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Cooperstown Confidential
by Bruce Markusen
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On Deck For The Hall

So who will join Carlton Fisk and Tony Perez in the roll call at Cooperstown this summer? Of the four categories of candidates being considered by the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee, the one that tends to draw the most attention from the national media is the list of 20th century players. Last year, Orlando Cepeda won election to the Hall through this category. This year, Dom DiMaggio and Bill Mazeroski return to the Veterans ballot, where they will be joined by at least one significant newcomer in Tony Oliva. Although many other names will be bandied about, here’s a look at five prospects for the Hall:

Dom DiMaggio: A terrific center fielder and leadoff man, DiMaggio reached base 38 per cent of the time during his 11-year career. Like many players of his era, his major league tenure was cut short by three years of service in World War II. Nonetheless, he managed to make seven American League All-Star teams, despite playing in the shadow of Ted Williams. Ironically, his defensive play in center field often made up for Williams’ own lapses in the field. Williams, a member of the Veterans Committee, remains a big supporter of his election to the Hall.

Mel Harder: A fearless pitching star during the 1930s, Harder seems to be gaining momentum for election in recent years. He reached the 20-win mark twice in his 20-year career with the Indians and led the American League in shutouts in 1934. His lifetime ERA of 3.80 is not typical for a Hall of Fame hurler, but he did pitch the prime years of his career during the hitter-happy thirties. As a side note, Harder is the only major league pitcher never to allow a run in over 10 innings of All-Star Game work.

Gil Hodges: The late Brooklyn Dodger first baseman received more combined votes than anybody during his 15 years on the writers’ ballot, but that ranks as little more than a symbolic victory for a man who remains on the outside of the Hall looking in. Hodges, who drove in over 100 runs for seven consecutive seasons, was often called the strongest man in baseball during the 1950s. His career power numbers were strikingly similar to those of Cepeda and Perez, both of whom have gained election in the last year. With soft hands and quick feet, Hodges was a better defensive first baseman than "The Baby Bull" and "Doggie," and arguably the best fielding first baseman of his era. He also provided the Dodgers with quiet leadership during their glory years. While some supporters like to point to Hodges’ 1969 world championship as a manager, Hall of Fame election rules stipulate that candidates be elected on their accomplishments as either a player or manager, but not both. So, in that sense, Hodges’ leadership of the "Miracle Mets" becomes irrelevant.

Bill Mazeroski: According to some SABRmetricians, he’s the most dominant defensive player not to gain enshrinement in the Hall. According to others, he’s the most dominant of all-time—period. Current second base standouts like Roberto Alomar and Pokey Reese may have more range afield, but no has ever turned the double play with more quickness and efficiency than Maz. He had two nicknames: "No Touch," because it seemed like he didn’t even touch the ball in making the transfer from his glove to his bare hand, and "Tree Stump," because of his thick legs which made him hard to topple with take-out slides. While his fielding certainly highlighted his 17-year career, there’s a tendency to disparage Maz’ offensive game. Mazeroski’s lifetime on-base percentage was a paltry .302, but his supporters remind us that he played the prime seasons of his career in a pitcher’s era. He often led NL second baseman in RBIs, clubbed 138 home runs for his career, and contributed mightily to the Pirates’ world championship in 1960, batting .320 with five RBIs while fielding flawlessly. And while it’s a very small part of a resume that some feel makes him worthy for the Hall, his World Series-ending home run against Ralph Terry still ranks as one of the game’s most defining moments.

Tony Oliva: If Oliva’s career had not been cut short by knee injuries, there’d be little debate about the three-time batting champion’s Hall of Fame worthiness. Yet, the question remains. Did he play long enough at a high enough level to merit inclusion in Cooperstown? Of his 15 major league seasons, only about eight could be considered truly outstanding. His beautiful left-handed swing also tended to obscure his other abilities. According to former Twins’ beat writer Bob Fowler (now the owner of the minor league Utica Blue Sox), Oliva was the best all-around player on those 1960s Minnesota teams that also featured Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew. In his early days, Oliva had a strong arm but often broke poorly on fly balls. Through sheer work and repetition, he made himself into a fine defensive right fielder. He also ran well until knee problems heavily curtailed his speed during the twilight of his career.

