Sprucing Up the Museum

Credit: BaseballHall.org

On Sunday night, it was announced that the Today’s Game Era ballot had been voted on and they would be inducting Lee Smith and Harold Baines into the Baseball Hall of Fame this upcoming summer in Cooperstown, New York.

The 16-member committee for this ballot consisted of Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Pat Gillick, Tony La Russa, Greg Maddux, Joe Morgan, John Schuerholz, Ozzie Smith and Joe Torre; major-league executives Al Avila, Paul Beeston, Andy MacPhail and Jerry Reinsdorf; and veteran media members/historians Steve Hirdt, Tim Kurkjian and Claire Smith. 

Smith getting inducted was no surprise, as he had reached as high as 50.6% on the BBWAA ballot and was a borderline candidate for years, mattering on where you stood on the induction of relievers into the hall. But Baines was another story.

Credit: MLB.com

Baines never received more than 6.1% of support on the BBWAA ballot and is probably the definition of a player with a good career that hung around long enough to compile some good numbers. Good, but not great. 

So how did Baines get in? Well, it probably helped that he had a former teammate (Alomar), a former manager (LaRussa) and a former owner (Reinsdorf) on his side. Also, Baines was always known as a good guy and a good teammate. For those within the game, that carries quite a bit of weight.

But for many of us, being a “great guy” doesn’t always qualify you for being a Hall of Famer. Cooperstown is the best of the best, and the numbers say that Baines isn’t one of the elite. But what if the hall honored those players who might not have been “the best of the best”, but were good for the game? What if there was a separate wing for those that were admired and loved outside of their accomplishments on the field? What if they included the true “characters” of the game? Maybe an award for the “nice guys” of the game?

Credit: Associated Press / Chris Cummins

This subject was actually broached to me last year by a friend and it was amusing because I had thought of the idea years ago. What initially sparked adding a separate wing for me was Buck O’Neil. Lets be honest: Kansas City loved Buck. He was not only a symbol of Kansas City baseball, for his ties to the Monarchs and his attendance at Royals games, but he was the benchmark of what is great about baseball in general.

Buck was friendly, cordial, and loved talking baseball with anyone  who wanted to. For him it wasn’t as much about giving back to the game as sharing something he loved with others. Who doesn’t remember Buck’s appearance in the Ken Burn’s documentary “Baseball”?:

In fact, despite not being inducted at Cooperstown, Buck did give a speech at the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony back in 2006 to honor the pioneers in the Negro Leagues:

Buck O’Neil might not have been one of the greatest players in history, but he was the definition of what was great about the game. It was unfortunate that while O’Neil helped honor the greats involved with the Negro Leagues, he himself had been overlooked for induction despite all he did for baseball.

Buck would pass away in late 2006 and in 2008 the Baseball Hall of Fame would honor his legacy with the creation of the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. A statue was dedicated to the museum and every three years a new winner is announced. This is a great honor and one worthy of a man of O’Neil’s stature and character.

Now the Hall of Fame has done its due diligence when it comes to honoring those that are just as big a part of the game as the players. The Veterans Committe, which has lineage all the way back to 1939, would put together a subcommittee to consider candidates that not only involved players, but managers, umpires and executives as well. 

The hall has also handed out the Ford C. Frick award annually to honor a broadcaster for their contributions to the game. So there is no stone left unturned, starting in 1962 they would also honor a baseball writer annually, also known as the J.G. Taylor Spink award.   

But it would be nice if the hall could go a step further. The Baseball Hall of Fame is a museum and it would be fitting to include some of the more charitable and “class acts” that made the game better.

There would have to be a few guidelines to follow for this to happen. For one, the inductees for this achievement should be in a separate wing from the elite players who get inducted. There would have to be a definite difference between the two so fans are aware of this separate honor.

Credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame

Also, to show this is a different award it would probably be smart not to give them the same plaques as the greats of the game. Maybe instead of a plaque, present videos on each player and why they are worthy of this honor. Since this would be a different wing, it should have a different feel to it.

So who exactly should be honored for this award? The criteria would obviously be quite a bit different, as statistics wouldn’t matter as much as the footprint you leave on the game. In my vision of this honor, it would be about everything that is great for baseball. The eligible should be those that are great ambassadors, those that were genuine big-hearted and charitable that didn’t cause any issues and even the players who made the game more fun.

In my eyes, this honor would be about players like Andrew McCutchen, who has spent years giving back with his charitable work and when he was in Pittsburgh, giving back to the community. It would also be for someone like former Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney, who has put together baseball camps for kids and has always been one of the great guys in the game. 

Credit: Sports Illustrated

It would also include some of the players who made the game so much fun to watch. Take Bartolo Colon for example. Colon has played into his mid-40’s and has a child-like demeanor when he is out on the field that makes it easy to cheer for. The same could be said about former Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych. “The Bird” had a short career with a number of highs and lows, but was one of the most entertaining players in baseball history.

These players make the game better and while they won’t go down as one of the “all-time greats” in baseball history, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be honored. Some of the greats weren’t good human beings, like Ty Cobb and former Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, who both have been elected to baseball’s hallowed halls. Since this is a museum, you sometimes have to take the bad with the good, which is why it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to include more of the benevolent people involved within the game.

From every story or conversation that has been thrown out this week, Harold Baines appears to be one of the great guys that helped build a solid foundation for baseball. Maybe if a separate wing is put into the hall for guys like him, there won’t be a need to slide someone in where they might not fit. This way we could talk about why they deserve an honor instead of why they don’t.  

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A Few Musings on the Today’s Game Era Ballot

Will Clark
Credit: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

On Monday, the ballot was revealed for the Today’s Game Era, featuring a combination of players, managers and an owner who will receive consideration for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame:

Harold Baines, Albert Belle, Joe Carter, Will Clark, Orel Hershiser, Davey Johnson, Charlie Manuel, Lou Piniella, Lee Smith and George Steinbrenner are those receiving consideration for the class of 2019. Baines, Belle, Carter, Clark, Hershiser and Smith are included for their contributions as players, while Johnson, Manuel and Piniella are included for their roles as managers. Steinbrenner, who is the only candidate that is no longer living, is nominated for his role as former Yankees owner.

Voting will be taking place next month, December 9th at the Winter Meetings and it will be interesting to see just how the voting turns out for this.  If anything, there are a few close calls and some absolute no’s littering this list.

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Credit: DUANE BURLESON/AP

Let’s start with the players, as they will be the ones receiving the most scrutiny when the votes are tabulated. The two names that instantly peaked my interest are Will Clark and Orel Hershiser, two stars of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Clark has a pretty good resume: 137 OPS+(97th all-time), slash line of .303/.384/.497 and is 93rd all-time in OPS, 76th in Adjusted Batting Runs and Adjusted Batting Wins.

The biggest argument for Clark is not only the level at which he performed for so long (15 seasons with an OPS+ above 120, including seven consecutive seasons) but how he was able to help his team. Clark ended his career with a WPA of 46 (51st all-time) and a RE24 of 455.42 (59th all-time), numbers that show he consistently helped put his team in a situation to win.

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Credit: Robert Ringer-Getty Images

Hershiser might have an even bigger argument for induction than Clark. While his career ERA+ (112) and ERA (3.48) speak of a ‘good but not great’ pitcher, his place in history tells a different story. Hershiser is 95th all-time in WAR for pitchers and 114th in Win Probability Added while also being one of the top pitchers of his era. If you are someone who believes in a player’s peak being a large part of their place in history, Hershiser was an elite starter for a nice seven year span. In that period, Hershiser finished in the top five in the National League Cy Young voting four times (winning in 1988) and made three All-Star appearances.

From 1985 to 1991, Hershiser posted an ERA+ of 128, an ERA of 2.78, a FIP of 3.03 and a WHIP of 1.163. Throw in that he had a stellar career in the postseason (2.59 ERA, 2.83 WPA over 132 innings) and there is at the least a discussion on whether or not Hershiser is “Hall Worthy”.

Both Clark and Hershiser are members of the Hall of Stats (HallofStats.com), granted just barely. We can’t say the same for the other players on this list: Belle just didn’t play long enough, Baines was regulated to being a DH for most of his career (and wasn’t a dominating hitter like Edgar Martinez or David Ortiz was), and Carter falls well below the standard of a Hall of Famer.

 

It will be interesting to see how Lee Smith manages in this vote, since he was a player who stayed on the Hall of Fame ballot up until 2017, garnering up to 50.6% of the vote back in 2012. Smith had his proponents, those that believed in the longevity and career save total as arguments for his induction.

Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

When it comes to the managers on the list, there doesn’t appear to be a big separation between the three. Davey Johnson, Charlie Manuel and Lou Piniella all have fairly comparable winning percentages and playoff appearances and all three have been at the helm of a world championship team: 

Credit: Fangraphs.com

Jay Jaffe of Fangraphs.com took a look at this list and was curious as to why Jim Leyland was left off:


The inclusion of Piniella, as the top returning vote-getter, I can understand, but retaining Johnson and introducing Manuel, who spent far less time than any of the others in the dugout, while excluding Leyland, who won as many pennants as that pair combined, seems off. And it’s not like Leyland, who last managed in 2013, is a threat to return to a dugout, whereas Baker, who’s just a year removed from his last job, might still answer the phone.

AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

This leaves us with George Steinbrenner, the former owner of the New York Yankees. It’s easy to see both sides of the argument for George, and it shouldn’t be surprising that even in death he is a polarizing figure. The argument for is simple: he revitalized a Yankee’s organization that had fallen off in the late 1960’s-early 1970’s and turned them into a juggernaut in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s. During his tenure, the Yankees won seven World Series titles and 11 pennants.

The argument against is simple: his issues with former player Dave Winfield eventually led to Steinbrenner being banned from the game, starting in mid-1990 until 1993. Add in the circus he created in New York (ie. Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, Ed Whitson, etc.) and it would appear to be enough to leave George on the outside looking in.   

Credit: Getty Images

If I was to take a guess as to how the voting will go, I would say there is a very good chance that no one will from this group will be making the trek to Cooperstown this upcoming summer, unless they are doing so for a vacation. Personally, it doesn’t feel like there is a candidate worthy or overlooked on this list.

That being said, I also wouldn’t be shocked to see any of the managers get the nod or even Lee Smith. Smith received the most support out of this group during his initial cycle on the BBWAA ballot and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him receive the same support moving forward. As much as I loved Will Clark and Orel Hershiser when I was a kid, they still feel like borderline Hall of Famers in my book and will probably fall short yet again.

The good news is that at the very least ‘the Hall’ is doing the right thing by giving some of these guys a second chance. A number of players fell through the crack here and while I wasn’t shocked to not see a Mark McGwire or David Cone on the list, those players feel like stronger candidates than the ones currently receiving support. We will know the fate of the hopeful soon enough, as the Winter Meetings are just a few weeks away.   

Put That in Your Pipe and Smoke It!

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If you have been a fan of the Kansas City Royals for as long as I have been(or even longer), you are well aware that the teams they trotted out in the late 70’s and early 80’s were overloaded with talent. Sure, everyone knows about George Brett and Frank White. Most will have heard about Willie Wilson or Dan Quisenberry. Real diehards will mention Amos Otis and Dennis Leonard as key players to Kansas City’s success. But a key cog in the Royals machine for most of those years(and a man who has always been taken for granted) was Hal McRae. In fact, it might be safe to say McRae and his hitting was almost as vital as Brett’s for a lot of those Royals teams.

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McRae’s professional career began in 1965, as he was drafted in the 6th round of the amateur draft by the Cincinnati Reds, the 117th overall pick. It’s hard to believe, but at one point Hal was a speedster, a center fielder that could cover a lot of ground. Before the 1969 season though, McRae suffered a multiple leg fracture in the Winter League and he went from being a player who could fly to just being of average speed. As much as the injury hurt his speed, what really hurt Hal in Cincinnati was the pool of talent the Reds were accumulating, a team that would soon be referred to as “The Big Red Machine”. The Reds at that point had an outfield of Cesar Geronimo(who would end up in Royal blue in 1981), Bobby Tolan and some guy named Pete Rose. With George Foster also in the picture, the Reds found McRae expendable and dealt him to Kansas City after the 1972 season. McRae didn’t instantly show Cincy that they had made a mistake, as he would struggle in his first season with the Royals, hitting .234 in 106 games.

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It’s safe to say though that the 1974 season was Hal’s coming out party. McRae would play in 148 of the Royals games, hitting .310 with an .850 OPS and a 3.9 WAR. McRae fit perfectly in the Royals lineup, a contact hitter who didn’t hit for a lot of power but got on base and drove in runs. Kauffman Stadium(at the time known as Royals Stadium) has always been known as a good park for gap hitters, and back in the 70’s it was even better with the artificial turf. McRae would also spend a lot of his playing time at DH, a fairly new position that was somewhat looked down upon. McRae would embrace the role and some would say became a pioneer for the position.

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1976 would be a banner year for Hal, as he continued his hot hitting. In fact, McRae was leading the league in hitting going into the final game of the season, with teammate George Brett and Minnesota Twin Rod Carew right behind him. Brett would go 2 for 4 and clinch the batting title by a margin of less than .001. McRae was not happy though, as he felt the Twins had conspired to help George win the title. Twins left fielder Steve Brye would misplay a fly ball in the 9th inning that helped Brett win, a move that McRae felt was racially motivated. McRae was so incensed that as he headed back to the dugout after getting out in his final at bat, he would turn toward the Twins dugout and flip the bird toward Twins manager Gene Mauch. A scuffle would ensue, and McRae would let his feelings be known after the game:

“Things have been like this a long time. They’re changing gradually. They shouldn’t be this way, but I can accept it.” […] “I know what happened. It’s been too good a season for me to say too much, but I know they let that ball fall on purpose.”

