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Mudville: May 29, 2024 2:02 am PDT

Bronze Ball

BY KEVIN KERNAN

When you are welcomed to Cooperstown as a Hall of Famer, a part of you lives forever in bronze. Never forget that. This is not just an election by the Baseball Writers Association of America, this is a Bronze Baseball Coronation.

Only one percent of the players who have ever made it to the major leagues make it to Cooperstown and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Enter the arched entryway of the Plaque Gallery, and there are the marble columns, oak walls and beautiful bronze plaques. Three new members were elected by the BBWAA on Tuesday night to the Hall of Fame: third baseman Adrián Beltré, catcher Joe Mauer and first baseman Todd Helton. They will get their bronze plaques on July 21 at the Induction Ceremony. The announcement was made on MLB Network by my friend Hall of Fame president Josh Rawitch.

Each of the players got The Call from Jack O’Connell from the BBWAA, a call players dream about. This is a celebration.

I’m happy to say that as a longtime BBWAA member I voted for all three, so I did my part. The great thing about the classes now in front of us on the ballot is that I covered all these players for years, and have spoken to all of them so when I vote I not only have the numbers, I have seen the results of their talents first-hand. I know what they meant to their teams on the field – and I know their mindsets.

It was nice to hear Helton tell the story of the great advice Tony Gwynn gave him as a young hitter. No one knew hitting like Tony and he loved to see young hitters develop. I’ve heard Tony give this advice many times and I always passed it along to the players I coached through the years and to my kids.

“Look at the logo on the pitcher’s cap as you get set in the box. Then when he gets into his windup slide your eyes to the release point, think of it as a framing of a picture. Then just follow the baseball from that point forward.’’

Tony Gwynn – HOF Class of 2007 with Cal Ripken, what a weekend that was in Cooperstown – passed away in 2014 but a part of him remains in that advice he gave to Helton and you can be sure that Helton will again acknowledge Gwynn over Hall of Fame Weekend.

Again, this is a celebration.

Having said that, let’s get this out of the way. I am not happy that Gary Sheffield did not make the 75 percent threshold that is needed to get your bronze plaque, but I sincerely believe that Sheffield will get there one day through the veterans committee, just as his buddy Fred McGriff was elected last year by the veterans committee and just like his former manager Jim Leyland was elected as part of the Class of 2024.

I covered McGriff and Sheffield on an everyday basis with the Padres during my time in San Diego and then watched them go to other teams to have success as well when the Padres, repeating a forever theme of the franchise, sold off their talented players.

Sheffield had the quickest bat I have ever seen.

With such staunch supporters as McGriff and Leyland, who both know Sheffield is a Hall of Fame player, Sheffield’s day will come. Leyland was Sheffield’s manager with the Marlins in 1997 when they won the World Series and Gary Sheffield carried that team.

All three of those players made the game fun and good for them. Beltré was a late bloomer but once he realized in his own words, “It’s just a game, not a business,’’ he blossomed as a player.

There is just one number I want to throw at your because I don’t want this to become a math class like so many other Hall of Fame stories.

Of all the hitters in the 500 home run club – 28 of them –    it is Gary Sheffield who has the least amount of strikeouts as a right-handed hitter and is third overall in that department. Only Ted Williams and Mel Ott, both left-handed batters, struck out fewer times than Gary Sheffield while hitting 500 home runs. Sheffield never struck out more than 83 times in a season and that happened in his 21st season when he was 39 years old.

Here are the raw numbers and really these are the only numbers you need to understand to see that Sheffield is a Hall of Famer. You can cut through all the other BS and consider this: Ted Williams struck out 709 times and lashed 521 home runs. Mel Ott struck out 896 times and hit 511 home runs and then comes Sheffield with 1,171 strikeouts over his 22-year career and 509 home runs.

End of story. His 10-year run on the BBWAA ballot is over now and his Hall of Fame fate is squarely in hand of others, his peers.

I remember sitting at breakfast with Sheffield one day after his playing career ended and talking about his Hall of Fame future. He wasn’t overly concerned. He knew he belonged. I knew he belonged. I’m more sure of that now than ever but some writers didn’t see it that way – and there were enough of those writers to keep him out with Sheffield getting 63.9 percent of the vote. Billy Wagner, another player I voted for, missed by just five votes, gathering 73.8 percent of the vote. He should make it next year when the only Sure Thing being a first-year addition to the ballot will be the Great Ichiro. He is a lock. More on Ichiro Suzuki in a bit, here at Baseball or Bust.

The Hall of Fame should be a celebration and that’s why it is important to talk about the three players who made it to Bronze Ball; I am not going to linger on players who should be in the Hall of Fame but for one reason or another have not gotten the call.

Beltré got 95.1 percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot. Mauer, who made it on his first year on the ballot as well, made it by four votes and then there was Helton, in his sixth year, who got 79.7 percent. In all, there were 385 voters, so 289 yes votes marked the magic number. Mauer got 293, Helton got 307 and Beltré led the field with 366.

