Every time I go through a few stacks of loose cards, more and more old cards of Hall of Famers seem to pop up. It’s weird. Back in the mid-Nineties, these were the geezers either just retiring or getting ready to call it quits. Guys like George Brett, Paul Molitor, Nolan Ryan and Tony Gwynn, Andre Dawson, Cal Ripken and Dale Murphy. You wanted their card, sure, but it was obvious that the extended youth movement could only occur with their collective exit.
Well, it appears the joke was on us. Hideo Nomo? While it’s unlikely that he’s selling used cars somewhere or greeting guests on a riverboat casino, he sure as hell isn’t wending his way to the Hall of Fame. Neither is any guy named Jason Bere, Jeffrey Hammonds or Raul Mondesi. And what of those old timers? Now they’re baseball immortals. Regular cards of these guys used to be cheap (except Hobby Gods Ripken and Ryan), and now that they’re frozen in carbonite in Cooperstown, most rookie and early card prices have jumped accordingly.
Wait a minute… Dale Murphy’s not in the Hall of Fame. And neither is Andre Dawson. You know, it’s funny: I always just assumed that guys like Dawson and Murphy would waltz into the Hall. In fact, there’s a whole gang of old players who seem poised on the precipice of enshrinement (or at least eventual Veteran’s Committee acceptance), but whose denial wouldn’t surprise me.
From these same few loose stacks I pulled cards of twenty-nine ex-players who might fit this description:
Guys Who Once Had a Shot, However Minor, But Probably Not Anymore
Steve Garvey, Dave Parker
Vince Coleman, Dwight Gooden
Don Mattingly, Andy Van Slyke
Ron Gant, Tim Raines
Frank Viola, Mark McGwire
Jose Canseco, Lance Parrish
Fernando Valenzuela, Will Clark
Juan Gonzalez, Jack McDowell
Guys Who Will Probably Be Voted in By the Veterans’ Committee
Orel Hershiser, Jim Rice
Bert Blyleven, Lee Smith
David Cone, Dale Murphy
Guys Who Will Make It In
Guys I’m On The Fence About
Andres Galarraga, Joe Carter
Dave Stewart, Bernie Williams
Also, I only found six guys who’ve retired in the last few years who I would say are a lock for the Hall: Roberto Alomar, Jeff Bagwell, Rickey Henderson, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker (you know, I’m not entirely sure that Walker’s retired). And yet, if the case of Jim Rice has proven anything, it’s that you can be one of the game’s biggest stars, put up mind-blowing stats for your career (or at least three-fourths of your career) and still be denied entry, year after year.
So what about their cards? And really, by ‘cards’ I mean only those issued during the retired player’s active playing days. Being enshrined in Cooperstown can do wonders for the value of a player’s cards (just ask Bruce Sutter). But what about those players who don’t quite make it? It would follow that their cards aren’t really worth very much, if anything at all. That’s the problem with speculating in baseball cards: there aren’t many things an ex-player can do to validate his career. If a player falls just short of enshrinement, all the great stats in the world don’t really matter.
I really hate to be one for ‘all or nothing’ type arguments. I tend to think that there’s a large gulf of gray area in between the poles in any argument. But when it comes to value in baseball cards, there’s just no way that a card of Sam McDowell will ever be worth as much as a Bob Gibson, or a Jack McDowell as much as a Roger Clemens. Quite simply, for all the dominance of Sam and Jack on the mound, neither one is a Hall of Famer and neither one is ever likely to be a Hall of Famer. OK, I can think of one instance where it doesn’t matter if the guy’s in the Hall: Gil Hodges. Still, I’d bet you that if he were in, his cards would be worth more than they are.
Next time you’re scanning the box scores, reading the paper or attending a card show, watch the guys whose careers are drawing to a close. Are they still dominating, or are they coasting into retirement? I can think of maybe a handful of active players towards the ends of their careers who have a legitimate Hall of Fame shot:
Mike Piazza, John Smoltz
Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux
Ken Griffey, Jr., Frank Thomas
Craig Biggio, Roger Clemens
Barry Bonds deserves his own category, because while he truly dominated in ways that McGwire and Sosa could only dream about, what he does and how he handles himself in the next six to eight years will determine where he—and his cards—will spend eternity.