It’s entirely possible that every January for the next decade or so, we get reminded just how good those Indians teams of the 1990s really were.
As my friend and colleague Craig Gifford pointed out earlier this week, Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel will be among those on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot for the first time in the next election. Both have legitimate if not strong cases for induction.
Thome, inducted into the team’s hall of fame last year, hit 612 home runs and is the team leader for home runs in a season and a career. Vizquel’s strength was his defense, winning a total of 11 Gold Gloves at shortstop. Nine of those came in a row – including eight with the Indians.
They’ll be the newest candidates, but when it comes to those teams in the 1990s, based on talent alone, fully half the lineup could have plaques in Cooperstown.
Three players from those Indians teams are already enshrined. The first was 2001 enshrinee Dave Winfield, a relatively minor contributor who played in 46 games for the Indians in 1995 at the tail end of his career. The next was another player whose exploits are more associated with another team: Eddie Murray, who was inducted two years later. Murray was a free-agent acquisition who got his 3,000th hit in an Indians uniform and was a vital part of the 1995 pennant-winning team, batting cleanup. In 2011, they were joined by Roberto Alomar, who combined with Vizquel to form one of the best middle-infield duos in the majors in the late 1990s.
Winfield and Murray were both first-ballot hall of famers, and Alomar was a second-ballot inductee. All three were free agent signings for the Indians. But the waters get muddier when talking about home-grown talent.
The first player from those 1990s teams to get on the ballot was Albert Belle – largely because his career was curtailed by degenerative hip arthritis. He got 7.7 percent of the vote in his first year, enough to keep him on the ballot for another year, but dropped off after only getting 3.9 percent of the vote.
The Veterans Committee that selects members to the Hall of Fame was reorganized to consider players of separate eras, and Belle appeared on the Today’s Game ballot last year, and again wasn’t inducted into the Hall of Fame. Belle’s candidacy is generally regarded as being hampered by his poor relationship with the media. A better relationship with potential voters probably wouldn’t have gotten him inducted by itself, but as Sam Spade said at the end of “The Maltese Falcon,” it would have been one more thing on his side of the scale.
Belle’s body of work was imposing (he had nine straight seasons of 100 RBI, and his 50 home runs and 50 doubles in 1995 remain unparalleled) but relatively brief. Murray, like Belle, was regarded as a less-than-pleasant interview, but his hall of fame candidacy couldn’t be ignored once he reached numbers that at that point were regarded as a lock for induction: 500 career home runs and 3,000 hits.
Kenny Lofton made his first (and only) appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2013. Despite ranking 15th all time in stolen bases, with a .299 lifetime average and 2,428 hits, Lofton got just 3.2 percent of the vote and dropped off the ballot the following year. His candidacy hasn’t been addressed by the Veterans Committee.
This year also marked the first year of eligibility for Manny Ramirez. Ramirez, a hitting savant who still holds the team record for slugging percentage and is third in team history in home runs and eighth in RBI, received 23.8 percent of the vote, enough to keep him on the ballot next year.
Lofton blames his lack of consideration on the era in which he played, and that’s really the elephant in the room when it comes to Hall of Fame voting in this day and age. Lofton says he never used performance-enhancing substances, but there were enough players who did and put up gaudy numbers that his own were diminished. “I felt my Hall of Fame chances got diminished because I was not using steroids,” he told the Plain Dealer after he fell off the ballot.
If Lofton’s chances are diminished because he was part of the steroid era – even if he himself didn’t use – then Ramirez’s chances are probably even more diminished because he was identified as a user. Ramirez served a 50-game suspension while with the Dodgers in 2008, and media reports identified him as someone who had tested positive for performance-enhancing substances in survey testing in 2003. In fact, his retirement came about after a second positive test, which would have led to a 100-game suspension.
Unfortunately, the pervasiveness of performance-enhancing drugs in the 1990s and 2000s have put everyone under suspicion, including power hitters like Thome. Will it have an effect on his hall candidacy? Possibly. But suspicion’s all there is. He never tested positive.
The other thing most of those Indians players have working against them is the lack of a world championship. Of the players being considered, the only one with a ring is Ramirez, who got two in Boston. Of the major sports, baseball is probably the one where championship success matters the least. There are plenty of hall of famers who never played in the postseason. But the luster of a title can make a candidacy a little stronger.
I would submit that the reason that title never materialized is summed up in the candidacy of the players. They’re all position players, no pitchers. The Indians were always looking for that one top-shelf starter to put them over the top – and the closest they came was Orel Hershiser, who like Belle spent two years on the writers’ ballot before dropping off, and like Belle, was considered but not inducted on the Today’s Game veterans ballot.
And that’s the great irony: The fact that this many players from those teams in the 1990s can merit serious consideration for Cooperstown makes the lack of a title that much more bittersweet.
Photo: David Maxwell/Getty Images