Monday, December 15, 2008


Few duties remain from my days as a working sports writer, but one of them I especially cherish. It showed up again in my mailbox the other day in the form of my annual ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

I get to vote because of my 10-plus active years in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, the estimable organization that oversees the election of players who recently have retired from the game. Even though I’m retired I’m still a “lifetime honorary” member with hall-elector status, one of about 575 people so designated.

When I was working I was pestered constantly to vote on all sorts of jock awards. I pitched most such pleas on the ground that those guys already were too-much fussed over. I place the Hall ballot in an entirely different category. Baseball is the sport whose roots go deepest into America’s soil, and the game’s depository of relics in charming Cooperstown, N.Y., uniquely conjures up its glories. It’s said that you visit the Hall to discover baseball’s past and wind up discovering your own. I’ve been there as boy and man and can vouch for the truth of that.

The most interesting thing about the Hall’s election process is how few statutory requirements govern it. To be eligible for the ballot someone must have played at least 10 Major League seasons, be retired five years and be nominated by at least two members of a six-member BWAA screening committee. Period. That means every voter must define greatness in his own way. It’s a challenging task. Kind of daunting, too.

In practice, some statistical accomplishments virtually assure a player’s election, such as 300 career wins for a pitcher or 3,000 hits for a position player, but times change and so do such standards. For instance, 500 home runs used to be a sure ticket to Cooperstown, but the game’s steroids era (roughly 1990 to 2005) ended that. The Bluto-like Mark McGwire showed up on the ballot last year with 583 homers to his credit but was mentioned by just 23% of the voters (and not by me), far short of the 75% required for election. His chemical odor makes him a long shot ever to get in. The same fate may await another accomplished juicer, Rafael Palmeiro (3,020 hits, 569 home runs), when his Hall eligibility begins in 2010. Pending future developments, Barry Bonds may have a tough time, too.

Ten new names are on this year’s ballot: Jay Bell, David Cone, Ron Gant, Mark Grace, Rickey Henderson, Jesse Orosco, Dan Plesac, Greg Vaughn, Mo Vaughn and Matt Williams. Henderson, the all-time stolen bases leader and smacker of 3,055 career hits, should be a first-ballot shoo in. I look forward to his installation speech and hope that in it he’ll refer to himself in the third person, as he often did in interviews. Of the rest, Cone, Grace and Mo Vaughn have the best chance of getting the 5% mentions needed to remain on the ballot for another year. The rest, I’m afraid, are history in another sense.

Electors can put from none to 10 names on their ballots, from the total list of 23. Besides Henderson, I’ll be naming Jack Morris, Andre Dawson, Alan Trammell and Bert Blyleven.

I’ve enthusiastically voted for Morris since he became eligible 10 years ago and can’t understand why many other of my colleagues haven’t (he got just 43% mention last year). Besides a win-heavy 254-186 career record he was one of the best big-game pitchers I’ve seen, the biggest being his 10-inning, 1-0 win for Minnesota over Atlanta in the seventh game of the epic, 1991 World Series.

Dawson was a powerful batsman (he’s 23rd in all-time extra-base hits, 25th in total bases, 30th in RBIs), a heck of an outfielder and had a great nickname (“The Hawk”). I’m partial to shortstops, who generally are the best athletes on a baseball field, and Trammell was one of the best of the best during his 20 seasons in Detroit. He was World Series MVP for the 1984 Tigers, one of the game’s greatest teams.

I’ve wrestled with myself over Blyleven’s qualifications, sometimes including him, sometimes not. He was a good pitcher for a long time (22 seasons), and won 287 games, but never quite reached the sport’s pinnacle. However, I’ve finally concluded that his fifth-place in all-time strikeouts (with 3,701) is an achievement worth honoring.

Among those I’m leaving off is Jim Rice. In his 15th and final year on the writers’ ballot ( a veteran-players’ committee considers candidates 20-plus years out), he fell just short of election last year at 72.2%, and might have been in before if he hadn’t made a habit of stiffing writers after games (yes, some count that), but by me he doesn’t quite measure up overall. Ditto for such other present-ballot notables as McGwire, Lee Smith, Dave Parker, Tommy John, Harold Baines, Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly and Tim Raines.

Think I’m wrong? Let me know. I have a couple more weeks to change my mind.

Or not.