I first met Roberto Alomar on a visit to the family household in Salinas, Puerto Rico, in 1987. He was 19 years old. He and his older brother Sandy Jr., then 21, were out in the street in front of the house playing with remote control cars. They were still in the Padres’ Minor League system and as big kids had their lives in front of them.
Sandy Jr., was always more verbose than Robbie. He was a take control kind of kid and took my wife and I on a tour of the southern coast of the island not far from Ponce, where Benito Santiago grew up. My wife, Alicia, loves to sip the milk of coconuts and Sandy took us to a road-side hut along the Atlantic Ocean shore where the owner sliced open a coconut with a machete for her. A fine catcher in his own right, he’s always been that type of guy.
Robbie was playing second base that winter for his dad, who managed Santorce in the Puerto Rican Winter League. That’s the first time I ever saw him on the field. Even at that age, playing in a dusty old stadium, it was easy to see that the kid could play. He was more than a prospect. He was the real thing.
It’s now 23 years later and Roberto has had what I call a Hall of Fame career, coming up with the Padres in 1988, winning two World Series with the Blue Jays in 1992-93, batting .300 with 2,724 hits and .984 fielding percentage. I’ve known Roberto and his family for so long that I discount the spitting incident as an aberration in a great career. After all, he spit in the face of an umpire, John Hirschbeck, who Robbie said called him a derogatory name that takes on even more significance in the Latin culture. Hirschbeck, who had lost his son at the time, wasn’t in the greatest state of mind. The two made peace. Let’s move on.
This year I filled out my ballot, using all 10 slots. Of the newcomers I voted for Robbie, Fred McGriff and Edgar Martinez. Of the returnees, I checked off Bert Blyleven, Andre Dawson, Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Lee Smith and Mark McGwire. I added Robin Ventura to the bunch just because he was a personal favorite. I doubt Ventura will even get the 5 percent requisite vote to carry him over. If he doesn’t at least he knows he got one vote. Mine.
Usually, I vote for three or four guys, but this year I decided to spread it out. I’ve never voted for Blyleven, Morris or Dawson, but under closer scrutiny all deserve a place in Cooperstown. Morris was the best pitcher in the American League for a decade and turned teams into World Champions, winning in Detroit, Minnesota and Toronto. Blyleven is fifth all-time in strikeouts (3,701). Of his 287 wins, 60 were shutouts. Dawson played on bad knees and with sheer guts. His numbers certainly stand up to Jim Rice, who was elected last year.
I’ve voted for McGwire every year he’s been on the ballot and will continue to do so. I’m not sure what to do with players whose careers spanned the steroid era, particularly when the use of those drugs are implied. Next year we’ll have Rafael Palmeiro on the ballot. He’s only one of four players to amass 500 homers and 3,000 hits — Eddie Murray, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are the others. He also failed a drug test at the end of his career. What will I do about Rafi? It will all go into the mix. I have no hard and fast rules.
I vote for Smith and Trammell every year. It baffles me why Smith (478 saves for third on the all-time list) and the great shortstop Trammell are not in the Hall. I couldn’t vote for Barry Larkin this year because Trammell is not a member. Larkin: a .295 lifetime average, 2,340 hits, 198 homers and 960 RBIs in 2,180 games, all with the Reds. Trammell: .285 with 2,365 hits, 185 homers and 1,003 RBIs in 2,293 games, all with the Tigers. What am I missing here?
McGriff and Martinez are also worthy. Fred was a great guy and a great player who’s career arch ended with him seven short of 500 homers. He was such an impact player everywhere he went, I’m not going to hold that against him. Neither should Edgar’s accomplishments be shrouded by the fact that he was a true designated hitter throughout most of his career. He played in Seattle and the American League utilizes that rule. That’s the way his managers chose to use him. He’s a .312 lifetime hitter with 2,247 hits, 309 homers, 1,261 RBIs, a .418 on-base percentage and a.515 slugging percentage. Let’s look at the numbers, not his position. That’s what I went by.
So that’s the way I did it this year, the 17th time I’ve voted for the Hall of Fame dating back to 1993. I’ll be looking forward to the announcement on Wednesday to see how my writing colleagues judged it as well.
Going back to the old six-team league, I am a hockey nut of the worst order. As I told my good friend and colleague Ian Browne today via Twitter as the Winter Classic played itself out at Fenway Park: Give me a hockey game and baseball game every day. Sprinkle in a few Bruce concerts. I’ll even take U2. Then I’m a happy man. He agreed on all accounts.
The Flyers-Bruins tilt ended much like a Stanley Cup finals clinching game — the wave of energy in the old ballpark reaching its crescendo just as the Bruins hit their apex, old-timer Mark Recchi scoring with two minutes left in regulation and Marco Strum scoring less than two minutes into overtime for the 2-1 win. Both teams then lined up on the frozen outdoor pond to shake hands — a playoff series-ending custom that I’ve always thought was one of the best in all of sports.
I’ve covered or attended games in 11 Stanley Cup finals, including my Rangers win over the Canucks in 1994. I’ve seen four of them end on overtime goals. With apologies to baseball, there is no more pathos than a championship series that ends on that kind of note. Baseball has its walk-off wins, but that’s only reserved for the home team once a game reaches the bottom of the ninth.
In the hockey postseason, two teams play until one team gives and I’ve seen games that have gone on for three or four 20-minute overtime sessions. Every shot, pass and hit puts fans on the edge. The hockey playoffs goes four grueling best-of-seven rounds. You watch the players’ faces. See the bruises, grim looks and determination as one game runs into another. There really is nothing like it.
I’m not the only one who believes this. I’m not the only baseball guy who loves pucks. There are also numerous hockey guys who love baseball. I’ve had long chats about ball with Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland and the Great One, Wayne Gretzsky, among others. I’ve had long chats about hockey with Angels manager Mike Scioscia and the great now retired left-hander Tom Glavine, who played the game. Sciosicia grew up outside of Philly as a Flyers fan. Fancy that.
The marriage of iconic baseball parks with the Winter Classic the last two years has brought out the best of what both sports have to offer: Like baseball, hockey relies on its history. Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford throwing out the first pitch of the World Series is mirrored by Bobby Orr and Bobby Clarke facing off on Friday as the ceremonial first puck was dropped.
It’s great winter offseason publicity for baseball and has given hockey a wonderful national shot in the arm. Next year I’m thinking Rangers-Islanders at Yankee Stadium with 50,000 fans chanting “Potvin Sucks” as the locals still do quizzically at every game played at Madison Square Garden. That would be something to behold.
In the meantime, I’ll be out in Glendale on Saturday to see the resurgent Coyotes play the Red Wings. It’s my sixth game at the very poorly named Jobing.com Arena this season.
Told you. I’m a hockey nut!