The recent selection of Hank Aaron to the Veterans Committee may help Mazeroski’s case for the Hall of Fame. Aaron, who replaces the late Pee Wee Reese on the committee, is a staunch supporter of Mazeroski’s election. "Show me a better second baseman than Mazeroski, a second baseman who could field his position better than Mazeroski," Aaron told reporters during a trip to Pittsburgh last August. "Red Schoendienst was the only second baseman I saw who was comparable. Mazeroski truly was a most gifted athlete and I would like to see him in the Hall of Fame." We’ll find out if Maz makes the grade later this month...

The Vets Committee can select up to four inductees at their February 29th meeting, including one each from the Negro Leagues, 19th century, and composite (managers, owners, etc.) categories. One man’s hunch on who might be elected? Turkey Stearnes, Bill Dahlen, Sparky Anderson, and Maz.

Sticking with the Hall of Fame, the upstate New York museum is doing something that it rarely does: revising one of the plaques that permanently hang in the Hall of Fame Gallery. The plaque in question is the one belonging to Roberto Clemente. When the late Clemente was inducted in 1973, the plaque’s inscription listed his full name as "Roberto Walker Clemente." At the time, it was commonly assumed that "Walker" was Clemente’s middle name. Not so. The "Walker" comes from Clemente’s mother, whose maiden name was Luisa Walker. In Puerto Rican culture, people actually have two last names. One is the father’s last name, which comes first; the other is the mother’s maiden name, which comes second. Therefore, the name of the late Pirate great should read "Roberto Clemente Walker," and not "Roberto Walker Clemente."

During a 1998 visit to the Hall of Fame, the Clemente family noticed the reversal of names and asked Hall officials to make the change. In addition to correcting the name, the Hall of Fame will also be taking an unprecedented step in allowing the newly revised plaque to be displayed at the Heinz Regional Center in Pittsburgh from April 15 through Labor Day. The new plaque will then take its rightful place in the Hall’s Gallery, one of baseball’s truly sacred grounds…

Hall Of Fame Royalty

Two key figures during Kansas City’s successful run in the late 1970s recently gained election to the Royals’ Hall of Fame. They are Willie Wilson, who may have been the best impatient leadoff man in major league history, and Whitey Herzog, who’s hoping to receive some consideration from the other Hall of Fame later in the month. Since the Royals are honoring some of the greatest players and managers in franchise history, we thought it would be a good time to name our all-time Royals’ team, from the franchise’s inception in 1969 to the current day. The lack of selections from the 1990s on tells us all we need to know about the Royals’ fall from glory over the past 15 years.

Catcher: Darrell Porter... Played only four years with KC, but was an elite player for three of them. Our only pick that’s not in the Royals’ Hall of Fame.
First Base: John Mayberry... The first real power hitter in franchise history.
Second Base: Frank White... One of the most underrated players of his era.
Shortstop: Freddie Patek... Freddie "The Flea" rates the clear advantage over U.L. "The Toothpick" Washington
Third Base: George Brett... Best player in franchise history. Completes an all-1970s infield for our all-time team. And you thought we might pick Brett’s predecessor, Paul Schaal?
Left Field: Willie Wilson... At one time, the fastest man in the game. A perfect match for the old artificial turf of Kauffman Stadium.
Center Field: Amos Otis... Acquired in one of the biggest thefts in history; stolen from the Mets for journeyman third baseman Joe Foy.
Right Field: Hal McRae... Really more of a DH and left fielder, but made his living with a vicious line-drive bat. One of the most feared baserunners in the AL, thanks to his unyielding take-out slides at second base.
RH Pitcher: Bret Saberhagen... A two-time Cy Young winner, followed by the solid Dennis Leonard at No. 2.
LH Pitcher: Larry Gura... His .590 winning percentage is the highest among Royal starters. A close call over Paul Splittorff.
Reliever: Dan Quisenberry... Not that far from a Hall of Fame career.
Manager: Dick Howser... Led the franchise to its only world championship in 1985. Like "Quiz," died much too young.

