Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Analyzing the 2014 Baseball Hall of Fame Vote; Eusébio, 1942-2014

Greg Maddux, 97.2 percent. No argument: 300 wins, 3000 strikeouts. The former milestone has been automatic, presuming no PED taint. The latter hasn't. But both? Now, the only one with both who isn't in is Roger Clemens. We'll get to him later.

Tom Glavine, 91.9. No argument: 300 wins, 3000 strikeouts.

Frank Thomas, 83.7. No argument: 500 homers. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Big Hurt not only had one of the few really good nicknames of the era, but he was right up there with Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. as the best hitter in baseball. At the very least, he and Jeff Bagwell were the 2 best righthanded hitters -- 3 once Alex Rodriguez hit his prime, and began to take Frank's place. When he was at his best, the South Side of Chicago really was the baddest part of town.

Those 3 guys made it, all deservedly getting at least the necessary 75 percent of the vote. These guys didn't:

Craig Biggio, 74.8. He missed by 2 votes. Two freakin' votes? What pair of morons thought 3,060 hits with no PED taint wasn't worthy of the Hall of Fame? Probably Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy, the pair of morons who thought it wasn't worth counting all the votes in Florida in 2000.

Nellie Fox, who finished his career in Biggio's later role as the 2nd baseman for the Astros, also once missed by 2 votes, and fell off the BBWAA ballot, before being elected by the Veterans' Committee. He died young, while still on the BBWAA ballot. Let's hope nothing happens to Biggio before the BBWAA finally comes to their senses... and that they do! (UPDATE: He was elected in 2015.)

Mike Piazza, 62.2. There are steroid questions, but not much evidence. Without the steroid questions, he would be in: He put up big numbers, he played in big markets (L.A. and New York), he was good to the media (the voters). Whether I like him personally should not be an issue. I think he'll get in next year, especially since, among the 1st-time-eligibles, only Randy Johnson is an obvious Yes. (Another great who I didn't like personally.) (UPDATE: Piazza was elected in 2016.)

Jack Morris, 61.5. This was his last time on the BBWAA ballot. His career ERA is over 4? Yeah, well, Rollie Fingers has a career losing record, and he's in. As Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully once said, "Statistics are like lampposts: Use them for illumination, not for support."

I said it after Morris pitched a 10-inning shutout in Game 7 in the homer-happy Metrodome, before he made it 3 rings with 3 different clubs with the Blue Jays the next year, and I'll say it again, 22 years and 3 months later: Before that game, he was a borderline case for the Hall; after it, he put himself in. And over 60 percent of the voters agree with me. My guess is, the first or second time he's on the VC ballot, he gets in.

Jeff Bagwell, 54.3. Not as obvious a case as his teammate Biggio, and there are steroid questions. But there is no evidence at all. He deserves it. (UPDATE: He was elected in 2017.)

Tim Raines, 46.1. Let me get this straight: A guy who stole 808 bases -- eight hundred and eight, more than all but 4 human beings who have ever lived -- and won 2 World Series rings isn't worthy of even getting half the votes of the BBWAA? Is it that he played in Montreal? Well, he also played in New York and Chicago, and superbly. Put Rock in the Hall! (UPDATE: He was elected in 2017.)

Roger Clemens, 35.4; Barry Bonds, 34.7; Mark McGwire, 11.0; Sammy Sosa, 7.2; Rafael Palmeiro, 4.4; Luis Gonzalez, 0.9 (5 votes); Eric Gagne, 0.4 (2 votes). Let's get this out of the way first: Even if we didn't know they were guilty, Gonzalez would be a question mark, and Gagne wouldn't have a chance.

If we didn't know they were guilty, or if we did know but we didn't care, Clemens, Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and Palmeiro would be easy choices.

But ask yourself this: Presuming they are, in fact, guilty (and Clemens is the only one for whom there's much doubt of that, as the evidence presented has been ridiculous), which of those 5 would have built a Hall of Fame career if they hadn't cheated?

Without question, Clemens and Bonds would have had the numbers: The former would still have won 300 (if not 350) and fanned 3,000 (if not 4,000); the later would still have hit 500 homers, maybe 600 (if not 700, or 756) and stolen 500 bases. Palmeiro might have made it: He hit 569 home runs, exceeding the old benchmark of 500 by 13.8 percent. Did PEDs help him by at least 13.8 percent? Is there any way to measure that?

