OK, with the latest class of inductees being announced on Jan. 9, it's time to start breaking down the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. Let's begin with the 15 players on this year's overstuffed, 37-player ballot that I think are a fairly easy no … even though there are some very good players among these 15.
Then, we'll run through the eight players who merit a second look -- those who are close, but not quite. And, finally, a last installment covering the 14 best players on the list, and my Hall of Fame ballot: the 10 players I'm voting for.
Let's begin by celebrating 15 players who I predict are making their one and only appearance on the ballot.
* * *
Sandy Alomar Jr.
Length of career: 20 years, 4,865 plate appearances.
Place in game's history: Roughly the 100th best catcher in baseball history … Part of a celebrated baseball family with a father who was a longtime player in the major leagues and a brother in the Hall of Fame … Had a somewhat magical 1997 season when he hit .324, was MVP of the All-Star Game, hit a key home run off Mariano Rivera in the playoffs and hit .367 with 10 RBIs in a World Series his Indians lost in seven games (otherwise, he might have been MVP).
Personal thoughts: In many ways, Sandy Alomar Jr. was the player who helped reestablish hope for me as a baseball fan. I grew up a Cleveland Indians fan, and when the Indians traded Joe Carter to San Diego for Carlos Baerga and Sandy Alomar Jr., I was pretty much all out of hope. The Indians were terrible (of course), and Carter was more or less the only player worth watching -- at least he hit 35 homers and drove in 100 RBIs and seemed to care. The next year, the Indians were bad again, but I had to admit there was something a little bit different about them. I think Sandy Alomar was that difference. He won the Rookie of the Year award and was the first rookie catcher to win a Gold Glove since Carlton Fisk a couple of decades earlier.
I don't know if he deserved either award -- the ROY award seems particularly suspect since he took it away from Kevin Appier, who had a better year and would make a career of getting jobbed out of awards he deserved -- but it wasn't awards that made him matter to me. He just seemed … different from previous Cleveland Indians players. There was something regal about him, something classy; it's a hard thing to explain, but having followed Indians baseball for two decades, I knew it was something rare. Alomar stood 6-foot-5, he had this lightning quick catch-and-throw motion, he would hit better than a typical catcher … but what separated him was that he seemed to me the kind of guy I had grown up seeing on OTHER people's teams.
That's an odd concept, I know. The best example I can give of this "guy I grew up seeing on other people's teams" concept doesn't come from baseball but from basketball … for a few years in the early 1990s, I was convinced that if the Cleveland Cavaliers could just get E-Z Ed Pinckney, they could win a championship. I was obsessed by this for a while. Pinckney was no star. He never played in an All-Star Game, never came close to playing in an All-Star Game. But that guy -- at least when he played Cleveland -- would always grab the huge defensive rebound, make some key 18-foot jumper, save some ball from going out of bounds, always do something right. That was the thing: He would ALWAYS DO SOMETHING RIGHT. The Cavaliers of the early 1990s were a terrific team, but they were a shot blocking team, which meant they constantly jumped out on the shooter and gave up what seemed to me to be a bajillion offensive rebounds and easy second-chance points. I used to dream of them getting Ed Pinckney, who wouldn't try to block every stupid shot, who would actually stay back, grab a defensive rebound, maybe grab an offensive rebound or two, make a play, just keep things together for the Cavaliers.
I know Celtics fans and others will say I'm idealizing Ed Pinckney, who really wasn't that good. Maybe. But that's my point. I have long idealized guys on other teams. Alomar, for once, was a guy on my favorite team I could idealize.
Alomar played in six All-Star Games, which is a pretty amazing number for a guy with a career 11.6 WAR. He had a good offensive season in 1997, but he had a lifetime 86 OPS+. He won a Gold Glove and was generally viewed as a good defender, but he only had four seasons where he played 100 games. Still, for me, he was the catcher for the Indians on two pennant-winning teams in the 1990s, and everyone on and around those teams seemed to look up to him, and I would say he more than lived up to those hopes I pinned on him when the Indians got him in 1990.
* * *
Length of career: 14 years, 6,136 plate appearances.
