On Oct. 21, 1995, the World Series opened in Atlanta with two third basemen who had just completed their first full season in the big leagues: Chipper Jones of the Braves and Jim Thome of the Cleveland Indians.
Meanwhile, Trevor Hoffman of the San Diego Padres was preparing for rotator cuff surgery—a major procedure to fix an injury that occurred playing beach volleyball during the 1994 strike—and a kid in the Montreal Expos farm system, Vladimir Guerrero, fresh off a season in Class A ball, was preparing to jump to the big leagues the next year.
And at this nascent time in their careers, something else was taking root in the game: steroids.
Today Jones, Thome, Hoffman and Guerrero are Hall of Famers, and none of them needed more than Hoffman’s three years on the ballot to be enshrined.
The “problem” with the Baseball Hall of Fame election is not the process—indeed, voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America have voted in 16 players in the past five years, an unprecedented wave among the 74 elections held since 1936. The problem is the choice players made to use steroids. Those who did muddied the debate about what makes a Hall of Famer. These four, none attached to known steroid use, had little trouble getting in.
Jones is only the eighth third baseman elected by the BBWAA (tying centerfield as the least such honored position). He is an inner-circle Hall of Famer, the only major leaguer drafted first overall who never played for another organization. He and Frankie Frisch are the only established players to hit .300 from both sides of the plate. But when asked to identify his proudest accomplishment, Jones said, “I played 19 years in the major leagues, and I had more walks (1,512) than strikeouts (1,409).”
Thome hit 612 home runs, and hit them at a rate greater than any hitter except Babe Ruth among those not connected to steroids. And yet when he was asked to pick his favorite statistic, he replied, “I struck out a lot, so for me it’s my on-base percentage.” His OBP was .402. He used to talk with Paul Konerko of the White Sox late in his career about “every day putting something in the basket”—a walk, a run, a homer, anything to contribute to a win.
Guerrero was a different kind of hitter, the rare kind who never saw a pitch he didn’t think he could hit. And he most often was right. He will go down with Yogi Berra as one of the greatest bad-ball hitters who ever lived.
Hoffman, who once threw 95 mph, refined his changeup out of necessity after the beach volleyball injury. It became one of the great signature pitches of all time. When it comes to managers' trust in closing out games in the modern bullpen era, there is Mariano Rivera (who goes in next year), Hoffman, and a big gap before anybody else was relied on as often.
It’s a fabulous class because of their diverse paths to Cooperstown: a first-round pick; a 13th-round pick who hit no home runs in his first pro season and then 612 in the majors; a kid from the Dominican Republic who signed for $2,500 (and became the first position player from that proud country to reach the Hall of Fame); and a failed shortstop with a blown-out shoulder who piled up 601 saves.
Sometimes, as with Jones and Guerrero, you can see a Hall of Famer coming from their first day in the big leagues. Just as often, as with Thome and Hoffman, they need time to grow into their greatness. To put these four into the Hall, despite all the hand-wringing that has gone on for more than a decade (at least since 2007, when Mark McGwire went on the ballot), was an easy call.
Some other quick takes on the 2018 vote:
• The Hall of Fame hopes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens rest with how quickly new voters join the BBWAA electorate. Bonds and Clemens have been on the ballot six years, long enough for returning voters' positions on them to have calcified. Changing minds is hard at this late date, so they need new perspectives. Looking at results tracked by Ryan Thibodaux, those identified as first-time voters the past two years went 23-of-26 for Bonds and 24-of-26 for Clemens.
• Bonds and Clemens had a net gain of just two votes among 238 returning voters whose ballots were made public. They need to pick up about 75 votes in four years. Based on the past two years, that’s a steep climb that seems headed for a 10th and final ballot for them in 2022.
• Edgar Martinez jumped from 25 percent in 2014 to 70 percent this year, and should get in next year, his final year on the ballot (though that last-year push didn’t help Jack Morris on the writers’ ballot). With Morris getting in by special committee, the good news for Martinez is that every player who received at least 60 percent support from the writers eventually made the Hall of Fame—with one exception: Gil Hodges.
• Mike Mussina was a big winner, moving past Bonds and Clemens. He has gained votes in each of his five years on the ballot, from 20 to 63 percent.
• The electorate strangely has forgotten Jeff Kent, who lost votes, and Fred McGriff, who has one more year left on the ballot and never has cracked 25 percent. They have never gained momentum, without benefit of any campaigns or discoveries.
• Omar Vizquel did fairly well on his first ballot with 37 percent. Only two players ever gained more support in their first year and never did get in: Lee Smith (42) and Steve Garvey (42).
• The steroid apologists have given little support to Gary Sheffield, who never failed a test, or Sammy Sosa, who was reported to have failed one that was designed to be anonymous with no penalties. Sheffield in four years has remained between 11 and 13 percent, while Sosa has been stuck between six and 13 percent for six years. Likewise, steroid scofflaw Manny Ramirez, who tested positive twice, has no traction, polling at 22 percent after debuting last year at 24.
• My guess at the 2019 results: Rivera, Martinez and Roy Halladay are elected. And the wave of Hall of Famers who survived The Steroid Era will roll on.