writing … and writing … and writing. I really need to see a doctor or something. In any case, I have written so much about it, that I have decided it’s probably best to just split up the writing throughout the week.

So that’s what I’m doing.

Today: The Intro
Tuesday: The Easy Nos
Wednesday: The Close But Not Quites
Thursday: The Definitive Hall of Famers
Friday: The Borderlines Guys Who Keep Me Up At Night

I don’t imagine you will be rushing to the computer at 6 a.m. and constantly refreshing this blog in anticipation … but at least this way you know what is coming.


* * *

Bill James told me something a few years ago, and I have never been entirely sure if he was serious or not. That’s the thing about Bill: You can never been sure. He told me that if he was voting for the Hall of Fame he would always prefer to max out his vote every year … that is he would always at least try to vote for 10. Ten is the most you are a voter is allowed to choose.

Bill said this for the very sensible reason that if everybody votes for 10, only two or three will be elected (since election takes 75%) but if people leave spaces empty, the expectation goes down dramatically. Bill says he doesn’t like it years when nobody gets elected. He likes it when there’s a steady stream of new players coming into the Hall to keep it alive and current and vibrant.

Now, I should say that I have never voted for 10 players before. I have never come especially close to 10 before. I think this is because I have bit of an inner conflict about the Hall of Fame. What I mean is this: If you asked me if I am a Big Hall or Small Hall kind of person — am I more inclusive or exclusive when it comes to the Hall of Fame? — I would undoubtedly say “Big Hall.” I think the Hall of Fame (in some ways) has become too exclusive the last 40 or so years.

Here’s what I mean: Take a look at the percentage of every day players who got into the Hall of Fame (among those who got at least 5,000 plate appearances):

Players whose careers ended before 1920: 9 out of 44 (20.4%)
In the 1920s: 9 out of 49 (18.4%)
In the 1930s: 27 out of 54 (50%)
In the 1940s: 19 out of 66 (28.8%)
In the 1950s: 13 out of 40 (32.5%)
In the 1960s: 9 out of 64 (14.1%)
In the 1970s: 13 out of 72 (18.1%)
In the 1980s: 10 out of 116 (8.6%)
In the 1990s: 12 out of 93 (12.9%)

The stunning takeaway is that half of the sturdy everyday players who retired sometime in the 1930s are in the Hall of Fame. This, of course, is absolutely ridiculous. If you raise the bar to 8,000 plate appearances, an almost unbelievable 17 out of 20 are in the Hall of Fame. In the 1980s, only 10 out of the 40 players who retired with 8,000 or more plate appearances are in the Hall, and this leaves out some very good players who will likely never get any more consideration for the Hall of Fame, players like Ted Simmons, Dave Concepcion, Graig Nettles, Bobby Grich and, of course, Pete Rose.

Now, some of this is simply time. And some of this is because of the ever-changing Hall of Fame veteran’s committee. Truth is, there used to be a very active veteran’s committee that put 91 players in the Hall of Fame. The structure and standards of the committee changed so that in the last 10 or more years the Veteran’s Committee has turned into a grumpy bunch of scrooges who seemed to come out once a year for the expressed purpose of not voting for Ron Santo or Marvin Miller. They’ve only put in one player since 2001,* tough they did manage to get Bowie Kuhn in there. So that’s a big part of things.

*That was Joe Gordon, who retired in 1950.

But there’s something else. I also think that baseball fans, more than fans of any other American sport, worship history to the point of distraction. Babe Ruth will probably never be transcended as the greatest player of all time in the minds of most, no matter that he played ball in a dramatically different era, under vastly different circumstances, in an all white league. Maybe Ruth was the greatest ever. Maybe he wasn’t even the greatest of his time with Oscar Charleston and Josh Gibson being banned from the Major Leagues. Either way, there’s a tendency in baseball to believe that the best baseball was the stuff played years and years and years ago, and the Hall of Fame reflects that belief. I don’t know too many people who would want to argue that Pie Traynor was a better third baseman than Ron Santo or Ken Boyer or even Graig Nettles, but the writers voted Traynor into the Hall of Fame pretty quickly while Santo (topped out at 43.1%), Boyer (topped out at 25.5%) and Nettles (topped out at 8.3%) never even got close in the writer’s vote.

I’m not saying that the standards of the Hall should stay the same. Obviously when Pie Traynor was voted into the Hall of Fame, there were not many great third baseman to choose from. Some people actually argued in the 1940s and 1950s that Traynor was the best third baseman ever. Then Brooks Robinson came along, and Santo, and Boyer. And after that George Brett and Mike Schmidt completely redefined what a “great” third baseman even looked like. Standards change and grow as the game gets older, and that’s how it should be. I fully appreciate that Pie Traynor (and Freddie Lindstrom and George Kell and Jimmy Collins) are in the Hall of Fame as much for WHEN they played as HOW WELL they played. Timing, as we will discuss throughout this Hall of Fame series, plays a big role in things.

Still, I can’t help but think that we have lost some of our generosity through the years. I can’t help but think we have failed to appreciate just how good, historically, Lou Whitaker was as a second baseman, or Bert Blyleven was as a pitcher, or Dale Murphy was an outfielder. You will hear people say all the time that someone doesn’t FEEL like a Hall of Famer. But where does that feeling come from? Is it something lacking in the player? Is it the power of hype in today’s sports world? Or is it that we have grown more cynical and less open to wonder?

If Alan Trammell had played shortstop in the big leagues the 1920s and 1930s he would have gone into the Hall of Fame first ballot, almost unanimously, and would have been ranked just behind Honus Wagner as the greatest shortstop who ever lived. He could do it all. He hit. He fielded. He could run. He hit with some power. He played smart. He led.

But because he played in the 1980s and 1990s, and he didn’t field quite as well as Ozzie, didn’t hit with quite as much power as Ripken, didn’t run quite as well as Larkin, he has garnered stunningly little Hall of Fame support. He was in my mind a better player than more than half of the 19 shortstops in the Hall of Fame, but it seems he is destined to play out his 15 years on the ballot and then land on that list of players the veteran’s committee annually turns down.

All of which is to say that, by philosophy, I’m a big Hall guy. I think the Hall of Fame should be a living and breathing thing and it should celebrate the great players from every era, and I think there are quite a few great players from my era who are not in the Hall of Fame and are remembered wearily rather than being remembered as marvelous players.

