Hall induction week earning an 'A' grade this year
Expect to see lots of Atlanta caps when Maddux, Glavine, Cox land in Cooperstown
The ripples of an era during which even Lilliputian second basemen crushed home runs to the opposite field remain visible today. We can hear echoes of those untidy 12-9 games and complaints from those who preferred the game as John McGraw and Gene Mauch taught it. Retired pitchers, some of them driven from the game by thick-muscled opponents, still suffer from a baseball form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Baseball in the last 10 years of the 20th century and the first 10 of the 21st was something else.
Though most of the players included on the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot were active in that era, the results of the balloting for the next Cooperstown class -- two pitchers and one designated hitter elected -- seem mostly inconsistent with the characteristics of that time.
Shouldn't we be up to our triceps in RBIs, OPS and a few other offensive monograms at this time? Shouldn't the conversation involve the long ball, slugging percentage and battered fences in the wake of the Hall's announcement of the vote Wednesday? To a degree, we are. Frank Thomas, all of that remarkable, power-hitting wide body, is one-third of the player class of '14. The Hall will be forced to widen its gallery to accommodate the Big Hurt.
For all his size and accomplishments, though, Mr. Hurt is a lesser third.
This year, induction week and all the cool stuff that precedes and follows it are bound to be mostly about the A Team, its manager during that era and two average-size citizens whose career objectives were to defuse the nastiest offenses. Standing side by side, as they will come late July in upstate New York, and standing with Bobby Cox flanking them, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine will appear bigger than even Thomas, "the football player playing baseball." The HOF hat trick pulled off by the Braves will have that impact. It is historic, not to mention downright enjoyable.
As was the case when they were a teammate tandem torturing National League batters, Maddux and Glavine together as HOF classmates are greater than the sum of their parts. And Cox's presence in the class enhances that sense. Thomas will be afforded all that a Hall of Fame designate is due. His plaque will be no smaller. His time at the podium will be dictated by how much he wants to share, not by standing vis-a-vis the two former Braves pitchers. But the folks who make the trip through the beautiful parts of New York state that are unfamiliar to so many will leave that weekend thinking they have spent their time in Dixie.
Good pitching will have beaten good hitting. Sounds familiar.
Pitching is 90 percent of the game, some say. Others say 80. It certainly dictates the outcome of a game more than any other element. The percentages come July 27 in baseball's most bucolic burg will be a curiosity, with three so accomplished managers, Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre sharing the stage. But pitching will not take a back seat to any of the other elements. And not only because the Braves' red, white and blue will be the primary colors.
Had Maddux and Glavine produced their resumes with two different teams, they would be linked nonetheless as pitchers who found the way to 300 victories without throwing a sizzling four-seamer. Neither was of the body type -- long, lean and loose -- that prompts scouts to salivate. Maddux is 6-foot and 175 pounds, not too far from playing weight; ditto for Glavine at 6-foot, 180. Neither looked the part of a dominating athlete. Each appeared be an average joe.
Maddux, wearing a tuxedo and glasses that made him appear professiorial, walked through the lobby of the New York Sheraton in 1995 en route to the annual awards dinner staged by the New York Chapter of the BBWAA. The lobby was filled with baseball fans seeking autographs. Maddux passed unnoticed.
Two middle-aged men waited more than an hour on successive days at the Mets' training camp in the spring of 2005, seeking Glavine for a photo. He passed by them each day. They never recognized him, though one decided, "That can't be him, right? Too small."
Just the right size to fit into the Hall's gallery, though. Just the right size to tease hitters. They were practitioners of precision, changing speeds and stretching strike zones. Each had guile in the tool-belt sleeve meant for velocity.
Maddux would read hitters' reactions to his pitches and react accordingly. He spared their sweet spots. "Not sure he was very square-up-able," is how Chipper Jones once described his former Braves colleague. Maddux's changeup had hitters swinging as if he had learned it at the Bugs Bunny School of Changing Speeds. He was the king of the comebacker and won enough Gold Glove Awards to outfit two teams. And he won 355 games, the eighth most ever. Given that total, are other figures necessary?
Glavine was a distortionist, the strike zone he defined was undefined. How would Thomas, a hitter of almost impractical patience, have handled that?
Gary Sheffield, years after playing with Glavine, accused him of creating a "Silly Putty strike zone" because it was stretched beyond recognition after three batters. "Sometimes," Sheffield said, "he wouldn't get a call on the outside corner -- I think it happened 20 times in his career. So you figured he'd come closer with the next pitch. You'd be ready to take it the other way. Then he'd go further away and you couldn't get anything but the end of the bat on it."
And Glavine won 305 games, playing keep-away.
Perhaps the disparity in victories and plaques -- Maddux has four Cy Young Awards, Glavine two -- explains the disparity in vote percentages. Maddux was named on 97.2 percentage of the votes cast by qualified members of the BBWAA, Glavine on 91.9. As if that were to matter in the long term. Tom Seaver has the highest percentile, and Ralph Kiner barely made it. Seaver and Kiner are on equal footing once they set foot in Cooperstown.
Maddux and Glavine are equals, so too the Big Hurt. But he'll be relegated to "other guy" status when the Chop Shop moves to Cooperstown. Hell, Joe Torre gained election in large part for his success with the Yankees, but he too has a strong Atlanta connection as player and division-winning manager. There will be lots of caps with A's on them this summer.
"I'm so excited to be going in with Bobby and Greg," Glavine said Wednesday. He knew election was a possibility, he even dared to see it as a probability. But he was worried and wondered about first-year election, not only about falling short but about "missing the opportunity to go in with two people who had so much to do with my career."
If kismet had put in a little overtime, the three A Teamers could have made it a foursome with John Smoltz, a leading candidate for the Class of 2015. "I hope I can force them to come back for me some year," Smoltz said last week. "Another Atlanta year? I hope we're not done yet."