[MLB] That Bootleg Guy

My apologies for the gap between Parts Six and Seven, but it took me this long to dig out from under the hate mail that Pete Rose’s deluded devotees tried to bury me with.

I know it’s been a few weeks, but here’s why they’re so mad.

When this Hall of Fame series is over, I’d like to compile some of the best feedback I’ve gotten from the readers. There have been some very compelling arguments against some of the verdicts I’ve doled out, but the ones who continue to call for The Hit King to be in The Hall are missing the point.

Even if I conceded to the moral cacophony and declared drug abusing ballplayers to be evil and steroid shooters as worse as a thousand unwed teenaged mothers…I’d still say Pete Rose should not be in The Hall.

The man bet on baseball. He admitted to betting on his own Reds team. Who’s to say that Rose didn’t compromise the health of his pitching staff by leaving a starting pitcher in long after he should’ve come out…just because “papa needs a new pair of shoes”?

And, more importantly, the stretch between betting for your team and betting against them, isn’t as wide as Rose would have you believe. Fortunately, Rose continues to be his own worst enemy and remains on the outside looking in…

Now, the list continues with Part Seven and we begin with …

Ron Santo

Why does Ron Santo continue to be left outside the Hall’s walls, when so many people seem to think he’s the best player not currently in Cooperstown? Oddly enough, Santo’s career was seemingly a case study in good and bad timing, with the latter often overshadowing the former.

In 1959, the Cubs signed Santo out of the Pacific Northwest for $20,000. The Reds offered four times as much, but Chicago had an immediate opening at the big league level (future Cubs manager/Yankees cherub Don Zimmer was playing his way off the hot corner) and in 1960, Santo made his Major League debut. In his first three full seasons, he flashed gap-to-gap power and a solid glove, while missing only eight games total.

By 1964, at the age of 24, he had put it all together in the form of a career year that featured an OPS (on-base plus slugging pct.) of .962 and the first of five consecutive Gold Gloves. He finished an inexplicable eighth in the MVP balloting (not even receiving one first place vote) behind Cards’ 3B Ken Boyer, whose numbers were inferior, but used the team success of St. Louis to steal the award.

Santo was never quite as good as his ’64 season, but he did manage to put up three more top six OPS finishes from 1965-67, along with eight straight top 10 tallies in RBI from 1963-70. He would finish his career with a single sad season on the South Side, in 1974, as a second baseman for the hated Pale Hose…moved over by the esteemed Beltin’ Bill Melton.

Santo has the numbers: 342 career home runs, 1331 runs batted in and a line that reads .277/.362/.464. Unfortunately, his numbers look depressed compared to the players that would follow him in the decades to come. Santo’s peak seasons came during the last great pitcher’s era, when league ERAs hovered around 3.50. He also played in a decade that featured several superb contemporaries, including Brooks Robinson and Ken & Clete Boyer.

Let’s quit holding it against him. Verdict: In

Gary Sheffield

Ever wonder who it was that ushered in the “bling bling” era of the professional athlete? A case could be made for Doc Gooden’s nephew, who debuted as a 19-year-old for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1988, with his initials, stenciled in gold, in his two front teeth. And for his first few seasons, that was the flashiest thing about him.

Despite all of his self-sustained hype, Sheffield played more than 100 games just once from 1988-91. He clashed with fans, teammates and the media before being dealt to San Diego prior to the ’92 season and finally…a star was born. Sheffield was a Triple Crown contender for much of his first season in the land of fish tacos, finishing with a .965 OPS, 33 HR and 100 RBI.

The following season, he was traded to the Marlins during the Padres’ infamous midseason “fire sale” (for reliever Trevor Hoffman) and only got better from there. He was on his way to duplicating his 1992 career year in ’94, before the strike hit. And, while injuries ruined his 1995 season, he arrived in the statistical stratosphere in 1996 with a gaudy .465 OBP and .624 SLG.

