Perhaps no sport’s Hall of Fame evokes the raw emotions of baseball’s, and there is reason for this. Baseball is uniquely ingrained in the American consciousness, and its Hall reflects that: people visit Canton and Springfield and Toronto, but people make pilgrimages to Cooperstown, a pastoral dot-town on Lake Oswego in upstate New York that draws 300,000 a year to essentially look backward in time.
These strong emotions carry, for better or for worse, over to the debates over which men are considered worthy of entering the hall, and often obscure the careers of great baseball players. Is Omar Vizquel a Hall of Famer? Larry Walker? Fred McGriff? Maybe or maybe not, but each is worth celebrating in their own right – they have made it this far, after all.
So let’s take a trip down memory lane, playing each noteworthy candidate’s Greatest Hit. The methodology is fairly simplistic: first, I have identified each player’s most notable year – based on a number of factors – and second, I have picked out each player’s most notable game from their annus mirabilis (miracle year), based on the win probability they added to their team. Postseason games were also factored in, and losses were not, as this article focuses on players’ roles in their teams’ winning efforts.
This exercise resulted in a wide tapestry of baseball’s biggest stars’ accomplishments in the last two decades.
MARIANO RIVERA: OCTOBER 9TH, 2004 – YANKEES 6, TWINS 5, 11 INNINGS (ALDS GAME 4)
The best version of Rivera may have turned up in 2004, a year most Yankees fans would like to forget because of what happened at the end. It shouldn’t eliminate, however, the memory of Rivera’s 53 saves and 1.94 ERA, added to the fact that he was a staggering 25 runs above average, a mark surpassed only by his 1996 season in which John Wetteland was New York’s regular closer.
Before everything fell apart against Boston, in the ALDS against Minnesota, Rivera was flawless in a game in the Metrodome the Yankees had to have. He entered in the tenth of a 5-5 game, and set down every batter he faced in both the tenth and eleventh. While Alex Rodriguez was scoring the winning run, Rivera mowed down six Twins in order, securing the series for the Yankees. He threw just 20 pitches.
ROY HALLADAY: MAY 29TH, 2010 – PHILLIES 1, MARLINS 0
An easy call here on multiple levels: 2010 was the better of Halladay’s pair of Cy Young seasons, by about 0.5 WAR and 4 RAA; 2010 saw the Phillies playing in October while his 2003 Cy Young Award was obtained on a terrible Blue Jays team; and the obvious reason, that Halladay added a staggering 0.838 win probability in throwing the twentieth perfect game in baseball history. Doc struck out 11 in his masterclass, one of two no-hitters he would throw that year.
EDGAR MARTINEZ: MAY 30TH, 1995 – MARINERS 7, YANKEES 3
1995 for Edgar Martinez: .356 batting average (led AL), .479 on-base percentage (led MLB), 1.107 OPS (led MLB), 121 runs (led AL)… shall I go on? As the Mariners chased and caught the Angels for the AL West title, Martinez assured his place as one of the game’s superstars, finishing third in the MVP voting and beginning a run of three straight All-Star appearances. His position as an everyday star was validated in a sleepy, early-season affair that foreshadowed the ‘95 playoffs, in which Edgar made a pair of important offensive plays, giving Seattle the lead with a first-inning RBI single and then singling the tying run in in the eighth off Bob Wickman.
MIKE MUSSINA: MAY 15TH, 1992 – ORIOLES 2, WHITE SOX 0
After a relatively unspectacular rookie year, Mussina was absolutely phenomenal as a sophomore – 18-5 (the first of six 18-win seasons), a 157 ERA+ (a mark he’d top only once more) and a strong .686 WAAWL% (meaning an average team would have won 68.6% of the games in which he played). While he threw eight complete games, it was a dominant 8 2/3 innings against the White Sox that marked his magnum opus, in which he allowed no runs, four hits and a walk while striking out five, running his record to 5-0.
ROGER CLEMENS: APRIL 30TH, 1997 – BLUE JAYS 1, ROYALS 0
There were many versions of Roger Clemens – on different teams, in different decades, and yes, possibly with and without the help of PEDs. But that’s neither here nor there for the purposes of our exercise: on the field, there wasn’t a better Clemens than in his next-to-last year in Ontario, in which Rocket led the American League in the following categories: wins, ERA, complete games, shutouts, innings pitched, strikeouts, FIP, WHIP, and ERA+. Clemens was at his workmanlike best in this routine battle at Kauffman Stadium, displaying his excellence with eight shutout innings, giving up three hits and striking out seven for a strong Game Score of 81.
BARRY BONDS: AUGUST 16TH, 2001 – GIANTS 5, MARLINS 3
A WPA-based approach to picking out players’ best games appears to favor games in which players did most of their team’s heavy lifting; this is just such a game, where Bonds’ otherworldly talents helped San Francisco grind out a win in his nonpareil, controversial 73-homer season. In three at-bats, Bonds smacked a pair of home runs to give him 53 on the season; first a solo shot off AJ Burnett to tie the game at 1 in the fourth; and then, in the eighth, with the Giants down 3-2, a dramatic three-run shot to lift San Francisco to victory.
CURT SCHILLING: OCTOBER 9TH, 2001 – DIAMONDBACKS 1, CARDINALS 0 (NLDS GAME 1)
Schilling had only one top 10 Cy Young finish (1997 in Philadelphia) before reinventing himself in 2001 as one of the best pitchers in baseball. In 35 starts Schilling went 22-6, hurled six complete games, amassed 8.8 WAR, a 7.51 strikeout/walk ratio, and a .694 WAAWL%. He rode that brilliant performance into the postseason, torching St. Louis at home in Game 1 with a three-hit shutout in which he struck out nine and put up a Game Score of 89. The Cardinals’ best hitters were non-factors, as rookie sensation Albert Pujols and slugger Mark McGwire were a combined 0-for-7.