But, I mentioned the inner conflict: I fully realize that my votes have not been consistent with my “Big Hall of Fame” belief. I have never maxed out my ballot, or anything even close. I also have found myself on the no side on three of the most celebrated borderline Hall of Fame cases of the last decade — Bruce Sutter, Jim Rice and Andre Dawson. So, I say I’m a Big Hall guy, but I suppose I vote more like a Small Hall guy.

Well, this year, I did max out my ballot. I didn’t do it to prove any point — I happen to think there are at least 10 guys on this year’s ballot who were Hall of Fame caliber players, and I think there are two or three or four more who have compelling Hall of Fame arguments. We’ll get to all that as the week progresses.

As far as predictions go, I’ll make those now. I think Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven will get elected this year, I think Jeff Bagwell will have a strong first year showing, but will probably fall short for reasons that few people will want to say out loud. I think Barry Larkin will take a nice step forward and perhaps put himself on the brink of election in 2012. And I think that once Bert Blyleven gets in, Jack Morris will put himself in position to get elected in the next two years.

I don’t know what will happen with Tim Raines, but I’m hopeful that people will begin to see just how great a player he really was. If there had never been a Rickey Henderson, I think Tim Raines might be remembered as the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history.

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The Agony of Defeat

The worst ending in the history of sports happened on January 4, 1981 on a frigid day in Cleveland, Ohio. This is an indisputable fact. The Cleveland Browns trailed the Oakland Raiders 14-12 with less than a minute remaining in the game. The Browns had the ball at the Oakland 13. See that number? Thirteen? Don’t tell me that the “13 is bad luck” concept is just a myth. Apollo 13. Friday the 13th. Ralph Branca wore 13. And the Browns had the ball on the Oakland 13.

I was 13 years old.

The wind-chill that day was minus-36, and Cleveland’s kicker Don Cockroft — who only that year had become the 10th player in NFL history to score 1,000 points in the NFL — had already missed two field goals and two extra points. Well, one of the extra points was blocked and the other was botched on the snap, but the point was that this was no day for kicking a football through uprights. This was a contributing reason why Cleveland Browns coach Sam Rutigliano decided on a pass play called “Red Right 88.”

Looking back, I think this fateful call was more about philosophy than anything else. You live by the pass, you die by the pass … that sort of thing. The Browns had become a team on the edge; they won and lost so many games with passes in the final minutes that they were called the Kardiac Kids. They were the first good Browns team in more than a decade, and they had Cleveland buzzing like no team I remember before or since. They inspired two songs that were played constantly on the radio in Cleveland, one a rather weird 12 Days of Christmas ripoff (“On the 12th day of Christmas Art Modell gave to me …”) and another based on the Kardiac Kids’ tendency to make every finish thrilling. I still remember the chorus:

They’re the Cleveland Browns
When they’re psyched up, there’s no getting them down.
Take your tranquilizers, pop your beer can lids.
It’s the Kardiac Kids.

Who says Cole Porter is dead? There was this powerful belief around Cleveland that the Browns were destined to win in the final seconds, always, and Rutigliano was the Vice President of the true believers. He called the Red Right 88 pass play because he was entirely certain that quarterback Brian Sipe (the league’s MVP) would throw the touchdown pass that would win the game in dramatic fashion. Well, maybe he wasn’t ENTIRELY sure. Maybe he was only 99.93% sure. As a bit of insurance, he did remind Sipe that if no one was open he should “throw the ball into Lake Erie.”

There were only two problems with Rutigliano’s advice. One, Sipe did not have a strong enough arm to throw the ball into Lake Erie … even if he was on a boat on the lake at the time. Sipe had serious trouble just throwing spirals. I say this with great love; Brian Sipe was my favorite football player. For a long time, my bank password was SIPE. But his arm was so weak that … well, I’ll put it this way. We used to have this older kid who lived on our street. Sometimes, he would play football with us; he would be be the quarterback for both teams. And he had me convinced at one point that he was getting a tryout to play with the Browns. I believed him completely. It was ridiculous. My father later asked me why I believed him. And I said: “Well, he does have a better arm than Brian Sipe.”

That’s one problem with Rutigliano’s “throw the ball into Lake Erie” charge. The second problem was that, well, you will notice that I called Rutigliano the VP of true believers? That’s because Sipe was President, CEO and Owner of the true believers. It was his extraordinary faith — in himself, in his teammates, in his weak arm, in what could be done in 90 seconds or less — that made the Cleveland Browns a playoff team in the first place. And it was his extraordinary faith that made it absolutely certain that Brian Sipe would see an open man, whether there was one or not.

And so Sipe threw the ball toward the blanketed Ozzie Newsome in the back of the end zone. The ball was intercepted by Mike Davis. The Browns lost the game. My childhood ended. The world’s supply of chocolate dried up. Saturday morning cartoons were outlawed. Ice cream was decreed to only come in vanilla except for people who liked vanilla in which case ice cream was also outlawed. Halloween changed its rules so that at each house people handed out homework instead of candy. Global warming started. Four banks collapsed. All the problems that face the world today, yes, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I tell you that they began in that moment when Brian Sipe threw the interception at the end of the game.

Now, I will grant that it is possible that you don’t not think Red Right 88 game is the worst ending in the history of sports. You are wrong, but you might not have been a 13-year-old Cleveland Browns fan when it happened. And so you might actually believe that the worst ending in the history of sports happened to your team, perhaps when you were at an impressionable age, perhaps when you had a lot of money on the game, perhaps when you felt the joy of victory torn away from you. This is the problem with coming up with the 32 worst endings in sports history. They are entirely subjective. All lists are subjective, but this is probably the most subjective one I have ever done.

Why is this even more subjective than, say, the 32 best Sports Illustrated covers or the 32 best sports calls or the 32 best running backs? Well, here’s why: If I was a 13-year-old Raiders fan in 1980, the Mike Davis interception might have been the BEST sports ending ever. When I put out a Twitterequest for worst endings, one of the top choices for worst sports ending was the Music City Miracle — you know, that moment when Tennessee beat Buffalo on a kick-return lateral in the final seconds. Well, yeah, it was unquestionably a kick-in-the-gut ending for Buffalo. But it’s also one of the happiest sports moments in the history of the state of Tennessee. So how do you decide?

I went with a couple of basic ground rules.

