By Matt Nestor
An all-time Hall of Fame class just went in to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, not to mention managers Joe Torre and Tony LaRussa. Some of the best ever when you look at it.
The other reality with this class is that it is the last hurrah for Chicago baseball.
Thomas is arguably the greatest Chicago White Sox player ever. If you look at his stats, they look like they belong in a video game. At his peak, he was possibly the best player in the game. He won Most Valuable Player awards. He helped lay the foundation of competitive baseball that led to a World Series.
Maddux laid the foundation of dominance in Chicago with the Cubs. He established himself as the best right-hander of the last 25 years in Atlanta. But in listening to his interviews, he holds his time in Chicago very dearly. And he knows he wouldn’t be where he is without it.
When looking at the Hall of Fame inductions for the foreseeable future, however, there are no Chicago players on the horizon. There will be players who played a year or two in Chicago. Ken Griffey Jr. spent some time with the White Sox. So did Jim Thome. But they will not be remembered as Chicago players. They were just passing by, and their time here will likely not even be remembered when their time in Cooperstown comes.
The Cubs thought they had a sure-fire inductee a little more than a decade ago. Sammy Sosa was putting up crazy numbers of his own, chasing home run records and helping the Cubs make the playoffs on a consistent basis. But then steroids scandals broke. Many players are wrapped up in that web. Many of them former Hall of Fame locks.
If that freeze ever gets lifted, however, Sosa will be far down the list of players whom people will accommodate. He isn’t as good historically as Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens. And he has made no friends along the way since his retirement.
If Sosa is not able to break through that glass, then it is bleak. It is not that there have not been good players in Chicago — just no great players.
Kerry Wood and Mark Prior could have been there, both dominant at their peaks. But their injury history is well documented. Carlos Zambrano played well for many years, but he was never at a dominant level. Moises Alou, Derek Lee, Juan Pierre — all players who had good runs, but will be long forgotten.
It is much the same when you look at the South Side. A.J. Pierzynski was a key cog to the White Sox’s championship run. Joe Crede played well for so long. Mark Buehrle may have an outside shot, but he has never been dominant.
It is a run of average to slightly above average. And that would explain much of the disappointment in Chicago baseball over the last 20 years. Both teams have had their playoff appearances, but neither has had much success once there.
The Cubs had their magical run in 2003 that ended in heartbreak. But that was a team led by Sosa, Prior and Wood, three could-haves that never will be. And they were surrounded by a lot of above-average players.
It was much the same way for the White Sox. Not much success, but they do have a World Series. And that was a team that had a very large collection of very good players. But not much great when you look at it.
That doesn’t mean it is the end of Chicago baseball. Jose Abreu and Chris Sale provide hope for the White Sox. And the Cubs have a large group of players in their minor league system that give them hope for the future. It’s not out of the question that there could be a Chicago celebration in the next five to 10 years.
But it will also be some time before Chicago is able to look back at their history and be able to celebrate careers in the same vein as they were able to this past weekend with Maddux and Thomas. And it is too bad they have to miss out on that fun.
Share your thoughts with Matt Nestor via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the July 30-Aug. 5, 2014, issue