The latter half of the 1990s were certainly a fun time to be a baseball fan in Cleveland. The Indians were a consistent championship contender for eight straight seasons. The league had numerous players breaking records and doing things never before done. Baseball hit something of a peak, both nationally and locally during that time.
Now, fans are being reminded about all that was good during that period of baseball. Over the last few years, a number of players from that period have gained entrance into the hallowed halls of Cooperstown with enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame. This past Wednesday, Jeff Bagwell, Ivan Rodriguez, and Tim Raines were named the newest inductees. Bagwell and Rodriguez were at the tops of their games during the Tribe’s memorable run of success from 1994-2001. Raines’ best seasons came a little earlier.
Starting next year, Indians fans will really get to take a trip down memory lane as two of the team’s all-time greats will be eligible for induction alongside the best who have ever played the game.
Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel, who both remain beloved figures in Cleveland sports lore, will appear on the HoF ballot for the first time. Both are already members of the Indians Hall of Fame. Both should be strong choices for enshrinement in the sport’s top museum of all-time great players.
In an era in which power numbers were somewhat tainted due to the use of performance enhancing drugs, Thome was among the game’s best power hitters as far as sluggers who were in no way connected to PEDs.
Thome sits seventh on baseball’s all-time home run list with a whopping 612. Among his contemporaries playing at the same time, only Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez are ahead of him. ARod is know to have used steroids, while Bonds almost certainly did, though that is not proven. That puts Thome fifth ever among home run hitters whose power came naturally. He was what is known as country strong.
The Thominator topped out at 52 bombs in 2002, his last full season with the Tribe. He hammered more than 40 taters three other times. A total of 337 of Thome’s jacks came with the Indians, which stands as the all-time franchise record. Thome’s overall stats are comparable to other Hall of Famers the likes of Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson and Griffey. There is no question he should join those guys in Cooperstown, the only question is when?
Voters have been finicky in recent years when voting for players from the 1990s and early 2000s due to the PED issue. However, guys like Griffey and Frank Thomas had no issue getting inducted on their first shots. One difference, however, is that they each won Most Valuable Player trophies, while Thome never did. He did finish top 10 in the voting four times and has five All-Star Game appearances and two World Series trips to his name. By all accounts, Thome is a first-ballot HoFer. It will be interesting to see if the voters agree next year. At the very least, he almost assuredly will get enshrined in the next few years if not in 2018.
Thome bounced around to a handful of different teams late in his career. However, when he does get enshrined in Cooperstown, it will be with an Indians cap. He played all or parts of 13 seasons, out of his 19 total, in Cleveland, including his first 12 years. He came back for a final Cleveland sendoff at the end of the 2011 campaign, playing one more season after that.
Vizquel is a little more interesting case. He does not boast the gaudy power numbers that Thome has. Many times, it is the number of dingers, RBI, or hits that voters and fans of the game pay the most attention to.
Vizquel has at least one number worth paying attention to. That is the number 11, the amount of Gold Glove awards he won at shortstop. Only Ozzie Smith, at 13, won more top fielding trophies at that position. Only seven players in the history of the game can say that they have more Gold Glove awards to their name than Vizquel has. Vizquel took home the American League trophy nine seasons in a row from 1993-2001. The last eight years were with the Indians. Vizquel won two more of the trophies in the National League with the Giants.
Vizquel has a strong case to be a first-ballot HoFer. What may hurt those chances are the number of quality players currently being considered for enshrinement. Next year there may very well be more than ten qualified players for voters to put on their ballots. Muddying the waters are the like of Roger Clemens and Bonds, who would have been in the Hall a few years ago if not for their connection to PEDs. Voters simply do not know how to deal with players from that era who were obviously good enough to be among the game’s greats but are known cheats. It is causing more big names to be up for induction on a yearly basis than ever before. That could make some people overlook a defense-first guy like Vizquel for a year or two.
Still, Vizquel compares quite favorably to Smith, who received 91 percent of the vote in his first chance in 2002. He won only two fewer Gold Glove awards and many consider the two almost neck-and-neck when it comes to making flashy plays that few others ever could have dreamed of making. Not known for offense, Vizquel did collect 2,877 career hits. That is more than 400 better than the Wizard of Oz. Vizquel also had 80 homers to Smith’s 28 and batted .272, ten points higher than Smith.
Like Smith, Vizquel was an important contributor on very good teams. Smith went to three World Series, winning one. Vizquel and the Indians, sadly, lost both their trips to the Fall Classic. Where Vizquel falls short of truly being considered a great is in the number of All-Star Game nods. Smith went to 15, while Vizquel went to three. However, Smith, playing his best years in the National League in the 1980s, was in a league and era where there were not a lot of great shortstops. Vizquel was playing at a time when the American League hit a peak of shortstops. ARod, Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada and Nomar Garciaparra were all hugely successful AL shortstops in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Vizquel certainly has the credentials to be a Hall of Famer, but may have to wait for a few names to get off the ballot in order to garner the needed 75 percent of the vote. He deserves higher consideration but may, unfortunately, not get it. Like Thome, Vizquel bounced around to a few different teams at the end of his playing days. However, if and when he does eventually get that call to the Hall, he will also have an Indians cap on. Even though he played less than half of his 24-year career in Cleveland, Vizquel’s most meaningful years were with the Tribe. His eleven Cleveland seasons also vastly outnumber his five with Seattle and four with San Francisco.
Thome and Vizquel are both worthy of Cooperstown consideration. Both deserve to get in on their first ballots. They each did things in the game that most never did. Still, the voting process can be odd and either or both men may have to wait a couple years. Whether it is next year or years down the road, both former Tribe greats should and almost certainly will join the other 14 players inducted as Cleveland Indians in baseball’s greatest museum. They represent one of, if not the, greatest eras in Tribe history and should also be considered strongly next year to join the other players who represent the great history of the entire sport.
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