Shortstop Omar Vizquel won 11 Gold Gloves while excelling at the most important defensive position in baseball. He retired with 2,877 hits.
Was he a Hall of Famer?
As a voter, it’s a question I’ve been pondering. This is Vizquel’s first year on a ballot crowded with names worthy of enshrinement, and while a handful of selections strike me as obvious, Vizquel defines the term “borderline candidate.”
The case for Vizquel is based less on imprecise defensive metrics than the old-fashioned eye test. He broke in with the Mariners as an elegant, flashy fielder who didn’t have much of a bat, and he ended up turning himself into a serviceable offensive player. And though Gold Gloves often are based on reputation rather than reality, we’re talking about 11 of them.
But the case against Vizquel is compelling, too. Over a 24-year career spent largely in Cleveland, he drew MVP consideration only in 1999, when he finished 16th. Vizquel played 23 other seasons, and not once was he regarded among the top 25 talents in his league. He was named to three All-Star Games, or 12 fewer than Ozzie Smith, another wondrous shortstop who got to Cooperstown because of his defense.
The Hall of Fame ballot I dropped in the mailbox last week did not include a check mark next to Vizquel. My ballot, in alphabetical order, ended up like this: Vladimir Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, Chipper Jones, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mike Mussina, Scott Rolen, Curt Schilling, Jim Thome and Larry Walker.
Voters can select as many as 10 eligible nominees and, as usual, I submitted the maximum. In the “Small Hall” vs. “Big Hall” debate, I am a proud proponent of the latter. Since the 1869 birth of Major League Baseball, only 19,175 athletes have advanced to participate at the sport’s highest level. Think about that: The all-time roster of MLB players is the approximate size of a midweek Safeco Field crowd on a cool spring night.
Annually identifying 10 of those players as Hall of Famers, the best of the best, is a fun challenge but also a chore, because it forces me to submit a ballot without a check mark next to the name of an 11-time Gold Glove recipient with 2,877 hits.
It also forces me to reiterate my stance that the steroid juicers who polluted the game should not be allowed to pollute the Hall of Fame. They get to keep their money and their fraudulent statistics, but what they don’t get, and will never get, is my vote.
Fred McGriff, on the other hand, got my vote. His chances of receiving the 75 percent mandate required for induction are next to none – it’s a lost cause – but check out his prime seasons between 1989 and 1994: Six consecutive finishes as a Top 10 MVP candidate. He won home-run titles in both leagues, and came within seven homers of retiring with 500. Once upon a time, before steroids soiled the record book, 500 was a magic number.
Larry Walker also got my vote. The career was curtailed by injuries, and Denver’s mile-high air clearly helped spike his offensive stats. It’s easy to forget that he also was a beast at sea level, a power hitter who could line doubles into the gap, had the speed to average 19 stolen bases a season, and was a seven-time Gold Glove defender in right field.
Two of the newcomers on the Class of 2018 ballot, Chipper Jones and Jim Thome, will be making acceptance speeches this summer. The newcomer intriguing me is Scott Rolen. The 1997 NL Rookie of the Year with Philadelphia, Rolen was an introvert who never aspired to be a fan favorite in a city where the most beloved of fan favorites remains fictional boxer Rocky Balboa.
At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, Rolen had the size and strength to deliver Rocky into Palookaville. But Rolen also was nimble – the University of Georgia offered him a basketball scholarship as a swing guard – and belongs in the conversation about the best defensive third baseman this side of Brooks Robinson.
Rolen averaged 25 homers and 102 RBIs a season, and was selected to seven All-Star Games. But as a first-year candidate, he’s deep on the wait list for a Hall of Fame group that needs some clearance at the top.
Which brings me to Edgar Martinez, inching toward induction before his eligibility expires in 2019. Momentum is building, and staying in the game in a relevant way, as the Mariners’ primary hitting instructor, doesn’t hurt. He’s going to Cooperstown, either this year or next.
As for Omar Vizquel, I hope he survives the cut – he’ll need 5 percent of the votes to do that – and I expect to reconsider his case in 12 months. But in this class, he doesn’t rate.
What Vizquel rates is the acknowledgment that of the 19,175 players to have appeared in at least one baseball game since 1869, he could pick up a ground ball with the flair of any of them.
In lieu of official immortality, it’s not a bad way to be remembered.