Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Jeter Tops Short List Heading to Cooperstown

Jeter Tops Short List Heading to Cooperstown
Commentary by Sanford D. Horn
January 14, 2020

Baseball’s Hot Stove season is designed to provide warm memories of the season past, while cold temperatures remind us that aside from a few trades, baseball is on the back burner, save for the important announcement due to come on Tuesday, January 21. However, this year, revealing the names of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2020 is already being overshadowed by the Houston Astros’ sign stealing scandal.

Major League Baseball determined Monday, January 13 that the 2017 Houston Astros, winners of that year’s World Series cheated, via electronic means, by stealing signs of their opponents. So-called traditional sign stealing has long been accepted, but the use of electronics has been strictly prohibited since 2018, and the Astros used cameras in their home ballpark of Minute Maid Park to capture signs opposing catchers would set down for their pitchers. Some have even suggested this sign stealing scandal ranks up with baseball’s most infamous of all scandals the 1919 fix of the World Series by the Chicago White Sox, a.k.a., the “Black Sox.”

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred handed down punishments of a one year suspension of Astros Manager A.J. Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow, as well as a $5 million fine and loss of draft picks this year and in 2021. Astros owner and CEO Jim Crane wasted no time in firing both Hinch and Luhnow an hour following the MLB ruling. By the way, with baseball salaries what they are in this day and age, a $5 million fine is lunch money to Crane. A $50 million fine might garner some attention.

“Neither one of them started this, but neither one of them did anything about it, and that’s how we came to the conclusion,” said Crane. “I have higher standards for the city and the franchise and I’m going above and beyond MLB’s penalty,” Crane added.

There are continuing debates over whether or not the 2017 World Series championship of the Astros should be vacated. “Baseball does not want to rewrite history,” said Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, indicating his belief there will be no vacating of the 2017 World Series by the Astros. And the fallout has reached Boston as the 2018 World Series champion Red Sox and manager Alex Cora have mutually agreed to part company on Tuesday, January 14. Cora served as the Astros bench coach on that 2017 World Series team. His link to both the Astros and Red Sox could prove deleterious to all, regarding his potential involvement in the sign stealing scandal in Houston and whether or not it carried over to Boston under Cora’s leadership. The Red Sox are being investigated for using their video replay room to relay signals through players on the field, explained Rosenthal. The far-reaching tentacles could also reach New York, as the Mets hired Carlos Beltran to be the team’s new manager this off-season. Beltran played on that 2017 Astros team and may very well be implicated in the sign stealing.

Former Astros hurler Roy Oswalt added some perspective to the ruling as the severity of the “crime,” by his former team, in a Tweet. “So let me get this right. You steal signs and get fired, but you do steroids and get millions of dollars in contracts and inducted into the Hall of Fame? #makesnosense.”

I absolutely agree with Oswalt. Sign stealing is, of course, wrong, but don’t reward steroid users - also cheaters - with a plaque in Cooperstown. The only way steroid/HGH-addled balloteers should be admitted to the Hall of Fame is with a paid ticket for admission to the museum.

“We hope the day never comes when known steroid users are voted into the Hall of Fame. They cheated. Steroid users don’t belong here,” wrote Hall of Famer Joe Morgan in a November 2017 letter to the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), hoping to influence their Hall votes in 2018. I hope Morgan’s letter continues to resonate in 2020 as cheaters such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens inch closer to the magic number of 75 percent - enough to grant one admission to the Hall.

The cloud of controversy has been dark and heavy, while initially eliminating some from Hall of Fame contention. Yet in the cases of Bonds and Clemens, the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America) voters’ support of Bonds rose from 56.4 percent in 2018 to 59.1 percent in 2019, and Clemens’ totals jumped from 57.3 in 2018 to 59.5 percent in 2019. Fortunately, remaining in low numbers are Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez. Sosa’s support moved from 7.8 percent in 2018 to 8.5 percent in 2019, while voting for Ramirez moved from 22 percent in 2018 to 22.8 percent, his third year on the ballot. Bonds, Clemens, and Sosa are on the ballot for the eighth year, and hopefully they will not reach the vaunted 75 percent by 2021.