1. The ending should not be based on a sensational play made by someone. There are are no game-winning home runs in this — no Mitch Williams, no Donnie Moore, no Ralph Branca. There are also no last second shots. Michael Jordan’s shot over Craig Ehlo is one of the worst sports endings in my life, but I don’t think it qualifies. For an ending to be on the list, it needs to involve some horrible self-inflicted wound. Now, I realize that this is an ever-moving line. After all, this list was inspired by the remarkable ending of the Eagles-Giants game this week, and that involved a great return by Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson. But the entire Jackson sequence — from not being able to kick the ball out of bounds, to not coming close to tackling him — is so preposterously dumb that I think it still qualifies.

2. The ending must inspire some feeling of sheepishness in the victor. Don’t get me wrong: The feeling doesn’t have to be remorse or even sympathy. But in the very least there has to be some kind of “I cannot believe that we got away with that,” emotion. As a Cleveland Browns fan I pin the difference somewhere between The Fumble and The Drive.

— In The Fumble, the Browns were coming back against Denver, were about to tie the game, when Ernest Byner (who had been the team’s hero up to that point) fumbled the ball away (thanks in large part to a missed block by a receiver). That’s a terrible ending.

— In The Drive, Denver’s John Elway led his team 98 yards in the final minutes to tie the game against Cleveland, send it into overtime where the Broncos won (on a field goal I am still convinced missed wide left). That’s a great ending.

They both hurt — if anything Elway’s drive hurt more. But Elway’s drive was greatness. I can cry about it, scream about it, write angry songs about John Elway — and I have — but I know that’s not one of the worst endings in sports history. It is one of the best. I just happened to be on the wrong side of it.

Anyway, I try to maintain that spirit. Here are my 32 worst endings in sports:

* * *
Bonus: Strat-o-matic game between Packers and 49ers (1993).

My buddy, Chardon Jimmy, and I have had an almost 20-year argument about which one of us is the better coach. It’s one of those make believe arguments that doesn’t mean anything because, obviously, neither one of us is a coach, and neither one of us would be worth a damn as a coach. But it’s also the sort of argument that friends have, and we have attempted to settle our score with ferocious Strat-o-matic battles in baseball and football.

I won the most memorable of our baseball battles, a World Series between the late 1980s Red Sox and Reds. But he won the most memorable of our football battles, a game between the early 1990s Packers (coached by me) and the 49ers. I led by two late in the game when he drove his 49ers into long field goal range. With time running out and it being fourth down and long, he attempted the long field goal. And he missed. I had won. But there was a flag on the play — offsides on my team.

Offsides? On a field goal? Ludicrous. I screamed about the absurdity of this — “That would never happen!” — but rules are rules. He lined up for another long field. He kicked. It was no good. I had won.

Only …

Yeah, another penalty. Offsides. Again. I argued that this was, of course, impossible. There was no way this could happen. There was no way … but it did happen. The third kick was good. Chardon Jimmy won the game.

I fired my imaginary special teams coach the next day.

32. Dwayne Rudd’s Helmet Toss (2002)

There have been many, many awful endings to NFL regular season games. I include this on the list because I was there … and it was the craziest ending I ever saw. The Cleveland Browns were leading Kansas City 39-37 with 10 seconds left. Chiefs quarterback Trent Green dropped back, got in trouble, and just as he was about to be sacked by Rudd flipped the ball to offensive lineman John Tait. Rudd clearly thought he had gotten the sack and the game was over. He took off his helmet and threw it in the air in celebration. This, it turns out, was not an especially brilliant thing to do.

What Rudd did not know was that the ball was still live. Tait was running down the sideline. He plowed all the way to the Cleveland 26 with the ball as the clock expired. I cannot even imagine how many penalties were committed during that run, but the officials called only one: An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Rudd for taking off his helmet. The clock had run out, but because the game cannot end on a defensive penalty, the Chiefs were given the ball on the Cleveland 11. Morten Anderson promptly booted the short field goal for Kansas City, and the Browns lost the game.

31. T.J. Rubley (1995)

Rubley was the third-string quarterback for the Packers … and he was forced into action in a game against Minnesota when Brett Favre and Ty Detmer got hurt. The score was 24-24, the Packers were in position to try a long field late in the fourth quarter. On third and 1, Packers coach Mike Holmgren called for a quarterback sneak. Rubley, perhaps believing he saw an opening in Vikings defense and perhaps believing (rightfully so) that he would never get a chance like this again, audibled at the and line and changed the play to a rollout pass.

It goes without saying that he threw an interception, the Vikings ended up winning, and Rubley was released the next day.

30. Harvard beats Yale 29-29 (1968)

Harvard and Yale were both unbeaten, and Yale led 29-13 with less than a minute left. Yale was a huge favorite — the great Calvin Hill and Brian Dowling* leading the way — and had jumped to a 22-0 lead. Harvard kind of worked their way back to make it respectable.

*Dowling, you probably know, inspired the character B.D. in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip.

Then, in the final minute: Harvard, led by a backup quarterback named Frank Champi, scored a touchdown, and then got a ridiculously questionable pass interference call on their first attempt at the two-point conversion. The second attempt was good making the scored 29-21 with 42 seconds left.

Harvard then got the onside kick (Yale did not have an onside-kick coverage team — simply did not have one). They moved the ball down the field thanks in large part to a face mask penalty (the culprit, Yale linebacker Mike Bouscaren, would admit in the wonderful documentary “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29” that he was trying to hurt Champi).

On the last play of regulation, Champi threw a touchdown pass, and fans rushed the field. They were cleared, Harvard scored the two-point conversion, and yes, Harvard beat Yale 29-29.

29. Snake River Canyon (1974)

None of it ever made sense. We as kids were led to believe that Evel Knievel would attempt to jump the Grand Canyon on his motorcycle. Next thing we knew, he was actually jumping something called Snake River Canyon in some sort of steam powered rocket ship looking thing that was only a motorcycle by technicalities. He also didn’t make it. His parachute ejected too soon or something. We didn’t even know he was going to have a parachute.

28. Chelsea v. Manchester United (2008)

This was the Champions League final, and it came down to penalty kicks where John Terry, Chelsea captain and soul, slipped and missed his kick. Chelsea lost, and this paragraph that appeared in The Sunday Times probably sums up the awfulness of it all (to a frightening extreme):

“Avram Grant, the Chelsea first-team coach, has a perspective on life because of the traumas his family suffered in the Holocaust, but even he was struggling to find the words to ease the pain of Terry, who was white with shock.”

