Fins at 50: Zach Thomas reflects on his Miami Dolphins career
Welcome to Hall of Fame season, where the gatekeepers to Canton, Ohio, and Cooperstown, New York, are a bunch of ... of journalists!
Hey, nobody said life was fair, player.
So the National Baseball Hall of Fame just released it 35-man ballot for 2019 induction, with some 450 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (me among them) set to ponder and vote. And the Pro Football Hall of Fame just narrowed to a list of 25 semifinalists for its Class of ‘19, with a select 48 writers and broadcasters from across the league ready to pass judgment. Baseball will reveal its next Chosen Ones in January and football in early February.
First, we handicap the candidacies of the eight former players with notable Miami/South Florida ties who made it this far, and then break down the overall favorites and long shots in each sport:
THE MIAMI GUYS
Handicapping the chances of Hall election for the seven eligible players (five football, two baseball) with strong South Florida ties:
1. Ed Reed, safety (Hurricanes, 1998-01) — 100 percent: Bet your savings, your boat, your wife and your life that the first-time eligible Reed is an instant inductee, as longtime running mate Ray Lewis was a year earlier. (We can only hope Ed’s acceptance speech is a tad shorter than Ray’s). Reed was a five-time All-Pro who made nine Pro Bowls and had 64 interceptions, seven returned for TDs. His 1,590 interception return yards rank No.1 all time. My vote: Yes, of course.
2. Zach Thomas, linebacker (Dolphins, 1996-07) — 55 percent: This might be wishful thinking. I’ve unabashedly championed Zach’s cause for years, at last with apparent dividends. This is his first time advancing among the 25 semifinalists. Zach’s career is so similar to that of Brian Urlacher, a first-ballot inductee last year. I believe Hall voters will fully admit they overlooked Thomas and not make him wait any longer, but that it’s far from a lock. My vote: A loud yes.
3. Edgerrin James, running back (Hurricanes, 1996-98) — 50 percent: James is 13th all time in rushing, just behind Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett, Jim Brown and Marshall Faulk, and just ahead of Canton guys Marcus Allen, Franco Harris and Thurman Thomas. That’s great company. James might not be the lock that current Dolphin and fellow ex-Cane Frank Gore is, but he isn’t far behind. My vote: Yes.
4. Jimmy Johnson, coach (Hurricanes 1984-88, Dolphins 1996-99) — 40 percent: J.J. was a two-time Cowboys Super Bowl champion (that’s one more ring than Hall of Famer John Madden won) and an under-regarded Dolphins success, with three playoff appearances and great drafting. There is odd resistance, though. Is Jerry Jones lobbying against him behind the scenes? My vote: Yes.
5. Isaac Bruce, receiver (Fort Lauderdale; Dillard High, 1989-91) — 25 percent: Bruce is fifth all time in receiving yards, 13th in catches and 12th in TD receptions. It’s harder for wideouts to get in, though. (Ask Duper and Clayton). Bruce made a modest four Pro Bowls and sometimes was seen as not even the best WR on his own team, overshadowed by Torry Holt. My vote: Close, but no.
6. Steve Hutchinson, guard (Coral Spring High, 1994-97) -- 20 percent: Hutchinson has made it to 25 semifinalists both years eligible, suggesting he’s on the broad radar. Could sneak in a year when he’s one of only a couple offensive linemen. My vote: No. Not yet.
7. Gary Sheffield, outfielder (Marlins, 1993-98) — 10 percent: He had 509 home runs, 1,676 RBI, a .292 average and nine all-star appearances. He gets my vote. But I don;t have much company. Sheffield last year polled a mere 11.1 percent, a realistically hopeless distance from the 75% needed for Cooperstown. My vote: Close, but yes.
8. Juan Pierre, outfielder (Marlins, 2003-05, ‘13) — 1 percent: And I’m being generous. Pierre had a really nice career (.295, four times 200 hits, top 20 in stolen bases), but nothing Cooperstown will deign to favor. In his first time on the ballot, it’s dubious if Pierre will even draw the 5% needed to be back on it the following year. My vote: Sorry, Juan.
FOOTBALL AT LARGE
The 25 semifinalists include only three men eligible for the frst time and all three — Reed, tight end Tony Gonzalez and cornerback Champ Bailey — should get in as first-ballot guys. Reed and Gonzalez are no-doubt, mortal locks. Bailey isn’t on that same echelon, but I would bet on him.
Thomas and coach Tom Flores are in the final 25 for the first time.
No returning eligibles should be seen as a lock, although it could finally be the year for tackle Tony Boselli, or perhaps a coach such as revolutionary pass guru Don Coryell.
Canton rules mandate that between four and eight be inducted every year. With only Reed and Gonzalez among certainties or 2019, there will be a fairly wide window open for borderline guys to sneak in. That’s one reason why this could be Thomas’ year, and why Edgerrin James, to me, has his best shot yet.
Here’s how tough this winnowing process is. From an original 102 nominees for ‘19 induction, those failing to make the cut to 25 included former Dolphins Richmond Webb and Troy Vincent and ex-Canes Clinton Portis and Russell Maryland.
Only 46 selectors vote for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, not enough. The 25 remaining contenders will be pared to 15 finalists on Jan. 3, with the final vote (requiring 80 percent for induction) Feb. 2 during Super Bowl Week in Atlanta.
BASEBALL AT LARGE
There are 35 men on the new ballot for Cooperstown — including a big 20 first-timers — and only those appearing on at least 75 percent of all ballots cast will be announced in January as the Class of 2019 for summer induction.
Only one player, former Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, should be considered a 100 percent certainty on a par with football’s Reed and Gonzalez.
Edgar Martinez might a good bet because he came closest of those who missed last year at 70.4 percent. Having been a designated hitter has made his climb steeper, but he should get a bounce from sentimental votes since he is appearing for his 10th and final chance shot on the ballot. (The same last-chance factor helped push Tim Raines into Cooperstown a year ago).
The case for former pitcher Roy Halladay, new to the ballot, also gets an emotional lift from his having tragically died in a please crash last November. Not sure Halladay would have been a first-ballot guy, but think he will be now.
Others with a decent chance who I seeing falling short include Mike Mussina, Todd Helton and Andy Pettitte.
The Steroid Guys are always a wild card. Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds both were in the 56-57% vote range last year, and I think both will get in within the next few years. Around 90 percent of first-time voters voted for them last year; resistance is slowly waning. But would be surprised if they made the big leap this year.
There typically are 400 to 450 BBWAA votes cast every year, my own included. I’ll share my complete ballot in December when it is done.
Nobody has ever been elected with 100 percent. Not Babe Ruth. Nobody. It isn’t always stupidity or outright prejudice. Often it is calculated. Voters may select no more than 10 players. I know many voters who intentionally do not vote for the certain inductees (like Rivera this year) in order to use that extra vote on someone who wouldn’t otherwise get it.
The chances of that would diminish if all ballots were made public. The BBWAA voted to do that, but the Hall overruled and said no. Bad decision. Make Hall ballots public, in all sports. Transparency is good.
If somebody isn’t voting for Mariano Rivera, or for Ed Reed, we at least deserve to watch them stammer and squirm in trying to explain why.