Place in game's history: One of 100 best third basemen ever, certainly, maybe one of 50 best … Played every infield position except catcher (but including pitcher). … Once played 99 straight games at third base without making an error … Was Randy Johnson's 4,000th strikeout.
Personal thoughts: Every year, there is at least one player on the ballot who was better than I remember. Jeff Cirillo is that guy for me this year. From ages 26 to 30, Jeff Cirillo was a really good player. He got on base (.391 on-base percentage), played a nice third base, hit you 40-plus doubles a year, scored runs, drove in runs, a really nice player. The last of those years, though, he was in Colorado, which masked the now obvious -- he was beginning to decline. That year, 2000, he hit .326/.392/.477 with 53 doubles, 11 homers, 115 RBIs and 111 runs scored. Decline? Seriously. Look a little closer:
Ugh. A 30-year-old third baseman with a .299 road on-base percentage … it's not good. The next year, he hit .313 with 17 homers, which seemed to suggest he was still a very good player. But again, home/road suggests otherwise:
This, of course, is when the Seattle Mariners swooped in and traded for for Cirillo … just in time for his 32nd birthday and the inevitable free fall. There really wasn't anything surprising about what followed: Cirillo simply hit like he had hit for the previous two seasons away from Coors Field minus a little for age. He hit .234/.295/.308 before the Mariners rather desperately traded him to San Diego for whatever they could get. San Diego released him a few months later.
But this should not erase the fact that Cirillo really was a good player while in his 20s. He had a bit of a second act as a part-time player, and, as mentioned above, he's probably one of the 50 best third baseman in baseball history, which is an awfully good thing to be.
* * *
Length of career: 17 years, 8,164 plate appearances.
Place in game's history: One of the 100 or so best shortstops ever … Maybe Top 125 -- it's close … Played for more franchises (11) than any other shortstop in baseball history … Played Miguel Tejada in "Moneyball," which, for some reason, seems to me to be one of the strangest twists in sports movie history.
Personal thoughts: Royce Clayton never had a 100 OPS+ season. Not once. Even the year he hit .288/.346/..445 -- which SEEMS like it would be at least an average offensive season -- he finished below 100 OPS+ because that was 1999, when everyone was hitting like crazy, and he played for Texas, which was a great hitting ballpark.
So Clayton had a career 78 OPS+. There are only three players in baseball history who got 8,000 plate appearances in the big leagues with a career OPS+ of 80 or less. One is Larry Bowa, who won two Gold Gloves and was widely viewed (fairly or not) as a great defensive shortstop and an iconic figure. The other is Don Kessinger, who also won two Gold Gloves and was considered a great defensive player and an iconic figure. Clayton, meanwhile, never won a Gold Glove and was traded four times, released twice, granted free agency six times and signed seven times. He only played 500 games with one team, his first team, the San Francisco Giants, then it was onto St. Louis for three years, Texas for three years, the White Sox for two, Milwaukee for a year, Colorado for a year, Arizona for a year, then Washington for 87 games, Cincinnati for 50, Toronto for 69 and Boston, finally, for eight games in their World Series season of 2007. I don't think he got a playoff share.
Why couldn't he keep a job? He couldn't hit. Why did he keep finding jobs? I think it was probably because he was a good defensive player, even if he didn't win a Gold Glove. His defensive numbers are strong. There's usually a place somewhere in baseball for someone who can field ground balls.
* * *
Length of career: 17 years, 7,782 plate appearances
Place in game's history: The best 58th round draft pick in baseball history (there hasn't even BEEN a 58th round draft pick in 15 years) … Was MVP of the 1995 All-Star Game … Split his career between first base and the outfield so it's hard to pick a place for him in baseball history, but he's probably one of the best 150 first baseman ever if you put him there … Played more than 1,000 games for the Florida Marlins, earning the nickname "Mr. Marlin" in some corners of the world.
Personal thoughts: I was always strangely fascinated by the fact that Jeff Conine was a world-class racquetball player. That's how he was always described, too, as "world class." Conine was a good big-league player who hit as high as .319, hit as many as 26 homers, drove in 105 RBIs one year, but it was this world-class racquetball thing that blew my mind. As good a baseball player as he was, it seemed a waste to me that he wasn't able to take his place as one of the world's elite racquetball players.
