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MLB sets Hall of Fame precedents?

Aaron Hall | Interrobang | Sports | January 16th, 2006

Good job, Bruce Sutter, your name and career will forever be remembered in the hallowed grounds of Cooperstown, New York.

Major League Baseball (MLB) announced the voting results for the 2006 version of its Hall of Fame inductees. Sutter was the only player on the ballot to reach the 75 per cent needed in order to be elected into what is arguably the most prestigious and elusive of all of professional sports Halls of Fame.

Sutter's accolades include being chosen as the 1979 Cy Young award winner, collecting 300 career saves (18th all-time), helping the St. Louis Cardinals win the 1982 World Series, being awarded 4 Fireman trophies as the National League's top reliever, and inventing the split-finger-fastball, a dominating pitch that many top MLB pitchers still use today.

What is interesting about the league's decision to induct Sutter is that he is the first pitcher to be inducted into MLB's Hall of Fame without making a start in his career.

This raises the issue of where relief pitchers or closers rank in baseball history, and where they stand amongst the legendary athletes that occupy places in Cooperstown.

The term closer is a relatively new phenomenon, and the actual statistic for the save has only been in existence since 1969. Former Oakland Athletics and current St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa is often mentioned as the creator of the one inning closer, as he managed Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley in the early 1990's in Oakland.

Before Eckersley was Rollie Fingers, who also starred for Oakland, as well as the Milwaukee Brewers. Both Eckersley and Fingers also had solid careers as starters before heading to the bullpen, so labelling them as true closers cannot be done.

The first generation of true closers began playing in the 1970's and consisted of Rich “Goose” Gossage, Lee Smith, the all-time saves leader, and of course the newly inducted Sutter.

Whether these three players deserved a spot in the Hall of Fame was never a clear-cut vote, and subsequently neither of them had gotten the 75 per cent needed on the ballots when it came for the Baseball Writers of America to vote.

That was until this year, when they set a new precedent.

The induction of Sutter will undoubtedly open the floodgates for MLB closers and relief pitchers to be elected into the Hall of Fame and follow along with the Hall of Fame's motto of preserving history, honouring excellence, and connecting generations.

But was Sutter's career and statistics truly great?

According to 76 per cent of the Baseball Writers of America it was.

So why isn't Lee Smith inducted? Why isn't Goose Gossage inducted? Hell, why wasn't former Blue Jays closer Tom Henke inducted?

Henke had 311 career saves compared to Sutter's 300, and Henke had a 2.67 Earned Run Average (ERA) compared to Sutter's 2.83, yet Henke received six votes in 2001 in his first year of eligibility and was taken off any subsequent ballots due to lack of votes.

I don't want to sound like I'm knocking Sutter's career at all, or disrespecting his accomplishments, being elected into MLB's Hall of Fame is a tremendous honour, and Sutter truly was the top closer of his time. I just think his induction opens the door to possibly tarnishing MLB's Hall of Fame's reputation down the road.

Will the induction of Sutter pave the way for Goose Gossage and Lee Smith to be inducted? Most likely. Gossage received 336 votes for 64.6 per cent, and Smith received 234 votes for 45 per cent this year.

Saying their careers were “really good” compared to being great may be more accurate.

Besides New York Yankee closer Mariano Rivera, who will be a lock for the Hall of Fame, which of today's closers and relief pitchers will eventually deserve enshrinement?

San Diego closer Trevor Hoffman? Former Anaheim Angel closer Troy Percival? Journeyman closer Roberto Hernandez? Philadelphia Phillies closer Jose Mesa? All these closers rank in the top 12 all-time for career saves, but the answer as to whether their careers have been great, can go either way.

To be inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame, the player's greatness should not be in doubt, and they should have left a lasting impression on MLB.

I hope the Baseball Writers of America do not lose sight of this in the future and continue to elect deserving candidates into the Hall of Fame, as they did with Bruce Sutter.
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