27. Novotna-Graf (1993)

This was Wimbledon, 1993, and Jana Novotna led Steffi Gray 4-1 and 40-15 in the decisive set. On 40-30, she badly double faulted — the ball was probably five feet past the service line. She then horrendously missed a volley, sending it 10 feet past the baseline. She then lost the game.

And it went downhill from there. MIssed overheads. Double faults. Pure collapse. Graf won the next five games, and the enduring image is of Novotna crying on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent.

26. Royals vs. Indians, 2005

There have been many, many, many terrible endings of baseball games through the years, and I am under no illusion that this one is the worst. But it is the worst one I ever attended. It happened on August 9, 2005. The Royals had come into the game having lost 10 in a row. They would, before it was all done, lose 19 in a row.

But it also seemed certain that they would win this game — they went into the ninth leading Cleveland 7-2. There’s no point in going over it moment by moment, but just so you know, there was a double, another double, a single, a strikeout (one out), another double, a single and a groundout (two outs). The Royals still led 7-6 when the second out was recorded.

And then Jeff Liefer lofted a fly ball to left field where someone named Chip Ambres settled under it. With the ball in the air, the overwhelming feeling was: “Well, at least the Royals held on to win, but it sure wasn’t easy — it’s never easy with the Royals.” And then, of course, Ambres dropped the ball. The locally famous call on radio by Denny Matthews went like so: “Fly ball to left and … he dropped it. Yes he did.”

The Indians ended up scoring 11 runs in the ninth inning and they won the game 13-7.

25. Devon Loch (1956)

The horse — owned by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother — was about 50 yards away from victory in the 1956 Grand National when suddenly, inexplicably, Devon Loch jumped up and then made a perfect slide — better even than the slide of Sid Bream. Devon Loch was passed and lost the race. Nobody has ever been able to fully explain what happened.

The biggest after-effect of the race is that the jockey, Dick Francis, went on to become one of the most successful mystery writers in the world. Many of his mysteries are based on horse racing. Dick Francis has said on many occasions that he still doesn’t know exactly what happened to Devon Loch that day.

24. Tate vs. Weaver (1980)

I remember this fight so vividly. My father is a huge boxing fan, and I was raised on boxing even more than baseball or football. I remember that for some reason we were all at my Grandmother’s house, and we were watching the fight on her television which had its own special talent for static. But we could see enough to know that Tate (who was heavyweight champion at the time) was ahead on points going into the 15th round. All he had to do was stay away from Weaver and he would retain the title. Not that this an easy thing to do but Tate did a particularly poor job of it. With 40 seconds left in the fight, Weaver landed a ferocious left hook.

And this is what I remember: Tate fell FORWARD. My father said, “Um, that’s it.” He was right. That was it. Tate was unconscious for several minutes. When I asked my Dad how he knew Tate wouldn’t get up, he told me something that for some reason I have never forgotten: “If you see someone fall face first, the fight’s over.”

23. Minnesota Vikings (1999)

The 1998 Vikings are one of the greatest offensive teams in NFL history. They had scored 30 or more points in 11 games (and they won all 11). They were prohibitive favorites to go the Super Bowl and, from there, probably win it. They had Randall Cunningham (who had a remarkable comeback season) and the rookie Randy Moss (who caught 17 touchdown passes) and the great Cris Carter (12 more touchdown catches) and an overwhelming running game with Robert Smith and Leroy Hoard (who combined for 15 touchdowns). Those Vikings were a machine.

In the NFC Championship Game against Atlanta, they had two horrible endings. The first came when kicker Gary Anderson — who literally had not missed a kick all year, he was 35 for 35 on field goals and had made all 59 extra points — missed a 38-yard field goal with about two minutes left. That was torturous enough.

But the real torture would come at the end of regulation when the Vikings got the ball back. They had it on their own 30 with about a half minute left and two timeouts. And that was when, impossibly, Denny Green decided to sit on the ball and wait for overtime. They had what might have been the greatest offense in NFL history at that point. The had two receivers who will be in the Hall of Fame. They needed to gain about 35 yards to have a viable shot at a field goal — and they had a kicker who had only missed one kick all year. And they had two timeouts.

He sat on the ball. The Vikings, of course, lost in overtime.

22. The Dean Smith Championships (1982 and 1993)

It is one of the quirks of sports that Dean Smith, one of the greatest coaches in sports history, won two national championships and both were marred by terrible endings. In the first — the freshman Michael Jordan made a jumper to give North Carolina a 63-62 lead over Georgetown with 17 seconds left. Georgetown moved the ball into the front court and then Fred Brown, thinking a teammate was next to him, flipped the ball instead to North Carolina’s James Worthy. The Tar Heels held on from there (though Worthy did miss both free throws).

In the second — North Carolina led Michigan 73-71 with 11 seconds left when Michigan’s star Chris Webber called a timeout that the Wolverines did not have. It also appeared the Webber walked, so you could make the argument that nothing good was going to come from that play. Still Dean Smith’s team appeared in 11 Final Fours, but they never could quite win a title without something weird happening at the end.

21. Hand ball (2010)

Ghana and Uruguay played a spirited game in the World Cup this year, and with the score tied in the final hectic seconds over overtime, Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan headed the ball toward the net and nobody was in position to stop it. Well, that’s not exactly right. Urugay’s Luis Suarez reached out with his hand and kept the ball from going in. This would have been fine had Suarez been Uruguay’s goal keeper. He was not.

The hand ball was punished as hand balls are punished. Ghana was granted a penalty kick. Suarez was given a red card (meaning he would have to miss the next match as well as the rest of this one). It is deservedly a stiff punishment, but in this case the punishment did not satisfy. Because Gyan missed his penalty kick. And Uruguay went on to win the match.

20. Punt Bama Punt (1972)

Alabama led Auburn 16-3 with about six minutes left in what is probably the most heated college football game in America. I mean, there’s nothing like Army-Navy, and nothing like Ohio State-Michigan either. But Auburn-Alabama touches on so many emotions that it’s hard to believe that the feelings are quite as raw in any other game.

In any case, Alabama led Auburn 16-3, when Auburn’s Bill Newton blocked Greg Gantt’s punt. Auburn’s David Langner scooped up the ball and ran it into the end zone to make it 16-10.

A few minutes later, as time was running out on the game, Gantt punted again … and almost impossibly Newton blocked it, Langner picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown. Auburn won 17-16.

The legend is that after this game, Bear Bryant decided that he would never again recruit a kicker who took three steps to punt.

