Since the Veteran’s Committee doesn’t often elect new members to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Tommy John and Dave Parker aren’t causing the same sort of controversy among baseball people today as, say, Jack Morris and Jeff Bagwell will in a month or so. No one, it seems, has interest in talking too much about whether or not players long absent from the standard ballot belong in the Hall of Fame, except in egregious or controversial cases like those of Ron Santo and Pete Rose.
I want to take a minute with it, though.
The Expansion Era is up for examination this year, with the Veteran’s Committee weighing the merits of the following players:
- Tommy John
- Dave Parker
- Ted Simmons
- Dave Concepcion
- Steve Garvey
- Dan Quisenberry
two dead executives:
- George Steinbrenner
- Marvin Miller
and four managers:
- Tony La Russa
- Bobby Cox
- Joe Torre
- Billy Martin
Let’s start with the clear cases: Miller, La Russa, Cox and Torre should cruise in, easily.
Miller brought the game free agency, and with that, a more legitimate place in society. He did more than that, really, but if that had been the only thing he ever did as head of the Players’ Association, it’d be enough. Though now deceased, Miller deserves this honor, and it’s high time the players stopped being ashamed of their victories over tyrannical billionaires and take some pride in how far they have come.
La Russa won three World Series and three other pennants, took home the Manager of the Year award four times and (to my mind, this is the biggest point, because the Hall should be more about legacy and footprint than titles for managers) invented the modern bullpen. He deployed specialists and the one-inning closer earlier and more aggressively than anyone else in baseball.
Torre won four World Series in five years, including three in a row, and took two other teams to the World Series, and oversaw a decade and a half of success even the Yankees franchise had rarely enjoyed before he came around. It may sound like talking out of both sides of my mouth to say it, after noting that La Russa’s titles aren’t really the reason he merits induction, but winning three straight World Series as the manager of the Yankees makes one a big enough piece of baseball history to earn you a plaque—especially given the strange twists and turns Torre weathered during his tenure, not least of them the strange and difficult six weeks of baseball just after September 11th, 2001.
Cox won just one World Series, but the 15-year Braves dynasty he helped build is a remarkable, unique accomplishment in the modern game. A vote for Cox is a vote for the long season that sets baseball apart, for the steadiness to succeed not just everyday for an entire summer, but for 15 of them in a row. Cox also voluntarily moved down from GM to the dugout in Atlanta, making way for John Schuerholz, and in so doing, he helped to set the tone for the move away from former players making former-player decisions in front offices, thus leaving a very welcome, if indirect, legacy.
As easily as I advocate for those four, I can dismiss the candidacies of Concepcion, Garvey, Quisenberry and Martin. Concepcion was a great defensive shortstop, but not close to a Hall of Famer. He wouldn’t even be under consideration, I imagine, if he hadn’t been a part of the Big Red Machine, the 1970s Reds. Garvey was always overrated, a first baseman who obsessed with his own statistics, and tended to focus on the wrong ones (hardly a surprise, given his era). Garvey would take careful aim at 200 hits, 100 RBI, numbers that made him popular and famous but that didn’t make him a good player, and that only make him seem foolish and self-absorbed now that (statistically) we all know better. Quisenberry was fine, but relief pitchers have to be really, really special in order to genuinely deserve a place in Cooperstown. Bruce Sutter has a spot he doesn’t deserve; that’s not an excuse to give players in Sutter’s peer group similarly unearned passes. Martin, though twice a World Series champion as manager, was a mess of a man, and most of his central ideas about the game (for instance, that starting pitchers should complete their starts unless their arm began to dislodge from its socket, and even then, that they should be faulted for their weakness) now look not only obsolete, but damning in their stupidity.
The guys who stand close to the line are John, Simmons, Parker and Steinbrenner.
John, for me, deserves enshrinement, on the combined strength of his on-field merit and his off-field legacy. With a 3.34 career ERA in over 4,700 innings, he wasn’t a star, but his career ending up spanning 26 years. He pitched in the Majors before my father was born, and after I was. He pitched before Kennedy was shot and after George H.W. Bush took office.
The reason for his longevity, of course, is a now-standard, then-miraculous surgical procedure that now bears his name. Dr. Frank Jobe created the procedure, and deserves his own place in Cooperstown, but John was the guinea pig, the first of his kind, and the way he survived and even fully regained his stature after a catastrophic elbow injury that had effectively ended the career of everyone who had it before he did deserves to be richly remembered. It wouldn’t be enough if he weren’t a good pitcher, but he was one.
Simmons and Parker can’t both be inducted. You have to choose. Simmons was a catcher of unusual, even sensational longevity, a steady and above-average producer for over a decade. He never was a superstar, but it would be fair to say he was a star for several years. Parker, on the other hand, burned hot and bright. He was unquestionably a superstar. At certain points, he was (by general acclaim) the best slugger in baseball. He had four seasons as good or better than Simmons’ best. He won an MVP award. On the other hand, Parker clearly had an inferior total career, as drug abuse and a series of injuries stopped him from matching Simmons in either durability or consistency.
Both guys got penalized, during their time on the standard ballot, for soft, off-field reasons. The writers dinged Simmons for his role in poor labor relations between MLB and the Players’ Association throughout the 1970s, and indeed, Simmons was one of several key players in the war against ownership during those days. Parker got written off for his drug-related transgressions. We don’t have a fair sense, from contemporary reports, of whether they met Hall of Fame standards based on on-field merit, except insofar as we can figure that out from their stats.
Although I’m normally a peak-performance guy, not a longevity guy, the better case here is built by Simmons. He wasn’t just around longer; he had better median seasons. He produced consistently, and at the height of his ability, he was as good as Parker. His value merely took a different shape. Alan Trammell, who will probably never reach the Hall but fully deserves to be there, suffered badly from being the second-best shortstop in the American League for a decade, but always being stuck behind Cal Ripken, Jr., not only the best shortstop of that decade but one of the best ever. Similarly, Simmons’s legacy suffers from the fact that he was the second-best catcher in the National League for 10 years, while Johnny Bench was building a legend as one of the three best ever.
I can’t decide whether to debit Parker extra for the fact that his lack of longevity was partly self-inflicted. I don’t think I would, if it came down to it. As I said, though, these two players can’t both enter the Hall. It would lower the standard for entry too much. I’m saved from deciding on that ethical issue, for now, by the fact that Simmons was better, or at least good enough for longer. I think I would vote for Simmons, if I had a vote.
As for Steinbrenner, I don’t know. He helped legitimize free agency, and his general attitude toward team-building was a healthy departure from those of most of the owners who came before him. On the other hand, his misbehavior and ill temper didn’t do anything to advance the game, or even his own team. There are probably decent arguments on either side, but I would leave Steinbrenner out for now. Since he’s already deceased, there’s no great hurry to place him in Cooperstown.
Miller. Cox. John. La Russa. Simmons. Torre. I very much doubt all of these men will reach the Hall, but I feel they should, and if they do, it could make for one crowded dais come late July—if the writers don’t shut out the drove of qualified candidates on the standard ballot.Next post: Curtis Granderson Signs With (and Settles For) the New York Mets
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