The voting results are due to be released on Tuesday, January 21. What is not released are the ballots of the voting members of the BBWAA. I think they should be disclosed to the public. Let the BBWAA voters defend their votes as I defend mine, even if not as a member of the BBWAA.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame has a so-called character clause. “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.” So-called because it has existed since 1945 and more than a fair share of miscreants have found their way to Cooperstown. (https://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/bbwaa-rules-for-election)

With voting in mind, were I a privileged member of the BBWAA charged with the task of electing the Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2020, only four former major leaguers would earn my votes - all four, holdovers. Of those four, maybe one will be enshrined on July 26, along with one other for whom I would not vote, but deserves induction. Candidates must receive at least five percent of the vote in order to remain on the ballot should they not attain 75 percent the previous year.

Of the four holdovers from 2019 for whom I would vote, three of them would have earned my vote last year and one I am giving a fresh look. Curt Schilling could finally reach 75 percent in this, his eighth year on the ballot. Schilling’s stock rose more than nine points to 60.9 percent in 2019, up from 51.2 percent in 2018.

Schilling, bloody sock and all, is a six-time All Star who pitched 20 seasons in the big leagues – three with the Orioles, one with the Astros, eight-plus with the Phillies, three-plus with the Arizona Diamondbacks, then calling it a career with the Boston Red Sox. Schilling tossed 83 complete games, appeared in three World Series, and had three 20-plus win seasons within a four year span at ages 36, 38, and 39. Schilling should have his ticket stamped this summer – was my mistaken prediction the last seven years, and while I believe some members of the BBWAA are holding his politics against him, Schilling still belongs among those earning a plaque in Cooperstown.

Omar Vizquel, was the quintessential shortstop of a generation, having won 11 Gold Glove awards during his 24 year career, second most at that position all time. Vizquel was also the oldest shortstop to win a Gold Glove, having done so at age 39 in 2006. After five years with the Seattle Mariners, Vizquel took his talents to Cleveland continuing to be the defensive gem that will vault him into Cooperstown.

Vizquel was three times an All Star, overshadowed by Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, who will no doubt be elected to Cooperstown in a near-unanimous vote next week. On the field, Vizquel led the league in Fielding Percentage six times as a shortstop and is the all time leader in Fielding Percentage at .985. Vizquel shares the season record with Cal Ripken, Jr. for committing the fewest errors by a shortstop playing in at least 150 games with a paltry three. Additionally, Vizquel is first all time in double plays turned by a shortstop, third all time in assists at shortstop, and 11th all time in putouts made by a shortstop.

At bat, Vizquel compares rather favorably to Hall of Fame shortstops Ozzie Smith, Luis Aparicio, and Luke Appling. Vizquel hit more home runs than Smith and Appling, trailing Aparicio by only three. Vizquel drove in more runs than Smith and Aparicio, stole more bases than Appling, hit for a higher batting average than Smith and Aparicio, while collecting more hits than all three. This is the third year in the ballot for Vizquel, having earned 42.8 percent of the vote in 2019.

In his tenth, and final year on the ballot, there is Canadian native, Larry Walker. Having not considered him until his ninth year on the ballot, his numbers demonstrate a level of excellence and consistency on the field and at bat that should award him his plaque in Cooperstown.

Walker played 17 years for the Montreal Expos, Colorado Rockies, and St. Louis Cardinals. During that time, his career batting average was an exemplary .313, having won three batting titles, and batted .366 in 1997 while not winning the batting title. Walker slugged 383 home runs, drove in 1,311 runs, while stealing 230 bases - a solid combination of hitting, slugging, and some speed. Walker batted over .320 seven times, and won seven Gold Glove awards. Walker compares more than favorably with his contemporaries, and more so when examining Hall of Famers from prior generations. Having soared more than 20 points from 34.1 percent of the votes in 2018 to 54.6 percent in 2019, it is possible that Walker could see a trip to Cooperstown this summer. (If not, perhaps the Today’s Game Committee will be an avenue for Walker further down the road.)