19. The Play (1982)

The interesting thing about this play is that the background music is almost always Cal announcer Joe Starkey. The Cal players rush through Stanford’s sad excuse for kick return coverage, then through the Stanford Band, and it always ends with Starkey shrieking: “The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football!” Because of this, The Play has always been viewed as one of the sports greatest endings … and it is.

But, it’s also terrible ending — for Stanford this ending took a remarkable level of clumsiness and general incompetence. Every time you see a team try some last second multi-lateral play these days you come to realize just how bad kick coverage has to be for it to work. And then the band ran on the field? Bad ending.

It was also John Elway’s last regular season game — in fact Elway played a pivotal role in the game that has not been publicized enough in my mind. He led Stanford on what looked like a game-winning drive — he really started his legend here — but he called timeout with eight seconds left for Stanford to kick the go-ahead field goal. Had he waited four more seconds, Stanford would not even have had to kick off.

Elway carried the pain of that loss with him for a long time … and, unfortunately, took it out on my Cleveland Browns and numerous other teams in his career.

18. Bartman (2003)

OK, hear me out here because I don’t want this misunderstood: This horrible ending has nothing whatsoever to do with Steve Bartman. As I wrote at the time, he was simply doing what fans do, reaching out for a foul ball that was headed his way. No, the horrible ending is ALL about how the Cubs utterly collapsed at that point. They were leading Florida 3-0, Florida man on second, Mark Prior was throwing a three-hitter. The Cubs were five outs away from their first World Series appearance in almost 60 years.

And after Luis Castillo hit a foul ball that Bartman tried to catch, they folded. No other way to say it. Left fielder Moises Alou screamed at Bartman (it is still not entirely clear that Alou could have caught the ball; different replays suggest different things). Then Prior walked Castillo (with a wild pitch to boot moving Juan Pierre to third). Ivan Rodriguez singled, then Miguel Cabrera hit a double play grounder to short that Alex Gonzalez flat booted. That was followed by a Derrek Lee double that tied the game.

And that inspired Cubs manager Dusty Baker to bring in Kyle Farnsworth. That’s really all that needs to be said.

The Cubs gave up eight runs in the inning, and the next day, again at home, they lost 9-6 with Kerry Wood starting and Kyle Farnsworth playing a key role.

And you know who many people wanted to blame for this collapse? You know what name has endured from this fiasco? You know what I titled this section? That’s right: Steve Bartman somehow took the hits for the Cubs meltdown. They threw Kyle Farnsworth in the two decisive games, they had a shortstop boot the ball, they completely fell apart and people wanted to blame a longtime fan who reached for a foul ball? That’s the very definition of a bad ending.

17. Buckner (1986)

“There’s a little roller up along first … behind the bag … it gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight! And the Mets win it!”

16. Harvey Haddix (1959)

Pittsburgh’s Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings against Milwaukee, probably the greatest game ever pitched. Unfortunately for him, his team did not score any actual runs for him in those 12 innings. In the 13th, Pirate Don Hoak made an error to end the perfect game. After a sacrifice fly and an intentional walk, Joe Adcock hit a home run that ended everything. Adcock’s homer was nullified because Hank Aaron left the basepath. It was eventually called a double, and it was eventually determined that Milwaukee won the game 1-0.

Whatever the ruling, whatever the score, Haddix still ended up losing the longest-held perfect game in baseball history.

15. Hull in the crease (1999)

I like hockey very much, but I have to admit being a novice. I do not understand many of the subtleties of the sport, and because of this I have never known exactly what to make of Brett Hull’s skate being in the crease when he scored Dallas’ game-winner against the Buffalo Sabres in the third overtime of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup. The in-the-crease rule was confusing enough that I have heard people explain exactly why Hull’s goal should have been disallowed and I have heard people explain exactly why Hull’s goal was rightfully left standing and both make sense to me. The rule has since been rescinded.

All I do know is that Buffalo fans have had it rough. Scott Norwood. Hull in the crease. The Music City Miracle. I don’t include all these on the list because the list can’t be 500 items long but I can say this: Buffalo, I feel your pain.

14. Ruffian vs. Foolish Pleasure (1975)

It was a match race in those days when there was a real “Battle of the Sexes” vibe in the air. Ruffian was a filly who had won all 10 of her races and just about every major stakes race for fillies in 1974 and 1975. Foolish Pleasure had won the Kentucky Derby. The race drew quite a lot of attention just two years after Billie Jean King had beaten Bobby Riggs in the original sports battle of the sexes.

In the match race, with Ruffian ahead by a half length, she broke two bones in her right foreleg. She kept on running. She was operated on immediately after the race — for three hours they tried to save her — but as they expected the cast did not hold as Ruffian tried to kick it off in the paddock. She was euthanized shortly thereafter.

13. Daytona 500 (2001)

It’s not really right to put tragedy on a list that is mostly supposed to spark fun feelings. But the Daytona 500 where Dale Earnhardt crashed and died simply is one of the worst endings in sports history.

We go to games, to races, to events to make us feel good about life. When something awful happens — when Ruffian breaks down in a match race or Barbaro breaks down at the Preakness or someone gets paralyzed during a football game or there’s some horrible crash at an auto race — the pain strikes twice as hard. I remember the horrible pain we all felt after the Challenger crash … I think the death of Dale Earnhardt was a similar thing. The point was to be inspired. And the result, instead, was horror.

12. “What a stupid I am.” (1968)

Roberto De Vicenzo and Bob Goalby were tied at the end of the 1968 Masters and should have played in a playoff. But Di Vicenzo’s playing partner, Tommy Aaron, marked a par for Roberto on the 17th hole when he had actually scored a birdie. By rules of golf, if you sign a card that has a score HIGHER THAN YOUR OWN, that is officially your score. You know how golf loves its rules. And so, officially, Di Vicenzo finished a shot back, and the playoff never happened.

The interesting thing about this was the aftermath. Goalby has always seemed bitter that his victory on ’68 was tainted by the scoring error. He has spoken about it grumpily … or not at all. Di Vicenzo, meanwhile, has always taken his own defeat with grace. “What a stupid I am,” he famously said after the scoring error was revealed to him. And he refuses to blame Aaron for the honest mistake.*

*Though it’s not on the list, I think this entry also includes a little sympathy for poor Dustin Johnson, who seemed to qualify for the playoff in this year’s PGA Championship but officially finished two shots back because he grounded his club in a “bunker” that looked nothing at all like a bunker. Golf does love its rules.