From 1998-2003, Sheff never hit below .300 and put up OBPs north of .400 in every season. An eight-time All Star, his 415 career HRs and 2,175 hits could use a few more seasons of polish to shine up his Cooperstown certainty. Unless his numbers fall off a cliff, the thought here is that he’ll be a sure thing by 2007. Verdict: Out…but only for now.

Ted Simmons

The greatest catcher in St. Louis Cardinal history can’t seem to catch a break. He succeeded Tim McCarver behind the plate and couldn’t quite match his defensive prowess. Then, in his first year of eligibility for the Hall, he received only 17 votes (out of a possible 456). So, what the hell happened in between?

Well, there were 2,472 hits…which just happen to be the most hits for any primary catcher in Major League history. Simmons’ 248 career home runs and 1,389 RBI place him among the top tier of all-time catchers, as well. He had five top 10 finishes in OPS during a stretch in the late ’70s, when contemporary Johnny Bench was sliding down the offensive slope. Then, after the 1980 season, the Cards pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal, sending Simmons, Rollie Fingers and Pete Vuckovich to Milwaukee.

While the trio would play important roles on the Brewers’ pennant winning “Harvey’s Wallbangers” team of 1982, it was the perception of Simmons that seemed to have been traded away, as well. After ’82, Simmons played mostly DH for the remainder of his years in the American League. He finished out his career in Atlanta, but his role there was mostly as a pinch-hitter and second or third catcher.

Despite putting up comparable, or in some cases better numbers than some of his well-known Hall of Fame peers (Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk), “Simba” remains an odd omission. He didn’t have that photogenic postseason moment that Fisk did in Boston or the smarmy charm of Carter, but he definitely deserved a better fate. Verdict: Out…as I couldn’t quite convince myself.

Sammy Sosa

When Sosa is inducted into the Hall of Fame, sometime in the next decade, there’s only one person who should be standing on the stage introducing him: Jeff Pentland. Who? He was the Cubs’ hitting coach, who Sosa gives credit for rebuilding his swing during the offseason, prior to 1998.

And, you all remember 1998, right? That was the year that McGwire and Sosa “saved” baseball, with Mac in the role of the All-American Hero and Sosa, his cartoonish comrade/chief competition. Sosa hit 66 home runs in ’98, drove in 158 runs and arguably stole the MVP award from McGwire that year. Sammy would slug 113 more home runs in the following two seasons, with matching .634 SLG percentages, to boot. But, he outdid those Ruthian numbers with his 2001 campaign.

Lost behind Barry Bonds, Sosa hit 64 home runs, drove in 160 to go with a .328 BA, .437 OBP and .737 SLG. Of course, the problem with career years is that there’s often no place to go but down. And, while he’s averaged about 41 home runs in each of the last three seasons, his numbers have been in a slow, steady decline…along with his image.

Currently seventh on the all-time home run list, Sosa should surpass 600 with good health, this year. Will the corked bat fact (and corked bicep whispers) hurt his Hall chances? They shouldn’t, but Sammy would be wise to toe the line in ’05 and beyond. Verdict: In

Darryl Strawberry

Those of us who remember the ’80s can’t help but feel a bit cheated that Darryl Strawberry isn’t known for more than wasted talent and being just plain wasted. A sweeter home run stroke you’ll never see and a man who had two cities in the palm of his hand.

Strawberry debuted in 1983 with the Mets, won the Rookie of the Year award and never hit fewer than 26 home runs during his entire stay in Shea. He finished in the top 10 in OPS in five of those seasons, including 1988, when Kirk Gibson was undeservingly named NL MVP over Straw. Sure, there was that whole “drug thing” and “fighting with Keith Hernandez during a team photo shoot thing” and a lot of other “things” that conspired to make Straw’s Mets years, uh…colorful. But, he was arguably the league’s best player in the ’80s and ready to cash in.

Just three days into the free agent signing period, Strawberry signed a five-year deal to return home to Los Angeles. His brontosaurus mug graced his 1991 Upper Deck card, while wearing a sharp suit and an uncomfortable grin. And despite LA’s laid-back reputation, his ’91 season (.265/.361/.491) was viewed as a disappointment, even though it was virtually identical to his 1990 campaign.

