True showman style keeps Garvey on Hall radar

10-time All-Star still has chance on Modern Era ballot

December 4th, 2017

"Future Hall of Famer Steve Garvey led the Pioneer League in home runs with 20 when he was in Ogden."

-- Great Falls Tribune, Aug. 14, 1984

"And Charlie Williams ... can eject a Steve Garvey, a future Hall of Famer, for having the audacity of questioning a terrible call by a fourth year umpire?"

-- Morristown Daily Record, August 24, 1986

"Nolan Ryan; Steve Garvey; Gary Carter, Dave Winfield."

-- Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin, Aug. 4, 1987, under the headline of Hall of Famers who will only have to wait a year or two

"The speaker was Padres first baseman and future Hall of Famer, Steve Garvey, who lauded the Eagle Scouts for their incredible goal attainment."

-- Chula Vista Star-News, Aug. 6, 1987

"Future Hall of Famer Steve Garvey will appear Sunday 11 a.m.-2 p.m."

-- Hartford Courant, April 21, 1988, in an advertisement for Baseball Card Super Show II in Hartford

"Rae Dunning will present a baseball card show that features Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn and future Hall of Famer Steve Garvey."

-- Nashville Tennessean, Nov. 8, 1988

And so on. There are dozens and dozens of mentions like the ones above that appeared in newspapers across America throughout the late 1980s and early '90s. Every card show Garvey attended had him listed as a future Hall of Famer. Every interview he did at the end of his career and in early retirement -- and Garvey has always been generous with his time -- began by calling him a future Hall of Famer. Every Hall of Fame discussion on every talk show for a decade had some mention of Garvey as a future Hall of Famer.

There is tremendous power in that. Garvey was on the Baseball Writers' Association of America Hall of Fame ballot for 15 years (topping out at 42.6 percent of the vote). This is the third time he has been on the Modern Era Committee Hall of Fame ballot. Garvey has been one of the most discussed, argued about and rallied around Hall of Fame candidates in history. And yet there remains an urgency about him, a powerful need to go over it one more time, because for so many years, it seemed a sure thing that he was a future Hall of Famer.

"I do a lot of motivational speaking," Garvey said last year to Graham Womack of The Sporting News. "And they even introduce me as a Hall of Famer."

It would be hard to describe to someone who didn't live through it just how big a star Garvey was in the 1970s. There really is no equivalent today. Think of how prominent former football player Michael Strahan is now, you know, as he stars on "Good Morning America" and he hosts a game show and he has a clothing line and whatever else.

Now think if Strahan had been this big a television star while he was playing, when he was just a young player in the prime of his athletic life. That was Garvey. He wasn't just on "The Tonight Show" chatting it up with Johnny Carson, but he was on every talk show. There was Garvey and his first wife, Cindy, on the game show "Tattletales." Garvey played himself on "Fantasy Island," "The Gong Show," "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" and "Dance Fever." He hosted a show called "Greatest Sports Legends." And then add in that people called him "Mr. Clean" and "Captain America" and wrote constantly about how he hit home runs for sick children in hospitals and was the man you wanted your son to become.

It was an unbearably high pedestal -- and Garvey would fall hard in his personal life. But few achieve such heights in the first place, and Garvey did so by working relentlessly on every part of his game and public life.

Garvey was an unusual player, a relatively small guy with huge Popeye forearms and Hollywood looks. He was drafted as a third baseman out of Michigan State. But Garvey had an unreliable arm, and he couldn't stay at that position. His bat was good from the start. Garvey hit .373 in Double-A in his first full season in the Minors, and he was up in the big leagues at 21.

Here's the sort of player Garvey was: He used to write the number "200" in his glove, because his goal every year was to get 200 hits. Garvey reached that mark six times in seven season from 1974-80. But even more amazing, he got exactly 200 hits three of those seasons. Garvey had a formula for getting 200 hits, a complicated calculation that included beating out X number of bunt hits a month and getting X number of hit-and-run singles each month.

And yet, even though the 200-hit thing was so important to him, Garvey was also extremely productive, driving in 100-plus runs five times in his career. Advanced statistics are not especially kind to him -- we'll go over that in a minute -- but one advanced metric that shines brightly involves leverage. Garvey in his prime was consistently, even some astoundingly, at his best when he was needed most. Here is how he hit those seven years in high-leverage situations (when the game was most on the line), medium leverage and low leverage.

High leverage: .335/.369/.505

Medium leverage: .309/.348/.470

Low leverage: .300/.340/.475

You can see the same thing in the postseason, where Garvey hit .338 and slugged .550 for his career. He was twice the National League Championship Series MVP Award winner. In the 1981 World Series, Garvey hit .417 (though, astonishingly, he did not drive in a single run) to help the Dodgers to the championship.

Garvey started seven All-Star Games in a row and started a total of nine. You could hardly imagine the All-Star Game without him. Garvey won two All-Star Game MVP Awards. He also played in 1,207 games in a row, which remains an NL record. Garvey just did so many things that put him in the public eye, that increased his stardom.

And though a nasty public divorce and a couple of paternity suits made Garvey something of a national punchline for a time, it should not be forgotten that he also repeatedly exhibited a rare grace as a player. In 1984, Claire Smith -- one of the first female reporters to cover baseball on a regular basis and the only African-American woman -- was in the San Diego Padres' clubhouse after a playoff game. She was told she had to get out. Dick Williams, the Padres' manager, had banned women reporters. Dave Dravecky, a prominent pitcher on the Padres, screamed at her to leave. She was rudely escorted out of the clubhouse and she pleaded that she needed to talk to someone. When asked who, she said: "Steve Garvey."

Within seconds, Garvey came out to talk with Smith. When she saw him and felt his kindness, she began to cry a little and Garvey put a stop to that. "I'll stay out here as long as you want," he told her. "But you have to pull yourself together. You have a job to do."

When Smith was awarded the J.G. Taylor Spink Award at the Hall of Fame this year, she told that story again. Garvey was there to hear it.

So what's the Hall of Fame holdup? Well, the truth is that Garvey's great strengths as a ballplayer were counterbalanced by some weaknesses. He hardly walked -- perhaps because of his hunger for 200 hits every year -- and so his career .329 on-base percentage would be the lowest for any first baseman in the Hall of Fame. Garvey never slugged .500 for a season. Because of the spottiness of his arm, he really couldn't play any position but first base, and while he was a good first baseman -- he won four Gold Gloves Awards -- he wasn't a great one, in part because of his arm.

Garvey's career wins above replacement (WAR) of 37.7 is way below typical Hall of Fame standards -- it is almost 30 wins less than the average Hall of Fame first baseman.

Then again, there are numerical ways to make Garvey sound like a slam-dunk choice. Bill James' Hall of Fame Monitor -- after counting up various baseball achievements such as MVP Awards and All-Star appearances and games played and such -- evaluates a player's Hall of Fame chances. A 100 score on the Hall of Fame Monitor means the player is a likely Hall of Famer; anything over 125 makes them a near certainty. Garvey scored 130. James in his book "Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame" predicted Garvey would be elected in 1997.

And now, 20 years later, the beat goes on, with the Garvey Hall of Fame case still a hot topic. He is not likely to get elected by the Modern Era Committee, which has extremely tough standards and has not yet voted in a single player. But it's possible, and you can bet the discussion about Garvey will be long and intense.