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How high should the Hall of Fame bar be?

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Baltimore Orioles v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

I’ve had several opportunities to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and I’ve enjoyed every one of them. Three of those visits brought me to the Hall’s Giamatti Research Center/library to gather material for a couple of biographies – one on Willie Stargell and the most recent one on Arky Vaughan. If you haven’t visited, it’s definitely worth the drive. Beyond the research center/library, there certainly is enough to satisfy just about any baseball fan, and the drive alone – and the village itself – will generate memories you’ll never forget.

That being said, I’m not completely sold on the roster of players enshrined in Cooperstown. Admittedly, it’s a tough one. If the Hall is truly there to honor the greatest players the game has ever known, then that’s the way it should be. The greatest players. Not truly outstanding players who’ve compiled gaudy statistics over long careers. But if the bar is set too high – the height I have in mind, for example -- you might not even have an inductee class on any given year. And the Hall – as well as the local community, which relies heavily on tourism -- would never stand for that. So, the bar is set at what I like to call the Don Sutton Line. If you’re as old as I am, you remember Don Sutton. Right-handed pitcher, came up with the Dodgers in 1966 and remained in Los Angeles until 1980, at which time he went to Houston, then Milwaukee, then Oakland, then the Angels, and then back to the Dodgers as a 43-year-old. He finished that last season with a 3-6 record and a 3.92 ERA in 87 innings.

Sutton pitched 23 years in the major leagues and won 324 games. That’s more than such luminaries as Tom Seaver, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson. No question – that is quite the accomplishment. He also lost 256 games, which ranks seventh on the all-time list. As an aside, Nolan Ryan LOST 292 games – third-most in baseball history.

No doubt that wins and losses are not the be-all, end-all metric to be used in evaluating a pitcher’s effectiveness, or where he should rank among the game’s all-time greats. Given my age – I actually saw Don Sutton pitch as a Dodger – I’m not sure which of today’s modern metric equations would best be used to rank the game’s greatest pitchers. According to Baseball Reference, Sutton ranks No. 32 in terms of WAR, ahead of such recent Hall of Fame inductees John Smoltz and Roy Halladay – and even above such older gems as Juan Marichal and Sandy Koufax.

But, as I said, I saw Don Sutton pitch, and never – not once – did I ever think of him as one of the game’s greatest all-time pitchers. He was very good, and for a six-year stretch, from his age-26 season in 1971 through his age-31 campaign in 1976, he went 110-63 with a 2.70 ERA and 80 complete games in 212 starts. Outstanding. But check his record. In the five years prior to that, he went 66-73 with a 3.45 ERA in 175 starts. And in the 10 years after his 110-63 run, he went 134-103 with a 3.41 ERA in 319 starts. And that’s when a 3.41 ERA was not even good. Granted, he put together a 1.16 WHIP. Again, no one could deny Sutton was a very good pitcher. But Hall of Fame-worthy? Not to me.

All of which bring us to a former Pirate whose bid to join former We Are Family teammates Willie Stargell and Bert Blyleven in Cooperstown was in the spotlight last night. Dave Parker, the former standout right fielder who came up as a raw 22-year-old behemoth and was among the game’s greatest players for a five-year stretch in the mid-1970s, was among 10 people considered for induction as part of the Hall’s Modern Era ballot.

Parker certainly had some eye-popping numbers. Like Sutton, he played the game a long time, putting in 19 seasons and collecting 2,712 hits, 339 home runs, 1,493 RBIs and a career .810 OPS to go with an OPS+ of 121. But Parker’s reputation took a major hit when he admitted during the infamous Pittsburgh drug trials in 1985 that he used cocaine from 1976 to 1982 and arranged for his own drug supplier to have access to the Pirates’ clubhouse in Three Rivers Stadium. According to a New York Times story in September, 1985, Parker – then playing for his hometown Cincinnati Reds -- said he used cocaine with six current and former members of the Pirates. Parker was leading the National League in RBIs at the time of his testimony.

Parker, as you likely already know, did not make the Hall of Fame grade this time. The Modern Era voting committee, which featured 16 members, chose two people among the 10 on the ballot – former MLB union executive Marvin Miller and longtime catcher Ted Simmons. Simmons spent 21 years in the big leagues, finishing with a .285 batting average, a .785 OPS and 1,389 RBIs. Simmons also had a Pittsburgh connection, as he was hired as general manager of the Pirates in 1992 but resigned 16 months later after suffering a heart attack. Miller, too, had a Pittsburgh connection, having worked for the Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers Union for more than a decade before taking the reins of the players union in the mid-1960s.

Parker was in good company among those who did not make the Hall grade. He was joined on the outside looking in by Dwight Evans, Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Thurman Munson, Dale Murphy and Lou Whitaker.

All were outstanding players. But Hall of Fame worthy? I guess it all depends on how high you set your bar. My bar is higher than any of those players reached, including Parker. But perhaps my expectations are unrealistic. What the Hall actually needs – and perhaps will get one day long after I’m gone – is a sort of best-of-the-best wing. Of the more than 300 people currently enshrined in the Hall, how many of them would you consider to be among the game’s truly elite? Twenty? Thirty? More? Perhaps that’s why a special room – one for the likes of Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and maybe two dozen others – should be set aside.

So many great players have helped make baseball the wonderful sport that it is, and it’s fine to recognize them and honor them. But was Harold Baines even remotely the same player that Babe Ruth was? And what about Honus Wagner and Ted Simmons? I don’t want to say that the Hall has been watered down in recent years. I’m all for saluting the game’s great players. But there’s great – and then there’s great.