Once past the no-nos, Hall voting is, hmmm, interesting

December 29, 1997|By John Eisenberg

The Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, which lists 26 candidates this year, is actually a series of choices that can be broken down into three categories:

No-Brainers. (Players so obviously deserving that even a 6-year-old, or H. Wayne Huizenga, would know to vote for them.)

No-Chancers. (Players who consider it an honor just to get nominated.)

Hmmmmers. (Players who fall somewhere in between those two categories, meaning their candidacy is a worthy subject of debate.)

This year's ballot, due later this week, is long on Hmmmmers.

That's as opposed to next year's ballot, on which Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount will appear for the first time, giving voters three No-Brainers on which to rely. (Players become eligible five years after they retire.)

This year's ballot includes no such obvious first-ballot locks.

It does include several No-Chancers, led by former Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey, who hustled for 24 years, played huge in the 1983 World Series and brought joy to a lot of fans, but, let's face it, hit only .233.

Not even the Demper's biggest fans would suggest that he belongs in Cooperstown.

Same goes for Mike Flanagan, who deserves high respect for having won 167 games during a superb career, but isn't quite up to the Hall's rarefied standards.

That leaves a long list of borderline cases, and, for me, there's one who stands out as a Hmmmmer who should be a No-Brainer. (Got that?)

Don Sutton, who won 324 games and pitched for 23 seasons, mostly with the Dodgers, deserves to get in.

Every other 300-game winner in major-league history has made it, and Sutton, who threw 58 shutouts and five one-hitters, has comparable credentials.

He has struck out with the voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America for four years, probably because he had only one 20-win season and was dogged by rumors that he scuffed balls. But he came oh-so close last year, falling just nine votes short (out of 473) in a year in which Phil Niekro, who had fewer wins and a higher ERA, was elected.

This might be his last good chance to make it, with voters likely to get distracted when Ryan's class becomes eligible next year.

A check mark goes by his name, no doubt about it.

Some fans will argue that that should lead to votes for other longtime pitchers with similar credentials, such as Tommy John (288 wins), Bert Blyleven (287) and Jim Kaat (283).

For John and Kaat, no -- Sutton had more than 1,000 more career strikeouts than both, and also averaged almost three more wins per season than both.

Blyleven has a better case, with more shutouts, strikeouts and complete games than Sutton and almost as many wins per season (13 as opposed to Sutton's 14).

OK, a reluctant vote for Blyleven, one of the game's great curveballers.

The vote is reluctant because I consider myself as having high Hall standards, voting only for the few players whose careers stand out for one reason or another amid the game's great gray mass of statistics. Is Blyleven such a player? My first impression is no. And unlike Sutton, he didn't win 300 games. But he does rank third on the career strikeout list, and I will bow to the force of that and his other strong career numbers.

Those high standards are the reason I haven't voted for Tony Perez, who played first base for the Reds' famed Big Red Machine in the '70s. He was a winner and a fine player whose career totals are high, but he never won an MVP award, home run, RBI or batting title.

If the Hall is reserved for the rarest of the rare, Perez, in his seventh year on the ballot, just misses.

So do other Hmmmmers such as Jim Rice, Dave Parker, Steve Garvey and Ron Santo, all of whom had superb careers, but, for one reason or another, don't quite have what it takes to cross the Hall's final line of determination.

There is one everyday player who does deserve a vote this year: Gary Carter, who played catcher, the toughest position of all, for 19 seasons in the National League, mostly with the Expos and Mets.

He was an 11-time All-Star, a three-time Gold Glove winner, a World Series winner and clubhouse leader with the Mets in 1986, and, most importantly, his career compares surprisingly favorably to that of Johnny Bench, perhaps the greatest modern catcher.

Bench had more homers and RBIs, but Carter had more hits, fewer strikeouts and a higher career fielding percentage. (Really.) Their totals are close in almost every category.

In his first year on the ballot, Carter would seem to stand an excellent chance of induction.

That's three votes in all from this elector, for Sutton, Blyleven and Carter.

They might not compare to next year's threesome of No-Brainers, but they're far from shabby.

Pub Date: 12/29/97

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