Since he stopped playing baseball, Conine has apparently begun competing in triathlons and Ironman competitions. He's really an extraordinary athlete.
* * *
Length of career: 19 years, 10,460 plate appearances
Place in game's history: Like Reggie Sanders, one of just eight players in baseball history to have stolen 300 bases and hit 300 homers … One of the 50 greatest center fielders in baseball history … Had one of the greatest transformations in baseball history from young, slap-hitting speedster to veteran middle of the lineup slugger.
Personal thoughts: How does this guy:
.292/.355/.407, 44 stolen bases, 5 homers, 84 runs scored, 63 Ks, brilliant centerfield defense
Become this guy:
.264/..336/.525, 8 stolen bases, 34 homers, 103 RBIs, 94 Ks and, yes, brilliant centerfield defense.
Steve Finley was a shape-shifter. Of course, you might have a strong opinion about that, like you might have a strong opinion about all players who suddenly started hitting homers. He has been a PED whisper suspect -- Finley, more than many, because he apparently was fairly open about using Creatine. Now, it should be said, Creatine is not a steroid and is still legal for baseball players to use (I didn't know this, I just looked it up -- apparently it is not illegal at the Olympics either). But there are some who say it is often used in concert with steroids.
Anyway, we're not talking about steroids, we're talking about how much Steve Finley changed through the years. I would argue he is utterly unique in this shift. Look at the eight players with 300 stolen bases and 300 homers:
Willie Mays: Two 30-30 seasons, three 25-25 seasons.
Barry Bonds: One 40-40 season, four 30-30 seasons, five more 25-25 seasons.
Bobby Bonds: Five 30-30 seasons, four 25-25 seasons.
Alex Rodriguez: One 40-40 season, one 25-25 season
Andre Dawson: Three 25-25 seasons.
Carlos Beltran: One 30-30 season, three 25-25 seasons.
Reggie Sanders: Two 25-25 seasons.
Steve Finley: Zero 30-30 seasons. Zero 25-25 seasons.
The other seven players blended their power and speed at some point in their careers. Not Finley. The three years Finley stole more than 25 bases, he hit 5, 8 and 10 home runs. The six years he hit 25-plus homers, he never stole more than 22 bases and only once did he steal more than 16. He was one kind of player. Then, suddenly, he was another kind of player.
One way Finley was a pioneer: He was one of the first to shift to the harder (and, perhaps, easier to shatter) maple bats. The bats have created their own kind of controversy.
* * *
Length of career: 15 years, 7,963 plate appearances
Place in game's history: Probably one of 50 best right fielders ever … Perhaps the third best Jewish baseball player of all time behind Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax … Author of a fascinating little book called The Way of Baseball: Stillness at 95 mph… Hit 40-plus homers three times and drove in and scored 100 runs four times.
Personal thoughts: Do you remember the end of The Incredibles? The son, Dash, had super speed, but the family wanted him to live a somewhat normal life. Ah, this is the tough-to-find balance of a superhero's life. So at the end of the movie, the family went to a school track meet and they wanted Dash to go fast enough to gain some joy out of competing but not TOO fast to reveal his super powers. Dash went just fast enough to finish second and everyone left happy.
In many ways, the steroid era has many similarities to the Dash Conundrum. Looking back on that era, you wanted to be good enough to be a star in the big leagues, make your money, help your team, collect the cheers. But, in retrospect, you didn't want to be SO GOOD that people called everything you did into question and Congress called you to special hearings. This was one of the baffling consequences of the steroid era. Good became bad. Success became failure. Greatness was viewed with a cutting skepticism.
Shawn Green hit 42 home runs in 1999 (the second year in a row that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire passed Roger Maris' famous 61), he hit 49 homers in 2001 (the year Barry Bonds his 73, Sosa hit 64, Luis Gonzalez hit 57 and Alex Rodriguez hit 52), and he hit 42 homers in 2002 (the year A-Rod hit 57). I am not interested in any way in speculating whether Shawn Green did or did not use steroids. He says he didn't. I have absolutely no evidence to doubt him. And I don't want to talk steroids anyway.
All I'm saying here is that his home run totals those three years (which in any other era would be absolutely extraordinary) are looked back upon as either ordinary or suspect. Those seem to be the two options of the steroid era. Ordinary. Or suspect.
