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Tiger tales, Larkin, and the Hall of Fame

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  January 9, 2012 12:36 PM

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A Hall of Fame digression while presuming only Barry Larkin and possibly Tim Tebow will be elected to Cooperstown today ...

Perhaps you remember since more than 25 years later it stands as a reminder to pump the brakes on praising an unfamiliar young player too soon, or perhaps just because it was vintage Sparky Anderson. In spring training 1985, Anderson, the Tigers' manager, became instantly smitten with an obscure young infielder named Chris Pittaro.

While the Tigers were cruising to a World Series championship in '84, Pittaro was a 22-year-old infielder who hit .284 with a .797 OPS at Double A. But the following spring, he was so dazzling early in spring training that Anderson made the dubious (and brief) decision to move mainstay second baseman Lou Whitaker over to third to make room for Pittaro.

Explained Sparky with a heaping helping of hyperbole: "Chris Pittaro is the best young player I’ve had in 15 years.”

It wasn't long before Sparky saw through the mirage of spring. Pittaro had three hits on Opening Day. He had 12 more in his Tigers career. He had a Hobsonesque .881 fielding percentage at third base and did not play a big league game beyond June. The next season, he was traded to Minnesota, where he had 34 plate appearances over the next two years before retiring in 1988. While in the Twins system, he was teammates with another overhyped prospect who didn't make it. Guy with the "good face" named Billy Beane. You may have caught a fleeting mention of the name Pittaro in "Moneyball": He is Oakland's director of professional scouting. I suspect he's never talked about a prospect -- even one he deeply believed in -- like Sparky talked about him.

Even if Sparky's intent was to boost the kid's confidence, you'd think he'd know better to tout a prospect publicly with such over-the-top assuredness. Not only was he well aware of what greatness truly looked like, having managed the Cincinnati Reds' "Big Red Machine" of Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, and Pete Rose in the '70s, but by the time he came to the Tigers (after a brief radio gig with WKRP in Cincinnati, I believe) 55 games into the 1979 season, Detroit had stockpiled a extraordinary cache of genuine young talent, and I've always been fascinated by those teams.

whitakertrammellfinn.jpgMost of the Tigers' late '70s talent influx arrived in the big leagues under Ralph Houk and either blossomed or regressed under Sparky, but what an influx it was. We all remember the words to the ballad of Mark Fidrych from the summer of '76. But do you remember Jason Thompson, a lefthanded-hitting first baseman with the perfect uppercut swing for Tiger Stadium who hit 31 homers at age 22 in 1977? Or Steve Kemp, Fred Lynn's gifted former Southern Cal teammate who went .318-26-105 with a .941 OPS in '79?

Or goofy junkballer Dave Rozema (15 wins, led the AL in walk rate at age 20 in '77) . . . or rugged catcher Lance Parrish (top two career comps: Gary Carter, Jorge Posada) . . . or Kirk Gibson (drafted in '78, debuted in '79, World Series MVP in '84) . . .

I wish Baseball America, founded in 1980, had been prominent in those days just to see what the Tigers' prospect lists might have looked like. While Gibson, the five-tool former Michigan State football star, was an elite prospect, and the same probably applied to Kemp and Parrish, I haven't even mentioned those developed by the Tigers in the '70s who went on to have the best careers. Two of them -- shortstop Alan Trammell and pitcher/mustache farmer Jack Morris -- are on the Hall of Fame ballot today. And a third should be.

That Lou Whitaker, who teamed with Trammell for 19 seasons as the Tigers' double-play combo, never had an OPS+ lower than 121 in his final five seasons, and had a career OPS+ of 116 -- same as Barry Larkin and Roberto Alomar and better than Ryne Sandberg (114) and Trammell (110) -- spent just one year on the Hall of Fame ballot, receiving 2.9 percent of the vote in 2005, is an oversight Hall of Fame voters should be ashamed of. I'm not saying he deserves to be in, though he has the highest career rWAR of any position player not elected. I'm saying he deserved so much more consideration.

I do hope Trammell, who in a beautiful bit of baseball symmetry debuted the same day as Whitaker at Fenway Park in September 1977, gets in when the results are announced this afternoon. And should the phone call come, I hope he immediately begins crafting a speech that acknowledges the absurdity of Whitaker's single year on the ballot. I also hope Edgar Martinez becomes the first designated hitter enshrined, that Tim Raines's voting percentage approaches his stolen base percentage (84.7 percent), that conjecture doesn't cost Jeff Bagwell, and that Jack Morris, who has the highlights but not the numbers, remains on the fringe.

The hunch, however, is that just one player is enshrined. Barry Larkin, who was essentially Derek Jeter without the New York backdrop, was deserving of the call last year. This year, it will come, and with it, a funny coincidence. Back in '85, when Sparky Anderson was seeing things in Chris Pittaro that were never there, there was a determined and remarkably talented 22-year-old infielder who was doing amazing things on a Michigan ballfield. Barry Louis Larkin hit .368 for the University of Michigan that summer, winning his second consecutive Big 10 Player of the Year Award before being drafted fourth overall by the Reds in the April draft.

One can only imagine what Sparky would have said about him. Chances are when it comes to Larkin he would have been right.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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