But if the writers aren't raising the bar, how do they explain the rejection of former Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton? He is the only eligible major league pitcher to have won 300 games who is not in Cooperstown. There are 36 starting pitchers with fewer than 300 wins who have been enshrined. This year, in his fourth appearance on the ballot, Sutton fell nine votes short; Niekro was named on 80.3% of the ballots. Sutton has more career wins than Niekro, fewer losses, a better ERA, more strikeouts and more shutouts (chart). "There is no logical explanation," Sutton says. "There are so many interpretations of what it takes to get in. Maybe that's the hang-up, there is no set standard."
Some writers who voted for Niekro but not Sutton reason that Niekro collected his victories for weaker teams, had three 20-win seasons (to Sutton's one), earned five Gold Gloves and was usually the ace of his staff, while Sutton often pitched in the shadows of Don Drysdale, Claude Osteen and Andy Messersmith. What goes unmentioned is that Sutton's prickly attitude did not endear him to many scribes, and that has lost him votes every year.
The bottom line is that if Niekro merits enshrinement in Cooperstown, so does Sutton, who deserves to fill what might otherwise be a void at the podium in the summer of '98. Says BBWAA secretary-treasurer Jack O'Connell, a 22-year member who has voted for Sutton, "I fully expect him to be voted in before his time is up [in 2008]." If he's not, Sutton will then have to wait three years before he can be considered by the veterans' committee. "Some of baseball's greatest players had to wait a few years, but he'll get his due from Cooperstown, and I think it may happen next year," says O'Connell.
All of which leads to questions about the inexplicable voting habits of the BBWAA membership. Since each writer may vote for up to 10 nominees, then why, if a player doesn't measure up one year, is he suddenly good enough the next? Sutton won't strike out any more batters this season or win any more games, so if he finally earns enough votes in '98, one has to wonder: What were the writers waiting for?
A Tiger's Tale
Winning the Rookie of the Year award does not guarantee stardom. For every Jose Canseco, who goes on to years of success, there is a Joe Charboneau, who flames out in a hurry. In his brief major league career, Tigers designated hitter Bob Hamelin has experienced a little bit of both.
It's hard to believe that only three years ago Hamelin was voted the American League's best rookie, after he hit .282 with 24 homers and 65 RBIs for the Royals in just 101 games in the strike-shortened '94 season. Kansas City fans embraced him for his offensive production and for his doughy physique, which had earned the onetime high school noseguard a scholarship offer from Notre Dame. Hamelin fans began swinging rubber mallets at games and chanting, "Hammer! Hammer!" Hamelin was the most popular Royals player this side of George Brett.
But after the strike Hamelin couldn't rediscover his stroke. His 235 pounds became an issue. Hamelin couldn't hit his weight. He batted just .168 with seven homers in the summer of '95. Last season he hit .255 with nine home runs. "Once I had that good year in '94, I found out you have to put up those big numbers every year or you'll be miserable," Hamelin says. "I lost my stroke and then I lost my playing time. The last two years were like wasted time for me. I would sit on the bench and wonder, When is this ever going to end?"
Unable to trade Hamelin this spring, Kansas City released him. The next day he received a phone call from Glenn Ezell, who had been the Royals bench coach in '94 and was at the time the manager of Detroit's Triple A affiliate in Toledo. Ezell offered Hamelin an opportunity to rediscover his swing in Toledo, and Hamelin accepted. He collected six homers and 24 RBIs in 27 minor league games. When Tigers pitcher Willie Blair was hit in the face with a batted ball on May 4, Hamelin was called up to replace him on the roster.
In just his fifth game back in the majors, on May 13, Hamelin hit two home runs against Toronto. He chalks up his improved production to laser eye surgery he underwent in October, which allowed him to discard his eyeglasses, improving his peripheral vision. Through Sunday, he had hit .290 with 11 homers and 33 RBIs in 60 big league games.