El Tiante and the Not Ready For Prime Time (Hall of Fame) Players

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It’s November, which is a dangerous time of year for this baseball fan, because Hall of Fame voting is going on. And no, I’m not going to rail on The Hall’s watered down admissions process that now takes place annually led by Participation Trophy-loving voters (Harold Baines?? OH, OH, OH!!!).

Instead, I’m going to zero in on a few stars who’ve been passed over by Hall of Fame voters through the years. And I’m going to start with a personal favorite from my youth, and maybe the coolest cat from an MLB era that boasted a lot of super cool cats — El Tiante.

I got to thinking about Luis Tiant when I saw that the Eras Committee — Modern Baseball Division — had put out their latest Hall of Fame ballot a couple of weeks back. These committees are well-intentioned, and annually are tasked with combing over those former stars who perhaps warrant another look of consideration when it comes to Hall of Fame induction. The Modern Baseball group covers those who played predominantly between the years of 1970 to 1987 and include some names well deserving of deeper dives, including Ted Simmons, Tommy John and Dave Parker, to name just a few.

I found it interesting, though, that Tiant was not a part of the 2020 group, since he’s been under consideration as recently as 2018 (the last year this committee convened). Apparently the Eras Committee has decided that the Luis Tiant Hall of Fame question now falls under the “asked and answered” category, after many failed tries by El Tiante to reach the necessary number of votes. Fair enough.

But just for fun, as I sit 37,000 feet in the air, let’s take a look at El Tiante, the Cuban-born right-hander who made his debut on July 19th of 1964, and promptly shut out the World Series-bound New York Yankees, 4-0. The losing pitcher that day was Whitey Ford, and New York’s cleanup hitter that afternoon was the single-season home run king, Roger Maris.

Tiant would go on to win 229 games over 3400 innings spanning 19 big league seasons. He struck out over 2400 batters during his career, and was a 20-game winner four times (he also lost 20 once). In 1968, the infamous Year of the Pitcher, Tiant was 21-9 for Cleveland, while leading the American League with a 1.60 ERA. He also led the AL in shutouts  in ’68 with nine, while throwing 19 complete games and striking out 264 hitters in 258 innings pitched. That’s one hell of an HOF resume.

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Interestingly in 1969, after MLB had lowered the pitcher’s mound in an effort to force more offense back into the game, Tiant reversed course. He led the league with 129 walks and 37 homers allowed, while falling to 9-20, prompting the Indians to trade him to the Minnesota Twins.

With the Twins in 1970, Tiant won his first six games, but in that sixth felt a “pop” in his right arm and went on the injured list. He would never regain his full velocity on his signature fastball. He mopped up in one ALCS game for the Twins in ’70, giving up two runs (one earned) against the Orioles as Minnesota was swept, and Tiant was released shortly thereafter, presumed washed up by most observers.

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It was in Boston that folks my age remember Luis Tiant at his beguiling best. No longer a flame-throwing strikeout pitcher following his arm troubles (he went 1-7 in his first year in Boston), Tiant learned to be a complete pitcher, changing speeds, locating with precise control, and battling every pitch and every inning for those memorably good Bosox teams of the ’70’s. He would lead the AL in ERA in 1972, win 20 or more in 1973, 1974 and 1976, and was Boston’s ace when they won the AL East in 1975.

If the postseason matters to voters (and it should), maybe they should have paid closer attention to what Tiant did with Boston in the 1975 postseason. Consider this —

*ALCS Game 1 — complete game win, 7-1 over the three-time champion Oakland A’s,  with the only run allowed coming unearned. The Sawx would ride that momentum to a three-game sweep, ending the A’s dynasty.

*World Series Game 1 — complete game shutout throwing only 100 pitches, dominating the Big Red Machine of Bench, Perez, Rose and Morgan.

*World Series Game 4 — guts out a 5-4 win in another complete game. Tiant allows nine hits and four walks, but goes the distance throwing 155 pitches.

*World Series Game 6 — yup, he got the call in the historic Carlton Fisk Wave It Fair Game, and gutted his way into the 8th inning on fumes, giving up six runs in the process while extending himself for another 113 high-leverage pitches, and keeping Boston in it long enough for Fisk to hit his walkoff in the 12th.

For those keeping track, in the seven-game 1975 World Series, the Big Red Machine won their four games when Tiant didn’t start. The Red Sox rode El Tiante in the other three.

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Now let’s throw in for voters the style points. El Tiante’s signature Fu Manchu mustache, the exaggerated delivery that hesitated midway, as he rolled his eyes back in his head, taking a peek at second base, before releasing the ball towards the batter. The ever-present cigar, the smile, the vagabond career path of an MLB lifer, coaxing wins out of his twisted, old, right arm for the Yankees, Angels and Pirates (yeah, he even wore the old time Pittsburgh hat back in the day) deep into his late-30’s (even if no one was ever sure exactly how old Tiant really was).

