Steve Garvey's reliability forgotten

First baseman deserved better when it came to consideration for Hall of Fame

Originally Published: December 17, 2012
By Steve Wulf | ESPN The Magazine

Steve GarveyFocus on Sport/Getty ImagesSteve Garvey had 200 or more hits six times (1974-76 and 1978-80) during his 19-year career.
The Hall of Fame would have no trouble writing the plaque:

HOLDS NATIONAL LEAGUE RECORD FOR CONSECUTIVE
GAMES PLAYED (1,201). VOTED THE 1974 NL MVP
AND SELECTED TO THE ALL-STAR GAME 10 TIMES.
HAD AS MANY AS 200 HITS IN A SEASON SIX TIMES AND
MORE THAN 100 RBIS IN FIVE SEASONS. BATTED .338
IN 11 POSTSEASON SERIES AND .417 IN THE 1981
WORLD SERIES, WHEN HIS DODGERS BEAT THE YANKEES
IN SIX GAMES. A FOUR-TIME GOLD GLOVE WINNER, HE
ONCE HELD THE RECORD FOR MOST CONSECUTIVE GAMES
AT 1B WITHOUT AN ERROR (193).

The problem with Steve Garvey, though, is that he's not going to Cooperstown anytime soon, at least not as a member of baseball's most exclusive and maddeningly incomplete fraternity. "I don't think I was imagining it," said George Brett, who is in the club. "I know I read a lot of stories about 'future Hall of Famer' Steve Garvey."

For a lot of us who saw him on a regular basis, Garvey was a clutch hitter who could hit for average or power, depending on what the Dodgers needed; an excellent fielder, albeit with an unpredictable arm; and a paragon who played the game the right way and treated people with consideration. He single-handedly carried his second team, the Padres, into the 1984 World Series -- when "The Natural" was shown on a plane from Chicago to San Diego for the start of the Series, the passengers chanted, "Gar-vey! Gar-vey!" at the climax.

In Bill James' seminal book on the Hall of Fame, "The Politics of Glory," first published in 1995, he used a point system called the Hall of Fame Monitor to predict which current and recently retired players would be voted in by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. He had Garvey going into the Hall in 1997, along with Phil Niekro. But Garvey would never finish higher than fourth (1996), or come close to the 75 percent of the vote needed for induction (a high of 42.6 percent in '95), even though he did outpoll future HOFers Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter and Bert Blyleven in some years. When Garvey finally fell off the ballot in 2007 after the maximum 15 years, he was 11th in the voting.

"To be honest, I am disappointed," Garvey said. "I always thought of my career as a body of work and not just about numbers."

Garvey is not the only player from that era to get short shrift. Among the others James predicted would make it via the writers' vote were Al Oliver, Dave Parker, Jim Kaat, Ted Simmons, Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly, Jack Morris, Lee Smith, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker.

What happened to Garvey is partly schadenfreude: Writers turned on him for a complicated personal life that smudged an image so golden that he once had a middle school named after him. But he's also one of the great players from that period who have been hurt by the inflation of statistics fueled by the increasing use of PEDs, which happened to coincide with the HOF eligibility for the earlier era. And, as Garvey points out, "That was also a period when the veteran writers who relied on what they saw gave way to younger writers who focused on statistics."

The irony, of course, is that the writers are now punishing the players whose numbers they feel were artificially bolstered. Wouldn't it be nice if they could channel their disillusionment into a more positive re-examination of those who have been relegated to the scrap heap?

Like Garvey, Dave Parker will have to wait until the veterans committee gets around to sifting through players of the modern era, looking for gold. Not to diminish Jim Rice, but as someone who covered Parker and Rice in their primes, I can testify that Parker was the superior player in almost every regard.

"I went to Cooperstown for Barry Larkin's induction last year," said Parker, who took Larkin under his wing in Cincinnati. "It would've been nice to have gone as a fellow Hall of Famer. I think I belong there. Let's put it this way -- on almost every team I played, I was 'The Guy' or one of them. The system needs to be changed."

That won't happen anytime soon. But minds can be changed: How else did Bert Blyleven go from 14.1 percent in his second year of eligibility to 79.7 percent in his 14th year? Voters need to take a closer look at players they may have bypassed because they didn't see them. And just as they agonize over what the "Valuable" means in Most Valuable Player, they need to think about what the "Fame" in Hall of Fame really means. (Uh, 10 All-Star Games is a pretty good definition.)

"I know voters are worried about steroids this year," Garvey said. "I would much rather they think about the shot of adrenaline that a few more players would give the Hall of Fame."

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Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer

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