Archive for Sunday, August 5, 2001

Baseball Hall of Fame: Mazeroski finally gets his due

Bucs infielder, Puckett linked by postseason heroics

August 5, 2001


— Bill Mazeroski worked magic with his glove perhaps better than any other second baseman. Kirby Puckett wore a smile that didn't fade even when glaucoma shortened his superlative career.

Until now, this oft-overlooked star from the 1960s and a sometimes underappreciated talent of the late 1980s and early '90s were linked mostly by their history-making Octobers.

Mazeroski hit what is regarded as the greatest World Series homer; Puckett played one of the best World Series games.

But today, along with Dave Winfield, the consummate athlete, and Hilton Smith, a Negro League star who proved a pitcher could thrive in Satchel Paige's shadow, they will become members of the most privileged and toughest-to-reach club in sports: the Baseball Hall of Fame.

For Mazeroski, the journey was as agonizingly slow as a Hoyt Wilhelm knuckleball, through 15 failed rounds of voting by baseball writers and another decade of snubs by the Veterans Committee. For Puckett and Winfield, the trip couldn't have been much faster or smoother, coming barely five years after they played their final games.

That they are going in together is merely coincidental, but their inductions illustrate what many find fascinating about the game that it can be played by the short (Puckett), the tall (Winfield) and the in-between (Mazeroski). By men who hit with grace (Puckett) and power (Winfield) and by those who are as skilled at taking runs away (Mazeroski) as others are in creating them.

"Some people have that defining moment or great achievements that they are remembered for," Winfield said. "My hallmark is a high level of consistency over a long period of time plus, I hit a lot of screaming line drives."

Mazeroski had the defining moment of all World Series defining moments his 1960 homer to beat the New York Yankees in one of the wackiest and most unpredictable series ever. It remains the only homer to end a Game Seven, and the magnitude of his Pittsburgh Pirates' victory over the Maris-Mantle Yankees adds even more to its significance.

Yet, that very homer might have at least partially blocked Mazeroski's path to Cooperstown until now.

Overshadowed during his glory days by stars such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Mickey Mantle, and his own teammate, Roberto Clemente, Mazeroski is remembered by many only for that homer, not for being a slick-fielding second baseman who set double-play records that might never be broken.

"He's the best second baseman ever and it's not even close," said Hall of Fame chairman Joe L. Brown, the Pirates' general manager during Mazeroski's career. "He was the best fielder I ever saw and a great clutch hitter."

Mazeroski's enshrinement the first in recent times by a player elected primarily for his glove and not his bat could pave the way for more two-way players to be inducted.

Shortstop Ozzie Smith, for example, was only a .260s hitter like Mazeroski, but he could be a first-ballot Hall of Famer next year after redefining how the position is played.

"There is a place for defense," Mazeroski said. "I know I stopped a lot of runs from scoring."

Puckett had an easier time getting into the Hall because of a World Series performance.

In the Twins' 4-3 victory in Game Six against Atlanta in 1991, he had an RBI triple, an excellent leaping catch, a go-ahead sacrifice fly, an eighth-inning single and the winning home run in the 11th. The Twins went on to win Game Seven.

Puckett, who bypassed free agency to remain in Minnesota and drove a beat-up pickup to the ballpark even after he made millions, still was one of the game's best players when glaucoma forced him from the game in 1995 at age 36. He was a six-time Gold Glove outfielder who had three 100-RBI seasons.

Winfield played for a multitude of clubs in his case, six. He averaged 27 homers a season in seven years with the Yankees, but chose to be inducted wearing the hat of his first team, San Diego.

The only player to be drafted by teams in baseball, the NBA and the NFL, Winfield is one of seven players with 3,000 hits and 400 homers. He remained a star at age 40, driving in 108 runs and hitting a decisive World Series double for Toronto in Game Six in 1992.

Hilton Smith, who died in 1983, was one of the greatest Negro League pitchers, winning 20 or more games in each of his 12 years with Kansas City. He was 93-11 from 1939-42 and might have had the best curveball of his era.

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