I know it’s a different time today, especially when it comes to starting pitchers (however don’t tell that to the Washington Nationals, please), but what would happen if a colorful pitcher with a resume the likes of El Tiante’s were to hit the general HOF ballot today? Yeah, that’s right, he’d be considered a lock. In fact, the modern day example of just that type of pitcher may have recently reached retirement. C.C. Sabathia left the game for good last month, and most pundits have him down as a future sure thing for Hall of Fame inclusion.

I happen to be a Sabathia supporter, but give me Luis Tiant on a bronze bust in Cooperstown all day long over C.C. (or Roy Halladay, or Jack Morris). Just sayin’.

All this nostalgia over the great El Tiante got me to thinking — what would my starting lineup of “Hall of Fame Almosts” look like? And with apologies to my buddy Geno, who is undoubtedly already putting together a text for me extolling the virtues of Dwight Evans, here’s the AtticBro Nine of all-time ballplayers NOT in the Hall of Fame (style points absolutely taken into consideration!):

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Right-handed Starting Pitcher — Yup, we are going with El Tiante on the bump, and I really didn’t consider anyone else.

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Left-handed Starting Pitcher — Jim Kaat. This one was a tough call, with Kitty going down to the wire against another deserving HOF candidate, Tommy John (who happens to be up again this year courtesy of the Eras Committee). Winning 283 games (including an AL-best 25 in 1966 for the Twins) puts him on this squad, and his 16 consecutive Gold Gloves are worth noting, too.

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Catcher — Ted Simmons. This may be the final year Simmons is eligible for our squad, as he was only two votes shy when the Eras Committee voted in 2018, and I fully expect the raking switch-hitter to get into The Hall this year. Nearly 2500 hits and a career .348 OBP, along with a .986 fielding percentage makes Simba a no-brainer. Honorable Mention to Thurman Munson, who’s also under consideration again this year with the Eras Committee, and will likely be my starter behind the dish in future years, once Simmons moves on.

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First Base — Dick Allen and Gil Hodges. First base was easily the most hotly contested spot on my starting nine, and I ended up having to throw in the towel and go with a tie. I choose to believe Dick Allen is not in the Hall of Fame today more because his run of absolutely absurd statistical excellence didn’t last quite long enough, rather than due to his questionable attitude and hostility toward those that wrote his paychecks. Who knows, maybe I’m just being naive. But I do know that I want peak-performance Richie Allen of the early-’60’s Phils and early-’70’s Chisox hitting third in my lineup. The problem that Allen created for me was what to do with Hodges? Of all of the all-time Cooperstown snubs, the mystery behind Gil Hodges’ exclusion is the hardest for me to understand. Hopefully one of the various committees can right this egregious wrong one day, but until then, he’ll slide onto the SportsAttic Nine as Player-Manager. From there he can insert himself into games as Allen’s late-innings defensive replacement, while running the show from the top step. Honorable mention (by a fair distance) to Steve Garvey, and no, Yankees fans, Don Mattingly isn’t even in the conversation.

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Second Base — Lou Whitaker. Sweet Lou is also being considered by the Eras Committee, and, along with Simmons, is the only other no-brainer on this year’s Modern Baseball list. It still doesn’t seem right to me that Alan Trammell is in The Hall without his double-play partner from those strong Tigers teams of the ’70’s and ’80’s. Quick SportsAttic footnote: I briefly considered trying to sneak Pete Rose in here at the keystone (the way Sparky Anderson used to move Rose around the diamond depending on who needed a day off), but ultimately decided to exclude those banned by MLB (which is why you won’t see Shoeless Joe Jackson when we get to our outfield). I also decided against including any of the known steroids cheats (easy, since other than Mark McGwire, I can’t stand any of those guys, anyway). Honorable mention here to Jeff Kent, but he was always such a sour horse’s ass that we can’t let him onto our team.

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Shortstop — Bert Campaneris. Shortstop was about as close as it could get between Campy and the Reds’ Dave Concepcion. Ultimately my tie-breaker was simply that I always liked those 1970’s Oakland A’s teams featuring Campy at short better than I did the Big Red Machine and Concepcion. Besides, Campaneris was just so much fun. In 1965, in another hair-brained Charlie Finley attempt to sell more tickets, Campaneris played all nine positions on Campy Campaneris Night in Kansas City. Not only that, but during his time on the mound, Campaneris threw from both sides, going righty against the right-handed hitters, and turning around for a southpaw look against the lefties in the Angels lineup. And yes, the haters may bring up the time Campy hurled his bat at the Tigers Lerrin LaGrow after getting hit by a pitch in the 1972 ALCS (in a head scratcher, Campy was suspended for the remainder of the ALCS and the first seven games of the following season, yet allowed by commissioner Bowie Kuhn to play in the World Series), but c’mon, Juan Marichal hit John Roseboro over the head with his bat, and he’s got a statue outside Oracle Park in San Francisco and a bust in Cooperstown. Campy it is.

