This isn't Mark McGwire's Hall of Fame election.
It ought to be Tony Gwynn's election. It ought to be Cal Ripken Jr.'s election. It ought to be their day, their moment, because this is supposed to be about the winners, the greatest players who ever lived.
But in the extraordinary cases of Gwynn and Ripken, there is another powerful force at work. When the ballots are counted Tuesday, those two men conceivably could find themselves in the middle of the biggest Hall of Fame story ever. Yes, even bigger than whatever puny number McGwire's vote total lands at.
Let's lay this out on the table right now: If Gwynn, or Ripken, or both, should -- miracle of miracles -- become the first player(s) ever elected to Cooperstown unanimously, that's the story.
It may not be the story hundreds of writers, columnists and sports editors are gearing up to tell. But if Ruth and Gehrig and Williams and Mays weren't unanimous -- and somebody in this election is -- that's a monumental event in baseball history. And it would be a sad commentary on all of us if we turn that into a subplot to the tale of any guy who doesn't make it.
So this isn't Mark McGwire's Hall of Fame election.
It ought to be Goose Gossage's election, too. I have a feeling it won't be -- but it should. This is the Goose's eighth appearance on this ballot. His eighth. What a travesty.
If anybody out there has a sensible explanation for how Bruce Sutter got elected last year while Gossage was still finishing 54 votes short, I'd love to hear it. What, exactly, was Sutter's magical qualification that the Goose couldn't match or beat?
OK, so Sutter may have been viewed as more of "a pioneer," for the way he was used and the man-eating split-fingered plummetball he popularized. But the Goose was better. And pitched twice as long. So it's about time this wrong was righted.
But will it be? I bet it won't. Too many voters tend to vote the story line instead of the credentials in years like this. Which means enough of them will want to see Gwynn and Ripken go in alone that they'll leave Gossage off their ballots, even if they voted for him last year.
So is the Goose really going to wind up as a see-ya-next-year victim of this often irrational process yet again, along with last year's two other 60-percenters -- Jim Rice and Andre Dawson? That ought to be a more intriguing plot line in this election than the story of a man we know is going to miss by hundreds of votes.
But it won't be. Everybody knows that.
The profound rejection of the seventh-leading home run hitter in baseball history is going to be America's official Hall of Fame story line. That's already clear. And it might not matter what the heck happens with all those candidates around him.
But you know what? We might have 15 years to kick around that tale -- even though most of us are already tired of it. So this is a column about those other story lines.
Yeah, I voted for Mark McGwire. I've been explaining why for 22 months. I'll address his career within this column. If you'd like to read the big-picture reasons why I voted for him, feel free to click on the link in the box above.
But this isn't Mark McGwire's Hall of Fame election. So here's a look at the ballot I cast, a ballot that caused me to place a check beside nine names for only the second time in my 18 years as a voter:
Anybody who votes against this man should be embarrassed. If Tony Gwynn isn't a Hall of Famer, why do we even have a Hall of Fame?
Gwynn's career batting average (.338) is better than any player's since Ted Williams (.344). Among men whose careers began in the expansion era (1961-present), Gwynn is out there at least 20 points ahead of everybody -- except two Hall of Famers (Wade Boggs and Rod Carew).
Tony Gwynn hit .350 or better five years in a row -- a streak unmatched by any hitter since Rogers Hornsby. This guy won eight batting titles (tied with Honus Wagner for the most in National League history). He finished in the top 10 in the batting race in every full season of his career -- and finished in the top five in all but two.
He was a 15-time All-Star. He won five Gold Gloves. He batted .500 (8-for-16) in the '98 World Series. He was a total class act. And his greatest talent was one that no player in any of our lifetimes could match: It was just about impossible to make this man swing and miss.
Five times, Gwynn struck out fewer than 25 times in a season in which he hit .350 or better. No other player whose career began in the live-ball era can say that. The only other guy in the last half century who had even one season like that was George Brett.