It's too bad … Shawn Green was a wonderful player to watch. He was tall and lanky and he had this beautiful swing. He would look so utterly relaxed before the pitch, like he was pondering something deep like water running over stones in a river or why people put the word "Mister" in front of basic words and believe that's a clever business name.*
*I just saw a restaurant called Mr. Taco.
And then, the pitch would come, and he would unwind -- it wasn't a quick, wristy swing like Mike Schmidt, it was more like George Brett's swing, a full and flowing thing. And, though it did seem like a long swing, you still couldn't throw a fastball by him. He would strike out quite a bit -- as many as 142 times in a season -- but it seemed to me that happened when a pitcher managed to upset the delicate timing of his swing with a change up or breaking ball.
Fastballs: He loved them, and he ate them up. I remember watching Green face a Kansas City Royals pitcher named Blake Stein in 1999 -- Stein was a huge pitcher (6-foot-7) from Mississippi with a big fastball that overpowered hitters once or twice a year. Stein once struck out eight consecutive Milwaukee Brewers, making him one of only four American League pitchers to have done so. Most of the time, though, his fastball was arrow straight, chum for fastball sharks like Shawn Green, and indeed they faced each other six times, Green was walked twice, he got hits the other four times, two of them home runs, one of them a long blast on the day I was watching. It was on days like that when it seemed that there wasn't a fastball on this earth fast enough to race by him. Green had four or five years like that.
* * *
Length of career: 17 years, 1,071 1/3 innings pitched.
Place in game's history: His 326 saves ranks 13th all-time … He probably ranks among the Top 50 relief specialists in baseball history … He's one of only 15 pitchers in baseball history to appear in more than 1,000 games.
Personal thoughts: I will always remember fondly how Roberto Hernandez handled failure. He came over to the Kansas City Royals in the Johnny Damon trade when he was 36 years old and his best days were behind him. Hernandez was a legitimately excellent pitcher when he was 27 and 28 and again in his early 30s. But he was clearly on the downslope when the Royals picked him up with some vague hopes he could stop them from losing games in the ninth inning.
Hernandez, by that point, had seen pretty much everything. He had been a first round pick, but it took six excruciating, painful, misguided seasons in the minors for everyone to figure out that he couldn't be a big league starter. He was 27 when he finally got his first full season in the big leagues, and he was dominant as a late inning reliever … and he would be a late inning reliever for another decade after that. When he arrived with the Royals, he had closed out games, and he had blown them. He had gotten out of absurd jams of his own making, and he had given up the game-winning homer, and he had cruised 1-2-3. Four times, he led the American League in games finished. He knew the ups and downs, the overs and outs, the joys and sorrows of late inning baseball. Because of this, he never seemed too happy after a victory, and never hid after a defeat.
It was after those defeats, I always thought, that Roberto Hernandez was at his best. He would be sitting and waiting by his locker when the reporters came in. He'd have a cup of beer by his stool. And he would be ready to answer every question. No, I didn't have it tonight. Yes, I take the blame for this loss. No, I don't think we will let it carry over. Yes, I feel like I let my teammates down. Then, he would wait until all the questions were answered, take his beer, and prepare his mind for tomorrow. It was the best attitude I ever came across in sports.
* * *
Length of career: 16 years, 6,523 plate appearances
Place in game's history: His 278 career homers ranks him 162nd all-time … Split his time between outfield and first base and struggled at both positions so it's difficult to rank him by position … For a big slugger, he did not strike out very much, especially late in his career. From age 29 until he retired he walked (516) almost as often as he struck out (554), which isn't a historically great achievement but was good for his era.
Personal thoughts: I saw Klesko play in the Southern League in 1991, and, at the time, there were many people who thought he was going to be a Barry Bonds kind of superstar. He was big, strong, ran shockingly well, and hit for preposterously high averages (he hit .404 during a brief stint in rookie ball and hit .368 for half a season in A-Ball). He was ranked the third-best prospect by Baseball America … behind Todd Van Poppel and Andujar Cedeno, who actually disappointed quite a bit more than Klesko did. You have to go down to No. 8 on the list -- Ivan Rodriguez -- before finding a player who put up a Hall of Fame worthy career.*
*Just for fun -- No. 49 on that list was Chipper Jones, though he would jump to No. 4 the next year and No. 1 the following year. The Braves over the next few years would have Javy Lopez, Andruw Jones, Jermaine Dye, Jason Schmidt and Rafael Furcal.
