Certain numbers translate to almost certain Hall of Fame enshrine- ment -- 300 vic- tories, 500 homers, 3,000 hits. But no one has determined an appropriate standard for that most recent of baseball creations, the closer.
Baltimore, a city in a perpetual state of ninth-inning angst, is the last place you'd expect to hear such debate. Yet, the question is suddenly relevant with Randy Myers one save short of becoming the ninth pitcher in history to earn 300 saves.
Should that achievement alone qualify Myers for Cooperstown? Probably not. But one could make a case for his induction -- and an even better case if he gets to 400 saves, a total exceeded only by Lee Smith.
Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Wilhelm are the only two relievers in the Hall, and Smith and Dennis Eckersley are almost certain to join them. But it's more difficult to assess the historical significance of other top closers.
"I don't think there is a single standard, or will be in the next 20 years," said baseball historian Bill James, author of "The Politics of Glory," a book about the Hall of Fame selection process.
"I think that eventually 500 saves will emerge as a benchmark, RTC but nobody's there yet. Certainly the fact that Fingers and Wilhelm didn't get there isn't that relevant."
Smith, the all-time leader, is 22 short of that total. James, however, believes that with the evolution of the role, 60-save seasons soon will become routine for the top closers.
Baseball is a game of tradition, played much the same as it was in the mid-19th century. The increased emphasis on the bullpen is a fairly recent phenomenon. It wasn't so long ago when most pitchers finished what they started.
Saves weren't formally recognized until 1969. The closer's role didn't achieve prominence until the late 1970s. And only in recent years has the late-inning reliever been viewed as an essential element of a championship club.
Consider Wilhelm, who pitched from 1952 to 1972. He made the Hall with only 227 saves. The difference is, he worked 2,254 innings in his career -- almost 1,000 more than Smith in a comparable number of games.
So, where do you rank Myers?
Well, 300 saves is 300 saves -- 20 per season over 15 years, or 30 per season over 10. Smith was the youngest pitcher to reach 300, at 33. Myers is only one year older.
"To me, he's got to be in, doesn't he?" asked Davey Johnson, who managed Myers with both the Mets and Orioles. "Three hundred, you're in the Rollie Fingers group. What's the criteria? Randy's probably going to end up with 400, easy."
Smith is first with 478, followed by Eckersley (368), Jeff Reardon (367) and Fingers and John Franco (341). Myers keeps in top condition, and seems capable of pitching three or four more seasons. So, 400 is possible.
Yet, even that number might not be enough. The critical issue for many Hall voters is, did the player dominate his era? Reardon didn't. John Franco hasn't. Bruce Sutter did, and he hasn't been elected.
Myers twice led the National League in saves -- in 1993 (53) and 1995 (38). He has pitched in three postseasons and one World Series. But few would put him in the same category as Eckersley and Smith.
Should that rule him out? Not necessarily. The role of the closer keeps growing in importance. Few can handle the pressure, the scrutiny, the responsi- bility. And for a decade, Myers has done it as well as almost anyone.
"I think the people who vote for the Hall of Fame have to take into consideration that the game has changed," said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, a starter who was elected to Cooperstown in 1990.
"Are they going to understand how important the closer is in today's baseball world? I don't know. But they're indispensable if you're trying to win."
Heck, closers are critical even for expansion clubs, to protect the few leads those teams get. Late-inning losses often crush a team's spirit. But clubs with effective closers often are the most confident.
Think of the postseason: The Braves' lack of a top closer is a major reason they've lost the World Series three times in the 1990s. Perhaps that's why Bobby Cox understands better than any manager the impact of a poor bullpen.
"It infects the whole team," Cox recently told the Boston Globe. "It affects the way a manager manages, the way players play, the way starting pitchers pitch. It affects the entire atmosphere around a team, and it can be the darnedest thing to turn around."
Given all that, a closer like Myers deserves almost special Hall consideration. Oh, he makes things difficult at times. He lately has faded after the All-Star break. He no longer is overpowering. But more often than not, he gets the job done.
Does that make him a Hall of Famer? Maybe not. But any way you look at it, 300 is a big number. Franco is the only left-hander with more saves.
And the most intriguing thing about Randy Myers' career is that it still isn't over.
Pub Date: 6/28/97