In just his second year on the ballot, Todd Helton has earned my support. The 17-year MLB veteran played his entire career with the Colorado Rockies (1997-2013) batting .316 in 2,247 games with 2,519 hits, 369 home runs, scoring 1,401 runs, and driving in 1,406 runs. The Knoxville native finished second in the 1998 Rookie of the Year balloting, earned five All Star game selections in consecutive years, from 2000 through 2004. Appearing on MVP ballots in six years, Helton’s breakout season was in 2000, leading the National League in hits with 216 and all of MLB with 59 doubles, 147 RBI and a .372 batting average, yet could only manage a fifth place finish in the MVP race that season. Only earning 16.5 percent of the votes in 2019, Helton will more than likely not be inducted this summer.

On the other hand, the one candidate I expect to gain induction, but for whom I would not vote is, of course, the aforementioned Derek Jeter. 

The answer to how does one vote against Jeter, is simple - pinstripes - the same reason I gave last year when not supporting the first unanimous inductee, Mariano Rivera. Both absolutely belong in Cooperstown. Jeter played 20 seasons, from 1995 through 2014, all in pinstripes. He won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1996, named to 14 All Star teams, won five World Series while a member of the Yankees, and won five Gold Gloves. Jeter appeared in 2,747 games hitting .310. His 3,465 hits not only is a Yankees record, but ranks sixth all time. The New Jersey native also drove in 1,311 runs, and scored 1,923 runs - seventh all time. Just as impressive in the postseason, Jeter played in 158 games stroking 200 hits and batting .308 - keeping with his regular season numbers, not often the case, as not all players rise to the occasion in the postseason, as “Mr. November” did. A unanimous first balloteer? Probably not, but should be darned close.

While it is important to not sully the Baseball Hall of Fame with the likes of Bonds, Clemens, Ramirez, and Sosa, the focus must be on the greats who will be enshrined this July and how they will continue to be the true ambassadors to the community as so many before them have been. 

Ambassadors such as Frank Robinson who died February 7, 2019. Robinson, born August 31, 1935, won the Rookie of the Year award in 1956, in a career that spanned from 1956 through 1976, retiring as player-manager, having been named the first black manager in Major League Baseball history in 1975 for the Cleveland Indians. The 14 time All Star was voted to 15 MVP ballots, winning that award in 1961 with the Reds and in 1966 with the Orioles - still the only player to win the MVP in both leagues. On June 26, 1970 Robinson hit two grand slams in a game for the Orioles. In total, Robinson’s 586 home runs ranks him 10th all time, his 1,829 runs scored rank 16th all time, and his 1,812 RBI ranks him 21st all time. Robinson was the last manager in the history of the Montreal Expos and the first skipper of the Washington Nationals. In 1989 Robinson was named Manager of the Year.

While not a hall of famer, Don Larsen etched his name into Cooperstown with a hall of fame accomplishment. While having a mostly inauspicious MLB career, (81-91; 3.78) Larsen remains the only pitcher in postseason history to orchestrate a perfect game. On Monday, October 8, 1956, in Game Five of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, Larsen tossed his masterpiece in two hours and six minutes, blanking the Brooklyn Dodgers 2-0, striking out seven, including fanning Dale Mitchell looking to end the gem. The Dodgers lineup that day included Hall of Famers Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, and Roy Campanella. Larsen earned the MVP award for the series. Born August 7, 1929, Larsen died on New Year’s Day 2020 at age 90. May their memories be for a Blessing.

Sanford D. Horn is a writer and educator living in Westfield, IN. He has been a Patron-level member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame since 2007.