11. Red Right 88 (1981)

See above.

10. “God bless those kids, I’m sick, I’m gonna throw up” (1994)

John Tyler High led 41-17 with just over four minutes left. Plano East came all the way back to take the lead. John Tyler won on a kickoff return. There will never be anything quite like it. And there is absolutely nothing I can say about this game that isn’t better put in this video.

9. The Slide (1992)

I was actually here, Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, covering it for The Augusta Chronicle. And what I remember most is how dead it was in Atlanta going into the ninth inning. The Pittsburgh Pirates led the Braves 2-0 going into that ninth. As crazy as it may sound now, the Pirates were absolutely going to the World Series. Doug Drabek had been masterful for eight innings, he had allowed only five hits going into the ninth. The Braves were finished.

Terry Pendleton led off the inning with a double, and that did get the crowd stirred up a bit. But the crowd didn’t really get going until the next batter, David Justice, hit a ground ball to second base. Pittsburgh’s Jose Lind booted it. That, I think, is when Braves fans started to believe that they might win the game. Drabek walked Sid Bream to load the bases. When he did it, the name “Sid Bream” did not carry the power of memory that it carries now. At that point, he was just an impossibly slow first baseman.

Stan Belinda came in for Pittsburgh. He allowed a sac fly to Ron Gant, and then he walked Damon Berryhill to load them up once more. Brian Hunter was sent in to pinch hit, and he popped out to shortstop. Two outs. Bases loaded. Pittsburgh leading 2-1. Crowd doing that tomahawk chop like crazy.

And pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera — who should never have to buy a beer in Atlanta ever — hit a line drive single over shortstop Jay Bell. Justice scored easily. And the Braves sent Sid Bream home. Bream really was impossibly slow. And he also had some sort of leg injury. But I doubt he ever ran faster. As Jim Rome has made a living out of saying, Barry Bonds threw the ball “from deep short.” But somehow Bream was able to slide under the tag, sending the Braves to the World Series, sending Barry Bonds to San Francisco, and sending the Pirates into a fog of 18 consecutive losing seasons.

8. The Miracle at the New Meadowlands (2010)

Well, there’s really nothing more to say about this. The Eagles were down 31-10 with about eight minutes left. That’s when Michael Vick when Michael Vick on them. The score was tied in the final seconds. The Giants, hoping to settle for overtime, decided to punt with 14 seconds left. Giants coach Tom Coughlin told his punter, Matt Dodge, to absolutely kick the ball out of bounds. Dodge, it turns out, could not do that. Punters often say kicking the ball out of bounds is harder than you think.

His kick ended up going down the middle to DeSean Jackson who fumbled it, picked it up, and then ran more or less untouched for the game winning touchdown. He ended the touchdown with a little flourish, running along the end zone line as if to not only kick the Giants fans in the gut but also make sure he was wearing his steel toe boots. Coughlin was seen tearing into Dodge, who has played nicely as the scapegoat though the Giants clock management in the finals minutes was stupefying (they once were totally unprepared for an onside kick) and it wouldn’t have hurt if somebody had actually come close to tackling Jackson.

So it goes. Miracles are often inspired by the incompetence of others.

7. The Imperfect Game (2010)

Armando Galarraga got 27 outs in a row against Cleveland, a perfect game. Unfortunately for him and for baseball, the 27th man was called safe at first base by a soon-to-be-sick umpire named Jim Joyce.

While the ending was as unfulfilling as any in sports history, there was joy in the aftermath as Joyce took full responsibility for his blunder and Galarraga shrugged it off and offered the classic line: “Nobody’s perfect.”

6. Greg Norman at Augusta (1996)

When Greg Norman played the Masters in 1996, I was a columnist for an afternoon paper, The Cincinnati Post. This only matters because we did not have a Sunday paper. This had a positive and negative effect. The negative effect is easy: I couldn’t write live about Saturday events, and you might know that Saturday is kind of a key day in sports. I couldn’t write live on Ohio State-Michigan or on big Kentucky basketball games or on important baseball games played on Saturdays. There were no blogs then either.

The positive is easy too: I couldn’t write about Saturday events. So when I went to various sporting events Saturday was, in a sense, a forced day off. We would call them Boast Saturdays (Boast for Post — long story) and we would enjoy watching our fellow writers working on NFL preview stories or deadline college football games and shrug. Sorry. Can’t write.

But I was so inspired by Greg Norman’s first three days at the Masters that, essentially, I reached the person who ran the Scripps Howard News wire (the Post was owned by Scripps Howard) and asked for a chance to write. I didn’t even care if anyone ran it. I just thought I had something to say.

Permission was granted — funny, nobody ever turns down requests to do more work — and I wrote an entire column about how they should shut down the Masters, not even bother to play on Sunday because Norman (who was ahead by five shots) had already won the thing. The rest, I wrote, was guaranteed to be anticlimax.

So, yeah, I was an itty-bitty bit off there. Norman’s ludicrous collapse (combined with Nick Faldo’s masterful 67) turned Augusta Sunday into a very lush psychiatrist’s couch. Even Faldo clearly felt bad for the guy. Norman came into the press tent afterward and, with great class, went through his emotions. He had wanted very badly to win a Masters. He never did.

5. The Fifth Down (1990)

Colorado was playing at Missouri, and the Buffaloes were very much in the mix for the mythical national championship.* Missouri led 31-27 with little time remaining. Colorado went on a spirited drive. With less than a minute left, the Buffaloes moved the ball just short of the goal line. Colorado tight end Jon Bowman caught a pass and probably would have scored except he slipped on the horrendous “Omniturf.” The television announcer for the Big 8 game of the week at that moment said “This turf is an embarrassment.” More on that in a second.

*They had the good sense in those days of calling it a “mythical” national championship.

OK. So, you have the setup. Quarterback Charles Johnson spiked the ball to stop the clock. That’s one down. But something weird happened on the field, something hard to quite pick up. Maybe the scoreboard didn’t change. All we know for sure is that on the next play, the announcer on the broadcast said: “Second down … excuse me … first down and goal to go.” The dye was cast.

Colorado’s Eric Bienemy then took a handoff and powered into the line but was stopped just short of the goal line. That’s two downs. Colorado called timeout. There were 18 seconds left. It should have been third down and goal to go.

