Don Mattingly’s baseball life was elevated last week when he won the National League Manager of the Year award to join Don Baylor, Kirk Gibson, Frank Robinson and Joe Torre as the only men to win both Manager of the Year and MVP awards.
“Baseball life” was purposefully used, because for the last quarter of a century I have recommended that the various committees that judge candidates after they leave the standard Hall of Fame ballot should be thinking of the whole baseball life. The standard group that votes (of which I am a member) are charged with judging just a playing career and, anyway, often lack the information that will come post career and in a full baseball life.
I wrote about this first in 1996, suggesting that if Joe Torre’s Yankees were to win the World Series that year (which they did) that when he passed in front of the then-Veterans Committee, they should take his cumulative career into account. Torre was a borderline Hall of Fame player who by 1996 was in the 14th of the then maximum 15 years on the regular ballot, and it was obvious that he was never getting the votes to enter that way.
To me, this is why Gil Hodges is such a no-brainer Hall of Famer. His stats are similar to Torre’s as a player, plus as manager of the 1969 Mets Hodges steered one of the most improbable, iconoclastic champions of all time. His full “baseball life” deserves recognition in Cooperstown.
This is how Mattingly, who fell off the regular ballot in 2015, and Dusty Baker, who was only on the regular ballot one year in 1992, can gain a second look. In 2020, they both improved their full résumés — their baseball lives.
Maybe both need a championship as a manager to get to Cooperstown. Torre ultimately won four and was selected. The expectation is that Bruce Bochy, who won three with the Giants, will almost certainly get in, though you may note his career .497 winning percentage is the same as that of Mattingly.
The Today’s Game Era Committee (an offspring of the Veterans Committee) is, among other things, charged with looking at “the overall contribution to the game” of candidates, though it still considers an individual in “the role in which they were most prominent.” Again, to me, toss that out and just consider the full baseball life regardless of prominence.
I hate to bring up Harold Baines, because he is often criticized for being in the Hall of Fame, and it is not like he was campaigning and — regardless of where you stand on his enshrinement — he was a terrific player. But the 16-member Today’s Game Era Committee elected Baines in December 2018, likely with strong backroom maneuvering by committee members and former White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and manager Tony La Russa (whatever happened to those kids?).
But Baines had been through the regular Hall voting that judged him as a player and never received more than 6.1 percent of the vote (75 percent is needed for election). And he had not done anything post-career to change his narrative. These committees should be the safety net of perspective for those whose baseball lives keep becoming more impressive. How is the totality of Baines’ baseball life, for example, greater than that of Hodges?
Whose baseball life would you rather have — Mattingly’s or Baines’?
Baines was probably never one of the 10 best players in any season of his career. Mattingly was arguably the best player in the majors for about three years as a Yankee. His career totals, even with back issues that shortened his prime, stand with those of Torre. As a manager, he won three division titles with the Dodgers and just led the Marlins to their first postseason berth since 2003 and a first-round win over the Cubs. Again, it is going to take more, but Mattingly’s Hall candidacy for a baseball life is better now than even two months ago.
As for Baker, it is forgotten to time just how good a player he was. Baker won a Gold Glove, finished fourth and seventh for an MVP (Baines’ highest finish, as an example, was ninth) and went to two All-Star Games. His 116 OPS-plus is the same as Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar and Barry Larkin.
Baker was a similar, but better, player than Lou Piniella, and their managing careers have much in common, too — success in multiple places. Piniella managed 23 years with five teams going 1,835-1,713, winning six division titles, making the playoffs seven times, winning the pennant and World Series once. Baker has managed 23 years with five teams going 1,892-1,667, winning seven division titles, 10 playoff appearances and one pennant, but not that elusive title.
Piniella, in the committee process that led to Baines’ election, finished one vote shy of his own induction and probably be up for a vote again in December 2022. So when Baker is done managing, perhaps he will have that shot. Obviously, a title would improve the chances. But the full baseball life of Baker (15th all-time in manager wins) stands with that of Piniella (16th all-time in manager wins).
And Baker’s candidacy — like Mattingly’s — only improved in 2020. Yes, there were expanded playoffs and the Astros were under .500. Still, Baker became the first manager ever to lead five different organizations to the postseason. After so much playoff heartache, Baker guided the Astros through two rounds and nearly came all the way back from a three-games-to-none deficit in the ALCS before losing in Game 7 to the Rays.
But it went beyond that. Baker’s temperament and status in the game helped the Astros navigate through the season after it was revealed that they stole signs illegally in 2017-18.
The team obviously was helped by the absence of hostile crowds in the pandemic season, but by Baker, too. Though the Astros are hated, Baker might just be the most beloved figure in the game. He owns a mystic place in the sport now at 71 as sage and storyteller, as mentor and father figure, as eclectic and cool.
The scope of his half-century-plus career includes being on deck when Hank Aaron hit No. 715, managing Barry Bonds when he hit No. 71 and being a wise voice within a 60-game season.
It is not done — Baker is still managing the Astros — but it has been one extraordinary baseball life.
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