Baseball Hall of Fame adds arm & hammers

By Dan Schlossberg

The Baseball Hall of Fame collects plaques the same way hobbyists corral cards.
Voting writers consider qualified players carefully, then make decisions they hope are rational.

(L-R) Vladimir Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, Chipper Jones, and Jim Thome pose for a photo following the 2018 Baseball Hall of Fame press conference announcing this year’s induction class on Thursday, January 25, at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

This year, the ballot was so loaded that the Baseball Writers Association of America just missed selecting five inductees for the first time since the inaugural class in 1936.

Chipper Jones led the way with more than 97 percent of the vote, followed by Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome, and Trevor Hoffman.

Edgar Martinez topped 70 percent but fell short of the minimum 75 percent needed for election.

By the time the newcomers are inducted in Cooperstown on July 29, the values of their first and last cards will have rocketed up the trading card seismograph.

“We had a good off-season,” Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson told the New York media when the quartet was introduced at the St. Regis Hotel January 25. “More than 19,000 men have played Major League Baseball but only one percent ever make it to Cooperstown.”

Writers have elected 16 former stars over the last five years – the highest number over such a short span – and the various veterans committees have added a few more.

In fact, this year’s induction will also include former Tigers teammates Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, named by the veterans during the Baseball Winter Meetings in December.

Both won World Series rings, a goal that eluded Thome, Guerrero, and Hoffman.

Before they could answer whether they would trade their coming Cooperstown plaques for a championship ring, Jones quipped, “I’m glad I don’t have to answer that question.”

A switch-hitter who spent his entire 19-year career with the Atlanta Braves, he’s only the second Hall of Famer to reach Cooperstown after being the top pick in the amateur draft. Ken Griffey, Jr. was the first two years ago.

“I had a unique situation because Bobby Cox was the general manager who drafted me and then was the manager for almost all of my playing career in the major leagues,” said Jones, whose resumé includes five World Series appearances, a batting crown, and a .303 lifetime average. “I just wanted to thank him and make him look good for choosing me.”

The sixth Brave picked in the last five years, Jones bolsters the worst represented position in the Cooperstown gallery.

“Maybe the lifespan of a third baseman is not what it should be,” he said. “We’re like hockey goalies. But I believe Adrian Beltre will follow me to the Hall pretty soon.”

Jones himself follows in the footsteps of incumbent Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, one of the first third basemen of the postwar era to reach Cooperstown. Like Mathews, Jones was best known for his prolific power.

“I just wanted to put up the best resumé I could,” he said. “We immerse ourselves in the game. We need to be one-ninth of the equation that helps win a ballgame.”

Jones surfaced in 1995 while the Braves were in the process of winning 14 straight division crowns, a record no team has matched.

“I want to thank the people from Pierson, Florida and everybody in the Braves organization along with my wife Taylor and my parents, who have been together almost 50 years,” he said. “It is a blessing to be sitting up here in the company of these guys.”

He admitted he’ll never forget the feeling of fear he experienced in the field when Guerrero came to bat.

“I wanted to hold hands with the third base coach when Vlad came up,” he said.

The most notorious bad-ball hitter since Yogi Berra, Guerrero took mighty cuts and often connected; he hit .300 in 13 different seasons en route to a .318 lifetime average.
The first Dominican position player to reach the Hall, he’ll also be the first to wear an Angels logo on his bronze plaque.

“Felipe Alou, my first manager with the Montreal Expos, gave me the chance to be an everyday player,” he said through a Spanish-language interpreter. “He was very patient whenever I had injuries. I played seven years in Montreal but will never forget going to the Angels and getting a taste of winning.”

After a seven-year sojourn north of the border, Guerrero joined the Angels, represented at the New York event by owner Arte Moreno.

“This is not just about me and not just for my little town in the Dominican Republic,” said Guerrero, whose right field throwing arm was as strong as his booming bat. “It is for all of Latin America. I would like to see more Latin Americans be part of this representation.”

Guerrero joins pitchers Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez as Dominican members of the Hall.

“As a Hispanic player who did not speak English,” he said, referring to his minor-league days, “I made sure I was on the first bus so I could be on time for the rest of the day.”

It is a lesson not lost on his son, rookie third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Patience was not only required at the start of his career but at its zenith. Both Guerrero and Hoffman missed election by an eyelash a year ago.

“I was nervous,” said the former slugger, “but when the call came, there was joy all over my house.”

Thome had no such concerns. Like Jones, he was a first ballot selection.

“I’m a first ballot HoFer and I know that’s special,” he said. “I don’t take it for granted.”

A third baseman whose back problems forced an early career move to first, Thome finished with a .276 average and more than 600 home runs, including a record eight game-enders.

“I want to thank my wife and daughter for their support and the writers for their votes,” said Thome, who spent most of his career with Cleveland, where he reached the World Series in 1995 and 1997. “I also want to thank the hitting instructors and managers who supported me.

“As a young player, you have anxiety,” he said, “but as you evolve as a player, you want to take that pressure off. In Los Angeles, (manager) Joe Torre told me he was going to put me into situations where I could win games. I wanted to be in those situations but had to learn it over time. You make so many more outs than hits. There’s a lot of failure. But longevity creates an opportunity to get into the Hall of Fame.”

Like Thome and Jones, Trevor Hoffman broke into pro ball as an infielder. But his weak bat and strong arm mandated a recalibration. He spent 16 of his 18 seasons as the closer for the San Diego Padres

The first man to reach 500 and then 600 saves, he is the National League leader, trailing only likely 2019 inductee Mariano Rivera on the lifetime list.

“I don’t think I ever thought about the Hall of Fame,” he admitted, “but I did get a chance to watch Tony Gwynn for eight years so I saw greatness up close. I’m pinching myself; I can’t believe I’m joining him in Cooperstown. It hasn’t really set in. I was happy with the progress of the vote the last two years but glad I don’t have to wait anymore.”

Hoffman’s baseball roots run deep: his brother managed the Dodgers and his father was a singing vendor in Anaheim.

Music was also a big part of the pitcher’s career since his appearances at home games were accompanied by Hell’s Bells. What was once confidence bordering on arrogance has changed over time.

“I’m humbled to be in the presence of these guys and the future moments to come,” he said, indicating the three former sluggers elected with him. “As a closer, I’m going to try to keep this short.”

Rivera heads next year’s ballot, with fellow Yankee Derek Jeter the top newcomer a year later and long-time Red Sox DH David (Big Papi) Ortiz in 2022. Cooperstown, with less than 1,500 permanent residents, expects crowds to dwarf the previous Induction Weekend attendance record of 85,000 (for Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr. in 2007).

Former AP sportswriter and long-time Sports Collectors Digest contributor Dan Schlossberg is baseball editor of Latino Sports and author of 38 baseball books, including The New Baseball Bible. His email address is ballauthor@gmail.com.

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