MINNEAPOLIS — It’s already been a significant offseason in Twins history, as a pair of injustices in the eyes of many in Minnesota has finally been addressed with the election of both Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Golden Days Era committee, decades after they fell off the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot.
Still, some would say that doesn’t fix everything, not while arguably the most dominant pitcher in club history — who had a good case to be considered among the most dominant in the game during his peak — also remains on the outside looking in, having fallen off the BBWAA ballot in his first season of eligibility.
When Johan Santana became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2018, he was named on 2.4 percent of BBWAA ballots, less than half the votes he needed to return for a second year. But as Oliva and Kaat showed earlier this month, that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Have these events changed Santana’s mindset on the possibility that he, too, could maybe join them one day in Cooperstown?
“What I think about it is that I’m very happy for Tony O and Jim Kaat,” Santana said. “Tony O having this opportunity after so many years, to do it while he’s alive, he deserves to be in there.”
“I won with the Twins. That’s the only thing I know,” he added. “I’m very proud of it. If I had that opportunity, it’d be great. If not, it’s a thing that’s not on me. I had a great career. I made a lot of people proud, and that’s what I’m happy about. If you accomplish something like this and get into the Hall of Fame, that would be great. What I was able to accomplish for my country and my family stands up for everything else.”
While Kaat eventually got to Cooperstown on the strength of his longevity over a not-dominant-but-consistent 25-year career, Santana’s case is quite the opposite.
Santana’s career was cut short by arm troubles after 12 seasons and 2,025 2/3 innings, preventing him from reaching milestone stats, such as 2,000 strikeouts or 200 wins, that have often been viewed as credentials and bona fides for Cooperstown. He didn’t pitch beyond his age-33 season.
The argument for Santana rests squarely on his peak — and what a remarkable one it was, from 2004-08. He won American League Cy Young Awards in ’04 and ’06, and finished in the top five of voting every season during that stretch. He won the pitching Triple Crown in ’06, which only two AL pitchers have achieved since. He was a critical part of Minnesota’s run from 2002-06, when it won four AL Central titles in five years.
Still, it might be Santana’s ’05 season that’s brought up most often as part of this conversation, because that’s when he didn’t win the Cy Young, finishing third behind Bartolo Colon and Mariano Rivera, despite posting a better ERA (2.87 to 3.48) and strikeout total (238 to 157) than Colon and blowing away all vote-getters in Wins Above Replacement (7.2).
If Santana had won the Cy Young that year, his three would have made him one of 11 pitchers in AL/NL history with that many. Of the group that has already retired, only Roger Clemens isn’t in Cooperstown.
“I got that question all the time: ‘How do you feel about 2005?'” Santana said, without prompting. “‘What do you mean?’ ‘You deserved the Cy Young.’ Well, deserving it is one thing, getting it is another. I wasn’t even in second place. So you should ask second place how they feel about that, because I was third place.”
That’s why, Santana says, he now always wonders specifically about the criteria for any honor. Should he have been the most dominant? Gotten the most wins? Tried to rack up his strikeout total? He just remembers trying to prove to people that year that his ’04 numbers hadn’t been a fluke.
But in the case of canvassing a wide body of voters, such voting will always be wholly subjective, with each voter’s personal opinion comprising a small part of the so-called “wisdom of the masses.” Similarly, there will be a wider range of opinions, philosophies and justifications in the even more personally interpreted Hall of Fame elections, which sometimes stray beyond the simplest question of, “Does each player deserve to be in or not?” which is all Santana hoped to be judged on.
“They might be a deserving guy for you, but for some others, they’re not,” Santana said. “That’s how they are. Sometimes, they tell you, ‘In my mind, only two deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.’ But others are like, ‘I’m not going to vote for him yet. I’ll make him wait. I’ll make him suffer.’ What are you talking about? I had writers talking to me like that. I’m like, ‘Why are you saying these things?’ I think that’s wrong. Is it a yes or no?”
While it’s too late for anything to make a difference for the time being, Oliva and Kaat now serve as close examples of times changing, careers being re-evaluated in a different light by a different group, and a quest for baseball immortality resurrected and completed at last. If Santana gets that chance, too, it’ll likely be decades down the line. And while he says he’s moved on for now, he’ll still wait to see what comes next.
“Believe me, every time I took the field, I gave everything that I had,” Santana said. “I’m very proud of everything that I was able to accomplish. But it’s not up to me. It’s not up to me. Like I said, I’m very happy that, after so many years, Tony was able to get in, and he’s alive to enjoy it. That’s about it. We move to the next one, the next chapter.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know how they’re going to look at it in the future, when they go back to everything that’s happening now in baseball. So, we’re going to find out. There’s going to have been a lot of injustice throughout all of baseball — and I’m not talking about me, I’m talking on behalf of everybody who, at some point, is going to be or are involved in something like this.”