There are 34 players on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. There are, I believe, 19 for whom you could construct a reasonable Hall of Fame case and not look foolish, which points to the difficulty of receiving the necessary 75 percent of the vote to get elected.
Most Hall of Fame debates center on the statistical worthiness of the candidates -- aside, of course, from whatever PED allegations hang over them -- but one thing we tend to ignore in these arguments is the unquantifiable “wow” factor of the player.
In a sense, it’s kind of a gut reaction feel to a player, which is at least a small part of the Hall of Fame voting process along with considering home runs or ERA. How did they wow us in a Hall of Fame sense? We can be wowed by numbers, yes, but also by amazing exploits on the field. Some players just have that added panache to their game. So here is a listing of this year’s Hall of Fame candidates based on “wow.”
1. Barry Bonds: I’ll never forget sitting in the right-field stands in Anaheim at the 2002 World Series when Bonds launched a Troy Percival fastball all the way to Rancho Cucamonga. You hated him, you despised him, but you could not keep your eyes off him. No player -- ever -- has a more “holy crap” stat than Bonds’ .609 OBP in 2004, when he was intentionally walked 120 times. As Bonds himself once said, “It’s called talent. I just have it. I can’t explain it. You either have it or you don’t.”
2. Roger Clemens: You hated and despised him too, but you could not keep your eyes off him either. Only four pitchers have struck out 20 guys in nine innings -- but Clemens, amazingly, did it twice, 10 years apart. Then he won four more Cy Young Awards after doing it the second time. Oh, he also had a knack for, um, spicing things up a bit -- showing up for a playoff game wearing eye black and then getting ejected, throwing a bat at Mike Piazza, throwing footballs with Andy Pettitte. The quintessential Clemens moment: In an ALCS start against the Mariners in 2000, he knocked Alex Rodriguez on his butt with a high-and-tight fastball somewhere near A-Rod’s head. The game was over right there. Clemens would pitch a one-hitter with 15 strikeouts.
3. Sammy Sosa: For a few years there, he was a force of nature, a must-watch SportsCenter highlight in the pre-YouTube age. He hit 60-plus home runs three times -- and didn’t lead the league any of those seasons! Sosa’s 425 total bases in 2001 -- he hit .328 with 64 home runs and 160 RBIs -- stand as the most since Stan Musial’s 429 in 1948. He had the hop and the swagger and the kisses after launching a home run and, sure, it grew old, but let’s have a group therapy moment: It’s OK to admit you loved the steroid era.
4. Manny Ramirez: He was a hitting savant, batting as high as .351, including .300 11 times, and his 165 RBIs in 1999 are the most since World War II. He was known to give away an at-bat in the first inning, simply to set up the pitcher the next time up. He’s also the only potential Hall of Famer who once put his grill up for sale on eBay. He was so much fun we had to create “Manny Being Manny” to describe his idiosyncratic moments on the field, like the time he cut off a throw from Johnny Damon.
5. Vladimir Guerrero: The young Vlad played like an 8-year-old kid who stole the bin of Swedish fish from the candy shop and ate the whole thing during pregame warmups. He would try to throw out every runner on the bases -- sometimes he would, sometimes he’d chuck the ball into the third-base dugout -- and seemingly swing at every pitch, even if it bounced in the dirt. He swung the bat like he was brandishing a 20-pound sledgehammer, despite which he never struck out 100 times in a season and hit .300 in 12 consecutive years. He won an MVP award with the Angels, but his best seasons came with the Expos, when his joyous style of play became legendary even outside Quebec.
6. Ivan Rodriguez: There is no debate. I know Johnny Bench has his supporters. Cardinals fans will swear by Yadier Molina. Old scouts will speak in tongues about Ron Karkovice. But Pudge had the best throwing arm ever. Discussion over.
7. Larry Walker: He’s been ignored in the Hall of Fame voting, in part because of the “Could he hit outside Coors Field?” factor. Well, in his final two seasons with the Cardinals, he hit .286/.387/.520 -- when he was 37 and 38 years old, so I think the answer is a resounding “yes.” He was the rare five-tool player who actually had the five tools -- he thrilled Rockies fans with his bat, power, speed, defense and throwing arm, winning three batting titles and an MVP award. Here’s a wow fact to consider: He has a higher career WAR than Ramirez, Guerrero, Sosa or Tim Raines.
8. Curt Schilling: He’s still finding ways to make us say “wow,” even in retirement!
9. Jeff Bagwell: He deserves to be ranked this high for his batting stance alone. How did he not tear his groin every time he swung the bat? He scored 152 runs in 2000; the last player to score more was Lou Gehrig in 1936.
10. Edgar Martinez: Yes, a double to the opposite-field corner can be a thing of beauty. Yes, walks are cool, even if they don’t impress like, oh, I don’t know, a go-ahead grand slam in a playoff game (Note: Editors deleted the rest of my 3,000-word rant about putting Edgar in the Hall of Fame already.)
11. Mike Mussina: It’s a little weird. The guy won 270 games and retired after winning 20 in 2008. He was underappreciated when he played and has been underappreciated during his time on the ballot. He was more from the Greg Maddux school of pitching than, say, the Randy Johnson school of pitching, outsmarting hitters as opposed to overpowering them. He had one of the great postseasons that nobody remembers in 1997 with the Orioles, twice beating Johnson and the Mariners in the American League Division Series and then firing a 15-strikeout game against the Indians in the American League Championship Series followed by a one-hitter over eight innings. Alas, the Orioles lost both those ALCS games, as Mussina received two no-decisions. When he later joined the Yankees, such was his fate: New York won the World Series the season before he joined the team and the season after he left.
