There is no disputing the worth of any of the above careers. But the Baseball Hall of Fame remains the most exclusive club of its sort in professional sports. If the voters are going to err -- and as human beings, we might -- they will err on the side of caution. This approach leads to annual disappointment among candidates and fans of candidates. But it also maintains election to the Hall as a standard of true greatness.
And that is where Bruce Sutter comes in and deserves to enter. Sutter himself received 400 votes, or 76.9 percent of the votes. He had 10 votes to spare for this election. Last year, when he had received 66.7 percent of the votes, he had been 43 votes short. But that was another step in a long, but steady climb in this process for Sutter, whose support had been increasing on a yearly basis.
His election is a landmark of sorts for the Hall. He is the first pitcher elected who made every single appearance of his Major League career in relief. Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley are the relievers who have reached the Hall, but they also functioned as starters during their careers.
What makes Sutter, out of all the stars on this ballot, particularly deserving of election? In his prime, there was simply nobody better. Part of this is objective. The numbers of his best seasons clearly reflect that notion. There is no question that Bruce Sutter was a pioneer of the closer's role and there is also no question that he was a pioneer of the split-fingered fastball that essentially revolutionized the way the game was pitched.
But part of this election is subjective, whether or not the candidate in question passes the eyeball test for greatness.
I remember vividly one afternoon at Wrigley Field. Sutter enters the game with the Chicago Cubs up by one run. We watch him warm up. The gentleman sitting next to me observes him, and says knowingly: "Sutter just doesn't have it today."
Bruce Sutter then strikes out the side on 10 pitches. So I turn to this fellow journalist, smirking a bit, and I say: "So Sutter didn't have it today?" And this fellow responds: "Hey, what about that one ball?" A good laugh is had by all.
And that was just about it. The surprise with Bruce Sutter's performance was not going to be the nine strikes, but the one ball. At his best, he was simply unhittable. He was a pioneer of closing. He was a pioneer of the splitter. But beyond all that, he was a terrific relief pitcher, whose best work was as good as anybody who ever performed in that capacity.
OK, if he was so great, why did it take him 13 tries to get to 75 percent of the votes and thus to Cooperstown? There are a couple of reasonable responses to that.
Closing is a relatively new role in baseball and like every other change that occurs in baseball, a sport that is built around its tradition, it requires some time for adjustment. In this case, it has taken the electorate some time to accommodate itself to the notion of voting for closers, not to mention figuring out what factors make a closer's Hall of Fame candidacy viable.
In Bruce Sutter's individual case, he had five tremendous seasons with the Cubs. These were five tremendous seasons that could have been, because of the nature of those Cubs teams, relatively unnoticed by the larger baseball world. It is true that he went on to close for a World Series champion, the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals. But then his career was cut short by arm problems, so he was limited to 12 seasons. So in terms of what recognition his career might have received, he was shorted on both ends, by injury at the end, and by pitching for teams with which recognition was unlikely at the beginning.
But this election is a richly deserved happy ending for the Bruce Sutter story. On my Hall of Fame ballot this year, Gossage, Rice, Blyleven and Lee Smith also received votes. And I firmly believed that each of them deserved to be in the Hall.
But there was one vote that carried even more conviction than that. That was the one for Bruce Sutter. I believed that he was the best pitcher from his era who had not yet been elected to the Hall of Fame. Now, much better late than never, he will get his due; the ultimate recognition that he is among baseball's absolute best.