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Third Base — Ken Boyer. It was tempting to plug Rose in at third, too, but Boyer was too good an option to pass up. Arguably the best defensive third baseman of his time, who also amassed nearly 2500 hits on some awesome Cardinals teams. It’s puzzling to me that he never comes up when we discuss Hall of Fame snubs. My only theory is that perhaps he was too overshadowed by all the stars those St. Louis teams boasted who would one day go on to Cooperstown immortality — Stan Musial, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson — the Redbirds of Boyer’s day were loaded. But we will take Boyer’s snub as SportsAttic’s gain, even if he did miss out on the best baseball name in his own family to his brother, Clete. Honorable mention to Sal Bando, but it really wasn’t that close.

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Right Field — Dave Parker. Sorry, Geno, but Dewey Evans doesn’t break into this lineup as long as The Cobra remains on the outside of the HOF looking in (both Parker and Evans are up for consideration this year by Eras). I honestly can’t come up with a single facet of the game where Evans outperforms Parker. Evans’ arm was his money-maker and will no doubt be part of the argument for his candidacy this year, but Parker’s arm was at least as good. Somehow Cobra is tainted in the eyes of the voters (cocaine scandal, anyone?), so I expect him to fall short once again, but talk about a five-tool prototype! Pencil in Dave Parker at cleanup for this squad, following Richie Allen, for all of eternity, and just imagine what kind of post-game party those two will throw. Honorable Mention goes to back-to-back MVP Dale Murphy, along with Evans.

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Centerfield — Vada Pinson. C’mon, name me a better centerfielder not in The Hall. Playing in the Reds outfield behind the considerable shadow cast by Frank Robinson, Pinson put up consistently outstanding numbers. However he was never in the running for MVP and ultimately fell a couple of hundred hits short of 3000, both of which cost him in the eyes of the voters. So he may not be HOF-worthy, but he will bat leadoff for SportsAttic and score 120 runs every year easy. Of course, the real reason he’s on this team is that the first Little League bat ever swung with purpose by young AtticBro was a Vada Pinson autograph model. Hey, it’s my list, so my rules.

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Left Field — Al Oliver. That’s right, I’m going there. Scoop is in the lineup, and we’re going with Pirates at both our corner outfield spots. Imagine this hit machine in the six-hole of the SportsAttic batting order? Right after Simba with Ken Boyer waiting on deck? Yeah, I like it a lot. And if you are bored, go to sportsreference.com and take a look at Oliver’s stats. Day games, night games; early career, late career; regular season, postseason; Pittsburg, Texas, Montreal. All Al Oliver does is rake, rake, rake. A career .303 hitter, he topped .300 eleven times in his career. Yes, he played a lot of first, too, but we’ll take that versatility on our squad, especially since we have no bench other than Player-Manager Gil Hodges and our pitching staff. Honorable Mention to Tony Oliva, only because I really wanted to find a spot for Oliva on our team, even if he was more of a right-fielder. Man could Oliva fill up boxscores in the ’60’s and early-’70’s.

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Closer — Sparky Lyle. The first American League closer to win the Cy Young (Mike Marshall had won it with the Dodgers in ’74), Lyle pitched 137 innings as a closer for Billy Martin and the Yankees during his Cy Young year of 1977. He won 13, and saved another 26 on the way to the Yankees first World Series title since 1962. Then, in the offseason he led the league again, this time in factual errors discovered after he put out The Bronx Zoo. But forgetting his misdeeds as an author, the guy the Yanks stole from Boston for Danny Cater back in the 1971 offseason (in 1972, his first season in Pinstripes, all Lyle did was save 35 games, when that sort of total was unheard of), remains the quintessential lefty closer when SportsAttic looks  back on MLB history.

So there you have it. The SportsAttic No-Hall-of-Fame starting lineup. And while I promised myself that I’d refrain from any more “Hall of Very Good” bashing (at least until this year’s elections are announced), I’d be hard pressed to see Andre Dawson, Tim Raines or Harold Baines crack this starting lineup.

Nuff sed (and ten ballot slots does not mean you brainless sheep have to include ten names, for crying out loud!!!). Sorry, but it just had to be said.

Let’s hear from you — who’s your starting nine?

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