Hall em in. You thought I'd forgotten about the Hall of Fame watch, didn't you? You should be so lucky. We've just had the announcement that nobody got elected to the Hall of Fame this year, unless the Veterans' Committee picks some obscure ancient hero or they decide to name an Official Scorer. Having failed when there was no substantial competition, we can now assume that Phil Neikro and Don Sutton will never get into the Hall, nor will former Red Sox Tony Perez, Jim Rice, or Luis Tiant. I'd been rooting for Rice and Tiant, although I figured they had little chance, but I must agree with the decisions on Neikro and especially Sutton. We must acknowledge, however, that the voters have established a new, and stricter, standard for enshrinement: 300 wins for a pitcher is no longer an automatic ticket to Cooperstown. Does this mean that 3,000 hits may also soon be removed as a Hall magic number?
In light of these developments, let's examine once again the candidates among present major league players who have the best shot at immortality. A lot has changed recently, with the retirement of numerous shoo-ins, and the impact of the strike upon some players' career totals, plus the usual ups and downs for various stars. Here are the categories, and the leading contenders:
1. The Heirs-Apparent to the All-Time Greats. As I see it, we are living through a special era in baseball history, repeating a pattern that has occurred only a few times before. With Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Barry Bonds, we have 3 hitters who appear destined to be ranked among the All-Time greats, all playing right now in the prime of their careers. It remains to be seen how this trio will be rated by history when their careers are over, but at the moment they have to be considered comparable to the other great troikas of the past:
It's been so long since we've had a group of overwhelmingly dominant players like this (Yaz-Rose-Reggie? Brett-Henderson-Schmidt?), that we might hesitate to believe that our present heros deserve to be ranked this high. But in terms of both contemporary performance and, I expect, career numbers, Thomas, Griffey, and Bonds are in position to be placed at the highest niveau of baseball legends of the 20th century (and probably beyond).
2. The Remaining Shoo-ins. Despite the recent retirements of Fisk, Brett, et al., there are still quite a few active players who should walk right into the Hall, even if the standards appear to be tightening. Assuming they all retire over the next 5 years, however, we would only average two definite inductees per year, and that's not too high. The names:
Cal Ripken. Duh. The more interesting question is whether he would have made it without the Streak. His career totals are not eye-popping until you remember he's a shortstop. Add in the Gold Gloves and the two MVPs, and I suppose he'd be in pretty good shape.
Rickey Henderson. All time base-stealing, run scoring leader; best leadoff hitter in history, with 235 home runs to boot.
Dave Winfield. Has passed the magic numbers of both 3,000 hits and 450 home runs, so they really have to put him in, even if he never won an MVP or batting title, and only hit more than 30 homers 3 times. In a way, he's like the Don Sutton of hitters, but I can't imagine the voters keeping him out.
Eddie Murray. Has all the credentials that Winfield has, even a tad better. And he's finishing his career on a winner (oops, I guess Winfield was on the Indians last year, too).
Paul Molitor. Well, everyone says he's guaranteed to make the Hall of Fame, and he's likely to reach 3,000 hits before he retires (211 shy right now). The .305 career average, 1,500+ runs scored, and nearly 500 stolen bases are pretty strong credentials, too, and the fact that he had his best years late in his career is definitely in his favor.
Wade Boggs. Okay, we've been through this before. If anyone still doubts that Boggs is a shoo-in, then I hope they don't expect Molitor to make it any more easily, because Boggs has had a much better career than Molitor: .334 vs. .305, five batting titles vs. none, much higher OBP, even a higher slugging average (.453 -.451). Boggs has had 200+ hits 7 times, Molitor 3 times. And so forth. All Molitor has is four extra years, and a lot of stolen bases.
Tony Gwynn. He definitely put himself over the top by winning his 5th and 6th batting titles the past two years, including the awesome .394 in 1994. His lifetime average now exceeds Boggs, .336 to .334.
Roger Clemens. The numbers look a little less impressive after a couple of down seasons, but the three Cy Youngs should weigh strongly, and anyone who was there knows he was the pitcher of the late 80s to early 90s.
Greg Maddux. Four straight Cy Youngs cannot be overlooked, even if his arm falls off tomorrow. I said the same thing about Clemens after three Cy's, so Maddux has to be a shoo-in.
