Glad to Be Wrong About Larkin

Heading home to the Hall of Fame . . .

‘Twas the days before Christmas, and I was making my call on the Hall of Fame candidates, freshman and holdover alike. About Barry Larkin, I wrote: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’d vote for him even though I think it’ll take a couple of years before he makes it. Larkin was overshadowed badly enough by Cal Ripken, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, but he was the best all-around shortstop you barely heard of in his time and place, not to mention the first at his position to go 30-30, believe it or not. Boy, was I wrong, and glad of it.

It won’t take Larkin a couple of years to make it, he’s going to be inducted come summer. As a matter of fact, he’ll be the only candidate on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot going in. He’ll go in with Ron Santo, elected posthumously by the Veterans Committee’s “Golden Era Committee”. And they will go in with Toronto Sun writer Bob Elliott (J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner) and broadcast analyst Tim McCarver (Ford C. Frick Award winner, and only the second to win the award—Tony Kubek was the first—for television work alone.)

I’d like to think Santo would have approved of going together with Larkin. I’d also like to think Santo would have asked the same question many ask about Larkin: if he was good enough to be a Hall of Famer, why on earth did it take him three tries? How on earth did he make the single largest jump in votes from last year’s to this year’s election?

Every year there come those who say it would be nice if the Hall of Fame voters were compelled, by hook, crook, or otherwise, to stand forward and explain or justify their votes. It might be nice to hear those who helped put Larkin over the top this time explain why he couldn’t have gone in sooner, but then a lot of us want to know just why on earth Jack Morris—who is a borderline Hall of Famer at absolute best, with enough legitimate questions attached to him—pulled up as low as 19.6 of the vote in years past only to come up a 66.7 percent now, his highest total in his entire time on the writers’ ballot.

I have some questions of my own:

* Yes, the issue of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances is going to explode in the Hall of Fame considerations next year. But why on earth are the voters still insisting, in effect, that a mere whiff of suspicion equals evidence, and therefore Jeff Bagwell—who does deserve the honour, and has never been proven to be tied to actual or alleged PEDs in one or another way (he isn’t even a topic in the Mitchell Report)—isn’t going anywhere (56 percent of this year’s vote, though it’s a nice jump up from last year’s 41.7 percent) just yet?

* On the other hand, wouldn’t it be somewhat delicious to see the voters awaken enough to enshrine Bagwell next year . . . with his longtime Killer Bs running mate Craig Biggio? It would be the first time teammates of fifteen or more seasons went into the Hall of Fame together since Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford (1974); it would be the second time teammates, period (as in, playing together for any length of time) went in together since Gary Carter and Eddie Murray (brief Dodger teammates) in 2003, and Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield (Twins teammates for a season or  two) in 2001.

* Bill Mueller was a nice fellow, a decent player, the very essence of “consummate professional” (we heard that how often over the years?), and not even in the neighbourhood of a Hall of Famer on the best days of his career. So how on earth does a guy whose number one most-similar-player is Scott Hatteberg get four Hall of Fame votes? (And did they all come from Boston, where Mueller—thanks to his participation in the 2004 Red Sox’s run to the end of The Curse—will probably never have to pay for his own meals or drinks for the rest of his life thanks to that participation?)

* How the hell did Eric Young (who at least has had a sense of humour about it) and Javy Lopez get a single Hall of Fame vote each? If they weren’t Hall of Famers, and not even their BFFs would call them Hall of Famers (Lopez might have become one but for his striking breakdown after leaving Atlanta, where he’d been a near-classic Mike Piazza stereotype without Piazza’s overwhelming numbers: great hit, gangrene glove, though I still think it’s weird that Greg Maddux didn’t like to pitch to him when Maddux compiled a 2.35 ERA when Lopez was his backstop), why waste the vote? On the other hand, as Jayson Stark notes, it’s mad fun to add them to a roster of single-vote Hall of Fame candidates that actually looks like an All-Star team at least. You might even win a pennant with this cast; every one of these men except for Ellis Valentine played on at least one division- or pennant-winning team:

1B–George Scott. 2B—Eric Young. 3B—Tim Wallach. SS—Walt Weiss. LF—David Justice. CF—Len Dykstra. (Just don’t let him give you any investment advice.) RF—Ellis Valentine.  C—Javy Lopez. DH—Lonnie (Skates) Smith. Rotation—Kevin Appier, John Candelaria, Dock Ellis, Chuck Finley, Dennis Leonard. Bullpen—Steve Bedrosian, Bill Campbell, Clay Carroll, Al Hrabosky, Jesse Orosco. Broadcast team—Ron Darling, John Kruk, Mike Krukow, Jerry Remy. PR—Bret Boone, Jay Buhner, Darren Daulton, Jim Deshaies, Jose Rijo.

(Jim Deshaies was a member of the 1986 National League West-winning Houston Astros but did not pitch in the National League Championship Series.)

