- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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It's been nearly 5,000 days since Goose Gossage threw his last pitch in the big leagues. It's been nearly 7,000 days since Jim Rice's last hit.
So it's one of the great puzzles of electoral times that here they are, all these years later, wondering if this is the election that finally gets them into the Hall of Fame.
What, exactly, changed, anyway? It sure wasn't their careers. Only their vote totals, and the perspectives of the people casting those votes, have shifted.
But whatever it was that got these men, and us, to this point, this could be the year for both of them -- in Gossage's ninth try, in Rice's 14th. And if they both make it, by some miracle, this will be an election unlike any in the last half century.
You have to go all the way back to the bizarre voting of the 1950s to find a year when two players got elected to the Hall this deep into their candidacy. (Check out the info box we dropped into this column for the details.)
Boy, if you think Hall of Fame voters are hard to comprehend now, take a look at how they voted back then. Nine ballots to elect Hank Greenberg? What's up with that?
Fortunately for most of the players who show up on these ballots, voters aren't that sadistic anymore. Unfortunately for Gossage and Rice, their particular candidacies have exposed us at our waffling worst.
Let's hope Tim Raines, by far the most deserving of this election's first-year candidates, doesn't get stuck in ballot purgatory for as long as those two guys. Now, with that preamble, let's take a look at the eight players I voted for this year:
Most Likely To Get Elected Division
1. Goose Gossage
Mark it down. This is going to be his year. Finally.
Of all the candidates on last year's ballot, the Goose was the only one to take a major leap. Amazingly, the guy hadn't thrown a single pitch in 13 years, but he still got 52 more votes than he'd received the year before, pole-vaulting him to within 21 votes of election. Nobody has ever come that close and not made it. So this looks like the year.
Well, it's about frigging time.
I'm going to unfurl this rant one final time: Goose Gossage was the most dominating closer ever. Ever. And I don't care who else you want to throw up there against him. Go right ahead. Want to take Mariano Rivera? Great. Let's compare them.
Stacking up save totals doesn't work, because Gossage was pitching in a time when managers were mysteriously using their closers in an attempt to (gasp) win games, as opposed to just helping them pile up save totals. So let's toss out saves and stack up Rivera's 11 full seasons as a closer versus the Goose's first 11 full seasons as a closer.
Want to pick a category? Be my guest. ERA? Gossage 2.21, Rivera 2.35. Strikeouts? Goose 8.54 whiffs per 9 innings, Rivera 8.09. Unhittability? Gossage 6.59 hits per 9 innings, Rivera 7.17.
So any more questions? And remember, the Goose was unleashing all that domination even though he was routinely being asked to pitch 100 to 141 innings (yep, 141) a year.
Then why did it take nine elections for voters to figure out this was a Hall of Famer they were looking at? Boy, ya got me. That's the biggest mystery since the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Riveting Election Drama Division
2. Jim Rice
It's his 14th trip through this torture chamber. His 14th. And you've got to feel for Rice at this point, because he's no lock to make it this year, either.
Not so long ago, he was beating Gossage in these elections by nearly 100 votes. By last year, Gossage was outpolling him by 42 votes. In fact, Rice's vote percentage actually went down last year (from 64.8 to 63.5 percent).
So is he about to become the first man in 40 years (since Red Ruffing) to get elected on the 14th try or later? Who knows anymore?
I keep waiting for the backlash against the steroids era to start working in the favor of players like Rice. It hasn't happened yet. But backlash or no backlash, we're supposed to be comparing players to other players in their time, not anybody else's time. And that's where Rice becomes more than the sum of his 382 career homers.
It tells you something that this guy was a top-five finisher in six MVP elections. It tells you something that, in his 12 seasons of domination from 1975 to '86, he led everyone in his league in homers, RBIs, runs, slugging and extra-base hits. It tells you something that in all of those categories except home runs, the only player even close to him was the great George Brett.
It's Rice who convinced me that our perspectives can change on a player over time. Sometimes a lot of time. But this much time? Over the past 30 years, only Bruce Sutter (13 tries) and Duke Snider (11) have needed more than 10 ballots to get elected. Will Rice ever join them? If he doesn't make a surge this year, you have to wonder.
3. Tim Raines
Apparently, some sort of information-repelling barrier was erected at the Canadian border back in the '80s that prevented word of Raines' brilliance from reaching the American mainland. And this Hall of Fame election is going to prove it.
It's going to prove it because Raines has no prayer of getting elected, for one regrettable reason: He was doing his greatest work in a time and place (i.e., Montreal) where hardly anybody actually saw it.
But go back. Take a look at this man's career. This, friends, is what a Hall of Fame leadoff hitter looked like.
How multifaceted was Tim Raines? Over the seven seasons from 1982 to '88, he led the National League in singles, doubles, triples and walks. Now think about what it is you'd like your leadoff hitter to do. Get on base, right? Well, this fellow was better at reaching base every single way you could reach it (outside of catcher's interference, maybe) than anyone else in his league.
You'd also want your leadoff hitter to be able to steal a base, don't you think? So how about this: Not only was Tim Raines the only player in history to swipe at least 70 bases six years in a row, he stole 808 bases in his day while compiling the best SB percentage of all time (84.7 percent).
Beyond that, he was an above-average defender, a leader on every team he played on and a player ranked by Bill James as the greatest leadoff hitter in history not named Rickey Henderson. And, if you're still not convinced, chew on these three factoids:
• Raines is one of only two players in history with 500 stolen bases, 150 homers and a career on-base percentage over .375. The other: Barry Bonds.
• He's one of only four left fielders whose on-base percentage was at least 50 points higher than the average player of his era. The others: Bonds, Henderson and Carl Yastrzemski.
• And, finally, instead of counting hits the way we do with other candidates, let's count times on base, considering we're talking about a leadoff man. Well, Raines reached base more times (3,977) than Tony Gwynn, Honus Wagner, Lou Brock, Roberto Clemente or Richie Ashburn. And there isn't a single eligible player who reached base as many times as Raines did and had as high an on-base percentage (.385) who isn't in the Hall of Fame.
Until now, anyway. But one of these days, if there's any justice, that will change.
Lost Stars Of The '80s Division
4. Andre Dawson
Speaking of Expos legends whose best years were missed by half the planet, Dawson is another guy who seems to be stuck in electoral quicksand. Over the past five years, he has never dipped below 50 percent but never made it above 61 percent. So he's still 100 votes from Cooperstown, with no serious momentum to indicate he'll ever get there.
But many of us who covered the National League in the '80s still can't figure out why. Dawson, Mike Schmidt and Dale Murphy were the megastars in that league back then. And Dawson was such a force, he won one MVP award and finished second twice. He was also a rookie of the year. He won eight Gold Gloves. And he spent a bunch of years in the who's-the-best-player-in-baseball debate.
None of that has earned him a plaque yet. But maybe he and Raines can go in together someday -- and give their acceptance speeches in French.
5. Dale Murphy
And the forgotten stars of the '80s keep on coming. No player of his generation has been more outspoken about the steroids era than Murphy. And, sadly, it's possible that no great player has had more damage done to his candidacy by that era -- and its inflated numbers -- than Murphy, either.
His 398 homers and that .469 career slugging percentage look downright ordinary nowadays. But remember, this is supposed to be about what these men did in their era. And back in the '80s, Murphy led all National Leaguers in runs and hits, tied Mike Schmidt for the most RBIs and finished second to Schmidt in home runs. He also was a back-to-back MVP, a five-time Gold Glove winner, a proud member of the 30-Homer 30-Steal Club, a guy who once got more All-Star votes than anyone else in the whole sport and one of the classiest clubhouse citizens ever.
Apparently, those glittering credentials aren't going to make him a Hall of Famer. But for this man to see his vote total shrink from 116 to 50 is a grievous voting injustice.
6. Jack Morris
Once upon a time, Morris used to get fewer votes in these elections than Murphy. So anybody have a good explanation for why, by last year, Morris was at 202 votes and Murphy was getting 50?
Unfortunately for Morris, even though he's trending in the right direction, he could double his vote total and still fall short. So even though he seems doomed to spend 15 years in ballot limbo, at least there's a greater appreciation now for what this man was in his time: the unabashed No. 1 starter for every team he pitched for.
That may not make his 3.90 career ERA -- which would be the highest of any Hall of Fame pitcher -- irrelevant. But does that ERA really tell the whole story of a pitcher who won 41 more games than any other starter of his generation during his 14 peak seasons (1979-92)? Not when we're talking about a pitcher who threw a no-hitter, started three All-Star Games, established his acehood on three World Series teams and pitched the greatest Game 7 (Morris versus John Smoltz, 1991) most of us have ever witnessed. So I have no second thoughts about checking his box, every single year.
7. Bert Blyleven
Every Hall of Fame voter has some candidate who ping-pongs around his brain at 3 a.m. on sleepless December nights. And Blyleven has been that guy for me -- the most difficult player I've ever had to judge.
For eight years, he fell just on the other side of my personal dividing line. Why did he make only two All-Star teams? Why was he a top-three finisher in only two Cy Young elections? Why did he have a lower winning percentage (.534) than Mike Torrez?
I couldn't get past all those questions -- 287 wins or no 287 wins. But I kept thinking, kept listening. And finally, I reminded myself to compare this man to the pitchers of his generation. When you do that, you find a pitcher dominating enough to rank No. 1 in complete games in the division-play era, second in shutouts (one behind Nolan Ryan), second in innings pitched (again trailing only Ryan), fifth in whiffs and seventh in wins (ranked behind only Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers).
So I've now voted for him three straight years. But you have to wonder about the prospects of a fellow who lost more than 5 percent of his votes last year.
Not Here To Talk About The Past Division
8. Mark McGwire
OK, so I saved the most uncomfortable vote for last. Deliberately. Hall of Fame time isn't supposed to be just another excuse to debate steroids. So now that the baseball stuff is out of the way, here goes:
Yeah, I voted for McGwire. I can't say casting that vote gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling. But I cast it because he's the first tainted star of that generation to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot, and as more and more names show up on these ballots, we all better have a consistent philosophy about how to handle them.
Even after the Mitchell report, how much do we really know about the stars of that era? Do we know anything more about McGwire, for instance, than we knew a month ago? So if you're one of those voters who wants to make a statement, where do you draw the line?
Are you going to vote only against guys who gave horrible answers to Congress or wound up in a classic literary work by Jose Canseco? Or are you going to vote against anybody you suspect took something? I understand if you do. But what if it's a guy whose name has never, ever come up in the conversation?
It's our job as voters to try to draw that all-important Hall of Fame line, and baseball has given us no meaningful information to help us draw it. All baseball did was let all these guys play, pile up their numbers and break their records -- then dump the whole mess in our lap to sort out. Hey, thanks a lot.
So I feel more comfortable doing what voters have done for years with other "cheaters" and players tarnished by controversy. I feel more comfortable voting for players like McGwire, based on what the sport allowed them to do on the field, than I do trying to pick and choose who did what, and when, and why.
If I could prove the innocence of the "clean" players of that era as easily as people think they can assume the guilt of the men they think were "cheaters," I might vote differently. But what can we prove, really? Not a whole lot.
So my philosophy, now and for as long as I vote, is to try to handle this issue as consistently as humanly possible. And the only true way to be consistent is to vote for just about all the best players of that era -- or none of them.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.
4hInterview by Buster Olney