Sorting Through Very Good and Great


Sunday is the deadline for baseball writers to submit their Hall of Fame ballots, an annual challenge to sort through the players who belong in Cooperstown and those who just miss.

To get on the ballot, a player has to be very good. To get into the Hall of Fame, he should be great.

Start with that premise and immediately the ballot becomes a little simpler.

Go first with the no-brainers, players who are automatics. That group this year must be led by Dave Winfield, who had 3,110 hits, 465 home runs, 1,833 RBIs and seven Gold Gloves. He played on 12 straight All-Star teams, had eight 100-plus RBI seasons and survived the wrath of George Steinbrenner, no small achievement. Nothing more needs to be said about his credentials.


Next, go to the bullpen and two personal favorites--Goose and Bruce.

Goose Gossage was an intimidating reliever, equipped with a fastball that pushed past 90 mph and produced 124 wins, 310 saves and a 3.01 earned run average. Bruce Sutter saved 300 games, had an ERA of 2.83 and revolutionized relief pitching with the split-fingered fastball, a weapon hitters are still trying to figure out.

Mark down Goose and Bruce, for sure.

Now, back to the hitters.


Gary Carter was a quality catcher who holds major league records for career putouts (11,785) and total chances accepted (12,988). He caught more games (2,056) than any catcher in National League history, was a productive hitter with 324 home runs and 1,225 runs batted in, and helped the New York Mets win the 1986 World Series. If Johnny Bench was the catcher of the ‘70s, then Carter was the catcher of the ‘80s. An 11-time All-Star at baseball’s most demanding position, he deserves his ticket to Cooperstown.

After that, it starts to get tougher.

Jim Rice and Dave Parker had very similar careers. Rice hit .298 with 382 home runs and 1,451 RBIs in 16 seasons. Parker played 19 seasons with a .290 career average, 339 home runs and 1,493 RBIs.

Rice had seven .300 seasons, Parker had six. Rice’s 406 total bases in his MVP year of 1978 were the most for any player in 30 years. Parker led the National League with 340 total bases that season and was the MVP.


At their peaks, they were two of baseball’s most feared hitters. Fear counts here. Both get this vote.

The complications continue with a pair of first-year candidates--Don Mattingly and Kirby Puckett. Like Rice and Parker, their statistics are strikingly similar.

Puckett batted .318 in 12 seasons with 207 home runs and 1,085 RBIs. He accumulated more hits (2,040) in his first 10 seasons than any player in the 20th century.

Mattingly played 14 seasons with a career average of .307, had 222 home runs and 1,099 RBIs. He batted over .300 seven times and set a single-season record of six grand slams in 1987, not bad for a guy who wasn’t viewed as a home run hitter.


Both were masters on defense, Puckett with six Gold Gloves and Mattingly with nine. It’s impossible to separate them. Here, then, are votes for both.

That’s eight check marks on a ballot that allows 10, too many for some voters, just enough for this one. (Results will be announced Jan. 16).

But that means leaving out players like Steve Garvey and his seven .300 seasons, and Jack Morris, the winningest pitcher of the ‘80s. It means passing on Keith Hernandez, who redefined defense at first base, and Dale Murphy, who hit 398 home runs and won consecutive MVP awards in 1982-83.

There are a fistful of others like Tommy John, Jim Kaat, both nearly 300-game winners, and Ron Guidry with his nine shutouts in 1978, who just miss--all tough, close calls.


It also means passing on Luis Tiant, whose Fu Manchu was every bit as intimidating as Gossage’s and whose corkscrew windup and delivery baffled batters for 19 seasons.

El Tiante was a four-time 20-game winner and won 229 games in his career. He also possessed the unique ability to smoke a cigar in the shower, a skill that often left clubhouse onlookers a little bit bewildered.

For that, alone, he probably deserves some votes.