History suggests that induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame is all but sealed for pitcher Bert Blyleven and second baseman Roberto Alomar, but they don't hold the key to Cooperstown yet.
It's just been dangling right in front of their noses for a year.
The excruciatingly close results of the 2010 election that sent outfielder Andre Dawson to baseball's most hallowed roster make near-miss candidates Blyleven and Alomar the headliners of the 2011 ballot.
They are joined by first-timers Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, Larry Walker, Juan Gonzalez and Tino Martinez, among others. Top returnees include Jack Morris, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez and Tim Raines, all of whom finished in the top 10 last year.
A candidate must receive 75 percent of the vote from eligible BBWAA members to gain election. Never before had two players come so close to that threshold without gaining entrance, with Blyleven finishing just five votes shy at 74.21 percent last year and Alomar falling only eight votes short at 73.65 percent in his first year on the ballot.
The good news for both of them is that all 21 of the previous players to receive at least 70 percent in a given election wound up being granted admission to the Hall, one way or another.
The reality, however, is they're not in yet, not until this year's votes are tallied -- and, gulp, maybe not even then. Voting members' ballots are to be collected Jan. 4. Results will be announced Jan. 5, and any electees are expected to be introduced at a press conference in New York on Jan. 6. That's a little more than six months in advance of the biggest day in some baseball players' lives -- being inducted at Cooperstown in July.
For Blyleven, last year's close call was on his 13th year on the ballot. This is his 14th, and a player gets 15 years on the BBWAA ballot, but at least he doesn't need the big bump he received from the 62.7 percent he'd received from 2009 to last year. Only a handful of votes is needed now.
"Five votes short is a little on the sad side," Blyleven said last January, after admittedly having a laugh on the phone call from the Hall of Fame finding out he'd come that close. "But I'm proud that it jumped up 12 percent from last year, and I really appreciate that."
This year's ballot figures to make for an election year with plenty of intrigue and the possibility of at least two honorees. The first-year class is headed by a pair of slugging first basemen in Bagwell, an Astros icon, and Rafael Palmeiro, who will test the 500-homer, 3,000-hit "guarantee" of entrance to the Hall because of his 2005 suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.
Meanwhile, it would take a big bump for any of the other holdover candidates besides Blyleven and Alomar, but several players remain in the hunt for election. They're led by Tigers, Twins and Blue Jays pitcher Morris (52.3 percent), in his 12th year on the ballot; Reds shortstop Barry Larkin (51.6), who had a strong debut last year; and closer Lee Smith (47.3), who is in his ninth year of consideration.
The list of returnees also includes, in order of their 2010 voting totals, Martinez, Tim Raines, first baseman Mark McGwire, shortstop Alan Trammell, first basemen Fred McGriff and Don Mattingly, and outfielders Dave Parker, Dale Murphy and Harold Baines.
Other first-year eligibles include left-handed closer John Franco, starter Kevin Brown, first baseman John Olerud and catcher Benito Santiago.
Palmeiro hit 569 home runs and had 3,020 hits in a 20-year career for the Cubs, Rangers and Orioles. There is no player who reached those milestones who has not been elected to Cooperstown. Mark McGwire, who hit 583 homers, may have been the first "test case" for players who used or were suspected of using steroids, but Palmeiro was the first star to be suspended for such use.
McGwire has not fared well in his four years on the ballot, averaging 23.1 percent of the vote. He reached 23.7 percent last year.
"I'd hope voters would look at my body of work over my career and maybe put more emphasis on that," Palmeiro said in mid-August. "That one steroid incident is unfortunately all people remember. They don't remember the other 19 years that I played the game the right way. I always played the game the right way, I never created any problems, and I always honored my contract and came ready to play."
Bagwell, his career cut short after 15 years because of a shoulder injury, hit 449 home runs and fell short of a .300 career average by hitting .297, but he was National League Rookie of the Year in 1991 and Most Valuable Player in 1994. He reached triple figures in RBIs eight times and received MVP votes in 10 seasons.
He was among the premier first basemen in the game from 1994-2003.
