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Mark Bennett B-Sides

November 14, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Tommy John getting another shot at Baseball Hall of Fame

TERRE HAUTE — Go ahead, circle Dec. 9 on your calendar.

By doing so, you may be labeled an optimist, a dreamer or unapologetically Hautean.

Let’s hope you’re also right.

That’s the day Terre Haute (and the rest of the world) finds out whether Tommy John will become a Hall of Famer. The gatekeepers to baseball’s greatest shrine — the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum — have not let John inside through 16 voting sessions since the Terre Haute-born pitcher first became eligible for consideration in 1994. The primary electors, members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, passed over John for 15 consecutive years until his eligibility via that method expired in 2009. Then, the Veterans Committee — a panel of Hall of Fame players, managers and writers who study the cases of overlooked Hall candidates — bypassed Tommy in 2010 and chose to induct longtime manager Whitey Herzog and ump Doug Harvey.

On the bright side, John has never left the Hall’s radar.

Last week, the Hall of Fame announced John had earned a spot on the Veterans Committee ballot for 2013. As in 2010, the committee is considering big-league players, managers, executives and umpires from the Expansion Era (those who made their greatest contributions after 1973).

John joins 11 others on that ballot — fellow players Dave Concepcion, Steve Garvey, Dave Parker, Dan Quisenberry and Ted Simmons; managers Joe Torre, Billy Martin, Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox; late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner; and players union pioneer Marvin Miller.

Lots of great baseball names on that list. Yet, none is more deserving than John to be one of those chosen on Dec. 8; the vote is to be revealed the next day, Dec. 9.

The 16 Veterans Committee voters know the 70-year-old John well. They’re his contemporaries — playing greats Rod Carew, Carlton Fisk, Joe Morgan, Paul Molitor, Phil Niekro and Frank Robinson; managers Tommy Lasorda (John’s boss with the Dodgers) and Herzog; execs Paul Beeston, Andy MacPhail, David Montgomery and Jerry Reinsdorf; and writers Steve Hirdt, Bruce Jenkins, Jack O’Connell and Jim Reeves.

Why recite the entire, lengthy Veterans Committee roster, especially the latter members who are unknown to most of us?

Because they are “they.”

As Terre Haute honored John last month by naming the ball diamond at Spencer F. Ball Park “Tommy John Field,” local residents repeated the comment, “They should put Tommy in the Hall of Fame.” For that to happen, at least 12 of those 16 Veterans Committee voters must pick John’s name on their Hall of Fame ballot next month when they gather at baseball’s Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla.

Like folks here, those committee members probably think fondly of Tommy, even if his sinkerball forced a few of them to hit into double plays. He’s a likable, down-to-earth, friendly guy. The voters aren’t asked to consider sentiment, though. Instead, they’re called to consider a candidate’s record, ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to their teams. Of course, big-league baseball thrives on statistics, so the “record” criteria looms largest. John aces every other category. Stats geeks can argue his statistical Hall of Fame credentials like Republicans and Democrats wrestling in Congress, but most miss the big-picture reasons Tommy John should have a plaque in Cooperstown.

He gave baseball its greatest comeback story.

In mid-career, John tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. Such injuries ended pitchers’ careers, until 1974 when John agreed to a revolutionary surgery to implant a tendon from his other arm into his left elbow. The surgeon, Dr. Frank Jobe, said, “On a scale of 1 to 10, Tommy’s chances of ever pitching again were less than 1,” according to the Hall of Fame archives.

If those odds prevailed, John would likely be the first and last pitcher to try the procedure. Instead, he won another 164 games before retiring in 1989 — 40 more victories than he’d posted before the surgery. Today, it’s known as Tommy John surgery. John is not famous because of the surgery. The surgery is famous because of John’s performance for 14 seasons afterward.

John’s Hall of Fame-caliber performance. Had he fizzled or merely hung on to his career, Jobe would be a footnote, and hundreds of pitchers — from high school to the majors — would have to quit when they felt that “pop” in their elbows.

If any of us Hauteans wrote an open letter to the Veterans Committee voters, that point should be emphasized. Yes, John won 288 games (more than any eligible pitcher not already in the Hall), forced hitters into 605 double plays (the most by any pitcher since 1916), shined in the postseason with a sparkling 2.65 earned-run average, and never — never  — missed a start after his surgery, even at age 46. Even more significant, though, Tommy beat the odds, rehabilitated himself with no blueprint for his injury, and pitched even more masterfully for years and years.

His detractors insist John pitched a mind-boggling 26 seasons, yet still didn’t reach 300 wins. Well, never mind the season and a half he missed because of the surgery. Hidden within John’s career numbers is a quirky stat, compiled by stats legend Bill James. In 24 starting assignments, John left the game with his team leading, only to have a relief pitcher blow his lead (and what would’ve been another victory notch for Tommy) before the team went on to win. Only one other pitcher, Roger Clemens, had that happen more times, James deduced. Just half of those no-decision outings would’ve given John the magical 300th victory.

Guts, craftiness, durability and success at the highest level were Tommy John trademarks.

Come on, Hall of Fame voters, do the right thing. Give TJ his place in Cooperstown, and his hometown a chance to celebrate with him on Dec. 9.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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