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Monday, January 6
Updated: March 13, 5:51 PM ET
Make it a perfect 10 this year

By Jayson Stark

I've been filling out these Hall of Fame ballots for a dozen years now. And it never gets any easier. Never.

After all these years, I know now that there are certain Hall of Fame principles everyone can agree on:

  • Ted Williams -- Hall of Famer.

  • Lance Blankenship -- not a Hall of Famer.

    But somewhere in between, there's a fuzzy line that separates who is and who isn't, and I've lost way too much sleep for way too many years trying to figure out where to draw that line.

    Somehow, though, I wound up voting for the maximum 10 names on this year's ballot -- for the first time ever. So here's a look at the names I checked:

    The first-timers
    1. Eddie Murray
    It's a funny thing about Eddie Murray. He played 21 seasons, and he never got as many hits, RBI or home runs in any of them as Albert Pujols has piled up in both of his first two seasons.

    Eddie Murray
    Eddie Murray has virtually no managerial experience

    But one of the most important qualities any great player can exude is dependability. And Eddie Murray was one of the most dependable players of all time. He was one of those rare players in life whom you could look at in spring training and know exactly what you were about to get over the next six months.

    He's the only player in history to drive in 75 runs in 20 straight seasons. He hit .300 seven times, hit between 25 homers and 33 homers 12 times and drove in at least 90 runs 12 times (as many as Willie Mays). He finished in the top five in the MVP voting six times in 10 years. He was the same guy every day, every year, every decade.

    So even though Murray is the only member of the 500 Homer Club with no 40-homer seasons, and even though he had fewer 30-homer seasons (five) than anyone in that club, he was still an easy Hall of Fame vote.

    He strung together 15 straight seasons of 17 home runs or more -- and if that doesn't sound like much now, consider that just six players in history ever had longer streaks than that. Only Pete Rose played 150 games in more different seasons than Murray did (15). He was on the disabled list exactly one time in his first 18 seasons.

    So when he was through, he was one of just three men in history with 3,000 hits and 500 homers. The others were Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. So who cares if they got there on a slightly more glamorous highway? Like his high school teammate, Ozzie Smith, Eddie Murray belongs in the Hall of Fame.

    2. Ryne Sandberg
    He won't go sailing into Cooperstown, but Sandberg was the dominant second baseman of his era -- offensively and defensively. From 1982-92, he led all second basemen in average, homers, RBI, runs, extra-base hits, OPS, fielding percentage and 500-assist seasons. What else is there that matters? Tonight Show appearances?

    Sandberg hit more home runs than any second baseman ever (277). He owns the highest fielding percentage (.989) of any second baseman since 1900. He started nine straight All-Star Games -- and the only middle infielders in history who ever started more in a row were Cal Ripken and Ozzie Smith.

    You can argue that the peer group Sandberg dominated wouldn't exactly represent a golden age of second basemen. But that sure wasn't his fault.

    3. Lee Smith
    It wasn't easy to vote for Lee Smith. It was harder not to vote for him.

    Yeah, he piled up a lot of cheap saves late in his career. Yeah, he once became the only pitcher in history to save 30 games in a season without even pitching 40 innings (for the '94 Orioles). Yeah, he once went nearly three years without being asked to enter a game when his team was behind.

    But Smith is No. 1 on the all-time saves list (478). And he does own the most 30-save seasons ever (10). He is the only reliever in history to make 60 appearances or more in 12 straight seasons. (Nobody else is over eight.) And he did finish first or second in the Rolaids standings seven times.

    Of course, that isn't going to get him to Cooperstown, because closers get about as much respect in the Hall of Fame voting as bat boys. But if Lee Smith wasn't one of the best closers of his day, how come he made seven All-Star teams? That's as many as Rollie Fingers. Only one closer in history ever made more -- Goose Gossage (nine).

    That might not be enough for Smith to worm his way onto 350 ballots. But it was enough to get him a check mark on this one.

    The last-timer
    4. Jim Kaat
    Anybody who has to persevere through the aggravation of spending 15 years on the ballot deserves one last look. After giving Kaat that final perusal, I wound up voting for him for the first time.

    Despite winning 283 games, Kaat has never gotten 150 votes in any Hall of Fame election. But the more you look at his career, the better it gets.

    He was an ace-type starter for a World Series team (the '65 Twins) -- and beat Sandy Koufax in a World Series game. He had a long period of excellence, winning 18 games at age 23 and 20 at age 37. In his prime, he had only one losing season in 14 years. And his 16 Gold Gloves tie Brooks Robinson for the most by any player at any position.

    Bill James once nominated Kaat as the best Hall of Fame candidate out there who never gets elected. In my final chance to kick that observation around, I finally came to my senses and agreed.

    The many-timers
    5. Gary Carter
    He's gotta get in this time. Doesn't he?

    Gary Carter
    2296 7971 1025 324 1225 .262

    By last year, Carter had more than doubled his 1998 vote total -- and crept within 11 votes of election. No one has ever gotten that close and not made it into the Hall of Fame. So you have to figure this is his year. Right?

    But you never know -- because how the heck has it taken him this long in the first place? What we all ought to know by now is this: Carter and Carlton Fisk had essentially the same career. Fisk's was longer. Carter's was better.

    He had more 100-RBI seasons than Fisk (4-2), had more 20-homer seasons than Fisk (9-8), won more Gold Gloves than Fisk (3-1) and started more All-Star games than Fisk (8-7).

    So if you can explain why Fisk is in the Hall and Carter isn't, your next assignment is to explain Stonehenge.

    6. Goose Gossage and 7. Bruce Sutter
    Just when it looked as if there was hope for the two dominating closers of their time, Gossage mysteriously lost 25 votes last year and Sutter lost seven. But maybe Lee Smith's arrival on the ballot will somehow put their greatness into better perspective.

    How omnipotent was the Goose? Well, in his first 10 years as a closer, this man had ERAs of 0.77, 1.62, 1.82, 1.84, 2.01, 2.23 and 2.27 twice. He pitched more than 130 innings in relief three times. He had a period of close to 20 years in which all the right-handed hitters alive hit under .200 against him. And he was once voted, in a poll by the folks at Rolaids, the most dominating reliever of his era.

    Sutter, meanwhile, revolutionized how closers everywhere were used, won a Cy Young, all but invented a pitch (the splitter), averaged 25 saves for 12 years when that was still a meaningful number and is still the only relief pitcher who ever finished in the top 10 in MVP voting six times in eight years.

    When these men started warming up late in a game, the fans reached for their keys, the hitters felt like retiring and their teammates started shaking hands. Why? Because they were Hall of Famers. That's why.

    8. Jack Morris
    He didn't even get 100 votes last year -- and he can blame it all on his 3.90 career ERA, which would be the highest of any pitcher in the Hall. But Jack Morris wasn't defined by the ERA column, friends. He was defined by the Wins column.

    Maybe 254 wins didn't used to be enough to make a guy a Hall of Famer. But these are different times. And Morris is, essentially, the first product solely of the five-man rotation to be a serious Hall candidate.

    All you can do is compare a man to his peers. And in his 14 peak seasons (1979-92), Morris won 41 more games than any other starter of his generation. In that same period, he outwon Nolan Ryan by 65 wins (233-168).

    But above all, Morris was a clear-cut No. 1 starter for almost his entire career. He pitched a no-hitter. He started three All-Star Games. (Since the '70s, only Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson have done that). He was The Main Man on three World Series pitching staffs. And his epic 10-inning Game 7 shutout in 1991 Series was the ultimate example of what people mean when they use the word, "ace."

    9. Andre Dawson
    Dawson missed election by 140 votes in his first year on the ballot. But he did get more votes (214) in his debut than Carter, Orlando Cepeda or Harmon Killebrew got in theirs. So his time might still come.

    Andre Dawson
    2627 9927 1373 438 1591 .279

    For most of the 1980s, every debate about the best player in the National League included Dawson's name. He won an MVP award, and he finished second twice. He was a Rookie of the Year. He won eight Gold Gloves. And even though his knees quit about eight years before the rest of him did, his combination of hits (2,774), home runs (438) and stolen bases (314) puts him in a group with only Willie Mays and Barry Bonds.

    So add it all up -- the power, the speed, the defense, the leadership, the respect he commanded among his peers and all the ice cubes he melted just so he could make it out of the dugout. And it's a lot harder to figure out why Andre Dawson shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame than why he should.

    10. Dale Murphy
    Speaking of great names from the '80s, Murphy finished his career with exactly 100 more homers (398) than Alex Rodriguez has already, at age 27. He also wound up with a lower career slugging percentage (.469) than Reggie Sanders.

    But when you measure Hall of Famers, you don't measure them against the next generation. You measure them against their own generation. And if Dale Murphy wasn't one of the greatest players of his generation, how do we explain all those years when people were suggesting he might be the best player in baseball?

    In the '80s, Murphy led the National League in runs and hits, tied Mike Schmidt for the most RBI and finished second to Schmidt in home runs. So his numbers measure up against his peers' numbers just fine.

    But Dale Murphy was also a back-to-back MVP, a five-time Gold Glove winner, a 30-30 man when that was a club worth joining, a guy who once led the entire sport in All-Star votes and one of the best human beings ever to dig into a batter's box.

    Maybe that doesn't make him a cinch Hall of Famer. But it sure makes him worthy of more than the 70 stinking votes he got last year.

    Sorry, not this time
    Yes, there are excellent cases to be made for Jim Rice, Bert Blyleven, Alan Trammell, Steve Garvey, Tommy John and Don Mattingly.

    Yes, Fernando Valenzuela, Brett Butler, Tony Pena and Todd Worrell deserved a long, serious perusal of their careers in their first years on the ballot.

    Yes, Keith Hernandez, Dave Concepcion and Dave Parker deserve to get more than 15 percent of the vote. (They didn't last year.)

    But no, they weren't on this writer's ballot. They all wound up just on the other side of that line we all have to draw when we hold that ballot in our hands. That doesn't mean they weren't great players. All it means is that if you take this process seriously, they're the reason it never gets any easier. Never.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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