"He's definitely going to the Hall of Fame," said Phil Garner, who managed Bagwell from 2004-05. "It's just a question whether he's going to be first ballot or not. I'd put him first ballot. He has good character, which is high on the [criteria] list, and there was no doubt he was one of the best players in his era year in and year out, all the way up until the last couple of years when he couldn't throw as well."
Gonzalez was also a premier player in the state of Texas, surpassing 40 home runs five times from 1992-98 and winning American League MVP awards in 1996 and '98. He finished with 434 career home runs, but like McGwire, may be haunted by suspicion, having been named in the 2007 Mitchell Report. Gonzalez denied using performance-enhancing drugs.
Walker was also an MVP, winning the award in 1997 when he hit .366 with 49 homers and 130 RBIs. Martinez played for all four of the Yankees' World Series championship teams from 1996-2000.
The remainder of the ballot features returnees Harold Baines, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, McGwire, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker and Alan Trammell, and first-timers Carlos Baerga, Bret Boone, Kevin Brown, Marquis Grissom, Lenny Harris, Bobby Higginson, Charles Johnson, Al Leiter, Raul Mondesi, John Olerud, Kirk Rueter, Benito Santiago and B.J. Surhoff.
If history holds true, Blyleven and Alomar should be celebrating when results are announced. Of the 21 players who gained entrance after getting between 70 and 74.9 percent of the vote, 17 of them won election the following year.
Of the four who didn't the following year, two -- Nellie Fox and Orlando Cepeda -- were in their final year of eligibility, and later were inducted via the Veterans Committee. Jim Bunning had a close call three years before his eligibility ran out, and he, too, was voted in by the Veterans Committee. Red Ruffing had two years of 70-plus percent before gaining election on the BBWAA ballot in his final year.
The most recent close call that turned into induction to the Hall the following year was catcher Gary Carter, who was 11 votes short at 72.7 percent in 2002 and reached the threshold with 78 percent the following year.
One other piece of history, as it relates to Blyleven: A full-career starting pitcher has not been elected to the Hall of Fame since current Rangers president and former fireballer Nolan Ryan received 98.8 percent of the vote in his first year, in 1999.
Blyleven needs only a few more votes than he had a year ago to honor a 22-season career that spanned from 1970-92 with the Twins, Rangers, Pirates, Indians and Angels. He recorded 287 wins, 27th on the all-time list, and is fifth in career strikeouts with 3,701. Blyleven is 11th in games started with 685, ninth all-time with 60 shutouts and 13th all-time in innings pitched with 4,970.
Still, his candidacy has been slow to build. After receiving just 14 percent of the vote in 1999, his second year on the ballot, Blyleven's vote totals have jumped nearly every year. He goes into this election hoping to join 14 others who had to wait 10 or more seasons to get into the Hall. The last, Jim Rice, had to wait all the way until his 15th and final year in 2009.
Alomar, meanwhile, came close to becoming just the 45th player to earn admission on his first ballot, and he clearly has the credentials to get over the hump.
His career numbers of 2,724 hits, 210 homers, 1,134 RBIs, 474 stolen bases and a .300 average in 2,379 games stand up favorably to second basemen who have reached the Hall of Fame. Ryne Sandberg, the most recent second baseman elected by the writers in 2005 -- his third year on the ballot -- had 2,386 hits, 282 homers, 1,061 RBIs, 344 steals and a career average of .285 in 2,164 games.
But Alomar's near-miss likely had to do with a much-publicized spitting incident in 1996. During an argument about a called third strike, he spat on umpire John Hirschbeck and was suspended for five games. Hirschbeck later accepted Alomar's apology, and the two have moved on amicably.
Signed by the Padres out of Puerto Rico in 1985, Alomar debuted at age 20 in 1988 and was an All-Star before being traded to Toronto prior to the 1991 season. He won the World Series twice with the Blue Jays, in 1992 and '93, and was a key cog in helping two other teams into multiple postseasons -- the Orioles in '96-97 and Indians in '99 and 2001.
Like Blyleven and the rest of the candidates on the 2011 ballot, Alomar is hopeful his on-field accomplishments add up to a key to Cooperstown.
"For me, to get in, it would be a mission accomplished," Alomar said.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.