Hall open to relievers

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:44 AM ET

At long last, Hall of Fame voters truly have legitimized the position of relief pitcher, and one from that Lost Generation of the 1980s at that.

Bruce Sutter, in his 13th year of eligibility, actually becomes the fourth reliever to be inducted at Cooperstown, but the very first of his special breed never to have started a major league game. He finished plenty of them, though, and in style.

Sutter, who threw his last pitch and achieved his 300th save in 1988, yesterday became the only player to be inducted from the Class of 2006 and he did it by the hair on his teeth. His name appeared on 400 (76.9%) of the 520 ballots cast by eligible members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. A player must appear on 75% of ballots cast in any given year to be inducted.

Left out in the cold again, in a year when there were no obvious first-time candidates, are several stars whose careers peaked during the 1980s. Jim Rice, 337 votes (64.8%), Rich Gossage, 336 votes (64.6%), Andre Dawson, 317 votes (61%), and Bert Blyleven, 277 votes (53.3%) were the only players to appear on half the ballots. Career saves leader Lee Smith garnered 45% of the vote and Jack Morris, who won more games than any other pitcher during the 1980s, had 41.2%.

With stars such as Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn eligible -- not to mention a controversial decision to be made on Mark McGwire -- next year some or all of those players are likely to get lost in the shuffle as time goes on.

"Let me put it this way," Sutter said. "If I didn't get in (this year), I was planning a hunting trip for next year at this time. I knew I wouldn't need to hang around waiting for a phone call."

Those others might take heart from Sutter's story, however. As recently as 1999, Sutter, who played for the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves from 1976 until 1988, received only 121 Hall of Fame votes. Clearly something extraordinary happened in the past seven years for him to get the support of 279 additional voters.

"I just think that sometimes voters try to compare (relievers) with starting pitchers," Sutter said. "We can't compete with their innings, their strikeouts, or their statistics. I think if you compare us against each other, you'll see we're all kind of equal. Without us, it's tough to win."

He is not the inventor of the split-finger pitch as many believe, just the first to perfect it, out of necessity.

After Sutter suffered a serious arm injury as a double-A pitcher, minor-league pitching coach Fred Martin, in 1973, suggested the split-finger pitch as an option that wouldn't put much stress on his elbow. Sutter mastered it quickly and it became a lethal weapon.

And now, belatedly, the Hall accepts the relief ace as an essential part of the game, a fact that the game itself accepted 30 years ago.

In case nobody noticed, B.J. Ryan just signed a five-year, $47-million US contract to close games for the Blue Jays.

That's how utterly indispensable a top-flight fireman is in today's game. And unlike Ryan, who will seldom pitch more than one inning, Sutter, routinely pitched more than 100 innings a year to get his 30 or 40 saves.

As for all those other forgotten men of the 1980s, there is still a chance. Rice, the most-feared hitter in the American League for nearly a decade, picked up 30 extra votes this year, but still needs another 50-odd to get in.

Gossage added 51 votes and Dawson 47. That's a positive sign for both the Goose and the Hawk. Morris and Smith each added votes to their 2005 totals.

If it is curious to you that a man could add or lose votes many years after retirement, chalk it up to careful reflection.

Many of the writers/voters in the American League, for example, didn't get to see Dawson play. Likewise, many NL writers didn't see Rice often enough to appreciate his talent.

Viewed through the long lens of time, after countless discussions with colleagues and the careful study of statistics, it is not unusual for voters to give a candidate credit after many years of ignoring him.

That sober second thought certainly helped Sutter.

"I'm not sure I understand all that goes into it, but I'm sure glad they voted for me," Sutter said.

So are dozens of relief pitchers whose dream it is to join Sutter in Cooperstown.


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