But without cheating, Sosa might have been a very good player, but never a great one. He might have had 2 or 3 Hall-worthy seasons, like fellow right fielders Roger Maris or Rocky Colavito. But would he even have been as good as Al Oliver or Harold Baines, 2 guys who probably should be in? I don't think so.

McGwire? He was given up for dead by the time the Strike of '94 hit: He was about to turn 31, had played just 74 games in 2 years (and was on the Disable List when the Strike hit, so he might not have played again that season anyway), and had just 18 homers and 49 RBIs in those 2 seasons.

Not being able to play probably gave him the time he needed to allow the PEDs to get him back in playing shape, and become the Big Mac we all cheered in 1998. Without those PEDs, Mark McGwire would almost certainly have been a "What If?" player, perhaps his generation's Tony Conigliaro (without the beaning).

Lee Smith, 29.9. The biggest argument in his favor, that he was the all-time saves leader, is no longer true. That means he's not getting in, not even via the VC.

Curt Schilling, 29.2. If 3,000 strikeouts gets you in, then he should be in. If that milestone, by itself, is not enough, then he's going to have a tough time, no matter what he did in postseason play, no matter what the voters think of him personally, and no matter whether you think he used PEDs.

Which may not be much, because he can be such a jerk. Remember what former Phillies GM Ed Wade said about Schill when he was pitching at the Vet? "One day out of five, he's a horse. The other four, he's a horse's ass."

Edgar Martinez, 25.2. It is time for Mariner fans to admit the truth: Edgar is not failing to get in because he was a DH, or because he played outside the glamour markets (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and its former subsidiary Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco). Rather, he is failing to get in because he doesn't have the stats.

Alan Trammell, 20.8. The only chance he and his Tiger teammate Lou Whitaker have is to have the VC elect them together. And even that will take several more years.

Mike Mussina, 20.3. Okay, I get it: He wasn't likely to get in the first time. But only 20 percent? For a guy who won 270 games in the Five Man Rotation Era and struck out 2,813 batters against just 785 walks? That's a slap in the face, especially since he did play his career in two glamour markets, Baltimore while it was where the D.C. elite went to watch MLB, and New York.

Hopefully, next year, when the first-time-eligible pitchers are Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, Moose will get reassessed, and he'll be let in. In fact, it would be nice if he got in and that forced Pedro the Punk to wait a year.

Jeff Kent, 15.2. How much is being the all-time leader in home runs by a 2nd baseman worth? Apparently, not much.

Fred McGriff, 11.7. The guy hit 493 home runs, as many as Lou Gehrig, with no serious accusation of cheating, despite spending most of his career in ballparks that weren't especially friendly to hitters. He had a 134 OPS+, and appeared in 5 postseasons including getting a ring. Not enough? Come on!

Larry Walker, 10.2. Clearly, voters are holding Coors Field against him. Well, he was a pretty good hitter when his home park was Le Stade Olympique and the 1966 Busch Stadium, and those were pitchers' parks.

Don Mattingly, 8.2. Like his friend Joe Torre, himself a really good hitter once, the only way he's going to get into the Hall is as a manager. But that means he'd have to win Pennants, and Donnie Regular Season Baseball has never won a Pennant, in any capacity, and he never will.

The following guys got less than 5 percent, and thus drop off the BBWAA ballot forever, and have to take their chances with the VC. (Good luck.)

Moises Alou and Hideo Nomo, 1.1 percent -- 6 votes. Both were credits to the game, but neither is getting into the Hall. No, Nomo doesn't get points for opening the door for Asian players. With that status and his wacky windup, He can get into the Hall of Baseball Cult Heroes, along with guys like Dick Allen, Tony Conigliaro, Luis Tiant, Oscar Gamble, Mark Fidrych, Joe Charbonneau and Lenny Dykstra, but not the Baseball Hall of Fame.

J.T. Snow, 0.4 percent -- 2 votes. He won 6 Gold Gloves, had 2 100-RBI seasons, reached 4 postseasons, and has never been accused of PED use. Good player, good guy -- not a Hall of Fame player.

Armando Benitez, Kenny Rogers and Jacque Jones, 0.2 percent -- 1 vote. I forgot that Jones even existed. Benitez? The Worst Closer Who Ever Lived? (At least, until someone makes Boone Logan a closer.) I'm guessing that vote didn't come from Bobby Valentine. And Kenny Rogers got a vote? Clearly, that voter doesn't know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, or know when to walk away. He'd better know when to run.

