Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The 2014 Hall of Fame Class is Stacked

Congratulations to this year's six newest Hall of Famers: Joe Torre, Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine! All are worthy additions in my book, and it's only a shame that several other deserving candidates aren't joining them this year. I'm also glad that one very undeserving candidate, who's been a cause célèbre for the last several years, didn't make it, but this isn't a time for disparagement.

My favorite of those to be inducted is Frank Thomas, as I grew up watching him during his prime years with the White Sox. At this point, the narrative that seems to have been written for the Big Hurt is that he was poised to become the greatest right-handed hitter of all time before he had his decline around the age of 30, but boy, his peak was incredible to watch. In the hearts of White Sox fans, though, he'll always have a place as perhaps the franchise's all-time greatest player.

All the home runs and big hits were fun, but my favorite memory of him remains one that I witnessed firsthand when my father took me up to Milwaukee to see the Sox face the Brewers in 1995. We had mezzanine seats at Milwaukee County Stadium, which gave us a good overview of the field. Between innings, the Brewer pitcher was taking practice throws, and one got away from the catcher and rolled over to the stands. The fans leaned over to try to pick up the ball, but Big Frank, who was in the on-deck circle, picked up the ball and handed it to them. It wasn't a huge thing, but to a kid like me who happened to see it, it made me think of Frank Thomas as a really cool guy. I could just imagine how special it would be if I had been sitting there and this superstar ballplayer handed me the ball himself.

Even though he was injured for most of the year, I was so glad that Thomas got to be part of the 2005 World Series Champion White Sox, in what turned out to be his last year with the team. Although he didn't play in the World Series, he got to be there, and he was able to get a ring out of it. It wasn't a perfect storybook ending, but as Chicago baseball goes, it's better than most of our great players get.

Although Greg Maddux started his career with the Cubs, by the time I became a baseball fan he had already signed with the Braves. I didn't get to see him as a Cub until he rejoined the team late in his career. My best memories of Maddux are the times he spent paired with Tom Glavine atop the Braves' rotation. While I hated those Braves (because they were so good), I look back on them fondly now. They truly were a great team, and they have my eternal respect.

There aren't many managers who have truly captured my imagination, so there isn't a lot I can say about Cox, LaRussa and Torre. All have their share of critics (what manager doesn't?), but they all had success over long periods of time, so hey, they must've been doing something right.

Bobby Cox has my respect, because he was the main architect of that outstanding Braves team that was the NL's Team of the 1990's. While he's remembered by many for his teams' underachievements, he deserves credit for getting them into the position where those expectations could even exist. He set a good tone for the organization, and the Brave brand has much more cachet today than it did in the days of old.

Joe Torre was just a pretty-good manager before he found his niche as skipper of the Yankees. His record outside of New York makes good resume-padding, but by itself it doesn't deserve enshrinement. However, as we all know, the Yankee managerial post isn't an easy one, and he handled it with aplomb for 12 years. Sometimes success is just about being the right guy at the right time, and Joe Torre was certainly that for New York. There has been some debate about whether Torre deserves enshrinement as a player as well, since he had a darn good playing career. I doubt the distinction is an important one at this point, because now that he's in, he's got his lifetime achievement award.

I'll admit to hating LaRussa a bit, mainly due to his association with the Team That Destroyed Baseball, AKA the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals. I don't want to make this post into a personal pity party, but my life as a baseball fan has pretty much all been downhill since David Freese became a St. Louis legend. Tony LaRussa, you deserve the Hall, but I don't want to think about you.

So congratulations all around! The first Major League home runs of all our inductees-to-be have been added to the master list.