Here’s something interesting about the fifth down game that I never knew before because I had never before seen the TV broadcast: I had always been led to believe that the down marker was wrong on the field. But the announcers during the timeout had a weird back and forth that leads me to believe that they actually had it RIGHT on the field. See what you can make out of this:

Announcer 1: And I think the chains are wrong on the field. I think now it’s second down. They had second before, I believe it’s second and goal now.
Announcer 2: I was a little confused by that also.
Announcer 1: They threw the pass down there to stop the clock.
Announcer 2: That’s right. You’re right.
Announcer 1: So now it’s third down.

Yeah, I know, it’s confusing. But the takeaway seems to be that the announcers in the booth were completely crossed up on the down — and what they said here suggested they actually might have had it right on the field, at least at one point. But then, during that timeout, the cameras caught Colorado coach Bill McCartney arguing about something with the officials. It’s certainly possible that this was the point when the officials changed their mind about the down.

Then, what should have been third down, Bienemy rushed up the middle, leaped, but he was stuffed short of the goal line. And this was when some weird stuff started happening. The officials tried to unpile players but it was slow going and so they actually stopped the clock. I understand that the referee has the power to stop the clock if he feels like players are purposely trying to slow down the game — and I do think Missouri’s players were trying to do that — but it’s still something you almost never see. They stopped the clock, and players unpiled, and Colorado was given enough time to setup.

That was followed by something even stranger: Announcer No. 1 actually suggested that Johnson spike the ball. He had only seconds early said that he KNEW the correct down (“So now it’s third down”) but he still suggested in the heat of the moment that Colorado should spike the ball. And Johnson did just that. He rushed up to the line, spiked the ball to stop the clock with just two seconds left. Of course, that’s four downs. And that’s all a team is supposed to get.

The crowd booed … I’m not sure how many were booing because Colorado was about to get a fifth down and how many were booing because the official stopped the clock. I do know this, the announcers — after GETTING THE DOWN RIGHT during the timeout — never once mentioned that Colorado was getting a fifth down. It’s like everyone in the place was under some sort of Harry Potter spell or something.

And there was yet MORE controversy. On fifth down, Johnson ran right, tried to get into the end zone, and based on the rather flimsy replays available it seems that he may not have made it. There was no definitive replay, but all the replays certainly SUGGESTED that he did not make it. But the officials ruled it a touchdown. And so THAT became the immediate controversy rather than the officials blowing the fifth down.

I don’t think it’s possible for officials to do worse than this bunch did. They gave Colorado an extra down. They stopped the clock bizarrely as it was about to expire. They ruled a touchdown when it probably was not one. I tend to believe that mistakes are generally honest because incompetence is a big part of who we are … but if anyone ever reported that these officials were under some sort of orders to help Colorado win, I cannot say I’d be surprised.

A couple of other things have long bothered me about this play. When Colorado had called timeout they had to KNOW it was third down. So why did they call a running play up the middle when they had no timeouts left? If the officials had not stopped the clock, Colorado would have run out of time before running another play even GRANTING them a fifth down. So that was an impossibly dumb call on Colorado’s part.

Two … I never understood why Missouri didn’t make a bigger deal of it at the time. I mean, you would have expected that they all would have jumped up and down in victory, sent the offense on the field, the whole bit … at least make the officials aware that there was a controversy. But they never did, which indicates to me that they weren’t sure what down it was either.

Colorado went on to win that mythical national championship, at least according to the AP voters. And when McCartney was asked if he planned to do the honorable thing and forfeit the game, he said no. Why? “Because the field was lousy,” he said.

4. The Fumble (1988)

Poor Ernest Byner. Every time that something bad happens to Cleveland — even something that has nothing whatsoever to do with football such as LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach or the Indians losing a game in heartbreaking fashion or someone doing a story about unemployment in Northeast Ohio — people will show him fumbling at the end of the AFC Championship Game.

Byner absolutely does not deserve to be scapegoated for that game. The Browns were completely out of the game, at one point falling behind 21-3. And Byner brought them back. He led the team in rushing and receiving, willed his way to 187 total yards and two touchdowns, brought the Browns all the way. And he looked as if he was going to cap it off with a game-tying score with 1:12 left. On television, it was not immediately noticeable that the ball had been knocked out by Denver’s Jermiah Castille. It was plenty clear on replay after replay after replay after replay.

Byner was everything that a football fan loves. He was an overachiever — he had been a 10th round draft pick out of East Carolina. He made his bones on special teams. He succeeded without great speed or great power; he was only about 5-foot-10. The fumble tore him apart. He played one more year in Cleveland, but it was no good — though there had been a close relationship between him and the city, though the most knowledgeable fans understood that the Browns would not even have been IN the game without Byner, well, to much had happened. He was moved to Washington after a year. He ran for 1,000-plus yards his first two seasons there, and in the second the Redskins won the Super Bowl.

3. The Miracle at the Meadowlands (1978)

You certainly know what happened. The Giants had intercepted a pass that put the game away in the final minute. They led 17-12. On first down, the Giants ran the ball. On second down, quarterback Joe Pisarcik kneeled on it. The Eagles were out of timeouts, there was nothing they could do but watch the clock drain away. The Giants had to only run one more play. You know the game was over because on television they were going through the credits — “We thank our producer, Bob Rowe, our director, Jim Silman, and our CBS crew.” As a kid I always hated when they did that. I never wanted to the games to end.

The Giants offensive coordinator Bob Gibson — yes, Bob Gibson — called a running play for convoluted reasons that even 30-plus years later don’t quite add up. Apparently, he was worried that if Pisarcik tried to kneel again, the Eagles would try to rough up the Giants offensive linemen, start a fight, which could cause injury or (worse) stop the clock and give the Eagles the ball back. He called the safest running play in his playbook, 65-Power Up. The idea was simply to turn, hand the ball to fullback Larry Czonka, and end this crazy game.

Well, Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik took the snap, seemed to have trouble handling it, turned to hand it off to Czonka, and, well, you know what happened. Czonka kind of collided with the ball, it bounced free, and it then bounced up right into the arms of Herm Edwards, who scooped it up and ran for the game-winning touchdown. So many things had to happen, not the least of which was the ball popping right up to Edwards — had he simply fallen on the ball, the Giants probably still would have won.

The next day, Bob Gibson was fired. He opened a bait shop in Florida. He has never spoken publicly about the play.

2. Jean Van de Velde (1999)

This was my first British Open and I have to tell you … it could not have been more boring. The tournament was played at Carnoustie — I went because that was where Tom Watson had won his first British Open, and he suggested to me that he had the game to make another run (he did have the game … but his amazing British Open run wouldn’t happen for another decade). But Watson was dreadful. Well, it fit. Everyone was dreadful.