Sean Casey, Ray Durham, Todd Jones, Paul Lo Duca, Richie Sexson and Mike Timlin, 0.0 percent -- no votes. All very good players. All good guys -- except for Lo Duca, who was an ass long before he became a Met. None of them ever had a chance.

Yes, Casey had a .302 lifetime batting average, the same as Willie Mays -- and a lot higher than Sexson's .261. But think about this: Casey and Sexson combined had 436 homers and 2,817 hits, and even that, especially in the Steroid Era, might not be enough to get a man in.

*

Eusébio has died. He was the greatest player in his sport ever to come from his continent. And most Americans have never heard of him.

I never heard of him until 2008. This, despite the fact that he played 4 home games just 8 miles from where I grew up. That is a failure of the American sports media, which treated soccer like an afterthought for most of my life.

Eusébio da Silva Ferreira was born on January 25, 1942, in Lourenço Marques, in Mozambique, on the east coast of southern Africa, then a colony of Portugal. In 1975, after the Carnation Revolution overthrew Portugal's fascist government, the overseas empire was broken up, and Mozambique gained its independence. Lourenço Marques was the capital, and its name was changed to Maputo. It is home to about 1.8 million people, more than any city in Portugal itself other than the capital of Lisbon.

Eusébio was the son of a black Mozambican woman, and a white railroad worker who'd come from another Portuguese colony in Africa, Angola (which also gained its independence in 1975). His father died when he was 8, and the family became even more desperately poor.

He and his friends formed what we would call a "sandlot" soccer team, Os Brasileiros, named for the great Portuguese-speaking Brazil team that won the 1958 World Cup. Like the Brazilian stars, he used just one name when he played, in his case his first name rather than a nickname. (Brazilian players have used either one.) He grew up as a fan of Grupo Desportivo de Lourenço Marques (now Desportivo Maputo), which sent Mário Coluna to the Lisbon club for which they were a feeder club (we would say a "farm team"), Sport Lisboa e Benfica. (Benfica is a neighbhorhood in Lisbon, its name meaning "It is well.")

Eusébio wanted a tryout with his favorite team, but they turned him down. So he went to their arch-rivals, Sporting Clube de Lourenço Marques (now Clube de Desportos do Maxaquene), and they took him. By 1960, age 18, he led his team to the Campeonato Distrita (District Championship). And Juventus, the Turin, Italy club that was already a worldwide legend, was interested in him. Benfica saw the error of their ways, and bought him, bringing him to Lisbon.

Benfica won Portugal's Primeira Liga and the European Cup (the precursor tournament to today's UEFA Champions League) in 1961, but Eusébio played only 1 senior game that season. But in 1961-62, the season in which he turned 20, he became a world "football" superstar, leading them to win the Taça de Portugal (Portuguese Cup) and a repeat of the European Cup, scoring 5 goals in the tournament, including 2 goals in the Final against Real Madrid. (Benfica have not won a European Final since, losing the European Cup/Champions League Final in 1963, '65, '68, '88 and '90; and the 2014 UEFA Europa League Final.)

With Eusébio, Benfica won the Premeira Liga 11 times: 1961, '63, '64, '65, '67, '68, '69, '71, '72, '73 and '75; and the Taça de Portugal 5 times: 1962, '64, '69, '70 and '72. In other words, they "did The Double" twice, in 1964 and '72. He scored 638 goals in 614 official matches for Benfica. In 1965, he was awarded the Ballon d'Or (Golden Ball) for world player of the year. He became known as O Rei (The King), the Black Pearl and the Black Panther. I don't know how Portuguese natives treated black people on the soil of the empire's seat, but he remained beloved in Portugal throughout his life. (Pelé was also nicknamed O Rei and the Black Pearl.)
In 1966, Portugal had its best-ever performance in the World Cup, 3rd place, including Eusébio's 4 goals against North Korea in the Quarterfinal, turning a 3-0 deficit into a 5-3 win.