Klesko started hitting pretty much right away in the big leagues and he kept hitting. His rookie year, he slugged .563 in 92 games and, in his second season, he hit .310/.396/.608 in 107 games. He also hit 10 postseason homers, three of them in the World Series. In many ways, his career is the opposite of Royce Clayton’s -- he did not have a sub-100 OPS+ season until his last with San Francisco. But he never could find a position, and he had trouble staying healthy. If he had been an American Leaguer, he might have been a DH from Day 1 and become a David Ortiz or Travis Hafner type of player.
One interesting thing about Klesko … unlike many other sluggers of his era, he never had a crazy home run season. He was a big guy with huge power, but he never hit 40 homers. He never hit 35. He hit 34 with Atlanta when he was 25 and he never topped it -- he only hit 30 one other time. Remember that rather disgraceful list of "rumored" steroid users that came out a few years ago only to be debunked rather quickly? Klesko was on that list and, as much as I'd like to forget that, I always remember it.
Then again, it seems to me if we are going to make rash judgments about players based on their statistics, Klesko's career stats actually points to a player who never did have that major spike and never had some crazy home run season. If we're guessing one way, we should guess the other and say that it's at least possible Ryan Klesko was actually one of the victims of the era.
Then again, we don't know. That's why this whole thing is so baffling.
* * *
Length of career: 19 years, appeared in 1,022 games.
Place in game's history: Finished fourth in the MVP voting in 1995, when he was successful in all 46 of his save attempts and posted a 1.13 ERA for the first Indians team in forty-plus years to win a pennant … Wildly inconsistent but probably ranks in Top 100 among relief pitching specialists … Played for eight different teams … Plunked Omar Vizquel twice after Omar's book criticized Mesa for falling apart in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series.
Personal thoughts: I have too many personal thoughts about Mesa, who did indeed blow Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. He came in with the Indians leading 2-1. He gave up a single to Moises Alou, struck out Bobby Bonilla, gave up another single to Charles Johnson and allowed the sac fly to Craig Counsell. When you look at it that way -- a couple of singles and a sac fly to three pretty good players -- it really wasn't a historic collapse or anything. But for a team that has not won a World Series since 1948, it was plenty lousy.
The thing that amazes me about Mesa's career is that there seemed nothing about his early career -- absolutely nothing -- that suggested he could become a dominant closer, even for a year or two. Until he was 28, he was just a lousy starting pitcher who hardly struck out anybody and gave up a boatload of hits. He did not display one talent that would seem to translate well to the closer role. He did not have razor sharp control. He did not have dominating stuff. You would seem more likely to find a dominant closer by just choosing a random Class AAA pitcher.
But Mesa was spectacular in 1995. He allowed just three home runs, had a 58-17 strikeout-to-walk, was perfect in saves and went 3-0. He appeared in 62 games all year. The Indians won 60 of them … and were losing by five or more when Mesa entered in the other two. It was just charmed, magical, and Mesa rode that charmed magic for another 12 seasons. He was never as good, though he did have a couple of 40-save seasons for Philadelphia when he was in his mid-30s.
But put it this way: His WAR for 1995 was 3.8 -- fabulous for a reliever. His combined WAR for the final 12 seasons of his career: 3.9.
* * *
Length of career: 17 years, 7,043 plate appearances.
Place in game's history: One of only eight players in baseball history to steal 300 bases and hit 300 homers; fascinating that two of the players on that list who definitely won't go to the Hall of Fame (Sanders and Steve Finley) are both on this year's ballot … Played at least 200 games at all three outfield positions, but he was primarily a right fielder and one of the 50 best to ever play the position. … Rather infamously struck out 10 times in 18 plate appearances in the 1995 NLCS.
