Older players make final bids for Hall of Fame
Updated 7/27/2006 12:45 AM ET
By Mel Antonen, USA TODAY
At age 39, shortstop Omar Vizquel has a .276 average, 2,408 career hits and 10 Gold Gloves for defensive excellence, but because he plays in a power-hitting age, he's not sure his resume will be impressive enough to make the Hall of Fame.
"I've been playing at the same time as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada, and perhaps my numbers will come up short by comparison," Vizquel says.
Vizquel, in his second season with the San Francisco Giants, is one of a handful of players in the final stages of a career that might or might not be good enough to make Cooperstown. A player gets Hall of Fame consideration five years after retirement and needs 75% of the 500-plus votes cast by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America for enshrinement.
Sunday, the Hall will induct relief pitcher Bruce Sutter, who earned election in his 13th year of eligibility. Several current players could find themselves, like Sutter, playing the waiting game.
Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux have earned their Hall of Fame credentials, but what about the New York Yankees' Mike Mussina? Outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. and catcher Mike Piazza figure to be locks as well, but what about the Los Angeles' Dodgers Jeff Kent or the Houston Astros' Craig Biggio?
Vizquel's forte is defense, but history says that defense doesn't get the same recognition as offense. Mussina has won 235 games, but he might not have the postseason reputation.
Kent's best seasons came in the shadows of Barry Bonds. Biggio played 18 seasons before making a World Series but has 2,886 hits.
Voters differ on whether late-career heroics — such as a batting title, an All-Star appearance, a 20-win season, an ERA title or a dramatic October home run — can improve a player's chances to make it to Cooperstown.
"A World Series championship always helps a borderline player," says Nick Cafardo, a baseball writer and BBWAA voting member from The Boston Globe.
But voter Jeffrey Flanagan, a columnist for The Kansas City Star, thinks players such as Vizquel and Kent could get lost in the shuffle of the research that goes with "building a case" for a player's Hall of Fame credentials.
"My philosophy is that if you have to think for more than a second or two, the player might not be a Hall of Famer," Flanagan says. "I want the elite of the elite. If you have to build a case, I get a little nervous."
'Defense is overlooked'
San Francisco is contending in the National League West, so Vizquel has a chance to add a seventh playoff appearance and third World Series appearance. But Vizquel's chances will be determined more by how voters value defense.
Vizquel isn't a power hitter — he has 92 career home runs — but his 10 Gold Gloves are second-most all-time for a shortstop to Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith's 13. His .984 fielding percentage is the all-time highest and he owns two of the four best fielding percentages ever. He's one of 10 players to win Gold Gloves in both leagues, including last season with the Giants, when, at 38, he became the oldest shortstop to win the award.
"Shortstops, like catchers and great-fielding center fielders should be viewed differently," says Bill Center, a baseball writer from The Union-Tribune of San Diego. "I believe we've stopped looking at the game sometimes and just go with numbers. Defense is overlooked. The game is more than average, home runs and RBI."
There are 22 Hall of Fame shortstops, and Smith was inducted in 2002. He played 19 seasons with the San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals and finished with 2,460 career hits while winning a record 13 Gold Gloves at shortstop. He also appeared in eight postseasons and 15 All-Star Games.
The standard for starting pitchers to be considered Hall of Fame shoo-ins is 300 victories, and Mussina, 37, has 236. He's 12-3 with a 3.44 ERA this season and could be eligible for free agency this offseason. Mussina doesn't see himself sticking around for the five or so years that it would take to reach 300.
"That's a long way away," Mussina says. "The way the game has evolved, there are many more pitches thrown in a game today. It becomes harder and harder to win games."
Mussina says he's heard his name come up in Hall of Fame debates. "Do I compare to some guys who are in? I think I do," he says. He has double-figure wins in every season since 1992, and holds the American League record for most consecutive 10-win seasons. He's surpassed 2,500 career strikeouts. He's never won 20 games, but he's won 18 three times, 19 and 17 two times each.
"A 20-win season would be helpful, I'm sure, or winning the World Series," Mussina says.
History isn't consistent with Hall of Fame starters. Jim "Catfish" Hunter is a Hall of Famer even though he had 224 career wins. Hunter was helped by a perfect game, five seasons of 21-plus wins and five World Series rings.
Jack Morris has 254 wins and a 6-1 postseason record, including 3-0 and a 2.96 ERA in the World Series. He pitched 10 shutout innings in Game 7 in the Minnesota Twins' 1-0 10-inning win against the Atlanta Braves in the 1991 World Series.
"Mussina is a Hall of Famer," says The Washington Times columnist Thom Loverro. "He could have won 20 games two or three times under different circumstances."
But Loverro isn't sure Mussina will have enough support. Mussina joined the Yankees in 2001, one year after their stretch of four World Series titles in five years.
"He doesn't have anything going for him except the numbers," Loverro said. "He hasn't won a championship and he doesn't have the name recognition, of say, Tom Glavine or Greg Maddux. During the 1990s, Mussina was one of the top four or five pitchers in the game and that's what the Hall of Fame is about."
How much is enough?
Kent, 38, in his second season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, is the all-time leading home run hitter for second basemen (306).
Kent has played with six teams and he played six years with the Giants, where he had the benefit of batting behind Bonds.
But Kent is one of four second basemen — along with Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby and Ryne Sandberg and Alfonso Soriano of the Washington Nationals — to have 30-plus home runs in three seasons.
He has 2,133 hits and 1,356 RBI for his career. He's been in the postseason five times, including the 2002 World Series with San Francisco. He figures he's going to play this year and next, but after that, he's not sure. He says the Dodgers' infusion of youth makes him less likely to retire.
"I don't have to grind it out every day," he says. "I'm not always the one who has to hit the three-run home run. It's kind of the big reason we quit, when the job becomes a serious headache. This is perfect for where I'm at. The only thing I haven't been is a world champion. And that's something that's far out of reach for just an individual."
Columnist Mark Whicker of The Orange County (Calif.) Register says Kent is a Hall of Famer, just not on the first ballot. He likes Kent's slugging percentage, home runs and RBI but says Kent doesn't have Sandberg's defensive credentials.
Center doesn't have Kent on his list because he doesn't think Kent dominates games like a Hall of Famer, but Rick Hummel, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch baseball writer, says Kent has nothing more to prove, given that he's had 100-plus RBI in nine of the last 10 years: "That's unbelievable."
Only a title matters
Biggio, 40, is making his Hall of Fame case with the Houston Astros. Since coming up in 1988 he has 1,099 RBI and a .284 career average. He's gone from catcher to second base to the outfield and back to second.
This season, he's passed Hank Aaron's career total for doubles and Brooks Robinson on the career hit list. Biggio is the only player to reach 600 doubles, 250 home runs, 2,700 hits and 400 stolen bases.
Biggio isn't worried about numbers. He says the fun part of baseball is trying to make the World Series. He and the Astros were swept in the World Series last fall. "And I want to play in it again," he says. "And this time I want to win."
If so, it could mean a trip to Cooperstown after retirement.