January 8, 2014 at 3:49 pm

Tony Paul

Tigers' Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris, Jim Leyland could enter Hall of Fame by 2020

Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker might eventually make the Hall of Fame, after all. (Detroit News file)

Detroit — The last time baseball’s veteran writers voted a Tiger into the Hall of Fame, their new manager, Brad Ausmus, was 11, Torii Hunter was 5, and Victor Martinez hadn’t even turned 2 yet. The date was Aug. 3, 1980, when Al Kaline was enshrined in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.

That’s really something, considering the Tigers are one of baseball’s most storied franchises — heck, the first Hall of Famer was a Tiger (Ty Cobb) — and they won a world championship in the 1980s.

Yet, that streak of futility, though, will continue, as their ace of the 1980s, Jack Morris, once again fell short of the 75 percent vote threshold necessary for induction, just like he had in the 14 years prior. He is now removed from the ballot, his 15-year window bolted shut.

He’ll have company soon. The Tigers great shortstop, Alan Trammell, actually lost ground in vote totals released Wednesday afternoon, when writers elected an impressive threesome — Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas — making up for last year, when they amazingly elected nobody.

Trammell has two years remaining on the ballot, but those are just a formality. Despite having contemporaries in the Hall of Fame, he has yet to get half the votes necessary. He’s toast.

But, until when?

Well, as it turns out, maybe not for long.

Alternate route

While Tigers fans have long been disgruntled over the Hall of Fame voting process — the 1984 Tigers were one of the best teams ever, yet only are represented by their manager, Sparky Anderson, whose plaque contains a Reds cap — a Hall of a year could finally be in store, and soon.

Hal Newhouser was the last Tiger to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, in 1992. Before that, it was George Kell, in 1983. Both were elected by the Veterans Committee, after writers passed on them.

That same safety-net committee could very well have its hands full with Tigers in December 2016 and 2019.

That’s when the Expansion Era Committee will meet at the winter meetings to discuss, debate and vote on the cases of players, managers and executives whose peak was post-1973. Among those who will be eligible for 2017 induction will be Morris, Lou Whitaker and retired manager Jim Leyland, and Trammell will be eligible for 2020 induction.

There’s a great chance all four could win over the 16-member committee.

Leyland is most likely. Despite an overall record barely over .500, he had more wins than Tommy Lasorda and Dick Williams. The Veterans Committee also loves managers — Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox each were elected in December, and if Leyland had retired a year earlier, he might’ve joined them. Leyland had three separate successful stints, with the Pirates, Marlins and Tigers, and won a world championship. He also is well-respected by almost everyone in the game.

Trammell and Whitaker would be good bets, too, after both were widely ignored by the writers.

Whitaker didn’t even make it off the first ballot, garnering just 2.9 percent of the vote in 2001. It was a despicable lack of support, though history will judge it a pure oversight during a year Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett were first-ballot inductees, and future Hall of Famers Gary Carter, Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage and Bert Blyleven also were on the ballot.

While not to the extent of this year’s, that was a supremely stacked ballot — and so Whitaker fell through the cracks, receiving only 15 votes, just two more than Kirk Gibson, for crying out loud.

Trammell first appeared on the ballot a year later, and never picked up steam — despite little surges here and there, like 2012, the year a contemporary, Barry Larkin, was elected.

It’s worth wondering: If Trammell and Whitaker first appeared on the ballot the same year, would they both have done better? Whitaker retired after the 1995 season, but Trammell played one more year — 1996, the only year they weren’t attached at the hip. For so long, from 1977 through ‘95, Trammell and Whitaker were a package deal, the longest double-play combination in baseball history. Forced to judge them separately, baseball writers whiffed.

Given the strong and vocal support from the Sabermetrics community, the Expansion Era Committee — which will be made up mostly of many players and managers who played and managed in the Trammell-Whitaker era — is unlikely to do the same. And maybe, in the end, it’ll be for the best, Whitaker and Trammell being inducted side by side, in July of 2020.

Or the committee, if it feels strongly enough, could move up Trammell's eligibility to July 2017 — he just misses the 21-year retirement bubble required to be on the ballot — and speed up the process in fixing what long has been a gross slight. The committee has the authority to change the rules at it sees fit.

Easier path for Morris

Then there’s Morris, and given how close he came in the writers’ vote — he was at more than 50 percent each of the last five years, well over 60 each of the last three, and nobody in history has ever received more votes without being inducted by the writers — the sentiment could be heavy there, too. All he’ll need is 12 votes from the 16-member panel, and it’s a whole heckuva lot easier to convince 75 percent of a 16-person electorate than 75 percent of some 600, as was always his challenge with the writers. And again, this also is a far more favorable electorate, far more his peers than pariahs.

Gibson and Lance Parrish also could go before the Expansion Era Committee in 2016, but their odds are long — despite Gibson’s postseason heroics, and Parrish’s favorable comparison to Gary Carter.

But Leyland, Trammell, Whitaker and Morris all could get the nod, together. There’s no limit there. The Veterans Committee elected five in one year as recently as 2007, for 2008 induction.

Interestingly, former Tiger Pudge Rodriguez could be an inductee, too, in 2017, his first year on the writers’ ballot, though he almost certainly would be enshrined wearing a Rangers cap. Still, it’d be another strong Tigers tie in a Hall of Fame that, frankly, has too few.

Already for this summer’s ceremony, you can’t get a hotel closer than 45 minutes to Cooperstown, as a heavy Atlanta contingent plans to take over upstate New York to cheer Cox, Maddux and Glavine.

But Cooperstown B&B’s probably still remain for the summer 2017, and potentially 2020, too.

Tigers fans would be wise to start calling on those, and soon.

tpaul@detroitnews.com
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