3. The Borderline Candidates. This is where the Suttons and Perezes lived 5 years ago. Their failure makes it appear that most of these guys will fall short, too. The excess of sure things who are basically the same age will make it especially difficult for most of these guys.
Joe Carter. The RBI machine of the 80s, with 98+ for 9 consecutive years. Three more good years, and he might make it.
Andre Dawson. About 2,700 hits and 430 home runs, one MVP, universally respected. The definition of "borderline".
Don Mattingly. If the New York media have their way, he'll make it, but his numbers are certainly inferior to Rice or Perez.
Kirby Puckett. If Mattingly makes it, Kirby makes it. Otherwise, neither one does. Very similar career stats, leadership reputations, Puckett won two World Series, but Mattingly played in New York.
Tim Raines. The 777 stolen bases would have been more impressive if he hadn't played in Henderson's shadow. His other stats are all similarly sub-Rickey, although not by much. If he had one big, MVP-type year, he could make it, but that's not likely now.
Ozzie Smith. Will probably be hurt by coming up the same year as people like Murray, Henderson, and Molitor. Needs his incomparable glove reputation to be included along with his very respectable 2,400 hits and 575 SB.
Aloun Whitramellker. This two-headed monster, possibly retiring this year (along with, presumably, Winfield), might just slip in if they are the only candidates on the ballot in 5 years. Their nearly identical qualifications are really not that impressive, below guys like Mattingly and Puckett, but the timing could be right. It is obvious that they will either go in together or not at all.
The relievers: Lee Smith, Dennis Eckersley. Pretty soon, when Reardon comes up for election, the voters will have to decide finally whether the modern Closer deserves recognition in the Hall of Fame. Even if Reardon is turned down, they'll have to think twice about excluding Smith and Eckersley, the most dominant closers ever.
4. The Young Studs. Candidates with performance and potential, and young enough to keep it going. Technically, this is where Thomas, Griffey, and Bonds would go, although Bonds is bordering on the shoo-in category.
Roberto Alomar. Just 28 years old, and looks to be an All-Star well into the 21st century.
Carlos Baerga. Seems destined to play in Alomar's shadow, but actually has better career numbers to date, except for stolen bases.
Jeff Bagwell. Ditto Alomar and Baerga.
Mo Vaughn. His emergence last year in the face of all the great sluggers in the A.L. is impressive, and that MVP will stand out when history looks back. If he stays around another 9 years, he should be in position to reach 400 home runs (he would need to average about 31 homers per year).
5. The Outside Shots. If these guys hang around long enough, and/or turn it up a notch, they'll enter the Borderline category, and will have a chance at the Hall.
Albert Belle. If he hits 50 home runs a year, yeah. But otherwise he's going to have to make some friends among sportswriters if he doesn't want to suffer Jim Rice's fate.
Juan Gonzalez. After a couple of off years, he's no longer on track for 500 home runs, but he could get it back together and rejoin the power elite for the next 10 years. Chuck Knoblauch. Just a notch below the Alomars and Baergas, but rising fast.
Kenny Lofton. He got a late start, so that, at age 28 entering this season, he may not have the stamina to keep up with his younger contemporaries. But if he does, he's as good as any of them.
Tim Salmon. Off to a great start, would need to rise up a notch to compete with the Griffeys and Thomases for MVP honors. But he could be in position to make about 10 consecutive All Star teams, which would help a lot.
Matt Williams. Well, Roger Maris and Dave Kingman never made it in, but that doesn't automatically exclude Williams. If he gets healthy and socks 500 homers, he'll have a shot.
Gary Sheffield. Believe it or not, he's the same age (27) as Salmon and Baerga, younger than Alomar, with more career home runs than any of them. He's only had a couple of outstanding seasons, so he has a long way to go, and he must stay injury-free. If he were in the A.L., I'd want to buy him this year.
Fred McGriff. Needs 111 homers to reach 400, which he could achieve in 3 years if he's healthy and there's no strike. One of the greatest casualties of the strike, in terms of HoF credentials.
Mark McGwire. He's almost a carbon copy of McGriff: same age, same position, similar name, 277 homers vs. 289, comparable career OBP and slugging averages. There's no way he'll stay healthy enough to put up the numbers he would need.
6. Hall of Fame: Not!
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