Personal thoughts: With Roberto Hernandez and Reggie Sanders, this ballot has two of my all-time favorite people on it. Sanders was unfailingly kind to me in my dealings with him in Cincinnati and in Kansas City. Every sportswriter, I imagine, has a story about an athlete who was kind to them when they were young and nervous and felt like everything they did was wrong. And those athletes will always be special to them no matter what follows. For me, it was Tom Glavine in Atlanta and Reggie Sanders in Cincinnati.
We are about the same age, and we were both trying to find our way in the world in the early 1990s in Cincinnati. You might remember that in 1994, when he was still figuring things out, Pedro Martinez was throwing a perfect game against the Reds and Sanders came to bat with one out in the eighth. Pedro hit him with a pitch. And Sanders charged the mound. He did not seem aware of the rather obvious logic that Pedro would not have purposely hit him with a perfect game on the line. But, well, we all make a lot of mistakes growing up. Reggie just made his in front of America.
Sanders was a magnificent talent, but he was not especially graceful. He was muscular with what must have been a 28-inch waist and a big chest and arms -- his physique resembled the young George Foster. Because of this, he had kind of a herky-jerky swing and was not an especially fluid runner. But he was very strong and he was very fast. He hit as many as 33 home runs in a season and he stole as many as 36 bases and three times he led right fielders in range factor, meaning he got to a lot of balls.
He was tremendous in 1995. He hit .306/.397/.579 with 28 homers, 36 steals, 99 RBIs, 91 runs, played very good defense (including 12 outfield assists) and the Reds went to the National League Championship Series. There, against that great Atlanta pitching staff, he was helpless. He scraped out two hits in the series, both singles, and he struck out 10 times. He was never again as good as he was in 1995, and there are those who say the NLCS lingered with him for the rest of his career. I asked Reggie about it … he didn't think so. I don't either. He was 27 years old in 1995, at his very peak, and he had his best year. He had other good years -- and had postseason success against the Yankees in the 2001 World Series.
Late in his career, I ran into Reggie Sanders in an Apple Store in Kansas City. We talked for quite a while about life and how much had changed since our younger days and so on. Reggie Sanders had a wonderful baseball career. It's not quite Hall of Fame worthy, but few are. He seemed to enjoy his career very much. I'm glad to know him.
* * *
Length of career: 15 years, 2,153 innings pitched.
Place in game's history: Aaron Sele tied Brad Radke and Johnny Podres with 148 career victories … He probably is one of the 400 or so best starters in baseball history … He is from Golden Valley, Minnesota, which is where the actress Kelly Lynch is from.
Personal thoughts: Aaron Sele was just about as league average as you could get. He pitched more than 2,000 innings with a career ERA+ of 100 -- league average. He once finished Top 10 in strikeouts, and twice finished Top 10 in walks (10th, both times). His only distinguishing quality seemed to be his penchant for hitting batters. He hit 112 batters in his career, 61st all-time.
One other thing: He pitched for six different teams … and despite a league average ERA, he had a .500 or better record with every one of them. I don't care about win-loss records, but that's kind of a cool thing.
* * *
Length of career: 19 years, 1,178 appearances.
Place in game's history: Among pitchers, only Jesse Orosco appeared in more games than Mike Stanton. … One of the most used LOOGYs (Lefty, One-Out GuY) in baseball history, he made 233 appearances where he pitched just 1/3 of an inning -- fourth all-time (behind lefties Mike Myers, Jesse Orosco and Dan Plesac).
Personal thoughts: What's interesting about Stanton is that he pitched forever as a lefty specialist and he really wasn't all that good against left-handed hitters. I mean he was only slightly better against lefties than righties:
Righties: .261/.333/.388 against Stanton.
Lefties: .251/.316/.359 against Stanton
I mean, yes, he was a little better against lefties, but it's not like he dominated lefties like:
Mike Myers: .219/.304/.332
Jesse Orosco: .209/.287/.301
Dan Plesac: .215/.276/.342
Tony Fossas: .215/.285/.303
Or other LOOGYs of note. In fact, Stanton was actually quite miserable in his one-out appearances. He went 6-18 with an 11.70 ERA, gave up 159 hits in 77 2/3 innings. It is true that when the games are split up 1/3 of an inning at a time, it's kind of hard to determine what is good or bad. I will point out that his 11.70 ERA is the highest for any pitcher with 125 or more one-out appearances.