LARRY WALKER: AUGUST 9TH, 1997 – ROCKIES 8, PIRATES 7
Walker morphed into an altitude-fueled monster in his eighth full season, producing a year in which he recorded 2 WAR more than in any other season before or after. He was an easy choice for NL MVP (49 home runs, .366/.452/.720) and thrived on Coors Field’s classic late-1990s ping-pong matches. Walker crushed two home runs and a double on this Saturday afternoon, with his second homer tying the game in the seventh and his double setting the table in the ninth for Andres Galarraga’s walk-off single.
OMAR VIZQUEL: JULY 10TH, 1999 – INDIANS 11, REDS 10
Vizquel, one of the most renowned defensive players of all time, was also a notoriously mediocre hitter for most of his career. He swatted .272 over his 24 years in the big leagues, and finished with an OPS of .833, not in the top 1000 all time. However, in 1999, Vizquel was able to successfully marry his bat to his all-world defense, and the result was a 6 WAR, .333 season that earned him an MVP vote. Fittingly, Omar’s 0.739 WPA day saw him go just 2-for-6, coming through for the Tribe in the clutch with a two-out, two-run walk-off home run to win it.
FRED MCGRIFF: AUGUST 29TH, 1989 – BLUE JAYS 3, WHITE SOX 2
In 1993, Crime Dog finished fourth in the MVP voting, but with 2.4 WAR less than his sixth-place MVP season of 1989, where he mashed 36 homers and led the American League in both OPS and OPS+. As the Jays’ division title season began to wane, McGriff marked a Tuesday at the SkyDome with a classic put-the-team-on-your-back game. The Sox led 2-0 after three, but McGriff stood tall, hitting a solo homer in the fifth that tied the contest and another in the seventh that won it.
MANNY RAMIREZ: APRIL 18TH, 1999 – INDIANS 3, TWINS 2
Manny Ramirez’s 1999 was one of the most powerful years in the history of baseball. While .333/.442/.663 is incredible, it’s the 165 RBIs that jump off the Baseball Reference page (T-14th highest in MLB history). Three came on this spring Sunday in the Land, when Manny drove in all of Cleveland’s runs with a solo homer and a two-run single.
SCOTT ROLEN: JULY 19TH, 2004 – CARDINALS 5, CUBS 4
One of the most underrated players on this year’s ballot, Rolen was phenomenal in 2004, putting up a .314/.409/.598 slashline with 34 homers and a 9.2 WAR. The Cardinals captured the pennant with him at the hot corner, and he shone brightly on this Monday at Wrigley Field in a tight rivalry game. After St. Louis blew an early 3-0 lead, Rolen completed the Cards’ comeback by bashing a two-out, two-run home run off of Carlos Zambrano that opened up a lead the Cards wouldn’t relinquish.
TODD HELTON: MAY 27TH, 2000 – ROCKIES 7, PIRATES 6
In baseball’s fin-de-siecle Cape Canaveral, Helton was simply out-of-this-world, leading the league in 2000 in average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS, while piling up 42 homers and 59 doubles. He established career highs in every major value statistic, and in this game recorded a 0.797 WPA, collecting four hits in four at-bats. This included a tying three-run homer in the fifth and a walk-off solo shot leading off the bottom of the ninth.
BILLY WAGNER: SEPTEMBER 19TH, 1999 – ASTROS 4, CARDINALS 3
Wagner recorded 39 saves on a 1.65 FIP and 0.78 WHIP in 1999, propelling him to a fourth-place Cy Young finish. The 37th of his 39 saves was when Billy the Kid shone brightest, as Houston ground out a tough postseason tune-up versus St. Louis. Wagner faced five Cardinal batters, and although he walked two, he struck out four (including the side in the ninth) to secure victory.
GARY SHEFFIELD: APRIl 15TH, 2003 – BRAVES 2, EXPOS 1, 10 INNINGS
Sheffield played for eight teams, and Atlanta was his fifth; it was with the Braves that he began a run of three straight top-10 MVP finishes. He loomed larger than ever in 2003, when he swatted .330/.419/.604 with 37 home runs en route to a third-place MVP finish. His 6.8 WAR was a career high by a half a win, and he stood out in this early-season victory over Montreal in San Juan, coming in clutch for the Braves by leading off the top of the ninth with a solo homer.
FIVE OTHER NOTABLE MIRACLE GAMES
SAMMY SOSA: CHC 7 KC 4, 7/17/2001. Sosa had a critical tying two-run single in a year in which he terrorized the National League, both with power (64 home runs) and average (.328).
JEFF KENT: SF 11 FLA 9, 4/5/2000. In the third game of what would become an MVP season, Kent when 3-for-5 with a three-run jack and a double as the Giants took a slugfest.
ANDY PETTITTE: NYY 4 ANA 3 (12), 8/21/1997. In a critical pennant chase game for the Yanks, Pettitte dealt eight innings of five-hit ball, a microcosm of his workmanlike tenure in the Bronx.
ANDRUW JONES: ATL 3 WSH 2 (10), 7/26/2005. A slugger with an impeccable feel for big moments, Jones doubled, tripled, and worked a walk-off walk in the Braves’ critical NL East win.
MICHAEL YOUNG: TEX 10 MIN 7, 9/6/2005. In a season in which Young would amass 221 hits, the longtime Texas franchise cornerstone smacked a game-tying RBI single to complement his earlier home run.
Featured Photo: Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press