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After Decades Of Debate, Line Separating Hall Of Fame Worthiness Remains Blurry

August 19, 2018
Every trip to Cooperstown, N.Y., for baseball's Hall of Fame induction ceremony comes with an ample dose of nostalgia, occasionally accompanied by some debate as a side dish. This was one of those years.

There wasn't much discussion about the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) ballot, featuring players with 10 or more years of major league service time who had been retired at least five years. Third baseman Chipper Jones and first baseman Jim Thome were regarded as slam dunks for election during their first year of eligibility, while outfielder Vladimir Guerrero and reliever Trevor Hoffman appeared on enough ballots in 2017 to expect they would get the required 75 percent passing grade in 2018.

It was the Modern Baseball Era Committee selections of right-hander Jack Morris and shortstop Alan Trammell which restarted a debate that occurred throughout the 15 years the pair had been on the BBWAA's ballot. Morris and Trammell are among those caught between "old time" standards and "new age" analytics, and if you're among those who believe those two will never meet -- well, you just might be right.

But Morris and Trammell graded well among their peers, which shouldn't be taken lightly.

Morris' 254-186 record was far from pedestrian, but others are better. His 3.90 earned run average is the highest among those enshrined. But he pitched an average of 242 innings per year, a level some future Hall of Fame pitchers will not reach during any season of their career.

Morris also was an Opening Day starter 14 times and a five-time All-Star. He finished among the top five in Cy Young voting five times (seven times in the top 10). He won World Series championships with three different teams, and he was unquestionably the most dominant pitcher of his era (the 1980s). Enough said. He belongs.

Many would consider Trammell's numbers below average for Hall of Fame position players. But he ranks as an above-average Hall of Fame shortstop, according to Baseball Reference. Trammel was a career .285 hitter and posted 2,365 hits and 185 home runs. He was a six-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove winner and finished in the top 10 of American League MVP voting three times. He finished second in the 1987 MVP voting.

When Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. broke into the big leagues in 1981 -- only Trammell's third season -- he got some advice from longtime Orioles shortstop Mark Belanger. "Watch that guy and do what he does," Belanger told Ripken in reference to Trammell. "He does everything right." Works for me. He belongs.

Whatever debate there might have been about Morris and Trammell can be extended to any number of players who flirt with the fine line that separates the great players from the very good players. Former Orioles second baseman Bobby Grich -- who was part of the contingent recognizing Guerrero as the first Angels representative elected to the Hall of Fame -- reinforces that notion.

When Grich went on the BBWAA ballot in 1992, a friend and fellow voter with whom I regularly talk about Hall of Fame candidates called me. He asked, "Is Bobby Grich a Hall of Famer?" As I recall, I didn't hesitate very long before saying, "No, I don't think so."

But that was a couple of weeks before the ballots were due. The conversation stirred my interest to take a hard look at Grich's steady but unspectacular resume. A .266 batting average, even with a .371 on-base percentage, didn't hit you between the eyes. Let's face it -- the Hall of Fame for position players is basically an offensive show. 

At second base, however, Grich had few peers. He handled more than 900 chances during three straight years (1973-1975) with the Orioles, something nobody else has done. Bill Mazeroski is the only other second baseman to reach that number during three seasons, but they weren't consecutive. The more I looked at Grich's overall numbers -- with an emphasis on defense -- the more I questioned my initial reaction. I never asked my friend how he voted, but I ended up being one of the 11 who had Grich on his ballot.

Right-handers Tom Seaver and Rollie Fingers were the inductees in 1992. Grich failed to garner the necessary 5 percent of votes to stay on the ballot. Ironically, but maybe significantly, Mazeroski finished fifth in voting that year with 42.3 percent, one of two players who would eventually be elected by the Veterans Committee. Third baseman Ron Santo was the other.

Grich has drawn some belated support from younger Hall of Fame observers, who are calling out the old-time voters for Grich's failure to reach the 5 percent benchmark in 1992. Many believe he will get more future consideration from the Modern Baseball Era Committee.

All of this begs the question: "What does it take to be a Hall of Famer?" One of the first to ever ask me that question was Connie Robinson, the wife of legendary Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson, the first homegrown Oriole to make it to Cooperstown. "How come Boog [Powell] isn't in the Hall of Fame?" was the second part of Connie's question.

As I delicately tried to explain why I didn't think Powell crossed over that fine line between the very good and great -- sorry, Boog, I had to be honest with one of your biggest fans -- it brought back memories of another debate about Hall of Fame credentials (with another friend, but also a voter) many years ago.

"What does it take to get on your Hall of Fame ballot?" I asked.

"Dominance at the position for 10 years, an All-Star, strong MVP voting -- and postseason excellence helps," is as close to the verbatim response as I can remember.

"By that criteria, Boog Powell is a Hall of Famer," was my reply. 

A disclaimer came after a pause. "Those are just the starting points," he said.

So, what does it take to be a Hall of Famer? Frankly, I don't know if there's an answer to that question. But I think you'll know if you see one. And thanks to you, Mrs. Robinson, Powell at least got into the discussion. 

Ed Sheahin/Gary Sousa/PressBox

Issue 246: August 2018

Originally published Aug. 15, 2018