DETROIT -- For years, Alan Trammell's supporters for the National Baseball Hall of Fame have wondered aloud what separated Ozzie Smith so drastically to get him enough votes for induction in his first year of eligibility while leaving Trammell mired way down the ballot.
Now that Barry Larkin is in the Hall, inducted this year in his third year on the ballot, Trammell fans have a new argument. This time, however, they might at least have hope for a carryover effect.
It's not merely the fact that they were both All-Star shortstops with careers around two decades. It's how similar they both were. Both were outstanding defensive shortstops known more for consistent play than highlights. Both were strong offensive contributors in an era when shortstops weren't known for high offense.
Baseball-reference.com uses a "similarity score" based on a formula developed by Bill James for comparing players. Look up Larkin's page on baseball-reference.com, and Trammell tops the list of similar players. Look up Trammell's page, and Larkin is second on his list.
It wasn't enough to get Trammell enough votes to look at the Hall of Fame as a real possibility -- not yet. But as voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America faced the question, the conversation drew him enough votes to have at least a glimmer of hope.
If you're going to vote for Larkin, some writers argued publicly, you have to vote for Trammell. Others looked at differences such as Larkin's MVP Award as a separator, though many of Trammell's supporters will argue he should have won the award over George Bell in 1987.
Last year's debate helped earn Trammell his biggest jump ever in votes, from 24.3 percent two years ago to 36.8 percent last year. That needs to double to get him to the cusp of Cooperstown, and it needs to happen in a hurry. A candidate must be selected on 75 percent of ballots for induction.
This year will be Trammell's 12th on the ballot. Fifteen is the limit.
Trammell won a World Series MVP Award on the 1984 Tigers, but the only member of that club in the Hall of Fame is the manager, the late Sparky Anderson. Trammell and Jack Morris are the only two players from that team still on the ballot, but Morris has by far the better chance of getting in.
"Maybe people are looking at us as not exactly superstars, but a team," Trammell said a few years ago. "That's the way we were taught and that's the way we played every day."
The Tigers certainly were hoping for greatness from him when they drafted the scrawny athlete out of high school in the second round of the 1976 First-Year Player Draft. A year later, Trammell was in the Major Leagues, a September callup at age 19, sent to Detroit to change up the middle infield. Fittingly, he made his big league debut on the same date as his second baseman, Lou Whitaker, and they recorded their first Major League hits that day.
Together, they'd be teammates for 1,918 games, more than any other duo in American League history. They led the AL in double plays as rookies in 1978, merely the start of their accomplishments. Whitaker won the American League Rookie of the Year that season, with Trammell finishing fourth largely based on his defense.
Trammell steadily progressed as a hitter until he earned the first of six All-Star selections on his way to a .300 average and 65 RBIs in 1980. His offensive production dropped in the strike-shortened '81 season, then plummeted in '82, when he entered the All-Star break barely hitting above the Mendoza Line. He hit better than .300 in the second half, and he later pointed to that as when he really emerged as a hitter.
Trammell earned AL Comeback Player of the Year honors in 1983, but it was the Tigers' championship run in '84 that cemented his place in history. After returning to the All-Star Game for the first time in four years, he was at his best in October. He tripled, homered and drove in three runs in the AL Championship Series, then tied a five-game World Series record with nine hits. His two home runs accounted for all four runs scored in a 4-2 win over the Padres in Game 4, moving Detroit to within a win of its first title since '68.
Not surprisingly, Trammell was named World Series MVP. More shocking was the season he had in 1987. Shifting from second to cleanup in the order with Lance Parrish gone, Trammell obliterated all of his offensive standards, batting .343 with 205 hits, 28 homers, 105 RBIs and 109 runs scored. Only a 47-homer season from Bell kept Trammell from the AL MVP, the first controversial snub of his career.
That earned Trammell the first of his three Silver Slugger Awards in a four-year span. Only three Hall of Fame shortstops -- Larkin, Ernie Banks and Robin Yount -- hit more home runs than Trammell's 185 career long balls.
But his bat never overshadowed his glove. He won four Gold Gloves in a five-year stretch from 1980-84 before Tony Fernandez and later Omar Vizquel put a stranglehold on the award. When Trammell retired in '96, his .977 fielding percentage was higher than any Hall of Fame shortstop at the time.
"He didn't have the flash that Ozzie Smith did, but he was an excellent defensive player, day in and day out, over the course of his career," the late Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell said. "I can't think of anyone else I'd want the ball hit to with the game on the line."
That explains in part why it was a bitter pill for many Tigers fans when Trammell fell far short of Hall of Fame induction in 2001, the year Smith made it in.
Trammell's place in history will probably be as part of a tandem rather than on his own merits. But he's fine with that.
"I actually enjoyed that it was both of us," Trammell said, "that it was Lou and Tram. That really hasn't happened in the history of baseball. We were a long-running double-play combination and we went about the way of business that was our way. Maybe we didn't get recognized, but that's not what we played for. We were taught the game the right way. We were very happy. But to be known as that kind of duo is very special. Nobody can take that away."