As most know, that would be as good as it would get for Straw. The following season, he played in only 43 games and made his infamous “I hope it all burns…” comment during the firestorms in Southern California that summer. In 1994, he was released outright, after failing to show for an exhibition game and going AWOL for several days.

He’d find a measure of salvation, and a whole lotta World Series rings, with the Yankees, but by then the well of sympathy had run dry. 335 career home runs and 1,000 RBI was supposed to happen for him nearly 10 seasons before his career came to an end. Verdict: Out

Frank Thomas

When did this guy go from lovable “Big Hurt” to lumbering “Big Surly”? It was only a decade ago that he was being pushed just a notch below Kid Griffey as the game’s next great thing. But, personality aside…has he done enough already to make the Hall of Fame?

Frank Thomas has played in the bigs for 15 seasons. During that time, he’s posted an OBP below .400 just four times and two of those came in at .381 and .390, with a third from his injury-shortened (he only played 20 games) 2001 campaign. He’s current career line is .308/.429/.567, with those last two numbers (OBP and SLG) ranking 11th and 16th all time. Even more impressive, he’s the owner of the tenth highest OPS in the history of the game (.996) His 436 career home runs almost seem like a throw in, so why don’t more people simply celebrate his greatness?

Well, his prickly personality hasn’t won him many friends in the clubhouse (remember when choir boy David Wells questioned Thomas’ desire in ’01?) Plus, he went public with his disdain for the umpires and their “conspiracy” to intentionally screw him over on balls and strikes. And, injuries have robbed him of significant playing time in two of the last four years, but contrary to popular conception, he’s actually been quite durable.

Notwithstanding the above, Frank Thomas is one of the more shockingly easy calls of this or any other era. Quite simply, he’s been the most dominating force in the American League since his debut in 1990 and when you consider that his National League counterpart for the honor is on another level of greatness, all together, well…there’s no shame in being second. Verdict: In.

Jim Thome

You might not realize it, but there’s a surprising amount of Frank Thomas in some of Thome’s numbers. Maybe because he was in the shadow of several great players on those ’90s Indians teams, or perhaps the Larry Bowa soap opera obscured his accomplishments in Philly…but, you’ll be shocked to see how good he’s been.

How good? In 14 seasons (one less than Thomas) Thome has put up a career OBP of .410 and SLG of .569. That’s good enough for a career OPS of .979, good for 14th all time. Amazingly, Thome played from 1991-1994 before racking up 100 games or more in a season. Since then, he’s never hit fewer than 25 home runs (423 for his career). He’s driven in 100+ runs in eight of the last nine years. And, since 1995, he’s never walked fewer than 89 times in a season. He’s struggled a bit in the postseason, but when he makes contact, chances are it’s leaving the yard, as his 17 playoff home runs and .516 October SLG indicates.

So, it looks like Thome and Thomas are similar players in some respects, but how are they different. Well, batting average is one unequal metric. Thome wields a more-than-respectable .284 BA for his career, but not as high as The Hurt’s .308. Thome also trails Thomas in career hits by nearly 500, along with moderate gaps behind Thomas in RBI and walks.

Through no one’s fault, Thome also has never been the flashy superstar personality that Thomas has actively marketed, with his short-lived “Big Hurt Enterprises” endeavor. But, with a few years left on his deal and a Philadelphia fan base eager for a reason to cheer, Thome just might make it with a few more solid seasons. Verdict: Out, but let’s ask again in 2008.

Alan Trammell

In many ways, he was the last of a dying breed. Trammell played shortstop for 20 seasons, all with the Detroit Tigers. At his peak, from 1983 to 1987, he might’ve been regarded as the best in the game, if not for the pair of kings playing in Baltimore and St. Louis, at the same time. And, therein lies the rub.

