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Puckett, Winfield receive Hall passes to Cooperstown

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ESPN's Tim Kurkjian and Brian Kenny look at those who didn't make it this year.
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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Puckett, Winfield deserve the Hall
By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

On the night that Dave Winfield got his 3,000th hit, Twins teammate Kirby Puckett looked at his friend's hit list and said, "When Winny got his first hit, I was 12 years old. Twelve! Man, what a man." And now the men are together again, where they belong, in the Hall of Fame.

Winfield was a man the day he arrived in the major leagues in 1973, having never played a day in the minor leagues. His first hit came on June 19, 1973, the day Nixon went with Brezhnev to Camp David. Winfield played against Willie Mays, he hit a home run off Bob Gibson and was, at one time, the oldest player to drive in 100 runs in a season, the oldest to hit for the cycle and the oldest to hit a postseason home run. He wasn't old -- he was 40 -- in 1992 when he knocked in 108 runs for the World Series champion Blue Jays.

In his career, he piled up 3,110 hits, 465 home runs, made 12 All-Star teams and won seven Gold Gloves. He was born the day (Oct. 3, 1951) that Bobby Thomson hit the most famous home run in major-league history. And now, fittingly, he joins the elite crowd in Cooperstown.

So does Puckett. He was a .318 hitter (higher than Roberto Clemente) at a position (center field) that demands more of defense -- he won six Silver Slugger awards (best offensive player at his position) and six Gold Gloves. In 1988, he became the first player since Ducky Medwick in 1937 to have as many as 234 hits and 121 RBI in the same season. Puckett was a fabulous clutch player -- in 1989, he batted .619 with runners in scoring position when his team was behind by a run -- who was at his best in the postseason. His Game 6 in 1991 when he made a leaping grab against the outfield fence and had three hits, three RBI and the game-winning home run in the 11th inning, was probably one of the five best World Series performances ever.

Puckett won a batting title and finished in the top three in MVP voting three times. He was a fabulous teammate who played the game with tremendous joy. His career ended prematurely due to blurred vision in his left eye, so he only finished with 2,304 hits (more than Joe DiMaggio). But he made 10 All-Star teams. The only players in history to make that many All-Star teams and are eligible for the Hall but not in, are Gary Carter and Steve Garvey.

Puckett never had a bad season, but at the beginning of his career in 1984 he was a singles hitter. "If he ever learns to hit for power," Tom Grieve, then the Rangers GM said, "he'll be the best player in the game." Presto. In 1986, he became the first player in history to hit 30 homers in a season after having any 500-at-bat season with zero homers. In 1988, he joined Jim Rice, Lou Gehrig and Chuck Klein as the only players to total 200 hits and 25 home runs three seasons in a row. Typical Puckett. Whatever his team needed, he provided it.

Puckett and Winfield will go in alone, which is unfortunate because others on the ballot belong, most notably Carter. He received 334 votes, a substantial increase over last year. Someday, he'll get in, but he should be in now. He is Carlton Fisk, only perhaps with a better prime of his career. Fisk is in -- as he should be -- so Carter should be in, too. He was hitting 30 homers when 30 homers really meant something, and he was among the most durable catchers in history. A case can be made that Carter, relative to his era, was a better player than Yankee great Bill Dickey, widely considered one of the five best catchers ever.

Sadly, the astounding lack of support continued for two relievers, Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage. These guys were saving 30 games when that was a real accomplishment. They pitched over 100 innings a year; now a closer might throw 50. Lee Smith came into a game with a runner in scoring position and none out one time over a three-year stretch; Sutter and Gossage came into messy situations all the time.

Remember, in the 1978 playoff game between the Yankees and Red Sox, Goose entered with one out in the seventh, and finished the game. Can you imagine a closer today getting eight outs? A six-out save by a closer is heroic. Since the save rule became official in 1969, there have been four truly great relievers: Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, Sutter, Gossage and Dennis Eckersley. The Eck deserves a first-ballot nomination. The way it's going, he'll beat Goose and Sutter to Cooperstown.

Don Mattingly, in his first year on the ballot, got only 145 votes. There is so much good to be said about Mattingly. He was one of the great character guys, as well as one of the best defensive first baseman, in baseball history. In 1984, he became the first first baseman to lead his league in batting average and fielding percentage since Cap Anson in 1888. In 1986, he became the first player to hit 30 home runs with fewer than 40 strikeouts since Ted Kluszewski and Yogi Berra in 1956. In 1989, he became the first Yankee to hit .300 six years in a row since Joe DiMaggio.

He was the game's best player for five seasons, then he hurt his back, he lost his power and he was never the same hitter. He finished with 222 home runs (fewer than Eric Karros) and 1,099 RBI (fewer than Norm Cash); that's not enough production at a power position.

Those who didn't make it this year will have just as much trouble making it next year because a fairly good class is on its way. Ozzie Smith will be eligible next year. He is perhaps the greatest defensive shortstop of all time, and a case could be made for him being the greatest defensive player at any position. Defense alone could get him in, but Smith finished with 2,460 hits and 580 stolen bases (an 80 percent success rate); he was the first player in the 20th century to steal at least 20 bases in his first 16 seasons in the major leagues.

Alan Trammell is up as well, and he's also a Hall of Famer. Shortstops with 2,365 hits, seven seasons of .300 or better, 1,003 RBI, 185 homers, nearly as many walks as strikeouts, a career of defensive excellence and a history of team leadership are difficult to find. In 1986-87, he became the first shortstop ever to have two seasons in his career with 20 homers and 20 stolen bases.

Also up next year is Andre Dawson, who makes a compelling case, also. His 2,774 hits, 438 homers, 314 steals and 1,591 RBI (more than Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell) are very impressive. He was the first player in history to post double-figure totals in homers and steals in 12 straight seasons. Plus, he was one of the premier right fielders of his time as well as a great team guy.

Tim Kurkjian is a regular contributor to

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