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Hall monitor

Eckersley, Molitor uniquely qualified; Rice deserving but likely denied

Posted: Monday December 22, 2003 5:49PM; Updated: Monday December 22, 2003 8:17PM
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Paul Molitor
The Ignitor: Paul Molitor ranks ninth all time with 3,319 hits and 16th all time with 1,782 runs scored.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Paul Molitor was leading off third base one day during a game late in his career. I don't remember the opponent, but that may be part of the point. It was just another team in just another game and just another time Molitor was hoping someone would drive him in from third. After a ball, the catcher tossed the baseball back to the pitcher. How many hundreds if not thousands of times had Molitor seen this mundane return throw?

But just this one time, something happened. The throw was a tad high. It flicked off the top of the pitcher's glove. Molitor wasn't surprised. On his toes, eyes never leaving the baseball, he was ready for it. Before the ball even landed on the ground, he was gone, dashing for home. He scored easily.

I thought about that play when I filled out my Hall of Fame ballot this week. I understand that Molitor will likely be elected to Cooperstown on his first try because 3,319 hits are too many to overlook -- but, to me, he gets in because he was one of the smartest, most aware and most respected ballplayers of his era. I never saw a more intelligent baserunner and never saw a hitter with a quicker swing or more "quiet'' hands and feet. His peers spoke about him in awe, marveling at the simplicity of his stroke. I can imagine one day thinking of Edgar Martinez in the same way at voting time, though he will not come close to Molitor's hit total.

One of the great keys to hitting is the ability to see a pitch for as long as possible in order to process the necessary computations of velocity, spin, movement and location. Because Molitor was so economical with his hands -- and could keep them inside the ball as well as anybody -- he had more time to decode a pitch than anybody else, including Tony Gwynn.

The great irony about Molitor is he was a true ballplayer who could have competed in any era -- he fielded six positions over the course of his career -- but he may be the first man enshrined in the Hall who wouldn't have gotten there if not for the DH.

Molitor appeared in 1,174 games as a designated hitter. His next most frequent position played was third base, with 791 games. He became a full-time DH at age 34, when he had 1,870 hits and did not look like a Hall of Famer. Molitor led the league in hits three of the next six years. No prototypical weak-kneed, lumbering DH, he remained a dangerous baserunner. Over the last seven years of his career, Molitor stole 123 bases in 145 tries, an 85 percent success rate.

Molitor will enter the Hall of Fame with another marvel of the modern game, Dennis Eckersley, who refined the closer position into even more of a special-operations role. One is a DH and one is a closer -- though they each found those niches late in their career. They are the kinds of players other generations of voters never had to consider. Here is a look at my ballot, followed by my take on other significant first-timers who don't measure up, capped by my prediction on the voting.

My ballot

Molitor: His 3,319 hits tell only part of the story.

Eckersley: If Molitor doesn't get in without the DH rule, Eckersley doesn't get in without the refinement of the closer's position. He spent 12 good seasons as a starting pitcher before innings and lifestyle caught up with him, so Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan made him a reliever in Oakland. He was so good at it -- and the rest of the bullpen was so deep -- that La Russa preferred to use him only to start the ninth inning with a lead, a convention that has been abused these days for the Rocky Biddles and Ugueth Urbinas of the world. Eckersley had nine seasons out of the pen when his relative ERA was better than the league average. (Bruce Sutter had only eight.)

Top 10 finishes in balloting
Cy Young MVP
Dennis Eckersley 6 4
Bruce Sutter 5 5
Goose Gossage 5 2

Here's how the Eck stacks up to Sutter and Goose Gossage in terms of years in which they finished among the top 10 in Cy Young and MVP voting.

Eckersley won the Cy and MVP in 1992, though he was at his best in 1990, when he had a 0.61 ERA and provided one of my favorite stats of all time: more saves (48) than baserunners allowed (45).

Eckersley might have been good enough to get into the Hall just based on his performance as a reliever, but the rest of his career earns him some extra-credit points. (He won 20 games once, led the league another time in OBP against and yet another time in relative ERA.) Eckersley threw more than 2,000 more innings than Sutter and yet, even with the more difficult workload of being a starter for 12 years and spending most of his time in the AL facing tougher lineups, was almost as tough to reach base against (.292) as Sutter (.289).

Jim Rice: Time and the post-1993 offensive explosion have not been kind to Rice's numbers. Andres Galarraga has passed him on the all-time home run list. Fred McGriff has more RBIs. It may not seem so hot that in his 11-year prime (1975-86), Rice averaged 30 home runs, 110 RBIs and a .305 batting average -- your basic Carlos Lee season these days. However, in his era it was good enough for Rice to win three home run titles and two RBI titles. And here's why the Red Sox slugger gets my vote: in those 11 years he placed in the top five of the MVP voting six times, with finishes of first, third, third, fourth, fourth and fifth. He was the most feared hitter of his day.

First-timers left off

Joe Carter: An RBI machine, Carter is one of the many nearly great players who don't measure up to the high Cooperstown standards. He didn't get on base nearly enough (.306 lifetime OBP) and his .259 lifetime batting average is lacking.

Dennis Martinez: He's not only the best pitcher never to win 20 games (unless Mike Mussina retires without ever doing so), he's also the best never to win 17. Martinez won 245 career games, but never finished among the top four in Cy Young balloting.

Randy Myers. There is a reason why only one placekicker is in the NFL Hall of Fame. It is a specialist position, just like the closer in baseball. Many can do the job, they are not as valuable as those that do more (i.e., starting pitchers) and you must be truly extraordinary to be recognized. Myers pitched for six teams and was a constant source of both amusement and irritation. It was said that the self-assured left-hander could see two people playing checkers and tell them, "Oh, no, you're doing it all wrong.'' He ate salami with a foot-long knife, kept faux grenades in his locker and played basketball in his turf shoes at local YMCAs on the afternoons before night games. He had 347 career saves -- I defy anybody to explain what the heck that means -- and received Cy Young votes three times, never finishing higher than fourth.

The prediction

I've accurately predicted the past three elections, so I'll put the streak on the line and say that Molitor and Eckersley are the only two players who will get the 75 percent of the vote necessary to be elected. Gossage, who had a better career than Sutter, will get a boost as his career accomplishments are re-examined in Eckersley's light. But he fell far short (43 percent) on last year's ballot.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.