Why Niekro, Sutton belong on Hall staff

December 27, 1996|By John Eisenberg

Phil Niekro and Don Sutton have a lot in common.

They broke into the major leagues within two years of each other in the 1960s.

They pitched for close to 25 years, mostly in the National League.

They won more than 300 games, a feat accomplished by only 16 other pitchers in major-league history.

And they can't get into the Hall of Fame.

Niekro has been eligible since 1992, Sutton since 1993. Last year, Niekro received votes from 68 percent of an electorate composed of longtime members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Sutton received votes from 64 percent.

Popularity such as that would give a mandate to anyone in the White House, but it's not enough for election to the Hall. That requires a yea from 75 percent of the voters.

Niekro missed by 32 votes out of 470 last year, and Sutton missed by 53 -- enough to make you wonder if they'll ever make it.

Their plight demonstrates the highly subjective nature of the voting for baseball's highest honor.

According to the rules written by the BBWA, voting is based on a player's "record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, and contribution" to his teams.

Basically, you vote for a player if you think he is deserving, for whatever reason you want.

Not too vague, huh?

I have voted for Niekro and Sutton every year since I became eligible to vote. They were the only players I voted for in this year's election, the results of which will be announced early next year.

I didn't vote for Tony Perez, despite the 2,732 hits and 1,652 RBIs he amassed in his long career. I didn't vote for Dave Parker, who had 2,712 hits and 1,493 RBIs.

I didn't vote for Tommy John, who won 288 games. I didn't vote for Ron Guidry, who won almost two-thirds of his decisions. I didn't vote for Joe Torre, who has been a friend to baseball for 35 years.

As terrific as all of those players were, they aren't among the Jim Palmers and Mike Schmidts, the few whose careers stand out like neon amid the great gray mass of baseball statistics.

The Hall should be reserved for such players.

That's a relatively harsh standard, but it's the standard I aim to protect when I vote.

Do Niekro and Sutton rate? Obviously, there are more than a few voters who don't think so. I know their arguments. They say Niekro threw a gimmick pitch, a knuckleball, and averaged just 13 wins over 24 seasons. They say Sutton had just one 20-win season in 23 years and was dogged by rumors that he scuffed balls.

They say both were just above-average pitchers who hung around long enough to win 300 games; that neither would come close to warranting consideration if not for that magic number.

But that's like saying that Brooks Robinson wouldn't have warranted consideration if not for his peerless fielding.

What makes a player great is what makes him a Hall of Famer; you can't take it away. Brooks could play third base like no one before or since, so he went into the Hall. Niekro and Sutton had more wins than all but a few pitchers in the history of the game. That's enough right there to warrant a place in the Hall.

Anyone who has followed the Orioles recently knows that there are some pitchers who know how to win and others with a knack for not finishing what they started. Mike Mussina knows how to win. Sid Fernandez never seemed to sustain a lead in the late innings. Same with Ben McDonald. It's a vague quality, but you know it when you see it.

At the risk of oversimplification, knowing how to win is the most important skill in baseball or any sport. For a pitcher, it requires tenacity, endurance and resourcefulness. Niekro and Sutton had You can look it up.

Regardless of what he threw, Niekro won 318 games, mostly for lousy Atlanta teams in the '60s and '70s. He also lost 274, which meant he battled, competed and chewed up hundreds of innings. He threw a no-hitter, ranks fourth all-time in innings and eighth all-time in strikeouts. That's a Hall of Fame pitcher.

Sutton is third all-time in starts, fifth all-time in strikeouts and 10th all-time in shutouts, with 58. That's right, 58 shutouts. He won 324 games, threw five one-hitters, had a 3.26 career ERA and had more wins than Tom Seaver, Lefty Grove or Early Wynn. That, too, is a Hall of Fame pitcher.

To deny either a place in the Hall is to deny the importance of longevity in baseball.

Few qualities are more important.

The ability to show up and produce consistently, year after year, is the essence of the game.

It's why Cal Ripken will go into the Hall as soon as he is eligible.

Niekro and Sutton deserve the same honor. Any pitcher who wins 300 games is deserving.

Pub Date: 12/27/96

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