If you want to stand out, do something brilliantly. One thing. Don’t try to do too many things, and most importantly, whatever you do, don’t be really good at many things. Have high peaks and be dramatic. Steady and consistent is the last thing you want to be.
That’s the problem with Alan Trammell and the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The longtime Tigers’ shortstop was dependable and damned good for two decades. He was rarely eye-popping. For that transgression he’s fallen far shy of the required votes to earn election to the Hall. He probably never will get in via the sportswriters. Results from the most recent election will be revealed a week from today.
There are alternate paths to baseball immortality. There’s the superstar route, the one blazed by Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Tom Seaver: players so great they obviously transcend their contemporaries. Statues are built for these guys, babies are named for them, and streets are renamed in their honor. They are routinely considered the best player all-time at their position.
Then there are the meteor stars, fellas like Hank Greenberg, Dizzy Dean, Sandy Koufax, Jim Rice, and Kirby Puckett. They didn’t reach statistical milestones and their careers or spheres of influence were relatively short, but they did big things when they were at their peaks. They factor heavily in the history of baseball in their eras, and they may have been considered the best players in the game or at least at their position, even if only for a brief time.
The next group is what I call the longevity stars: Sam Rice, Rabbit Maranville, Tony Perez, Don Sutton, and Bert Blyleven. They were never considered greats, and in fact may have not been the best players on their teams, but they played a long time and reached big milestones or just accumulated lots of honors. They were usually one of the top players at their position for a long time.
An interesting group are the one dimensionals. These are players like King Kelly, Rick Ferrell, Ralph Kiner, Bill Mazeroski, and Ozzie Smith. They did one thing very, very well, usually defense, though in rare cases (as with Kelly for baserunning and Kiner for hitting home runs) it was something else. These players can squeak into the Hall of Fame (Mazeroski is one of the most controversial inductees) or get voted in by large margins (Ozzie), but they are pretty much judged on one aspect of the game.
To be comprehensive, we’d need to include a fifth group of Hall of Famers, those who are idiosyncratic selections. They really don’t belong, but they were elected for bizarre reasons, maybe because they were famous for a while or made famous through legend, such as Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance. We could also include Herb Pennock and Catfish Hunter, pitchers who gained notoriety based on their winning records but who mostly just benefited from being on really good teams. This group of players are generally considered the least qualified in the Hall of Fame and including them in any discussion of who should be in or out is basically pointless.
Where does Trammell fit in? Even his most passionate supporters must admit he wasn’t a superstar, that he’s not one of the greatest to play the shortstop position. But he was one of the best shortstops in baseball for probably 15 years. He obviously wasn’t meteoric, he was a fixture in Motown for two decades. But though he played for 20 seasons, he didn’t reach major career statistical milestones. He failed to reach 3,000 hits (he didn’t even make 2,400). He also didn’t have a fantastic peak stretch where he dominated his position. In his best season, 1987, he did some amazing things for a shortstop, but he was robbed of the MVP Award because the voters are in love with runs batted in.
Trammell was really good at lots of things for a long time. He played the shortstop position so well that he was nearly always positioned perfectly. As a result, he didn’t make a lot of diving plays or leaping catches. His range was very good and his arm was above average and extremely accurate. He was fast – not really fast – but fast enough and smart enough as a baserunner to be successful on almost 70% of his stolen base attempts for his career. He hit for a high average and made good contact, and he was a very good hit-and-run man. Before he started to hit the ball with more authority, in his first few seasons in the big leagues, he was one of the best sacrifice bunters in the game. He performed well as a #2 hitter, in the #3 spot, and at cleanup. After he added some bulk in his fifth season, he could drive the ball to all fields. He was not a punch-and-judy middle infielder – he was a dangerous batter. Trammell was a team leader, and as Sparky Anderson often said, he was “the best overall athlete” on the Tigers when they posted the second-best record in baseball during the 1980s. In the 1984 World Series, Trammell shined, leading both teams in batting and hits, while smacking a pair of two-run homers in Game Four. He hit over .400 over the last five weeks of the 1987 season, leading the Tigs past the Blue Jays to win the division title.
Like Al Kaline, Trammell had no glaring weaknesses in his game. But unlike Kaline, Trammell failed to to reach 3,000 hits. Just about every season, Tram missed 2-3 weeks or so with nagging injuries. That missed time cost him about 400 games and about 420 hits.
Of course he didn’t play those games, so that must be factored, but that’s one of the reasons WHY the baseball writers view him the way they do. They aren’t sure where to put him. He played a long time but he didn’t reach nice round-number type milestones. He was very good and had some great seasons, but he wasn’t an all-time great. He didn’t do ONE thing very well. But the stat-minded fans who take pleasure in looking at the game through an abacus, see six seasons with a WAR above 5, and a career WAR of 70.3, one of the ten best all-time for players at his position, and they throw their Hall of Fame support to Trammell. Traditional baseball experts point out that Trammell was one of the 2-3 best shortstops in the league from 1980 until the mid-1990s, that no good baseball man would have ever traded Trammell straight up for Ozzie Smith. His OPS+ (on-base percentage and slugging percentage adjusted to the era and ballpark he played in) is 110, just two points below that of Cal Ripken Jr.
But it’s unlikely that Trammell will get much more than 25-30% support in the Hall of Fame election this year, the results of which will be announced on January 8th.
Trammell won’t be joining Ozzie Smith, Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto, or Luis Aparicio in the Hall of Fame, shortstops who were not his equal.
For Trammell, maybe the knowledge that he was considered very good is good enough. Maybe the comfort lies in knowing he was a man who didn’t have a glaring weakness on the diamond.