The first thing to know about this year's baseball Hall of Fame ballot is that Pete Rose isn't on it (don't get excited; he's not eligible until next year) and that John Lowenstein is.
Lowenstein, a 16-year veteran, is a long shot, of course, to be elected to Cooperstown, although he can visit any time he wants. Still, the former Oriole has two very important legs up on Rose:
* He has never cheated on his taxes (at least, he's never been caught).
* And he's not in prison.
That may not be enough.
"I have this neighbor who's a pilot," Lowenstein was saying the other day, "who came running up to me with this out-of-town newspaper clipping, shouting, 'You're in the Hall of Fame. You're in the Hall of Fame.'
"I'm not 'in' the Hall of Fame. I've been nominated. Everyone gets nominated. I told him, 'Many are nominated; few are chosen.' Unless somebody gives me a vote, I expect to get shut out. My buddy Gaylord [Perry] isn't in the Hall of Fame. How am I supposed to get in?"
Lowenstein, who had a .253 lifetime batting average before retiring to broadcasting, has a point. Perry should be in. I'll be voting for him again. And another good point: Many are nominated (45 this year), and few are chosen. I'm voting for five, although I'm allowed to vote for as many as 10. I'd say that no more than three -- and probably just two -- will make it.
The most obvious choice is Rod Carew, who retired five years ago with a .328 batting average, the highest of any player who came to the big leagues after 1950. During his career, Carew did not lack for critics, especially those who said he didn't drive in enough runs or produce enough clutch hits or concern himself enough with team play. So why does he belong? Well, start off with the batting average and continue through the seven batting titles, the 3,053 hits and the 18 All-Star games.
As it turns out, the rap on Carew is that as great as he was -- and there have been few better hitters in the modern era -- he might have been even greater. But he's certainly great enough for a place in Cooperstown. He should be -- but won't be -- a unanimous selection.
The other newcomer who belongs is Rollie Fingers, who helped invent the modern relief pitcher. The development of the stopper, now a specialist whom every team requires, is probably the most important innovation in baseball -- the sport most resistant to change -- over the past 20 years. Fingers had that wonderful mustache and played on great Oakland teams, retiring with more saves (341) than anyone else. He was an MVP and a Cy Young Award winner and will look great on a plaque.
Of all the newcomers to the ballot -- anyone who plays 10 years gets at least one shot -- Carew and Fingers are the obvious, and the only possible, choices.
Of the holdovers, I'll mention first a few who deserve attention, but not a vote. One is Maury Wills, whose base-stealing changed the game. He was a fine shortstop and an OK hitter who doesn't quite figure up to immortal. Dick Allen and Vada Pinson and Bobby Bonds had Hall of Fame starts to their careers and then fizzled. Ron Santo was steadily good -- never great. Tony Oliva was often great, but not for long enough. Jim Kaat simply lasted a long time, which might get him a Duracell battery endorsement contract but shouldn't put him in the Hall of Fame. Jim Bunning gets a lot of support, but to me, he's not as good as Don Drysdale, who shouldn't have made it himself.
That leaves Perry, Ferguson Jenkins and Orlando Cepeda, all of whom have strikes against them. Perry greased up the ball, Jenkins had a drug problem and Cepeda went to prison. They still all belong. The argument I'll make now -- and the one I'll make again for Rose -- is that the Hall of Fame honors players for what they did on the field, period.
Of course, Perry did take the Vaseline, or the sandpaper, or, if legend holds, an entire Black & Decker tool set onto the field. So did Drysdale. And Whitey Ford. And a lot of other folks. Perry won 314 games and Cy Young awards in both leagues. That's plenty.
Jenkins was a dominant pitcher who won 20 or more games six years in a row with the Cubs, not exactly a dominant team. He won 284 games, rarely missed a turn, and could usually be depended on to get his team into the ninth inning in position to win a game. He was not as good a pitcher as Perry, but he was a high-quality performer for many years. He belongs.
Making a case for Cepeda is not as easy, except to point out that he was an excellent player. Not only did he hit for power (379 homers and 1,365 RBI), he also hit for average (.297 and nine years over .300). In fact, he hit .300 and drove in 90 or more runs eight times, more often than Carl Yastrzemski, who was elected last year. His numbers compare well with those of Willie McCovey, his contemporary, former teammate and Hall of Famer. He twice led the league in RBI and once was an MVP. He'll get my vote, but he won't get the 75 percent needed to qualify.
Leaving . . . Lowenstein, who, according to the bio send out by the Hall of Fame folks, once led American League outfielders in fielding. He fears that particular honor will not sway a sufficient number of voters.
"Let's just say I'm not walking around with the cellular phone waiting for the call," he said.