So if Tony Gwynn isn't unanimous, I can't wait to hear the rationale of the folks who voted against him. They obviously weren't watching the same player I was watching.
Cal Ripken Jr.
And what would be the explanation for not voting for Ripken, for that matter? That he didn't come up to the press box and personally shake every hand during his surreal orbit of the ballpark the night he passed Lou Gehrig?
It's sure tough to think of any other negatives on this guy's report card. I've heard people say the streak was overrated. And in a vacuum, most iron-man streaks really are. But when you consider what this streak meant to the sport, what the night of 2,131 meant to the sport, how could we ever claim this particular streak was overrated?
The fact is, though, that Cal Ripken would be a Hall of Famer whether he'd played in two games in a row or 2,000 in a row. That streak made him an icon, but he was already a Hall of Famer. The streak was just a frame around a great career.
Did you know that no player was elected to start the All-Star Game more times than Ripken (17 times in 18 years)? Did you know that no American League shortstop besides Ripken ever won two MVP awards?
Did you know that no shortstop ever had more seasons of at least 50 extra-base hits than Ripken (12)? Did you know that just three players besides Ripken ever won a rookie-of-the-year award, an MVP award and an All-Star Game MVP award -- Frank Robinson, Willie Mays and Fred Lynn?
I could go on for a week. But if any truly responsible voters in this electorate think Cal Ripken isn't a first-ballot Hall of Famer, why are we even letting them vote?
There are a million reasons not to vote for McGwire. But of all the reasons people have dredged up lately, the one I find most amazing is the revisionist history that he wasn't that good -- except for those four years (1996-99) when he morphed into Babe Ruth.
Well, hold on. Ask any scout who saw him at USC, and they'll all tell you the same thing: This guy was a big-time masher from the day he was drafted until the day he quit.
If it took Jose Canseco's magic potion to make him any good, how come he had a .618 slugging percentage in his rookie season? Andruw Jones, Adam Dunn and Jeff Kent have never slugged .618 in any season, if that tells you anything.
And if McGwire wasn't any good until 1996, how did he manage to put up six seasons with at least 32 homers and 90 RBI in his seven healthy seasons before that? That's as many seasons of 32-90 as Chipper Jones and Moises Alou have, combined.
If he wasn't any good, how did this man make 12 All-Star teams -- as many as Mike Schmidt? If he wasn't any good, why did he collect MVP votes in every healthy season of his career except one?
The other shaky argument here is that McGwire just had one song on his jukebox, that all he could do was hit home runs, kind of like Dave Kingman. But if he was so one-dimensional, how did he win a Gold Glove? How did he compile that .394 career on-base percentage? And even if he had just one superior dimension, he had the best home run ratio of any player who ever lived (one every 10.6 at-bats).
So if people want to vote against him to make a steroid statement, I understand that. But arguing that he didn't have a Hall of Fame career? That one doesn't compute.
The Goose has more than doubled his vote totals since 2000. So he's going to get in one of these centuries. But I have no idea why it has taken him this long. None.
Have the people who don't vote for him actually looked at his stats? In this guy's first 10 years as a closer, he spun off ERAs of 0.77, 1.62, 1.82, 1.84, 2.01, 2.23 and 2.27 twice. And he racked up those numbers while absorbing double the workload of today's closers. The guy threw 130 innings three times, and 99 or more two other times.
No closer in history made more All-Star teams than Gossage (nine). And according to Retrosheet, he held right-handed hitters to a .211 batting average, .285 on-base percentage and .311 slugging percentage over a 22-year career. So elect him already. Please.
I covered the National League in the 1980s. And every debate about the best player in the National League back then included Dawson's name. That's something I think about every year when I cast a vote for this man.
He won an MVP award, and finished second twice. He was a rookie of the year. He won eight Gold Gloves. He had one of the most spectacular throwing arms of his era. And even though he needed to run his knees into more ice than the Titanic just to get out there, he still racked up 2,774 hits, 438 homers and 314 stolen bases. The only other players in history who can match that combination are Willie Mays and Barry Bonds.
So consider his whole package of credentials -- power and speed, defense and award votes, and the all-important non-statistical side of him, the leadership and the respect he commanded among his peers. Consider all that, and it's tougher to figure out why Dawson shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame than why he should.
It couldn't be more obvious now that Murphy is never going to end up in Cooperstown. Seven years ago, he was attracting more votes (116) than Bert Blyleven. By last year, Blyleven was pounding him in this same voting, 277 to 56. So you don't need a degree from MIT to figure out this trend.
But if we're entering an age when voters feel compelled to make moralistic statements against the cheaters, maybe those voters should think about making a more positive statement -- by voting for a guy so pure and clean, he made David Eckstein look like Albert Belle.
Murphy's stats may not look so dazzling stacked up against the numbers of today. But in his heyday -- the decade of the '80s -- Murphy got more hits and scored more runs than anyone in the National League, tied Mike Schmidt for most RBI and was second to Schmidt in homers. He was also a back-to-back MVP, a five-time Gold Glove winner, a proud member of the 30-Homer, 30-Steal Club and a big enough star to lead the entire sport in All-Star votes in 1985. So he sure deserves to be getting more than 56 stinking votes.
Five years ago, Morris wasn't collecting even 100 votes. Now he's over 200. But you have to wonder if enough of these voters will ever be able to look past his 3.90 career ERA to get him to the podium.
Well, if you toss out that ERA (which is lower than Jason Schmidt's career ERA, by the way), what more evidence of this man's perpetual ace-hood could a voter ask for?
This is about more than just Game 7, 1991. Jack Morris pitched a no-hitter. He started three All-Star Games. He was a huge figure on three World Series pitching staffs. He always started Opening Day. And consider this: From 1979 to '92, when Morris and Nolan Ryan were both doing their thing, Morris had 65 more wins than Ryan (233-168). I've voted for him eight years in a row, and never once felt I'd overinflated what he was in his day.
I burned a lot of brain cells agonizing over Rice for a whole decade, until I finally convinced myself to vote for him two years ago. And I'm still grateful to all the readers who did so much research on this guy to help me see the light on him.
The biggest reason I vote for him: The fear factor. In the 11 seasons from 1975 to '85, Anerican League pitchers would have been happier to see Jack the Ripper heading up their driveway than Jim Rice heading toward home plate.
In those 11 seasons, Rice led the AL in home runs, RBI, runs scored, slugging and extra-base hits. And the only hitter even in the same neighborhood in most of those departments was George Brett.
This is Rice's 13th election, so his clock isn't merely ticking anymore. It's rattling. But he has finally reached a zone (64.8 percent of the vote last year) where everybody gets elected eventually. I just have a feeling it won't be this year.
If Blyleven ever makes it to Cooperstown -- and he might, now that he's finally over 50 percent of the vote -- he'll owe it to men like Bill James, Rob Neyer and the bright statistical minds who now look at baseball in so many insightful new ways.
Until last year, I was one of those people who thought of Blyleven as a not-quite candidate, 287 wins or no 287 wins. But James did an incredible start-by-start study of Blyleven's career that convinced me it was only bad luck that kept him out of the 300-win club.
And Lee Sinins' indispensable Complete Baseball Encyclopedia proved just how dominant Blyleven was by computing how his Runs Saved Above Average compared to the greatest pitchers of modern times.
Blyleven gave up 344 fewer runs in his career than the average pitcher of his time. In the entire live-ball era, the only eight pitchers who beat him in that department are Roger Clemens, Lefty Grove, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Tom Seaver, Carl Hubbell and Bob Gibson.
Does a guy who hangs out with that crowd sound like a Hall of Famer to you? He sure did to me -- finally.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.