CLEVELAND, Ohio — This is a story about four Cleveland Indians, an abstention and the muddled process by which baseball determines those who get to be remembered as the best who ever played the game.
1. Maybe it’s fitting that the Baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, N.Y., a quaint village whose place as the actual birthplace of baseball is as big a myth as the Scottish village Brigadoon, which shimmered to life for one day every 100 years in the Broadway musical.
2. Even at that, Brigadoon will be around more often than Kenny Lofton on Hall of Fame ballots.
The former Indians center fielder put up stats than compare well with newly elected Tim Raines. Lofton played “clean,” with no whispers of using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).
Raines was a former cocaine user. That’s not a PED, but it is quite illegal by the laws of the United States.
Raines played 23 years, Lofton 17, thus Raines has a bigger pile of decimal points for analytics-oriented voters to examine.
Lofton was only on the ballot for one year and was dropped because he failed to receive the requisite 5 percent of votes from eligible baseball writers.
Steroid suspects Pudge Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell made it on this year’s ballot. Maybe attitudes are changing, and more voters are coming around to my view that you cannot undo history.
I believe Lofton was a textbook case of a player being crowded out by others with bigger numbers from the steroid era. He thought so too.
In my column about not casting vote this year, I discussed the voters’ uncertainty about what to do with the steroid era.
Lofton was one of the Indians who sometimes wasn’t around to talk to after making a bad play or who took aggressive stances toward questions about a mistake.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he would say to a question about his base running mistake or a misread fly. Usually, however, his pure speed made up for the mistakes. He was a world-class athlete who happened to play baseball.
Still, after one of those exchanges with writers, a veteran player, who was professional in every part of his approach to the game, sidled over to me and said, “Kenny has a little trouble facing the music, doesn’t he?”
Even so, Lofton was one of the key parts of the great Indians teams in the 1990s and again in 2007. He certainly deserved more than one shot at the Hall of Fame.
3. Next year, the voters’ ballots become public knowledge for the first time. It might reduce some secret-ballot votes that would raise eyebrows.
I did, however, admit that I did not vote for former Indians second baseman Roberto Alomar in his first year of eligibility. Alomar fell six votes short.
For many, the probable reason for omitting him was his rhubarb with umpire John Hirschbeck, which ended with Alomar spitting in the umpire’s face — then appealing his way into the playoffs and, as a member of the Baltimore Orioles, eliminating the Indians.
That was not my reason. My reason was Alomar’s can’t-be-bothered play in the decisive fifth game of the division series against Seattle in 2001. No less than Indians former president Mark Shapiro admitted as much.
Alomar made the Hall of Fame easily the next season. I voted for him then. I felt his play in the win-or-go-home game at Seattle (the Indians went) kept him from going in on the first ballot with the best of the best.
4. No worries about my abstaining next year.
Maybe Major League Baseball will have issued some rules clarifying steroid era players eligibility, but probably not.
But how could I not vote for Omar Vizquel, the best shortstop I ever saw, the glove man on the 1990s teams full of sluggers who bashed through at the plate their own mistakes in the field?
Vizquel was my favorite Indians player and my second favorite athlete to cover ever, behind only Dr. J, Julius Erving.
Vizquel needed no glove, as he made breathtaking, bare-handed plays in the field. He needed no hands, as he fielded grounders during infield practice with his feet as a former soccer player. Omar was magic, pure and simple.
5. I’ll also vote for the Indians’ all-time leader in home runs, Jim Thome. He is seventh all time, with a total of 612 homers.
I did not support Thome getting a statue at Progressive Field ahead of Larry Doby, the racial pioneer and Hall of Famer. But I did think he was a wonderful throwback to the days of rural kids who liked to hunt, fish and play two if they could.
Thome was an unassuming man who faced all questioning with equanimity. Indeed, he said he learned how to be a big leaguer in that respect the day early in Vizquel’s first Indians’ season when Omar made three errors in a game and stood at his locker, forthrightly answering wave after wave of questions.
For the statue, I had another choice. As the column below asked, “Why not Omar?”