Trammell, Morris elections a celebration of '80s

December 11th, 2017

I came of age in the 1980s, and so this was happy news: On Sunday, the Modern Baseball Era Committee voted two of the most prominent players of the '80s -- pitcher Jack Morris and shortstop Alan Trammell -- into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Over the years, I have been skeptical of Morris' Hall of Fame case and bullish on Trammell's, but all of that is beside the point now. This is a celebration of my time as a baseball fan. My decade is getting its due.

Baseball in the 1980s was strange; it is a lost decade in many ways. The '50s are still called the Golden Age of Baseball, and the '60s had the Mickey Mantle-Roger Maris race, Sandy Koufax, the Year of the Pitcher and the Miracle Mets.

Trammell, Morris relish being teammates again

In the 1970s, you had superteams -- the ragtag Oakland A's, the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati, the Bronx Zoo Yankees of the late '70s. And you had so many larger-than-life characters: Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Johnny Bench and Carl Yastrzemski, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver, George Steinbrenner and Charlie O. Finley. The '70s began with Brooks Robinson and Roberto Clemente, and ended with the We Are Family Pirates. It was bold and wild and totally in your face.

Baseball in the 1990s was overwhelming in a whole other way. Baseballs flew out like never before and yet four of the greatest pitchers in baseball history -- Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson -- were at their peak. It was the decade of extremes. Strikeouts. Home runs. Muscles. Controversy. Sweetness. A World Series was canceled and a year later, Cal Ripken Jr. played in his 2,131st straight game to restore people's faith. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had that crazy home run summer that first inspired and then disappointed. It was a decade for the kids of great players -- Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds and so on.

And what did we have in the 1980s? We had that weird half-season in '81, and from '82-89, a different team won the World Series every year. Nobody hit 50 homers in the entire decade. Some of the most memorable and thrilling players of the '80s -- Fernando Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden, Bo Jackson, Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy, Bret Saberhagen -- burned out too quickly. There were three perfect games -- Len Barker, Mike Witt and Tom Browning -- but not one was by an all-time great pitcher. Would-be dynasties like the '86 Mets and Bash Brothers Athletics never quite materialized. It was a decade of near misses.

And so what's cool is that the election of Morris and Trammell helps remind us what was special and unique about baseball in the 1980s.

Trammell completed a circle. Here are the Top 12 position players in Wins Above Average for the decade:

1. Rickey Henderson, 52.1

2. Wade Boggs, 44.1

3. Mike Schmidt, 37.3

4. Robin Yount, 35.4

5. Alan Trammell, 34.2

6. Cal Ripken Jr., 32.4

7. Ozzie Smith, 31.2

8. George Brett, 30.6

9. Tim Raines, 27.3

10. Andre Dawson, 27.1

11. Gary Carter, 26.0

12. Eddie Murray, 25.4

All 12 of those players are now Hall of Famers -- and look at how different they were. Henderson was unlike any player in the history of baseball with an unmatched blend of speed and power and patience. Raines was the closest thing to him. Boggs was an absurd hitting machine, a master of the geometry of baseball. Schmidt was the consummate slugger with a short swing that more closely resembled a Muhammad Ali right cross than anything you could find on a baseball field.

You can keep going down the list and you see all these unusual, singular players. There was no ubiquitous style in the 1980s. Everybody's swing looked different, everybody's pitching motion was different. It was a time for the stolen base, for the hit-and-run, for the split-fingered fastball and for putting the ball in play.

"I'll tell you what," says Brett, who was a member of the Modern Era Committee, "it was fun to talk about 1980s baseball. Our baseball. I'm not saying better or whatever, it's just different now -- guys hit home runs and strike out 200 times, that's the way the game is now. It wasn't like that in the 1980s. You struck out 50 times in a year, you had some explaining to do."

Brett has that exactly right. The game evolves. These days, with better defensive positioning, shifting and more pitchers who throw in the high 90s than ever before, it's a very different game for hitters. But that shouldn't detract from the way they played in the 1980s. Those guys helped evolve the game. Trammell was like that. He and Ripken and Yount helped reinvent the shortstop position; they all hit and hit with some power, they played great defense, they proved that shortstops didn't need to be quick little guys with fantastic gloves and weak bats.

Morris, meanwhile, was basically the last of his kind. The 1980s was the decade when the modern-day closer came into being, and Morris raged against it with every fiber of his being. His style was simple and inelegant; he took the ball every fifth day, no matter the weather, no matter the game's importance, no matter how his arm might be feeling, and he threw nasty split-fingered fastballs in the dirt until somebody won and somebody lost. Morris' managers were scared to take him out of the game. He spat rage.

The career numbers -- well, they are why it took so long. Morris didn't win 300 games (254), didn't strike out 3,000 batters (2,478) and didn't have an ERA that screamed greatness (3.90). Advanced numbers, the kind that did not exist when he was a player, picked at his pitching scabs. There's an irony about Trammell and Morris going into the Hall together. Trammell, in many ways, will be entering the Hall in because of those advanced numbers, which highlighted his marvelous versatility and hidden value. Morris will be entering the Hall in spite of them.

But Morris' case was never about numbers. It was about the pitching fury that drove him. If you want to choose any number, choose one that tells the story of Morris' stubbornness. He threw 240-plus innings 10 times; since 2010, only seven pitchers have thrown 240 innings in even one season. No, there couldn't be a Morris in today's game, not in the same way, not in this era of power bullpens and the science that shows you rarely want a pitcher facing a lineup for a third time.

Morris is, to say the least, not a particular believer in that science. Sparky Anderson, Morris' longtime manager, once said that it was easier to take a prisoner out of Alcatraz than to take Morris out of a game. Morris was a man of his time, a time gone by.

So, yes, it is very likely that there will be three or four players elected on the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot this year, and Trevor Hoffman, Vladimir Guerrero, Chipper Jones and Jim Thome will tell a story of their time. That's what makes the Hall of Fame so great. It will be awesome to have a little bit of the 1980s there, too.