* What is it going to take to pull the remaining blinders off the voting writers’ eyes and get Tim Raines a plaque in Cooperstown? Other than hitting them over the head with copies of Allen Barra’s Clearing the Bases, a chapter in which convinced me of Raines’s Hall of Fame case over a decade ago, and telling all those who keep failing to vote for him lose their right to vote for the Hall of Fame until or unless they can prove to have read that chapter at least once? Bleacher Report has a poll running on what readers think is the number one factor keeping Raines out of the Hall of Fame. At this writing, these are the results:

25.3 percent of those responding think his having played in Montreal is killing his case. OK, that may have been a factor in keeping Gary Carter’s Hall election delayed a few years, too. On the other hand, it might be wise to remember that Tim Raines made seven consecutive All-Star teams during his Montreal years. They were his only seven All-Star appearances, though he probably deserved to make at least two more All-Star teams.

28.6 percent of those responding think his lack of milestone statistics factor. This may well be an actual factor among the voting writers, but we might keep in mind this portion of Barra’s analysis, a lot of which involved hooking Raines to Pete Rose, to whom he had a near-exactly skill match (early-in-the-order hitter, extorted his way on base, had a little power):

Hall of Fame voters in recent years have become too influenced by “totals” such as 500 home runs, or 300 wins, or 3,000 hits. The one that bugs me the most is “200 hits.” I’m so tired of hearing people say “Look how many times Pete Rose got 200 hits in his career,” when telling me that I have underrated him. Tell me, average reader, off the top of your head: Who do you think is the greatest hitter in baseball history? Did you say Ted Williams? Did some of you say Babe Ruth? Well, Babe Ruth had exactly three seasons with more than 200 hits, and Ted Williams had zero. Now, I ask you: How important can any hitting category be in which Ted Williams has a zero? Has anyone ever stopped to think that one of the reasons Pete Rose got so many of those hits is because pitchers didn’t fear him more? Or stated another way, Williams and Ruth didn’t have more hits because they were feared. Pitchers walked them too much.

I went further but it bears repeating: You want to argue Rose was a better hitter than Stan Musial? (Musial had a measly six 200-hit seasons.) Willie Mays? (The Say Hey Kid had—count it—one 200-hit season.) Frank Robinson? (One.) Mickey Mantle? (Never.)

I’m not even thinking about comparing Tim Raines to Musial, Mays, Robinson, or Mantle, either. But I do know that in his fifteen best seasons, Raines was better than Rose in his fifteen best: he got on base more often, he used less outs to get there, he hit with a little more power, he produced quite a number more runs, had superior speed, and wouldn’t have put up even three thousand hits, never mind four large plus, because he was that good at drawing walks. He was so much better than Rose at drawing walks that it’s a very legitimate question to ask a) whether pitchers feared Tim Raines more; or, b) whether Tim Raines just didn’t have the overall teammate quality Pete Rose had in his Cincinnati prime. (He didn’t.)

What you might have forgotten: Tim Raines and Pete Rose were teammates in Montreal for a spell, and Rose himself said of the youthful Raines, then in his fourth major league season, that Raines was the best player in the league.

Rock can beat you in more ways than any other player in the league. He can beat you with his glove, his speed and his hitting from either side of the plate. And he has the perfect disposition for a great player—he has fun. He’s just a happy guy. You can’t tell if he has gone oh for four or four for four. He’s the same at eight in the morning as he is at eight at night. I’ve never seen him in a bad mood.

35.7 percent of the poll respondents think Raines’s cocaine issue is the number one factor keeping him out of the Hall of Fame. Well, now. Was it that easy to forget that Raines didn’t get caught with the lines, he outed himself and sought treatment voluntarily after complaining about a severe headache and nausea that took him out of a 1982 game?

10.4 percent think other factors (not specified) are keeping Raines outside. You’d like to know what those factors are, for curiosity’s sake.

If it helps any voting writer any, he might care to note that Raines’s number one most-similar player is Hall of Famer Lou Brock . . . and if you burrow beneath the counting and milestone stats, you might discover Raines was better than Brock. This isn’t to say that Tim Raines should be in the Hall of Fame because Lou Brock is there, of course.

* Bernie Williams was thought to be the best of a freshman Hall ballot that contained not one obvious or borderline Hall of Fame candidate. The long-dependable Yankee got 9.6 percent of the writers’ vote, guaranteeing him a return trip to next year’s ballot.

* Juan gone: Juan Gonzalez got four percent of the writers’ vote—one percent lower than what he needed to stay on the ballot. In his second year of eligibility, Gonzalez—dogged by actual or alleged performance-enhancing substance suspicion (Jose Canseco’s books; the Mitchell Report, which described a bag belonging to him containing some such substances that was seized at an airport, though Gonzalez denied the substances belonged to him) and a reputation for phoning it in over several of his final seasons (though this may have been slightly unfair: he was bedeviled by injuries which ground him down in spirit as well)—falls off the Hall of Fame ballot permanently.

* Raines, Bagwell, and Morris return to the ballot next year. Also returning will be Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Mark McGwire, Dale Murphy, Rafael Palmeiro, Alan Trammell, and Larry Walker.

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