Two down, one to go – at least.
First, it was Bruce Sutter in 2006, who pitched for years with that lumberjack-like, bushy beard. This year it’s Richard “Goose” Gossage, who pitched for years with that intimidating Fu Manchu mustache.
Clearly the facial hair didn’t help either man’s chances at the Hall of Fame. Nor did their statistics, or how they impacted the game. Or the winning teams they played on – or, in Gossage’s case, not even having his most marquee years in New York, a city known to be a boon to Hall of Fame chances with other players. The only thing that worked to get Sutter and Gossage inducted was the wearing down of the voters’ resistance over time.
There can be, I suppose, at least a degree of slack given to the folks who cast ballots for the baseball Hall of Fame in their stubborn refusal to consider relief pitchers for induction. After all, the phenomenon of the “closer” – known in various decades as the “stopper” or the “fireman”, depending on when you started following the game – didn’t really come into prominence until the 1970s. Prior to that, your best pitchers were your starters – mainly because they pitched the whole game most of the time, so why wouldn’t those guys be your best arms?
Watching the Tigers on television a few weeks ago, on the night the team honored the 1968 World Series champs, I was taken by the words of former reliever Darryl Patterson, a member of that wonderful outfit in ’68. Patterson was asked how many save opportunities he got, back in the day.
“Well,” he said with a wry chuckle, “(Denny) McLain finished all of his games, and (Mickey) Lolich finished all of his games, and (Earl) Wilson just about finished all of his games, so that didn’t leave too many chances for guys like me,” Patterson continued, and the booth erupted.
In ’68, McLain, Lolich, Wilson, and Joe Sparma combined to complete 53 games (McLain himself pitched 28 complete games out of 41 starts). That’s a third of the 162-game schedule. And if they didn’t complete the game, they came darn close on many occasions, leaving few outs for the bullpen to worry about. There was one stretch, in September, when Tigers starters completed 12 straight games. Their relief pitchers needn’t have bothered to even show up for a couple of weeks.
But in the ‘70s, perhaps fueled by the designated hitter (keep reading to find out more about the DH), which ratcheted up the offense in the American League, starters finished fewer games. And the role of the “fireman” – the late-inning guy who would come in and pitch out of jams – became more and more important.
Sutter and Gossage were more than just finishers, though. They were no ninth-inning only pitchers, like the closers of today. Today’s closer often starts the ninth inning, the bases empty, the pressure gauge lower than it was in the days of Sutter and Gossage, who more often than not jumped into the fray after the starter left them with a mess – and not just in the ninth inning. Gossage, for one, would sometimes come into the game as early as the sixth inning – and finish the game.
It wasn’t until the early-1990s when the ‘70s generation of firemen/stoppers/closers became eligible for the Hall of Fame. At first, their appearance on the ballot was mostly scorned and derided.
“Hall of Fame? For a guy who pitched a couple innings here and there?”
Well, yeah – since those just happened to be the most crucial innings of the damn game.
It took awhile for the voters to catch on.
Finally, they did, and Sutter was elected in 2006 – the first true relief pitcher to be so honored. Grouchy at the time was Gossage, whose numbers were every bit as good. And Gossage wasn’t shy to voice his displeasure – not with any ill will toward Sutter, just at those who didn’t seem to understand that what was good for the gander was good for the Goose.
The error was corrected this year; Gossage was inducted just last week. And in regards to my opening sentence, the third reliever that belongs is Lee Smith, who is still waiting for justice himself.
Now, as promised, some words about another group of players who are being shunned.
Edgar Martinez was one of the finest hitters of his time. There were years when he may have been considered the best pure hitter in the game. Ten times he hit over .300 in a season, sometimes wayyyy over .300. He had seasons of .356 and .343 and .337. It was especially impressive, since Martinez was a right-handed hitter in a game where the vast majority of pitchers throw right-handed.
Martinez: should be considered a serious Hall candidate, despite his DH-only status
But Edgar Martinez is now the victim of having played his entire career in the era of the designated hitter. He didn’t make the rules, he only played within them. Yet there are those who would penalize him for that.
Martinez played his last game in 2004. A player isn’t eligible to appear on the Hall ballot until he’s been retired five years. So in January, 2010, Martinez’s name will appear for the first time, his candidacy to be considered officially by the notoriously slow-learning vote casters. As the calendar rolls along, there’s more and more talk about Martinez, and others like him, who played most of their games as DHs. And, as with the firemen, there is rancor.
“Hall of Fame? For half a player?”
For me, the DH is a bane. I, personally, don’t care for it. Still – and it’s been around for 36 years. It’s not the way the game, I believe, was meant to be played. Yet I refuse to penalize those who did that job, and did it well, because they weren’t the ones who included it in the rule book.
Yes, the DH has allowed aging players to stick around when they, by rights, should have been forced into retirement the moment they became liabilities defensively. Willie Horton had one of the best years of his career in 1979, aged 36, as a full-time DH for Seattle – when Willie had no business playing the outfield.
So you would hold that against them? The full-time DHs played baseball the way it was deemed, for their era. The rules said someone gets to bat and not wear a glove. So some simply went out and became the best hitters they could be. Like Edgar Martinez. He had over 2,200 hits and a career average of .312. They aren’t shoo-in numbers, but they’re worth considering – not to be mocked.