At some point, having more wins than any eligible player not in the National Baseball Hall of Fame loses its distinction and becomes just a festering frustration. Tommy John, winner of 288 games, reached that point a long time ago. And, with his clock winding down, he still appears a better bet to make the American Medical Association's Hall of Fame than baseball's. As a pitcher, consistency was his chief asset. He won 13-plus games 11 times, with an amazing 22 seasons spanning the first (1965) and last (1987).
As a Cooperstown candidate, John has been just as consistent, which, in this case, isn't such a good thing.And just as time eventually ran out on both of his lives as a pitcher, his ballot-life is also about to expire. For John, the epitome of getting off the pitching canvas, the bell is about to ring for his final go-around. The left-hander is in his 15th year on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot, and that's all you get to being voted in by the writers. John attracted his most votes in last year's balloting -- 158, for 29.1 percent support -- but his annual backing has been in that same range since his first year of eligibility, in 1995, leaving him still with a wide gap to cover. A candidate must get 75 percent of the vote to gain election, with former Red Sox slugger Jim Rice (72.2 percent), former Expos and Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson (65.9) and former Twins ace Bert Blyleven (61.9) standing as the top three returning vote-getters. Rickey Henderson, whose career spanned 25 years and nine teams, headlines the newcomers to the 2009 Hall of Fame ballot. Henderson, who has never announced his retirement, last played for the Dodgers in 2003. The 1990 AL MVP is the all-time leader in runs scored (2,295), stolen bases (1,406) and is second in walks (2,190). MLB.com will have live coverage of the Hall of Fame's announcement on Jan. 12. While puzzling, John's steady-but-not-sensational Hall of Fame run appropriately reflects his reputation during his active years. He didn't put fear into batters, who couldn't wait to grab a stick against his soft stuff. Then they would go to bed muttering about another hapless night of flailing at it. Similarly, the sum of his accomplishments have been no more impressive to voting members of the BBWAA. "I have no control over it. I don't really worry about things I can't control. Let it fall where it may," he has told MLB.com. He was the epitome of the crafty left-hander, a soft-thrower who kept infielders busy dealing with the products of his sinker. For John, however, it was just another form of dominance. He had 162 complete games. Randy Johnson, a left-hander on the opposite end of the spectrum perceived as the ultimate southpaw poison, finally reached triple figures last season, his 21st. John had 46 shutouts; Johnson has been stuck on 37 for four years. John will always be synonymous with a historic elbow operation that now bears his name. Dr. Frank Jobe performed the medical miracle, transplanting a ligament into his dead left arm in 1974, but John performed the ensuing pitching miracle. He won more games following the surgery (164) than before it. But Hall voters who have rewarded Dennis Eckersley for having two successful careers (as a starter, then a closer) haven't shown John the same consideration. John must wonder whether he would at least be closer to Cooperstown, if not already on the wall, had he won 40 fewer games but taken six fewer seasons to do it. To the skeptic, he hung around from 1984-89 to chase personal goals, persistence now perhaps being held against him. "One reason I think I did so well is that I was left-handed and was resilient," John, set for a third year of managing the Bridgeport (Conn.) Bluefish, told the Stamford Advocate in late November. "I took pretty good care of myself and my genes were pretty good. If you're left-handed, you're going to play a long time. You just have to throw the ball over the plate." To John, it was a matter of still being able to pitch at a high level and still being asked to do so. He didn't pitch out the string in some of baseball's secluded outposts, but in the Bronx, going 29-24 for the Yankees in his last four seasons. "I was one of the five best pitchers the Yankees could find in baseball for the last four or five years," he recalled, with some pride and some lingering bitterness. "I didn't strike guys out and I gave up hits, but I didn't let runs score and I won ballgames. That's what you're supposed to do," John has said. "I think my win total, my longevity, coming back from the arm surgery, all of the wins I had post-surgery -- that should be enough." Someday, it will be. John is the ideal candidate for the Hall of Fame's revised Veterans Committee, whose charge is to serve justice to deserving players who somehow slipped through the cracks of the writers' ballots. However, John would prefer getting in alongside the hitters he spent a quarter-century getting out. For that, this is his last shot.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.