Staying with the Royals, their recent trade of Jeremy Giambi to the A’s for pitching prospect Bret Laxton means that Paul Sorrento could be opening the season as Kansas City’s first baseman. General manager Herk Robinson has already been taking a beating from Royals’ fans and media for signing Sorrento, whose production has fallen off a cliff the past two seasons. Sorrento will be competing with Mike Sweeney, a much better offensive player in 1999. So why don’t the Royals just give the job to Sweeney? Well, manager Tony Muser is hell-bent on having the better glove at first base, which puts Sorrento in the running. Muser was an excellent defensive first baseman during his journeyman major league career, and like some managers, likes to have players around who remind him of himself… As for the trade itself, both players carry question marks. Giambi, a terrific minor league hitter, can play first base or the outfield corners, but will need to improve his major league power numbers in order to justify everyday status. It remains to be seen where he’ll fit with the A’s, who already have plenty of left-handed hitting first base-outfield types. If nothing else, he may help the A’s re-sign big brother Jason when he becomes eligible for free agency. Meanwhile, Laxton (the son of former major league hurler Bill Laxton) figures to make the Royals’ starting rotation and has a greater upside with his power sinker, but he’s already 26 and has hardly pitched in the major leagues…

Tying Up Loose Ends

Although rumors have floated about his supposed availability, we don’t think the Yankees will be trading Ramiro Mendoza to the A’s (or anyone else) anytime soon. With three world championships in four years, Joe Torre has acquired a powerful voice in any Yankee trades involving major league players. Simply put, Torre loves Mendoza’s versatility as a long reliever and occasional starter, along with his ability to pitch four or five times a week out of the bullpen. He also had such confidence in Mendoza—even after an inconsistent regular season—that he called on him twice in critical late-game situations during the Championship Series against the Red Sox. Torre feels that Mendoza’s value as a staff saver and big-game pitcher far outweigh his mediocre statistical lines… Last summer, Torre put the kibosh on another trade, one that would have sent Andy Pettitte to the Phillies for two or three minor league prospects. George Steinbrenner wanted to make the deal, but Torre said no. To his credit, Steinbrenner yielded to Torre on Pettitte, just like he’ll yield on Mendoza, even though he’d like to shed Mendoza’s salary… With the Yankees winning their arbitration case against Mariano Rivera, they have even less reason to trade Mendoza now.

The Mets continue to shop Dennis Cook to teams like the Dodgers, Padres, and Rangers, but one has to wonder why. Cook might be one of only four left-handed relievers the Mets currently have, but he’s more effective and versatile than either Jesse Orosco or Rich Rodriguez. If Bobby Valentine can keep an eye on Cook’s workload, there’s no reason why he can’t continue to pitch well in long and situational relief for the Mets…

Give Brooks A Break

The criticism and cynicism directed toward Garth Brooks and the Mets for their spring training liaison is misguided. It’s not like the Mets are pretending that Brooks has a chance to make their team. Brooks is simply using his appearance as a way to promote his children’s charity, one of the more noble causes around. The Mets will also benefit. In the past, they’ve had trouble drawing fans to Port St. Lucie, but ticket sales for exhibition games are already on the rise. Brooks is also fan-friendly and willing to sign autographs, good qualities that might rub off on some of the Mets’ players.

The decision to give Brooks some playing time at third base might have caused a problem if the Mets weren’t already set at that position. But they know what veterans Robin Ventura and Charlie Hayes can do, and can play any of their minor league third base prospects in "B" games. It’s spring training, folks. Let’s have some fun.

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