Alan Trammell doesn’t get the credit that Cal Ripken does, but he was a solid offensive threat in his prime. He only topped 20 home runs twice in a season, but his slugging percentages were often anywhere from 80-100 points higher than the league average…unheard of for a shortstop in the ’80s. His OBP was equally impressive, as Trammell hovered around the .365-.370 mark for several seasons, before his career year in 1987, at the age of 29.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to baseball fans, as ’87 is infamously referred to as the “juiced ball” season, when even lightly regarded hitters such as Dale Sveum were putting up middle-of-the-order numbers. For Trammell, he set career highs in several categories that would stand for the remainder of his playing days. He’s put up another solid season in 1988, before the decline kicked in. And, save for the fountain of youth he found in 1993, at the age of 35, when his OBP and SLG were .388 and .496, Trammell was essentially done when the ’80s were.

He gets a lot of Hall of Fame consideration from the statheads, but I just don’t see it. Trammell was very good, but never great for any sustained period. His 236 career SBs are a nice touch, but without any defining skill set, he’s really just a less flashy Barry Larkin. Verdict: Out

Omar Vizquel

Well, I’d like to see you come up with 100 ballplayers who may have a case for Cooperstown! Actually, Vizquel gets an inordinate number of supporters whenever the Hall is brought up. And, almost everyone uses the “Ozzie Smith comparative argument”. Of course, “everyone” couldn’t be more wrong.

Any conversation about Omar had better begin with his defense, because it’s sure not his offense that’s going to take him to the Hall. While Vizquel is a slightly stronger hitter than Ozzie, it was Smith who separates himself with 350 more hits and 270 more stolen bases. It doesn’t help that Omar gets to spend the next few seasons in the offensive wasteland that is SBC Park in San Francisco, either. A change of leagues at the age of 38 should be fun to watch, in one of those flaming NASCAR pile-up sort of ways.

Defensively, Vizquel looks the part. In his heyday, he exhibited great range, a terrific arm and a flair for the highlight reel. But, how much of that reputation is created by the 24/7 images of Web Gems? Many experts don’t even consider Omar the greatest defensive shortstop in Indians history, much less in a league with the greatest ever, Ozzie Smith. Lou Boudreau gets the old-school leather love for his work in Cleveland from 1938-50.

A nine-time Gold Glover and three-time All Star, Vizquel has crafted a nifty little career as one of those guys you’ll carry for his defense and settle for his offense. There ain’t too many of them left in the American League, but let’s not start opening the floodgates to the Hall for them. Verdict: Out

Larry Walker

Earlier in this series, we took a look at the Rockies’ Todd Helton and determined that, while he’s not there yet, his numbers could soon be strong enough to make a case for Cooperstown. Walker spent 9 ½ seasons in Colorado, including his peak years…but, are his numbers good enough to overcome the perception of the “thin air effect”?

Walker made his major league debut in 1989, but didn’t really grow into his power until 1992. He finished ninth in the National League in OPS (.859) that year, then dipped slightly in ’93, before his true coming out party in 1994. Of course, that was the year that the Expos were the best team in baseball. Walker’s OPS jumped to .981 and then he jumped…to the Colorado Rockies as a free agent.

In his first season at altitude, Walker slugged .607 to go with a career high of 36 home runs. Injuries robbed him of large parts of 1996, but in ’97, Walker won his first MVP award. His numbers were positively Playstation, too: .366/.452/.720 with 49 HRs and 130 RBI. Despite playing in 24 fewer games, he’d put up almost identical numbers in 1999. In fact, from 1997-2001, Walker would put up five consecutive seasons with an OPS of 1.000 or better.

On the one hand, Walker’s career OPS (.969) is Top 20 all time. On the other, his more obvious stats aren’t nearly as impressive. At 38 years of age and approaching his 17th season, he’s becoming more brittle and a lot less likely to add much more to his good, but not great home run and RBI total. While not entirely a creation of Coors, he had enough help to skew his stats and make this call easy. Verdict: Out

Check back tomorrow for Part Eight of the Hall of Fame 100. Bernie Williams rounds out the hitters, while Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine and Goose Gossage headline the hurlers! Get at me on AOL or Yahoo IM: ajcameron13

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