McRae was never one to be shy or not let his feelings known, and this would be one of those moments. Overall, McRae had a great season in 1976, as he would get picked for his second straight All-Star team and ended up fourth in the MVP voting. 1976 was also the first year that DH was his primary position. Things were definitely looking up for McRae.

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The rest of the 70’s McRae put up solid numbers, even if they weren’t quite at the peak of his 1976 season. McRae would lead the league in doubles in 1977 and continued to be a solid run producer for the Royals. Hal would also be known for being an aggressive base runner. So aggressive in fact that the rule that states a runner must slide into second base to break up a double play is known as the “Hal McRae Rule”. McRae was known to cross body block infielders while sliding into second, which many players had learned to avoid.

Oakland A's v Kansas City Royals

Injuries had started taking their toll on Hal starting in the late 70’s and continuing into the early 80’s. After appearing in only 101 games in 1979, McRae came back in 1980 and was a vital part of the Royals team that would make their first World Series appearance. He would lose close to 40 games to injuries that year, but still put up solid numbers that many had started expecting from him. After having a rough ALCS that year, Hal would have a very good World Series, hitting at a .375 clip, with 9 hits and an OPS of .923. It wouldn’t be enough as the Royals would fall to the Phillies in six games.

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1982 would see McRae stay healthy, which helped him have a season that would rival 1976. Hal would hit over .300, put up his highest OPS of his career(.910), hit the most home runs of his career(27) and lead the league in both doubles(46) and RBI’s(133). The Royals would not make the playoffs that year, but it wasn’t because of Hal. This would garner him with another All-Star nod, a Silver Slugger Award, and fourth place in the MVP voting.

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1983 would see another solid season from McRae as he would play in all but 5 games for the Royals that year. Injuries would return though in 1984 and so would the regression expected at his age(he turned 39 in the middle of the ’84 season). Hal would appear in just a shade over 100 games in both 1984 and 1985 and his hitting took a hit as well. McRae would hit about .260 for both the ’85 season and the ALCS that year, and with no DH in the World Series that year, McRae would see only pinch hitting duty. The Royals would finally get their first(and only) World Series title that year and luckily he got to be a part of that. But it had become apparent that he was nearing the end of his career.

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1986 would be McRae’s last full season in the big leagues, appearing in only 112 games and hitting a paltry .252. The man who had once been a major cog of the Kansas City Royals machine was nearing the end, and on July 17, 1987, he would play his final game in the majors. During his 19-year career, McRae put up some very strong numbers, numbers that even today he should be proud of. Hal would be a career .290 hitter, with over 1000 RBI’s and close to 500 doubles. He would rack up a career OPS+ of 123 and a career WAR of 27.9. Maybe his biggest accomplishment though was his embracing of being the DH and realizing that a career could be made just batting. As guys like Harold Baines and Edgar Martinez would do later on, McRae would not let injuries end his career and in fact helped him flourish. McRae helped make it easier for players to play the majority of their games at DH, as he showed that you could actually make a career out of it.

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With his playing career over, Hal would return to Kansas City’s dugout in 1991, this time as the team’s manager. Much like his playing career, he was hard-nosed and expected the same from his players. McRae would actually turn into a good manager for the Royals and in 1994 had the team playing their best baseball since the late ’80’s. The Royals were making a run at the playoff spot that season before the strike hit and ruined the Royals hopes. When the strike went down on August 12th, the Royals were only four games out of the American League Central and half a game out of a Wildcard spot. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be and McRae would be fired before the 1995 season would get underway. But before this happened, there was one defining moment during Hal’s run as Royals manager. It might be one of the greatest post-game blowups of all time. Words cannot do this justice. Just watch:

Just epic. All these years later and people still flock to that meltdown. To clarify, McRae didn’t even think about pinch hitting Keith Miller for George Brett. Actually just typing that makes me agree with Hal. Who would pinch hit for #5, even late in his career? By the way, my favorite part of that is the twirly bird. Fantastic.

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McRae would manage one more team before it was all said and done, managing the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for a couple of seasons in the earlier 2000’s. McRae would also show up as the hitting coach over the years for the Reds, Phillies and Cardinals and was St. Louis’ hitting coach in 2006 when they would win the World Series, McRae’s second ring. As far as I know, McRae is out of baseball now, but I can’t help but feel like he could help a team. I hope when everyone thinks of those great Royals teams of the ’70’s and ’80’s, they remember that McRae was a big part of them and in fact they probably wouldn’t have gone as far without Hal. His tough as nails style rubbed off on his teammates and pushed them to be better. Between that and his being a pioneer for the Designated Hitter, McRae has more than enough to be proud of when looking back at his career.

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