Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Sutter's Election to Hall May Pave the Way for Gossage, Smith

I lived in Chicago from 1977 to 1999. I was a huge Cubs fan. I went to my share of baseball games at Wrigley Field. There weren't too many big, big games there, but I was in the crowd the day the 1989 team clinched the NL East title. Otherwise, the Cubs' legacy of frustration is legendary. I did, however, have the pleasure of seeing some great Cubs ballplayers in my time, and yesterday's election of Bruce Sutter into the Baseball Hall of Fame gives pause for reflection.

I'm happy for Sutter (left). His story is a good one. He was originally drafted by the old Washington Senators when he came out of high school, but turned them down for a chance to attend Old Dominion University. One year later, Sutter signed as a free agent with the Cubs. He hurt his arm his first season in minor league ball, and the story goes that he never told his bosses about it, opting instead to pursue surgery on his own. He made it to the Cubs in 1976, and came under the tutelage of Cubs pitching coach Mike Roarke (who, in fact, used to be a catcher in his playing days, with a career batting average of .230). Roarke taught Sutter the split-finger fast ball, a pitch that not only saved his career but propelled him into dominance in the late '70s and early '80s. In fact, the splitter, as it came to be known, was actually a response to Sutter's lack of a fast ball fast enough to get major league hitters out on a consistent basis.

Once Sutter mastered the trick pitch, he was nigh unhittable. From 1977 to 1984, he was the stopper for the Cubs and Cardinals, and batters dreaded seeing him make his way to the mound in the late innings. Sutter's splitter always looked tempting to swing at, mainly because the ball wasn't arriving at the plate with much velocity. For a few years there, it was simply witchcraft: the ball would approach the plate looking ordinary indeed, then suddenly dropped a foot or so. Batters couldn't apply any creative thinking to hitting it. Now you see it, now you don't. Every time Sutter went into his rather workmanlike, decidedly unglamorous wind-up, it was an adventure—for hitters and fans alike. Plus, unlike the knuckleball—baseball's other most notorious trick pitch—Sutter could control the splitter, so hitters couldn't stand there waiting to draw a walk. Sutter once struck out the side against three very good Montreal players—Ellis Valentine, Larry Parrish and Gary Carter—on nine pitches.

Sutter, who never started a game in his entire career, racked up 300 saves when he was done. He also won a World Series with the 1982 Cards. His HOF selection will go down easily enough, because clearly he was a phenomenon, and in that concentrated eight-year period he was king. But his elevation to Cooperstown also raises some niggling questions about relief pitchers and the criteria by which they are judged for HOF membership.

Sutter's successor in Chicago was Lee Smith (left), a guy I saw pitch on numerous occasions. Smith was a giant of a man at 6'6", and he was also one hell of a pitcher. Smith threw smoke the likes of which few have seen since. Instead of finessing batters like Sutter, Smith simply blew them away. He was an imposing physical presence, he was durable, and in his 18-year career he saved 478 games. From 1991-1993 alone, he saved 136 of them. So if Sutter gets in, does Smith? And what of the guy who maybe was the modern-day pioneer for relievers—Goose Gossage? Smith just came onto the ballot this year, garnering 45% support. (75% is required for admission.) Gossage (above), now in his seventh year of Hall eligibility, gained 64.6% of the vote.

This reliever business is tricky. In the old days, a guy became a reliever because he was judged to be not good enough to be a starter. Now they've made a specialty of it, and "closers" routinely register 40+ saves a year, a mark Sutter attained only once. Who can forget Bobby Thigpen, who came out of nowhere to save 57 games for the 1990 Chicago White Sox? Well, fact is, many have forgotten Thigpen, and this business of lesser pitchers having a spectacular year or two in the relief game has become all too commonplace.

Consistency and longevity have always played a key role in HOF voting criteria, but it needs to be especially so for relievers. Sutter follows Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley into the Hall, the only relievers elected in the history of the place. It took Sutter 13 years to gain his well-deserved accolade, which is maybe as it should be.

Others left standing at the altar again this year, and wondering if they'll ever make it to Cooperstown, are Jim Rice, Andre Dawson and Bert Blyleven. All three will have to hold their breath in 2007 it appears, because next year's ballot will include, for the first time, Cal Ripken, Jr., Tony Gwynn and Mark McGwire. Ripken and Gwynn have to be shoo-in, first ballot nominees, and the road to HOF enshrinement may only get rockier for guys like Rice and Dawson, as the years get further away from their considerable accomplishments.

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