At that point, with Portugal's success in Europe, its African colonies, the Portuguese influence in Brazil making Benfica very popular there, and with Asian fans watching him stun North Korea, he was probably the most famous soccer player in the world aside from Brazil's Pelé and England stars Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton.
Captains Eusébio of Portugal and Bobby Moore of England
meet before the Semifinal of the 1966 World Cup
at the old Wembley Stadium in London.
Note Eusébio wearing Number 13. It wasn't bad luck for him.

In 1975, 33 years old, he did what so many aging soccer players were doing, and would do, and continue to do today: He came to North America to make a lot of money. He played in the original North American Soccer League. In 1975, he played for the Boston Minutemen, who played their home games at Boston University's Nickerson Field. In 1976, he played for Toronto Metros-Croatia (a merger of the Toronto Metros and Toronto Croatia), at the University of Toronto's Varsity Stadium, and they won the NASL title.

In 1977, he played for the Las Vegas Quicksilvers, at Sam Boyd Stadium, home of UNLV. But he was 35, and dealing with constant pain and medical treatment on his knees. He scored only 2 goals. In 1978, he signed with the New Jersey Americans of the American Soccer League, who played their home games at Memorial Stadium in New Brunswick, Middlesex County. As a native of East Brunswick, I've seen many sporting events at that complex: Football, soccer, baseball. But I didn't know Eusébio played at Memorial Stadium until 2011 -- 33 years later. In 1979, he played with the Buffalo Stallions of the Major Indoor Soccer League, and then he retired, to work for Portugal's national team.

In 1965, Eusébio married Flora Claudina Burheim. They remained married for 38 years, 'til death did they part, and had 2 daughters, Carla and Sandra. Although he visited Mozambique many times, he remained a resident of Lisbon throughout his adult life.

His awards were numerous. He was named to the FIFA 100 in 2004, and when UEFA named the "Golden Players" for each member nation in 2003, he was named Portugal's Golden Player. He was given the Order of Prince Henry, Portugal's equivalent of a knighthood. A statue of him was erected outside Benfica's new Estadio da Luz (Stadium of Light), and at Gillette Stadium in the Boston suburb of Foxboro, Massachusetts -- a reflection not just of his play for the Boston Minutemen, but of the large Portuguese community in New England. I wonder how many American football fans go to Foxboro, and see his statue, and haven't heard of him, or have but can't figure out why it's there. (The New England Revolution are owned by Patriots owner Bob Kraft.)
Eusebio and his statue in Foxboro

In 2008, Benfica began hosting the Eusébio Cup at Estadio da Luz. Until his recent illness, Eusébio presented the trophy to the winning team: Benfica themselves in 2009, 2011 and 2012; Internazionale Milano in 2008; London's Tottenham Hotspur in 2010; and Brazil's São Paulo in 2013.

Eusébio had been weakened by heart trouble the last few years, and died on January 5, 2014. he was just short of turning 72. The tributes have been overwhelming.
Outside Estadio da Luz

No less a personage than Alfredo Di Stéfano, the great Real Madrid star of the 1950s and '60s, said, "For me, Eusébio will always be the best player of all time." That's a difficult statement to make about a player who didn't win the World Cup -- but then, Di Stéfano didn't, either. Nor did Johan Cruijff. Nor, yet, have Cristiano Ronaldo, the greatest Portuguese player since Eusébio, or Lionel Messi. And no one questions their places in the conversation about "the greatest players of all time."

Bobby Charlton of England and Manchester United won it, and he said, "Without doubt, Eusébio was one of the finest players I ever had the privilege to play against... I met him on numerous occasions after our playing careers had finished and he always represented both his club and his country in exemplary fashion." Franz Beckenbauer of West Germany and Bayern Munich won it, and he said, "One of the greatest football players ever has passed away. My friend Eusébio died last night. My thoughts are with his family." 

And the President of Mozambique, Armando Gebuza, said of his homeland's greatest son, "He's a figure who has contributed to the deep and rich history of Mozambique. Eusébio came here from time to time. He always maintained a link with Mozambique. He's a very well-known and respected figure in our country."

Eusébio is a very well-known and respected figure in most countries. Yet most Americans don't know about him. They should. He was an all-time sports legend on this planet. And he was a man worthy of his accolades. On and off the field, he was a hero.

UPDATE: His Benfica and Portugal teammate Mário Coluna died on February 25, 2014, just 51 days later. He was 78, and, unlike Eusébio, had returned to Mozambique to live, and even served as its Minister of Sport.

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