Again, I am honored to have one of those 385 votes. It’s a small club.

All three of those players made the game fun and good for them. Beltré was a late bloomer but once he realized in his own words, “It’s just a game, not a business,’’ he blossomed as a player.

Again, this is a celebration, not a bitch session. I will leave that to others. I said my thoughts on Sheffield and gave you a key number to digest and will move on. Too often the entire Hall of Famer conversation is not a conversation at all and just yelling. I’m tired of it. Like I always say, this is my vote, I do my homework, and I vote my conscious and move on to the next ballot. Voters can only vote for 10.

I was recently on a radio show explaining my vote and a young sportswriter joined the show, he seemed to be a smart guy and was respectful. After I explained my ballot, voting for the maximum 10 players, he started going through his ballot, he didn’t have a vote, he was just naming players he would have voted for if he had a vote.

I was listening – and remember what I always say about being a good writer, you have to listen – and suddenly I noticed he was naming 12 players and was going to name more. I said, “Hold up, that’s 12 you’ve named, we can only vote 10.’’

His response was something along the lines: “Well, this is who I think should make it so I am going more than 10.’’

It doesn’t work that way. You can’t make your own rules, you have to abide by the rules in place. It may not be always what you prefer, especially this younger generation, but that’s the way it goes. It’s called life.

Besides their talents, the three new Hall of Famers loved playing the game, and were all humble individuals. Helton told his Gwynn story. Mauer talked about growing up a Twins fan in the Twins’ backyard and his love for Kirby Puckett and Paul Molitor, two Twins Hall of Famers. All were surrounded by family. I also found it interesting that Mauer and Helton excelled in other sports. Mauer was a shooting guard in basketball, and a quarterback who could have played at Florida State but chose baseball as his career and chose to be the quarterback of a baseball team, the catcher. Helton, of course, was a quarterback at Tennessee and he had his Tennesee football helmet on the shelf behind him in his office as he talked.

Beltré grew up in the Dominican Republic and was baseball 24/7 but Mauer and Helton went in the multiple sports direction. There are many different roads that lead to the Hall of Fame, but most of all you have to love the game at its core and understand you must work to get better and better but you also, and I can’t stress this enough, you also have to have fun playing baseball. Nobody seemed to have more fun that Beltré and that rang true with the voters who gave him that 95.1 percent. In the Beltré celebration also was super-agent Scott Boras. Mauer talked about how much this award means and that his father and grandfather, who both have passed, his father within the last year, meant so much to him and their love of the game.

The other thing I want to point out about Mauer was the pure sweetness of his swing. It was short and to the ball, no fancy tricks, the definition of a classic left-handed swing. All three of these guys put up the numbers and deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. All three will represent baseball in a positive way and young players can look up to them.

If you are a young player you can help yourself by emulating all three. Beltré got so much better with time and did not make his first All-Star team until he was 31 years old. He finished his career with 3,166 hits, 477 home runs and 636 doubles. Persistence matters.

Batting average matters too, no matter what the Nerds say.

Joe Mauer hit .306 and from 2004 to 2013, .323. Todd Helton hit .316 over his 17-year career. It’s a beautiful thing.

Now a brief word on Ichiro, as I promised.

Ichiro is a HOF lock because he finished with 3,089 hits and he didn’t start playing in the major leagues until he was 27. He should be a unanimous choice. I was fortunate enough to build a relationship with Ichiro because of his days with Yankees from 2012-14. For some reason Ichiro liked me and I think it was because I was so inquisitive about his hitting style and also would ask him questions about how he kept his equipment, bats and gloves, in such pristine condition. Ichiro had a separate travel case, a humidor basically, for his gloves. And, by the way, Ichiro speaks wonderful English and is very funny. He also saw I had a good relationship with Derek Jeter and because of my time with Tony Gwynn, eight batting titles for T-Gwynn, I think all that helped pave the way for me with Ichiro.

In fact, I happened to be in Jupiter during the first day of spring training when Ichiro joined the Marlins in 2015 after his time with the Yankees. And this is a true story. On that first day, with a long line of Japanese writers on the sidewalk outside the clubhouse waiting for Ichiro to show up, when Ichiro did arrive, he made a beeline directly to me and came over to give me a hug.

From that moment on the Japanese media, always a super courteous bunch, treated me with even more respect.

Ichiro loved baseball. And you know what else Ichiro loved? He loved going to Cooperstown on his own, even in the winter, and roam the halls and he especially loved the Plaque Gallery. He always told me what a sacred place it was and he would just walk around and look at all the plaques. I would tell him about what the different ceremonies were like on Induction Weekend because he wanted to hear about all the inductees.

Next year, Ichiro’s Bronze Ball time will come.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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