Someone named Rod Pampling was leading after Day 1 — he had managed even par.

Someone named Jean Van de Velde was leading after Day 2 — he was one over par.

That someone named Jean Van de Velde had a five shot lead after Day 3. It could not have been more boring.

And Sunday played out just as boring — Van de Velde played well enough that had a three shot lead going into the 18th hole. A double bogey and he won. He could hit nothing but putters and make double bogey (he really could — later he tried it just for fun and got his double bogey). Instead, he whacked his driver to the dismay of anyone with a working brain and the ball sailed way right into the rough.

Only he caught the strangest sort of bad break — when he got there, he saw that he had a PERFECT LIE. Why was this bad break? Because the lie was so good that it inspired Van de Velde to go for the green. Had it been in the rough he might have tried to chop the ball back into play, limped up to the flag and left with the Claret Jug. Instead, he went for the great shot — like Billy Conn, he went for the knockout — and he hit it into grandstand, where it bounced back into thick rough. He then hit the ball out of the rough into Barry Burn, the water that runs in front of the green. Van de Velde took off his socks and shoes, rolled up his pants, leading the BBC announcer to say something like: “This poor man has lost his mind.”

Eventually he decided not to try and hit the ball out of the water. He chipped into the bunker, then pitched to seven feet and then, in what can only be attributed to muscle memory, he made the putt for the triple bogey that at least got him in the playoff. Of course he wasn’t going to win the thing — and he didn’t. But it has always amazed me that after all that, he still made that triple-bogey putt. And it was the most painful ending I’ve ever watched in sports.

Van de Velde became a media star afterward. He was impossibly funny as he went over his round. “I talk about everything except 18, OK?” he asked as he walked into his press conference. Then he talked about 18 and pain and how life goes on.

1. U.S.-Soviet Olympic basketball game (1972)

I own a video called “Boxing’s Greatest Knockouts.” Unfortunately, I no longer own a VCR so I cannot watch it, which is a shame because I love the video. It isn’t so much that I love the knockouts themselves — I love the commentary. Boxing legend Archie Moore was one of the commentators and so was Emmanuel Stewart, the longtime trainer. One of the fights they showed was the classic Archie Moore-Yvon Durrelle fight. In that one Moore was knocked down four times before coming back to defeat Durrelle, a Canadian champion who spent his real life catching lobsters.

On the video, they showed Moore go down again and again (“He hit hard,” was Moore’s classic explanation). And then when they were discussing the fight, Stewart said something like this: “You know, it’s funny, I always remembered you going down MORE than four times. I thought you went down like seven or eight.”

What does this have to do with the U.S.-Soviet Union Olympic basketball game? Well, it seems to me that few people remember it exactly right; it has grown in memory. Three inbounds plays has turned in five or six in memory. An errant horn has turned sinister. It seems to me that the 1972 game was grotesque on its own merits, it doesn’t need embellishment. But the memory can’t help but embellish.

Here’s what happened: Doug Collins stole the ball in the final seconds with the United States trailing the Soviets by a point. The U.S. had never lost an Olympic basketball game. They were 63-0. Collins was fouled and stepped to the line with three seconds left to shoot what have since been called the two most important free throws in American basketball history. He made the first. And then, as he started to shoot the second, the horn went off. This has since been used by some as proof that there was a concerted effort to throw off Collins and hurt the American team, but there’s another possibility. Immediately after Collins free throw, the Soviet coach Vladimir Kondrashin complained that he had called a timeout that had not been granted. It’s at least possible — and, in fact, sounds more realistic — that the horn was an attempt to get the attention of the referees.

Collins made the free throw anyway. The U.S. led 49-48.

The international rules forbid the Soviets from calling timeout AFTER Collins free throw so they were forced to take the ball out of bounds. So the Soviets had no choice but to pass the ball inbounds. It was dribbled to halfcourt, a setup for a desperation shot, when the clock was stopped with 1 second left. Why was the clock stopped? Well, there was a ruckus at the scorer’s table (over Kondrashin’s insistence that he had called timeout). The Soviet team had pilled on the court in protest. The U.S. contingency has long felt like a technical foul should have been called there because a Soviet assistant coach had run to the scorer’s table to argue about the non timeout. And the Russian contingency has long felt like no technical should have been called because the officials at the scorer’s table were well aware that they had messed up not granting the Soviets the timeout in the first place.

Whoever is right or wrong, there was a long delay, and the Soviets were able to confer about a play — in effect, they got the timeout they wanted. The referee rather oddly decided to put three seconds back on the clock and give the Soviets the ball out of bounds. It is not clear that this was within his power as a referee. Whether or not the timeout was missed, the clock HAD started again, and there is no loophole in the international rules that allows an assistant coach to charge the scorer’s table or a team to spill on the court effectively without consequence. One referee, in fact, fought against putting time back on the clock, but he was overruled. The referees blew it. But they were about to make it worse.

They set everyone up again out of bounds. But this time, they put the ball in play before the scorer’s table was ready. The clock was not set at 3 seconds. The U.S. camera was focused on the scoreboard clock (which showed 50 seconds) and not on play. The ball was suddenly inbounded, and Sergei Belov fired a full-length court pass … but the horn sounded after only one second. It would later be explained that the horn was not to signify the end of the game but was instead an effort by the scorers table to get the attention of the referees to say that they were not ready.

Of course, it SOUNDED like the game-ending horn and people swarmed the court and the U.S. team celebrated in triumph. There is no question whatsoever that if the ruling was to put three seconds back on the clock that the horn had sounded way too early.

And so, the referees cleared the court and reset everything — the Soviets got the ball out of bounds with three seconds left. To say the U.S. team was angry would be an enormous understatement. They considered walking off the court. They would later vote to not take their silver medal (for insight on that, please read Gary Smith’s classic piece). But in the moment, perhaps fearing a forfeit, they lined up for the final play.

Tom McMillen was hounding the inbounds passer and an official yelled at him, causing McMillen to back away even though there was no rule about such things in international play (the official has said, unconvincingly, that he did not tell McMillen to back away). Ivan Edeshko (with an open lane now) threw a full-length pass to Aleksandr Belov, who caught the ball and made the layup that led the Soviets to victory, the first U.S. loss in Olympic history, and the worst ending in sports history.

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