12. Mike Cameron: Defense can make us go “wow” just as much as a 500-foot home run, and nobody played center field better than Cammy did in that magical summer of 2001.
13. Tim Raines: It looks like he’ll finally get elected this year, and it’s a deserving honor, but his ranking on this list helps explain why it has taken 10 years for him to drum up enough support. His peak seasons came in the 1980s with the Expos on mostly forgettable teams, and he was merely a good-not-great player the second half of his career. It’s hard to get an image of him other than “he was fast.”
14. Billy Wagner: The little guy who could throw the snot out of the ball. Trevor Hoffman is the closer who probably will get elected, and while he lasted longer and collected more saves, Wagner was the more dominant reliever and the more impressive pitcher to watch, holding batters to a .187 average with a 33.2 percent strikeout rate compared to Hoffman’s .211 and 25.8 percent marks.
15. Gary Sheffield: Bat speed.
16. Magglio Ordonez: Man, could this guy hit -- .309 career average, including .363 in a runner-up MVP season in 2007. He always seemed underrated while active, but if you were an American League fan in the 2000s, you feared seeing Ordonez come to bat, instantly recognizable with his curly locks hanging out from under his helmet.
17. Fred McGriff: Led the majors in home runs from 1988 to 1996, and owner of a great nickname. McGriff had that high follow-through on his swing, like he was pointing to the baseball gods. Just passed the ShamWow guy in career infomercial appearances.
18. Jeff Kent: His Hall of Fame case has been oddly stagnant for a guy who hit more home runs than any second baseman in history. Maybe it’s because he kept that 1980s ’stache well into the 2000s. He wasn’t flashy, of course, and never led the league in anything except twice in sacrifice flies and once in greatest injury fabrication of all time -- the infamous “fell while washing his truck” excuse that included a trip to a public car wash to create eyewitnesses. (Others had seen him earlier in the day popping wheelies on his motorcycle.) He did win an MVP award and drove in more than 1,500 runs in his career -- more than many Hall of Famers who didn’t play a key up-the-middle position.
19. Lee Smith: He came up when closers were still men, averaging more than 100 innings per season from 1982 to 1986. He threw gas in those early days and lasted forever, drifting from team to team, which sort of obscures how good he was.
20. Jason Varitek: Too low?
21. Jorge Posada: He’s a reasonable Hall of Fame candidate if you factor in that catchers have drawn a short straw in recent decades, but there wasn’t necessarily a lot of “wow” to his game.
22. Trevor Hoffman: Best entry song and maybe the best changeup ever.
23. Derrek Lee: Had one of the best forgotten awesome seasons ever in 2005 when he hit .335/.418/.662 with 46 home runs and 50 doubles for the Cubs.
24. J.D. Drew: Much-maligned during his career, Drew was a very underrated player because he got on base and played solid defense. You know, things that don’t show up in the highlight clips but help teams win games. Also, contrary to popular belief, he did show some emotion on June 22, 2004.
25. Edgar Renteria: His career got lost in the A-Rod/Jeter/Nomar/Vizquel/Tejada era, but he was the starting shortstop on two World Series champs -- more than A-Rod, Nomar, Vizquel and Tejada combined.
26. Tim Wakefield: Won 200 games. Also had an ERA under 4.00 just three times in seasons he qualified for the ERA title.
27. Carlos Guillen: A key part of the Tigers’ resurgence in the mid-2000s, Guillen hit .320/.400/.519 in 2006, when they reached the World Series. He was also the last player to miss playoff games (with the Mariners in 2001) because of tuberculosis.
28. Pat Burrell: Let’s just say he was a legend in Philadelphia.
29. Orlando Cabrera: Seeing him here reminds me of those 2004 Red Sox and all the dirty batting helmets on that team. It got so bad at one point that MLB ordered a little cleaning so the team’s logo wasn’t obscured in pine tar and gunk. "It's a joke, that's what that is. An absolute joke, and you can quote me,” Trot Nixon said in anger.
30. Arthur Rhodes: Let’s pretend this never happened:
31. Melvin Mora: Hit .340/.419/.562 in 2004 -- and finished 18th in the MVP voting! How awesome were the late ’90s and early 2000s?
32. Freddy Sanchez: I bet you forgot he won the batting title with the Pirates in 2006 (.344) and made three All-Star teams.
33. Casey Blake: The fact that he had just 112 major league at-bats through the age of 28 and yet still had a good enough career to make it onto a Hall of Fame ballot is certainly a credit to his perseverance. He played 1,265 games in the majors and 27 more in the postseason, and I’m sure somebody remembers one or two "wow" moments in there.
34. Matt Stairs: The best 5-foot-9, former minor league second baseman turned designated hitter who didn’t get a chance to play until he was 29. Stairs hit more home runs from age 29 on than Larry Walker, Tony Perez, Cal Ripken, Mickey Mantle, Vlad Guerrero, George Brett, Yogi Berra, Al Kaline or Eddie Mathews. Plus, they called him the Wonder Hamster, which means he’s way too low on this list.