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Revising Cooperstown, again


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Under guidelines lately altered for about the tenth time in the last dozen years. With a spanking new panel beefed up to 16 members, all of them hopeful. Under circumstances that cynics among us believe are rigged to ratify a foreordained conclusion. The Veterans' Committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame is about to do its thing again. You may have heard this song before.

On the plus side, the vets' panel, after teetering on the brink of abolition just a couple of years ago, is all the way back. It is again solidly in place out of harm's way and with respect restored for its very reason for being, which is simply to serve as a review board for the baseball writers association (BBWAA) which either can't or won't make all the appropriate choices for the Hall of Fame and too often gets bogged down in a convoluted voting process laced with conflicting emotions.

Though they are loath to admit it, the writers need the help. That's the long and short of it, actually. The Vets Committee deservedly gets hooted when it lets an Elmer Flick, George Kelly, or Freddie Lindstrom slip by Cooperstown's pearly gates. But the presence of stray borderlines hardly violates either the premise or the concept. Not every lodge brother needs to be another Cobb, Grove, or Aaron and if they were it would be a barren and lonely place.

In recent years the Vets have corrected huge and historic wrongs committed by the writers. It was the Vets who recognized that Larry Doby played nearly as vital a role in baseball's integration as Jackie Robinson. It was the Vets who understood Bill Veeck's contributions to the game easily matched those of a Clark Griffith or Charles Comiskey. It was the Vets who appreciated that fine and inspired players like Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Mize, Phil Rizzuto, and Enos Slaughter -- men who gave their prime years to the armed service of their country without so much as a whimper -- deserved special consideration.

If the price of all that is to also have Joey Sewell or George Kell hanging their caps there alongside Honus Wagner may I suggest it's a mighty small price to pay. The hardliners who melt down over the alleged diluting of Cooperstown's lofty standards every time a Red Schoendienst gets admitted are full of bombast, in my book. Of the 292 folks on Cooperstown's roll-call, the writers have elected 110 (38 percent) whereas the vets have picked 156, roughly 54 percent. Special committees account for the rest (8 percent). As the numbers attest, the role of the Veteran's Committee ought not be taken lightly.

This year's much anticipated election comes at the beginning of the Winter Meetings and will be announced promptly. The 16 electors include eight Hall of Famers (Messrs. Bench, F. Robinson, O. Smith, Palmer, Perez, Herzog, Murray and Sandberg), four owner-types (Reinsdorf, Glass, Giles and MacPhail) and four distinguished sportswriters (Newhan, Verducci, Elliott, and Kurkjian). It seems a worthy group, reasonably learned and balanced, although you might wonder why David Glass, the Royals hardly venerable and unaccomplished owner, qualifies while there must be 100 scribes more deserving of the honor than Sports Illustrated's Verducci.

They get to consider 12 nominees drawn from what is being called "the Expansion Era" (1973-2010). This is the new wrinkle in the process. All baseball history, like Caesar's Gaul, is divided into three parts. Omnium Baseballum in tres partes divisum est, you might say, eh. The first is politely called, "the Pre-Integration Era" (1871-1946), while the second is presumptuously termed, "the Golden Era" (1847-1972). It's all relative, one supposes. Anyway, voting on the different eras will rotate from year to year and on the fourth year, others like umpires and executives will be considered. So, chaps on this year's ballot who don't make it must wait four years to be reconsidered. At the least, it's more orderly.

It's an interesting ballot, if not overwhelming. The nominees are George Steinbrenner, Marvin Miller, Pat Gillick, Billy Martin, Tommy John, Ron Guidry, Davey Concepcion, Steve Garvey, Al Oliver, Ted Simmons, Rusty Staub and Vida Blue.

One man's handicap of the field goes like this:

Blue and Guidry are fascinating cases and both certainly flashed gaudy Hall of fame credentials. The 22 year old Vida's rookie season with Charlie Finley's A's, 24-7 with a 1.82 in 1971, was the stuff of legend, while Mr. "Louisiana Lightning" Guidry's epic 25-3, 1.74 work in 1978 hardly needs to be rehashed in this town. But if both burned bright they also burned out too early. The length and depth of a true Hall of Fame career is lacking with both. The same can be said of Staub and Oliver. They played long and piled up strong numbers but don't meet the standard. As a superb catcher who could really hit, Simmons is worthier. You wonder, how much better was Carlton Fisk? One also is tempted by Garvey, a remarkably solid and durable player who was brilliant defensively. But none of these guys has a chance.

More deserving and with at least faint hopes are Davey Concepcion and Tommy John as well as Pat Gillick, the superb executive. Many baseball men maintain Concepcion was the true-glue of Sparky Anderson's ''Big Red Machine'' in Cincinnati in the '70s and as good as Ozzie Smith, just not as flashy. Not being quite as gifted a hot-dog ought not keep one out of Cooperstown, you'd think.

As for the artful lefty, Mr. John, he ranks in my book as one of the better examples of the BBWAA's erratic judgment. Among the finest pitching craftsman of his era, his sinker was near unhittable and he won 289 games while serving along the way as the human guinea pig for the revolutionary medical procedure that will forever bear his name and has so impacted his game.

"Impact!" It is a very important term in this discussion; maybe the most important. As the architect of four fine teams, Pat Gillick had lots of it. General Managers, however, are hard to figure. There have been many great ones who will never even make it into the conversation. He's still contributing and immensely popular, so Gillick has a chance. Billy Martin, on the other hand, has none and is destined to go on being best remembered for what might have been, even if on a given game-day he was as good a field-manager as ever strode the lines.

Which brings us to the two chaps who have the best chance to get tapped this time by the veteran's committee, for both had tons of "impact" and it's what best recommends them. We speak, obviously, of Marvin Miller and George Steinbrenner and if you aren't well aware of their credentials and immense impact -- for better or worse, in both cases -- it's unlikely you'd be reading this little screed.

If Steinbrenner alone gets in there will be plenty of controversy. The rules, plainly accommodating such candidacies as his, were changed only two weeks after his death in July. Then he promptly showed up on the ballot which he failed to make just a year ago. Does it constitute an inside-job designed to play on lingering emotions? There's no evidence of it and the Yankees have remained aloof while only one member of the committee -- Whitey Herzog -- has even a faint connection with the Bronx Behemoth. It's probably poppycock, but there was much grumbling about it before the vote. And if Steinbrenner gets in with Marvin being denied for the third time in as many years watch for it to flare into a furor.

It's reasonable to question whether a bomb-tossing labor leader and a bombastic team-owner belong in the Hall. Interestingly, Steinbrenner always insisted the answer is "No." The 93 year old Miller, on the other hand, plainly yearns for the moment.

It would seem inevitable so why not let the old fox in while he can still enjoy it. The pleasure was denied George. And to what end? We await the word. Momentarily!

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