Voters shouldn't forget Cepeda, Santo for Hall of Fame consideration

BASEBALL

January 03, 1993|By JIM HENNEMAN

Reggie Jackson is a cinch, Phil Niekro has one of the unofficial magic numbers and Steve Garvey has solid credentials. But the chances of all three going into the Hall of Fame in the first year of their eligibility are practically nil.

Results of this year's voting, which had to be done by Thursday, will be announced Tuesday night. As is usually the case, controversy is almost certain to follow.

Among the holdovers on the ballot, new Cincinnati manager Tony Perez is considered to have the best chance at election. But a couple of other perennially overlooked, and perhaps underrated, candidates are running out of time.

Orlando Cepeda and Ron Santo have only one more opportunity be- fore their 15-year eligibility period expires. Vada Pinson has two years left, Tony Oliva three. Ken Boyer, whose term was extended by special acclamation after he was inappropriately dropped from the ballot several years ago, is finished after this year.

Getting on, and staying on, the ballot is no easy feat.

After they've been retired for five years, former players are scrutinized for nomination by a screening committee. Once on the ballot, the former player must attract at least 5 percent of the votes (22 last year) in any given year to remain there.

A player remains eligible for 15 years, after which he must wait three more years before coming under the jurisdiction of the Veterans Committee. A recently passed rule now stipulates that the Veterans Committee cannot consider anyone who didn't draw 50 percent of the Baseball Writers Association of America vote at least once.

Despite a growing belief to the contrary, election to the Hall of Fame remains as difficult as it was intended to be. The voting, conducted by members of the BBWAA with at least 10 years experience, is an inexact science at best. It is not unlike trying to define a Most Valuable Player. Each voter, right or wrong, has his own set of guidelines, and they are generally rigid. That is more than adequately attested to by the fact there has never been a unanimous selection, or anything close to it.

There were 430 votes last year, and about the same number were expected this time. Even with 10 spots available on the ballot, obtaining the necessary 75 percent from a jury of more than 400 is tougher than catching Roger Clemens with bare hands.

It is this voter's belief that the BBWAA electorate has been especially rough on Cepeda, with Santo a close second. Cepeda may be paying the price for a long-ago drug conviction for which he served a short sentence, while Santo undoubtedly has been victimized because the Cubs never qualified for postseason play.

Consider the case for Cepeda. Among all eligible players with more than 300 home runs, he has the highest lifetime batting average (.297) of anyone not in the Hall of Fame. Of those eligible with a batting average over .290, he has the most home runs (379). And, of those eligible, Perez (1,652) and Rusty Staub (1,466) are the only modern players with with more runs batted in than Cepeda (1,365). It is worth noting that Perez, who also hit 379 homers, and Staub, who prolonged his career as a pinch hitter, each played 23 seasons. Hampered by knees that made him only slightly more mobile than a water buffalo, Cepeda put up his numbers (including 2,351 hits) in 15 years.

Among position players, there is no doubt that offense is the ticket to the Hall of Fame. Few, other than the fabled (and somewhat mythical) Tinker-Evers-Chance double-play combination, ever made it on defense alone. But, when a player excels in both areas of the game, it seems appropriate that defense should offset offensive numbers that aren't good enough to stand alone.

That certainly was the case when Brooks Robinson was elected in 1983, and Santo's numbers would seem to deserve equal consideration. The former Cub played 15 years (five less than Robinson) and compiled a .277 lifetime average while hitting 342 home runs (Robinson hit .267 with 268 home runs).

Robinson's unmatched string of 16 straight Gold Gloves, All-Star selection in 15 consecutive years and four World Series appearances made his election automatic. But that doesn't make Santo's accomplishment of five Gold Gloves (during an era when Boyer won four) and 10 All-Star nominations anything to sneeze at.

So far Santo has met the same fate as former Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski (eight Gold Gloves, 10 All-Star appearances, six National League fielding records, a .260 average, 138 home runs, 853 RBI), whose eligibility expired last year.

When results of this year's voting are announced Tuesday night, it will be Jackson's 563 home runs, Niekro's 318 wins, Garvey's 19-year average of .294 and another push by Perez that will command most of the attention. Meanwhile, barring an unprecedented turnaround by the voters, Cepeda and Santo will move within one year of elimination from Hall of Fame consideration.

Looking ahead

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