But, hey, he made a living. He was only a full-time closer one year -- 1993 for Atlanta -- and he never threw 85 innings in a season. He played for eight different teams and pitched in 53 postseason games … very effectively for the most part. He cashed more than $30 million in big league checks, which sure as heck isn't bad for a 13th round draft pick who started one big league game in his career.
That one start, in case you were wondering, was in 1999 for the New York Yankees. The Yankees were in a bit of a bind. He went four innings, allowed two hits and no runs. The Yankees won 6-1.
* * *
Length of career: 12 years, 5,055 plate appearances
Place in game's history: Played for seven teams in a career where he was mostly a second baseman but did log time at short, third, first and left field. … High draft pick after being a star at LSU, where he carried the Tigers to the College World Series championship in 1993 … Probably one of the 150 or so best second basemen in baseball history, but one of the 50 best offensively.
Personal thoughts: After the 1998 season, Todd Walker seemed like a pretty good candidate for stardom. He was 25 that year, he had been a big prospect (ranked 7th on Baseball America's list) and he hit .316/.372/.473 for Minnesota. He wasn't in the class with Derek Jeter or Nomar Garciaparra, but he was probably just a notch or two behind -- ahead of guys such as Miguel Tejada. But even though he had some pretty good offensive seasons after that, he was never as good a hitter. And his defense was enough of a problem that teams just kept trading him -- he was traded three times between July 2000 and the end of 2002.
* * *
Length of career: 15 years, 5,852 plate appearances
Place in game's history: One of the 100 greatest left fielders in baseball history, maybe even Top 75 … split time between center and left, he was generally a good defensive center fielder as a young man and an indifferent defensive left fielder as an older one. … He was implicated as a PED purchaser in the Mitchell Report.
Personal thoughts: Rondell White offers a perfect example to help clarify one of the most underrated -- but one of the most important -- skills of baseball, namely: The ability to play every day. Only once in White's career did he play more than 140 games. Because of this, he never put up those round-number stats that capture the imagination -- no 100 RBI seasons, no 100 run seasons, no 30 homer season, no 30 stolen base seasons and so on.
Look at a few partial years:
.300/.363/.513 with 17 homers, 58 RBIs and 54 runs in 97 games.
.307/.371/.529 with 17 homers, 50 RBIs and 43 runs in 95 games.
.311/.374/.493 with 13 homers, 61 RBIs and 59 runs in 94 games.
.313/.348/.489 with 12 homers, 53 RBIs and 49 runs in 97 games.
Any of these -- spread out to 150 or 155 games -- could have been a great season with MVP votes and All-Star nods and everything else -- especially because the younger White played good defense. But White just couldn't stay out there. An indestructible guy like Johnny Damon was probably not as good a hitter as Rondell White in his prime, but Damon just kept playing and playing and compiling and compiling and his career is significantly better.
* * *
Length of career: 15 years, 2,216 innings.
Place in game's history: One of the 250 or so greatest starting pitchers in baseball history … Did not become a full-time starter until he was 30 years old and did not pitch his best until he was in his mid-30s. … Like his former teammate and Hall of Fame Ballot-mate Craig Biggio, he became a high school coach after finishing his career and had immediate success.
Personal thoughts: Woody Williams was one of those guys who just couldn't get anyone to believe in him. He was a 28th round draft pick out of college, and though he pitched very well in the minors, especially at the start, it took him five full seasons before he threw his first big league pitch. He didn't start a game in the big leagues until he was 28. He didn't become a full-time starter until he was 30. He was about a league average starter, got traded, was about league average for a couple more years and was traded again.
Then, in St. Louis, he emerged, pitching great down the stretch of the 2001 season, and going 38-21 with a 111 ERA+ the next three years for the Cardinals. A lot of credit was given to pitching coach Dave Duncan, who undoubtedly deserved some, but the bulk of credit should go to Williams, who never lost faith in himself and never stopped believing he could pitch effectively in the big leagues. He finished off his career with a lousy season, a good one and a dreadful one before going off to coach high school baseball with 132 big-league victories. That is a couple more than Andy Messersmith and Jason Schmidt and Dean Chance, guys who starred when they were young, but didn't have Woody Williams' staying power.