Hall of Fame Takes Another Swing at an Underappreciated Era
Baseball’s winter meetings are all about the future — players changing teams, leagues changing rules — except for the first order of business. On Sunday night in San Diego, a committee of executives, historians and former players will announce its verdict on the 10 candidates it is considering for the Hall of Fame.
One candidate is Marvin Miller, the pioneering union leader; another is Thurman Munson, the Yankees catcher who died in a plane crash in 1979; and a third is Tommy John, a standout lefty before and after the groundbreaking elbow surgery that came to bear his name.
The seven others are position players with at least one thing in common: They all faced Ron Darling, the Mets broadcaster who pitched in both leagues from 1983, when Dale Murphy and Ted Simmons started in the All-Star Game, to 1995, when Don Mattingly and Lou Whitaker retired. Murphy, Simmons, Mattingly and Whitaker are up for election this weekend, with Dwight Evans, Steve Garvey and Dave Parker rounding out a fascinating ballot.
“When you’re competing, in your heart — but more importantly, in your head — you feel like you’re their equal in time and space,” Darling said. “But many of the names on that list I knew were elite players of my generation, and I knew that they were elite players in the history of the game.”
The 16-person committee, which includes the Hall of Famers George Brett, Rod Carew, Dennis Eckersley, Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith and Robin Yount, is charged with evaluating managers, executives, umpires and players who did not receive 75 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. It has sent two 1980s stars to Cooperstown in each of the last two elections: Jack Morris and Alan Trammell in December 2017, Harold Baines and Lee Smith last year.
This election is intriguing for what it will say about the evolving notion of fame. Five players on the ballot (Garvey, Mattingly, Munson, Murphy and Parker) won a Most Valuable Player Award and were unquestionably viewed as superstars in their time. Seven (all but John and Simmons) won at least three Gold Gloves, meaning that defense, which is hard to quantify, was a big part of their game.
The two with the best advanced metrics are Whitaker and Evans, who both have more than 65 wins above replacement but never earned a single first-place vote for the M.V.P. Award or led a league outright in a triple crown category. (Evans was a part of a four-way tie for the American League home run lead in the strike-shortened 1981 season.)
Some other players from this era with at least 60 WAR, as calculated by Baseball Reference, are not on the ballot, like Buddy Bell, Bobby Grich, Keith Hernandez, Willie Randolph and Rick Reuschel.
“If you combine people’s notion of what a Hall of Famer is with more of a 21st century sabermetric reading,” said the historian Jay Jaffe, “there are more candidates from this period than can fit on one ballot.”
Jaffe, who writes for Fangraphs, is the author of “The Cooperstown Casebook,” in which he makes compelling arguments for Simmons and Whitaker, who each failed to get 5 percent of the vote in his only appearance on the writers’ ballot.
Jaffe said the timing could be right for both of them now, with Simmons having missed by one vote in 2017 and Whitaker fitting so snugly in history with Trammell, his longtime double-play partner with the Detroit Tigers.
Darling said he thought Simmons, Murphy and the Munson family would receive good news on Sunday, and offered his thoughts on each of the seven candidates he faced:
Dwight Evans (1 for 7 with a home run in Game 7 of the 1986 World Series): “I probably knew more about Dewey than most people, because I was a fan of the Red Sox growing up. I knew what a struggle it was for Dewey offensively early in his career — he always had that great glove — but over time he just got better and better and smarter. Going into the 1986 World Series, Dewey was definitely on all of our radars, and he really hurt us a lot.”
Steve Garvey (6 for 23, one home run): “To me, Garvey was an amazing R.B.I. machine. Analytics people could break this down better, because I don’t even know if it’s true, but we always thought, as pitchers, that you did not want Garvey coming up in a big R.B.I. spot.”
Don Mattingly (8 for 24, no home runs): “Donnie put up numbers that no one has put up in some time. There aren’t many guys who hit for such a high average with all that production — I think of someone like Mike Piazza, who could hit .340 and drive in 120 and hit 30-plus home runs. Donnie, for that short stretch, was one of the best players in the game.”
Dale Murphy (12 for 56, three home runs): “Maybe because I faced him in his prime a lot more, but I never thought anything but ‘Hall of Famer’ whenever I played against Dale Murphy. He just looked like a Hall of Famer, played like a Hall of Famer, acted like a Hall of Famer. That was my thought about him my entire career. The thing about Dale Murphy is that whenever he’d hit a home run, he always had that ‘aw shucks’ kind of gait around the bases, like, ‘I’m sorry, bro, I’m just doing my job.’ You could never get mad at him when he hit a home run. If there’s an opposite of bat flipping, it would be Dale Murphy on all the home runs he hit.”
Dave Parker (10 for 37, two home runs): “I remember he was M.V.P. of the 1979 All-Star Game, and you knew if he wasn’t the best player in the game, he was one of the top three. By the time I faced him, he had slowed down a little bit, but I judge it this way: When he got to the plate and he curled that bat around his head, you knew you were in for some trouble. He was an excellent player.”
Ted Simmons (2 for 3, no home runs): “I know about Ted through Keith, who played with him in St. Louis, and Keith has a million stories about Simba. He hit behind Keith for some of Keith’s best years, including his M.V.P. year. Keith always talks about how valuable he was, and I always think catchers should be in a different category. They should take someone in the outfield, a great player, and make him squat for one year for every pitch — and then see what kind of year he has.”
Lou Whitaker (3 for 14, one home run): “The thing about Whitaker, to me, is that I know they had different careers and I know they were different players, but when I think of Alan Trammell, I think of Lou Whitaker. I can’t separate them. So I feel like if one’s in, both should be in. And I’m kind of a big Hall more than a small Hall guy.”
The Hall seems likely to get a little bigger on Sunday, with more members from an era whose stars were underappreciated.
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