Fifty years ago, Red Smith and Shirley Povich never had to ask themselves, "Do closers and DHs belong in the Hall of Fame?" when they filled out their Hall of Fame ballots.
But nowadays, we live in an age in which nothing is ever simple. And there is no better illustration of the newfangled complications that face the modern Hall of Fame voter than the two first-ballot legends who were elected to the Hall on Tuesday -- Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley.
Had there been no such thing as a DH, Molitor never would have reached the Hall of Fame -- because his career essentially would have ended eight years early.
And had there been no such thing as an innovation even more recent than the DH -- the three-out, start-the-ninth-inning closer -- Eckersley would never have been a Hall of Famer, either, because we'd be looking at him as a fair-to-middling starting pitcher who won more than 15 games exactly twice.
Luckily for them, they played in an age that offered alternatives. The DH gig rescued Molitor from a lifetime sentence on the disabled list. Instead of seeing his career torpedoed by injuries before he even reached 2,000 hits, he wound up with 3,319 of them, the fifth-most of any player in the live-ball era.
Eckersley, meanwhile, was lucky enough to be in the right uniform at the right time in the summer of 1987, when the throbbing in A's closer Jay Howell's elbow became too painful for him to keep going out there in the ninth inning. So Tony La Russa turned to the Eck -- who responded with maybe the five most dominating back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back seasons any closer has produced.
Now Molitor and Eckersley are riding their talent, their leadership and their good fortune to live in the right baseball era to Cooperstown. But their arrival on the ballot this year was also an educational experience for the Hall of Fame voter whose photo appears above this column.
Having Molitor and Eckersley around to serve as quintessential Hall of Fame models helped me re-examine the Cooperstown credentials of four other players on the ballot. Three of them -- Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Lee Smith -- reside in the closers' portion of the neighborhood. The fourth was Jim Rice, who, like Molitor, wound up spending a significant chunk (though not a majority) of his career as a DH.
In the end, my eight votes this year included check marks next to the names of Molitor, Eckersley, Gossage and Sutter (along with Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Dale Murphy and Jack Morris).
But when I measured Smith alongside those other closers, I was moved to do something I've never done in 15 years as a Hall voter -- change my mind about a player I'd previously voted for and drop him from my ballot. All my previous reversals of heart went the other way around -- from a no to a yes.
And for the 10th consecutive year, I stopped just short of casting a vote for Rice, despite setting a personal record in that prestigious category: Most Hours Agonizing Over One Lousy Vote.
Here is how I reasoned all that out:
We know the world won't look at Eckersley as "just" a closer. He is heading for Cooperstown because he was a good enough starting pitcher to have a 20-win season, throw a no-hitter and win 150 games -- before turning into the best closer on earth.
But his best years as a starter all came before he turned 25. Over his final seven full seasons in the rotation, his average record was 10-11, and his ERA was lower than 3.60 just once. So the only reason we were even thinking twice about him when this ballot came in the mail was that second career of his -- cranking out all those 1-2-3 ninth innings in Oakland.
In the five seasons from 1988-1992, the only thing more automatic than the Eck was the sunrise. His ERA -- over five seasons -- was a ridiculous 1.90. His strikeout-walk ratio was nearly 10-to-1 (378-38). He averaged 44 saves a year.
He won an MVP award and a Cy Young in 1992. He finished second in the Cy Young voting in 1990, a season in which he would have won easily if his own teammate, Bob Welch, hadn't won 27 games. That was the year Eck recorded the lowest single-season ERA in history (0.61). It was also the year he racked up the greatest relief stat in the history of stats -- more saves (48) than baserunners (45).
He was also the greatest strike machine of his time. He once went two full seasons (1989-90) without walking the leadoff hitter in any of the 106 innings he started. And his 10 straight seasons with under two walks per nine innings is a streak topped only by Cy Young (16), Robin Roberts (13) and Grover Cleveland Alexander (11).
There is no better synonym for "Hall of Famer" than "dominator." And that's what Eckersley was for those five seasons -- even if Kirk Gibson might beg to differ.
They don't keep records for most times on the disabled list by members of the 3,000-hit club. But if they did, we're willing to bet that Molitor would hold it. He visited the old DL an amazing 14 times in his career. So imagine how many hits he'd have gotten if he'd have stayed as healthy as Cal Ripken.
It was all those pulls and fractures -- not defensive incompetence -- that turned Molitor into a DH over the last eight years of his career. So unlike most DHs, Molitor was always looked at, even by his peers, as a complete player.
What couldn't he do? He hit .300 12 times, stole 30 bases eight times, scored 100 runs five times, had four 200-hit seasons. He led his league in runs, hits and doubles. And he was so good for so long, he wound up with 1,000 more hits than Kirby Puckett.
