HOF door opens for closers

Originally Published: January 10, 2006
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

There are not and probably never will be any magic numbers for closers to get into the Hall of Fame, nothing like 300 or 3,000 or .400. Bruce Sutter threw his last pitch in 1988 and waited more than 17 years to get the call he got Tuesday from the Hall of Fame, in part because the voters have been unable to establish a magic formula for evaluating short relievers.

But in the last voting before the steroid tidal wave broadsides the Hall of Fame at full force, Sutter's election -- by an incredibly narrow margin of 11 votes -- establishes more precedent for the selection of closers.

The standard that is being set has less to do with statistics, however; rather, it is being cast along the same lines that the late Justice Potter Stewart defined obscenity. "I know it when I see it," he wrote in a 1964 decision.

We know great closers when we see them. Rollie Fingers was a great closer, a pitcher feared by opposing hitters, and so was Dennis Eckersley; they're both in the Hall of Fame. Sutter is nowhere near the all-time leaders in saves, and he didn't have a particularly long career, but in those seasons when he was dominant, he affected games long before he actually starting warming up. When the Cubs or the Cardinals had leads in the middle innings, the opposing hitters and managers were filled with these thoughts: Oh, no, Sutter is coming into the game. We're running out of time. They knew a great closer when they saw him.

Bruce Sutter
AP PhotoBruce Sutter was an All-Star in four of the five seasons he played for the Cubs.
Lee Smith, the all-time leader in saves, did not engender this level of angst, and neither did John Franco or Jeff Reardon or Dan Quisenberry or many of the other best relievers over the last 20 years. Quisenberry was an elite closer, but because of his submariner stuff the hitters at least believed they would get some decent hacks. But Sutter would come into the games throwing his splitter, a pitch relatively new to hitters at the time, and batters of his era felt like they had no chance.

Goose Gossage may never satisfy the writers' loose standard for relievers. He received 64.6 percent of the votes, after being named on 55.2 percent of the ballots last year; I thought he'd get more votes (and I thought Jim Rice and Andre Dawson would get more support -- even if they didn't get in -- benefiting from steroid backlash). But there will be a day when Gossage does get in, perhaps when he's selected by the Veterans Committee, because he was among the game's most dominant closers since the save rule was established. Hitters of that era will tell you this.

Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman will probably follow, eventually, and in a decade or so, the number of closers in the Hall of Fame will more suitably reflect the emphasis that players, managers and general managers place on late-inning relief. Maybe there are formulas and charts that tell you that Franco has been as good a closer as Rivera. Maybe there are statistics that demonstrate little difference between a guy like Sutter and someone like Armando Benitez. But you watch the games and you see the hitters react to them and see the pathetic swings the hitters take, and you know there is a difference that will never be quantified.

This is the final Hall of Fame election that won't be tainted by steroids. Mark McGwire gains eligibility later this year, and his presence on the ballot will effectively begin the debate, in earnest, on how performance-enhancing drugs will be a factor in weighing a player's candidacy -- whether their use has been proven or is merely suspected.

I don't think McGwire will be inducted in 2007; many writers will withhold their support for him in his first year of eligibility, and because of his nonanswers at the congressional hearing last spring, many writers will never vote for him. In the months leading up to the voting and beyond, this discussion will rage, making the Pete Rose controversy seem pedestrian by comparison. And in the years to come, McGwire will be joined on the ballot by Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa and other players whose accomplishments will forever be cast against the steroid-laden backdrop.

Soon, we will pine for the days when we all debated the relative value of saves, and the closers who accumulated them.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is available in paperback and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine