Commentary

Tanner backing Gossage, Blyleven

Originally Published: December 27, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

The timing of the Baseball Hall of Fame announcements isn't exactly a boon to holiday cheer. For candidates on the brink, the Christmas season is a chaotic blend of shopping, gorging, overdosing on bowl games and dreading the awkward silence from a phone that never rings.

Validation day is near for Goose Gossage, now that Dennis Eckersley and Bruce Sutter have joined the club -- and the Hall electorate seems ready to accept another closer from the Paleolithic era. Gossage received 71.2 percent of the vote last year -- only 21 votes short of the 75 percent required for induction -- and he's poised to make the cut when the results of this year's ballot are announced Jan. 8.

The picture is less rosy for Bert Blyleven. Thanks to the educational efforts and occasional goading from the Sabermetric community, mainstream baseball writers have become more receptive to his candidacy. But after several years of progress, Blyleven's total decreased from 53.3 percent to 47.7 percent in January. In this, his 11th appearance on the ballot, he can't afford a loss of momentum.

If Blyleven needs a morale boost, he can take heart in the knowledge that a 78-year-old baseball lifer in Western Pennsylvania is solidly in his corner.

Chuck Tanner, 25th on baseball's managerial win list with 1,352 victories, recently joined the Pittsburgh Pirates as a senior adviser to general manager Neal Huntington. When he watches the Hall of Fame results roll in each January, his life flashes before his eyes.

His attitude was, 'I'm coming after you, buddy. Let's see what you can do.' He should've been in the Hall of Fame on the first round.

--Chuck Tanner on Goose Gossage

Tanner was disappointed to see one of his personal favorites, Jim Kaat, fall off the ballot in 2003 after 15 appearances without a call. He's also perplexed that Tommy John, who pitched for him in Chicago in the early 1970s and won 288 games, is making his 14th appearance on the ballot and has yet to sniff selection.

So Gossage and Blyleven represent Tanner's best chance of attending an induction ceremony with a personal stake in the festivities. He's happy to give them both his blessing and his personal endorsement.

"I know in my heart what they did," Tanner said. "I know how competitive they were and how they made me successful. They made me a good manager. I didn't make them. I just kind of steered and guided them a little here and there."

It's no stretch to say that Tanner played a pivotal role in both pitchers' careers. While managing the White Sox in the early 1970s, Tanner had the inspiration to convert two young fastballers, Gossage and Terry Forster, from starting roles to the back end of the bullpen.

Tanner might have been ahead of his time, but his decision was rooted in both long-term vision and short-term expediency. He knew it would be a shock to a hitter's system to see Gossage grunting and snorting in 98 mph increments after seven innings of watching Wilbur Wood's knuckler and Tom Bradley's curve.

Gossage, freed from the constraints of pacing himself, harnessed his fury and went on to pitch 22 seasons in the majors. As Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams once said, "If there's a batter who likes to face him, he's gotta have rocks in his head."

Gossage amassed 310 saves at a time when they rarely came cheaply. During one three-year stretch of relief with the White Sox, Pirates and Yankees, Gossage averaged 26 saves and 136 innings a season.

ESPN's Jayson Stark, who ranked Gossage as the most underrated closer in baseball history in his book, combed through the box scores and found that Gossage made a whopping 17 appearances of 10 outs or more in his first season as a closer.

"You'll hear managers today say, 'This is my set-up guy,' or, 'He's my closer,'" Tanner said. "Goose was my set-up guy and my closer. I made him do it all."

That's one reason why Tanner, when asked where Gossage ranks on the list of baseball's greatest closers, places him ahead of Trevor Hoffman, Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Sutter, Mariano Rivera and Lee Smith -- in short, the elite of the elite.

"Listen, they're all great," Tanner said. "Don't get me wrong. But I'm prejudiced. When Gossage would come in there, boy, he had that Fu Manchu and that tenacity. His attitude was, 'I'm coming after you, buddy. Let's see what you can do.' He should've been in the Hall of Fame on the first round. If they don't take him this time, there shouldn't be a Hall of Fame."

While Tanner butted heads with Gossage here and there, his relationship with Blyleven was downright contentious at times. Blyleven, accustomed to throwing complete games as part of a four-man rotation early in his career, chafed when he got to Pittsburgh in 1978 and Tanner started him every fifth day and routinely lifted him for pinch hitters late in games.

I loved Bert because he was a competitor. … That son of a gun never wanted to come out of a game.

--Chuck Tanner on Bert Blyleven

In the spring of 1980, Blyleven was so upset with his reduced workload that he left the Pirates and went home to his native California to stew. He returned after a 10-day hiatus. But when the season was over, the Pirates traded Blyleven and catcher Manny Sanguillen to Cleveland for Victor Cruz, Bob Owchinko, Rafael Vasquez and Gary Alexander.

Manager and pitcher traded barbs from afar, and Tanner tore into Blyleven during a January luncheon. He told reporters that Blyleven was more concerned with individual accomplishments than the team concept, and half-jokingly referred to the pitcher as "Cryleven."

But time has a way of bridging differences and portraying misunderstandings in a whole new light. Tanner and Blyleven made their peace in spring training, and now they stay in touch two or three times each year by phone.

"Chuck and I may have had our different opinions on how I was being used, but there was no better person, manager and leader than Chuck Tanner," Blyleven wrote in an e-mail to ESPN.com. "He is a class man and deserves respect for his dedication to the game of baseball."

Tanner chooses to remember Blyleven less for his headstrong ways than his tenacity. The same competitive gene that prompted Blyleven to act impetuously in response to slights -- throwing batting helmets and venting his emotions when Tanner pulled him from games -- compelled him to pitch in any situation.

Blyleven is 4-1 with a 2.47 ERA in postseason play. He threw a complete-game eight-hitter against Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, George Foster and the Reds in the clinching game of the 1979 National League Championship Series and was lights-out against Baltimore in the World Series. Blyleven even pitched four innings in relief of Jim Rooker in Game 5 to help the Pirates come back from a 3-1 deficit against the Orioles.

"I loved Bert because he was a competitor," Tanner said. "Other than that one time when his feelings got hurt, I never had a problem with him. That son of a gun never wanted to come out of a game."

Indeed, when Tanner picks an all-time starting rotation from his 19 seasons as a manager, he mentions John Candelaria, Blyleven, Kaat, Wood and Vida Blue, with Bruce Kison and Stan Bahnsen in the discussion somewhere.

If you judge a player by the company he keeps, Blyleven certainly merits a place in Cooperstown. He has more complete games (242) than Tom Seaver, a better strikeout-walk ratio (2.8-1) than Walter Johnson, more shutouts (60) than Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer and Juan Marichal, and a better WHIP (1.198) than Whitey Ford, Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan.

Blyleven's detractors point out that he made only two All-Star teams, won 20 games just once, and never finished higher than third in the Cy Young balloting. He loved to dispense hot feet, snip neckties and walk around in an "I Love to Fart" T-shirt, and he routinely spoke his mind with little regard to the consequences. Those personality quirks created the perception that he wasn't always as businesslike as he should have been.

But Blyleven's supporters swear by his Hall-worthiness. Rich Lederer, a baseball analyst and historian, studied Blyleven's career and estimates that if he had received even league-average run support, his record would be closer to 313-224 than his 287-250.

"I don't think people have taken the time to look at the statistics closely enough to appreciate how dominant he was," Lederer said. "If he had won 13 more games, I don't think we'd even be having this discussion right now."

Several years ago, Blyleven vented about the unfairness of the Hall of Fame selection process because he wanted so desperately to make it while his father was still alive. But Joe Blyleven died in 2004 from complications related to Parkinson's disease, and Bert's sense of urgency is now rooted in the fact that he has only five more cracks at Cooperstown.

Gossage, similarly, had hoped to make his Hall of Fame speech in Cooperstown with his mother, Sue, in attendance. But she died last year at age 92, and he now seems more at peace with the fickle nature of the selection process.

For what it's worth, the two former Pirates have one feisty septuagenarian still fighting on their behalf. Chuck Tanner, their surrogate baseball dad, is anxiously awaiting the results of this year's balloting.

It's been a trying stretch for Tanner, one of the game's most upbeat and beloved figures. In August 2006, Tanner's wife of 56 years, Barbara, died after a series of medical setbacks. In the spring, Tanner was hospitalized for a bleeding ulcer that required surgery.

As he reflects upon the past and contemplates the future, nothing thrills him more than the prospect of a sunny July day in Cooperstown, and Goose Gossage and Bert Blyleven standing on a podium giving their induction speeches.

"Make the story nice, so they get in," Tanner said.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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