Molitor wasn't a power hitter, but he did have a three-homer game and a cycle. He was a World Series MVP (in 1993). His career postseason average was .367.
He owns the longest hitting streak (39 games) by any American Leaguer since Joe DiMaggio. He's the only player since 1930 to hit .340 in the season in which he turned 40. And his teammates, just about unanimously, looked upon him as a leader of men and one of the smartest players they'd ever played with.
So even though more than one-third of his career was spent as a man with no position, he sets a Hall of Fame standard that other DHs -- or even part-time DHs -- have a hard time measuring up to.
Only people who have held a Hall of Fame ballot in their hands know how hard it is to draw that line between "Hall of Famer" and "Not Quite a Hall of Famer." For this voter, no candidate has dangled closer to that line, without crossing it, than Rice.
I hear from his 8 trillion supporters every year. I understand all their arguments. I appreciate their amazing research. After considering all of it, I came closer to voting for Rice this year than I ever have.
But as I started to check that box next to Rice's name, I thought about Molitor.
It's hard enough to make that Hall of Fame cut if you're a do-it-all player. But it's extra hard if your only real claim to Fame is those four times a night you get to stand at home plate. And that, in the end, is what always stops me from voting for Jim Rice.
As all the Rice-a-maniacs keep pointing out, for the 12 seasons from 1975 to 1986, there was no better hitter in the American League than this man. He averaged .305, 30 homers and 110 RBI over a span of 12 seasons -- and finished in the top five in the MVP voting six times.
Those are great reasons to vote for him. Except they're not enough -- not for this voter, anyway.
Molitor is the proof that Rice's career didn't have to fall off a cliff at age 34 -- not in an age when the DH could have extended his career for years. True, it's not his fault that he blew out his knee in 1987. But longevity and career totals are part of a player's Hall of Fame credentials. And Rice wound up with fewer career hits (2.452) than Buddy Bell or Willie Davis -- not to mention 867 fewer than Molitor.
He was a power hitter who barely cracks the top 50 all-time in homers (382) and RBI (1,451). In fact, his career numbers (.298 avg., 382 HR) are almost identical to Gary Sheffield's (.299, 379 HR). And does anyone out there see Sheffield as a Hall of Famer?
So without those career numbers, you look for other credentials. Rice's fan club argues he was a better outfielder than he's given credit for. I've surveyed players from the same era. They beg to differ -- especially in games played away from Fenway.
His proponents also argue his voluminous GIDP totals and his paltry stolen-base totals wrongly suggest he was far slower and a much worse baserunner than he actually was. But sorry, I can't project how many bases he would have stolen if he'd played for a team that believed in that sort of thing. I can only go by what he did.
So in the end, there just wasn't enough there for this particular voter to cast this particular vote. But if the Rice folks want to keep barraging me with insights that might change my mind, I'm always willing to listen. Just write me at email@example.com.
Gossage and Sutter
If Eckersley can go floating into the Hall of Fame on his first try, how can these two guys still be scuffling to get 50 percent of the vote? Ask any hitter of their era what they felt like when the bullpen gates opened and those two men came out in their prime. You could sum up the feeling in two words: "Game over."
Sutter redefined his position. He won a Cy Young. He pioneered a pitch (the dreaded splitter) that revolutionized the game. And he's still the only relief pitcher in the history of the whole darned sport who ever finished in the top 10 in MVP voting six times in eight years.
Then there's the Goose. Only two relief pitchers in the modern era ever had more seasons with at least 20 saves and sub-2.00 ERAs than Dennis Eckersley (who had three). One is Mariano Rivera (four). The other is Goose Gossage (also four).
Over his first 10 seasons as a closer, Gossage had an ERA of 2.27 or lower in eight of them. For nearly 20 years, all the right-handed hitters in baseball hit under .200 against him. He devoured insane numbers of innings early in his career, blowing past 130 three times. And while he hung on past his prime a little too long, even his latter years were more imposing than Eckersley's.
So what's the problem here? Both these guys actually were dominators for a larger percentage of their careers than the Eck was. So if we're opening those Hall of Fame doors for him, how can we justify kicking them shut for Sutter and Gossage? Correct answer: We can't.
One of the best parts of being a Hall of Fame voter is the never-ending perspective it provides on the careers of every player who shows up on a ballot. That's a good thing for people like me. But this year, at least in my little voter's booth, it turned out to be a bad thing for Lee Smith.
I voted for Smith last year, in his first year on the ballot. I almost didn't. But in the end, I decided there was at least some meaning in the fact that he's No. 1 on the all-time saves list (478). His 10 seasons with 30 or more saves are two more than any other pitcher in history. And it helped sway me that he was durable enough to become the only reliever ever to make 60 appearances in 12 straight seasons.
