2018 Hall Of Fame Class Took Different Journeys To Same Ending

COOPERSTOWN—There was a time Trevor Hoffman never could have imagined being here.

He was a .212-hitting shortstop in Class A, on the verge of being released until his minor league coaches vouched for him as a potential pitcher. He was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, and in his first stint in the majors he posted nearly as many walks (19) as strikeouts (26) before being traded. He arrived in San Diego a 25-year-old rookie on his third organization, with little in his pedigree to portend stardom.

And yet here he was, standing before an admiring crowd of 53,000 on a pristine 74-degree summer day, accepting his place among the game’s greats in the Hall of Fame.

“My transformation from an infielder to a relief pitcher to closer, it’s been an amazing journey capped by this amazing moment,” Hoffman said in his acceptance speech. “Two years into pro baseball, I’m reminded of a John Wooden quote: ‘Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.’

“You see, as that struggling shortstop in Charleston, West Virginia, my career path changed. And thankfully (pitching coach) Mike Griffin and (manager) Jim Lett believed in my strong arm and floated the idea to (farm director Sheldon Bender) that I could make the transition to the mound and give my baseball career a second chance.”

The 2018 Hall of Fame class was officially inducted on July 29. The banner class featured six players from the modern era: Hoffman, Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome, Alan Trammell and Jack Morris.  

The six come from vastly different backgrounds. Jones was the golden child, a No. 1 overall pick who fulfilled prognostications of greatness. Guerrero showed up at a tryout camp in the Dominican Republic wearing mismatched shoes and signed for $2,500. Trammell was a second-round pick out of high school who found himself in the majors at age 19. Thome was a 13th-round draft pick out of a junior college who took four tries in the majors to establish himself as an everyday player. Morris pitched to a career 5.00 ERA in college at Brigham Young and was an unheralded fifth-round pick. And then there is Hoffman, who veered from Cypress (Calif.) JC to the University of Arizona to a position change to three organizations in his first four years as a professional.

Though their paths began differently, they all ended in the same place: the Hall of Fame.

“I never considered myself to be considered in the same realm as Mickey (Mantle), Hank (Aaron), (Roberto) Clemente, Cal (Ripken Jr.) and the other greats on this stage,” Jones said. “These guys, they are baseball royalty.”

While most of the inductees crossed paths during their careers, the connection between Trammell and Morris stands above the rest.

The Tigers drafted Trammell in the second round of the 1976 draft. In the fifth round, they picked Morris.

With the two players’ induction on Sunday, the Tigers’ 1976 draft marks the only time a team selected two Hall of Famers in the same draft.

Not only that, but Trammell and Morris were signed by the same scout, Dick Wiencek.

“I had already signed a letter of intent to play at UCLA, but it really wasn’t difficult to convince my parents to try and let me fulfill my childhood dreams,” Trammell said in his speech. “Dick Wiencek, the scout who signed me, deserves a lot of credit. Dick was able to convince Bill Lajoie, who was the Tigers’ scouting director, to draft a skinny, 165-pound shortstop with no power. Looking back, Bill respected Dick’s judgment.”

The Tigers almost had a third Hall of Famer in that draft. They picked Cal Poly shortstop Ozzie Smith in the seventh round, but he elected to return to school.

The Braves only had one big hit in the 1990 draft, but they made it count. Jones became the first switch-hitter in baseball history to have a .300 batting average, .400 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage in his career.

That doesn’t mean it was all smooth sailing. After signing as the first overall pick, he hit .229 with one home run in his pro debut in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

There wasn’t just a lack of home run power, but extra-base power in general. In addition to his one home run, Jones hit one double, one triple and slugged just .271 in that first professional season.

It was after that season, in instructional league, that Jones met the man who changed the course of his development.

“After the season in instructional ball I got the chance to meet Hall of Famer Willie Stargell,” Jones recalled in his speech. “And it could not have come at a better time for me. Pops (Stargell’s nickname) was a roving instructor for the Braves back then. He walked up to me and he picked up my bat and said to me, ‘Son, I pick my teeth with bigger pieces of wood than this.’ He also suggested I swing the biggest bat I could get around on 90 miles an hour, start letting the pitcher supply all the power. He looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘We’ll have you hittin’ 30 homers in no time.’ I thought he was crazy, but I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right.”

Indeed he was. Jones slugged .518 the following year at low Class A Macon, .504 the next year between high Class A Durham and Double-A Greenville, and in 1993 he slugged .500 at Triple-A Richmond.

By the time his major league career was done, Jones hit 468 home runs and 13 more in the postseason.

Now, he has joined Stargell as a Hall of Famer.

Guerrero, the kid with the mismatched shoes who lied about his age in order to get signed, became the first Dominican position player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and just the third overall behind pitchers Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez. He was greeted by hundreds waving Dominican flags, and chants of “Vlad-DY” rang out longer and louder than for any other player at the ceremony.

Guerrero spent most of his career playing for the Expos and will wear an Angels cap on his plaque, but his special day could have easily come as a member of the Dodgers if not for a scouting flub.

The Dodgers had already signed Guerrero’s older brother, Wilton, as an amateur. They had Vladimir in their Dominican academy for eight months, but they never offered him a contract.

So, in the spring of 1993, Guerrero showed up on the back of a motorcycle to an open tryout camp run by Expos international scouting director Fred Ferreira, and the wheels were set in motion. By 1996, Guerrero was the No. 2 prospect in baseball, and on his way to a career that included 449 home runs, nine all-star selections and an MVP award.

Thome, meanwhile, joined two rare clubs with his induction: Hall of Famers drafted after the 10th round, and Hall of Famers drafted out of a junior college.

While Thome immediately showed the Indians got a steal—batting .340 with 16 home runs in 67 games his first full minor league season—it took him time to become the fearsome big league slugger he became.

He made his major league debut in 1991, but in both 1992 and 1993 he struggled in the majors and was sent back down to the minors.

Each of those seasons, his manager at Triple-A was Charlie Manuel. Manuel encouraged him, massaged him and eventually helped unlock the swing that would help Thome stick in the major leagues.

“From the moment I met Charlie Manuel as a wide-eyed kid . . . I knew this was someone I could connect with instantly,” Thome said. “Charlie took a scrappy young kid who was anxious to hit a million home runs and actually encouraged those crazy dreams. He told me that I could hit as many home runs as I wanted to.”

When Thome went back to the big leagues in 1994, he was there for good. By the time he was done, he was one of just nine players to hit 600 home runs.

“I still can’t believe this happened to me, a 13th-round draft pick out of Central Illinois,” Thome said.

They all came from different places, and they all took different paths, but on the banks of Ostego Lake, they came together. Three hours after the ceremony concluded, their plaques were officially installed in the Hall of Fame.

Now, forever, they are baseball royalty.

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