But the more I looked at him this year, the less dominating he began to look. That streak of 12 straight 60-appearance seasons? Nice factoid. But if the second-longest streak in history belongs to Jose Mesa, what does it mean?
What, in fact, do those 478 saves even mean? Does anyone think that record will hold up for 20 years -- or even 10? (Heck, Ugueth Urbina is almost halfway there.)
Smith had just five seasons as a closer (out of 15) with an ERA under 3.00. Eckersley had five in a row (and was under 2.00 in three of them). Gossage had 12. Sutter had ripped off six in eight years when he hurt his shoulder.
So what you find, if you take Smith's career save total out of the argument, is that he was more comparable to closers like Tom Henke, Randy Myers and Jeff Reardon than he was to Gossage, Sutter or Eckersley. And those aren't Hall of Fame names.
In the past, I've always taken the stance that my job as a voter was simply to decide: Was this player a Hall of Famer or wasn't he? And if he was, my policy was to vote for him every year. But I always reserve the right to reconsider -- in either direction.
Unfortunately for Lee Smith, he was the first guy I've ever allowed to tumble in the wrong direction. But if, down the road, that saves record looks more unbreakable than it does now, I just might change my mind again.
Rest of the ballot
Sandberg: This man went from 49 percent of the vote last year to 61 percent this year, so he'll probably get in some day. But why should it be this hard? Sandberg started nine All-Star Games (more than any middle infielder in history except Cal Ripken and Ozzie Smith). He owns the highest fielding percentage of any second baseman since 1900 (.989). And from 1982-92, he led all second basemen in average, homers, RBI, runs, extra-base hits, OPS, fielding percentage and 500-assist seasons. So what didn't he do? Get elected mayor?
Dawson: We suspect Andre Dawson might have set a record -- by attracting exactly 50 percent of the vote two elections in a row. But that tells you just how split our esteemed electorate is on his candidacy. And we don't get why. He, Mike Schmidt and Dale Murphy were the preeminent National League players in the 1980s. In that time, Dawson won one MVP award and finished second twice. He was a rookie of the year. He won eight Gold Gloves. And anyone who spent as many years as he did in the who's-the-best-player-in-baseball debate deserves a plaque. Doesn't he? Oh, well. Maybe he and Sandberg can go in together, for the ultimate Cubs daily double.
Murphy: We don't know what this guy did to deserve to have his vote total plummet from 116 to 43 in just four years. But apparently, this whole voting group wiped the '80s out of its memory banks. Because in the decade of the '80s, Murphy led all National Leaguers in runs and hits, tied Mike Schmidt for the most RBI and finished second to Schmidt in home runs. He also was a back-to-back MVP, a five-time Gold Glove winner, a 30-30 man, a leading vote-getter in the All-Star balloting and one of the great baseball citizens of modern times. That may not make him a Hall of Famer. But he's sure the best player ever to fail to get 50 votes.
Morris: Now here's a guy whose pendulum is swinging in the other direction. Two years ago, Morris had slipped under 100 votes. Now he's back up to 133 -- his most ever. His only black mark is that 3.90 career ERA, which would be the highest of any pitcher in the Hall. But we've said this before, and we'll say it again: Jack Morris' never-ending acehood -- for every team he ever pitched for -- made his ERA irrelevant. In his 14 peak seasons (1979-92), Morris won 41 more games than any other starter of his generation. He pitched a no-hitter. He started three All-Star Games. He was a clear No. 1 starter on three World Series teams. And Game 7, 1991, was his defining moment. He was an ace, from April to October. And he belongs in the Hall of Fame now.
Toughest omission: Joe Carter probably doesn't deserve to make it to Cooperstown. But he deserved more than the one-and-done fate on the ballot he wound up with after getting just 19 votes (3.8 percent). Carter did drive in 100 runs 10 times. Only seven players in history ever did that more. And in his time (1983-98), the only players who even came within two of that were Frank Thomas and Barry Bonds (eight apiece). Also, there was that Mazeroski-esque homer in October, 1993, which tells you he wasn't exactly terrified to stand at home plate in a big situation. But Carter had a reputation as a guy whose RBI totals were emptier than they appeared. So I looked at his 12 best seasons -- and found he hit .300 with men in scoring position only once. His .259 career average also would have been the lowest of any Hall of Famer. So he joins a group that carries no embarrassment whatsoever: Great player. Just not great enough.
Question: On his road to Cooperstown, Paul Molitor did something no active player has done -- string together four seasons of at least 200 hits. Can you name the three active players who have had three 200-hit seasons?