The locks seem to be Gwynn and Ripken, the players mostly likely to appear on well beyond the necessary 75 percent of the ballots when they are cast in December by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who have logged at least 10 consecutive years covering baseball.
McGwire, who played 16 seasons for the Oakland A's and St. Louis Cardinals before a knee injury ended his career in 2001, hit 583 homers -- 70 of them in 1998 and 65 in 1999. Though McGwire was a 12-time All-Star, the AL Rookie of the Year in 1987 and a Gold Glove-winning first baseman in 1990, his candidacy is likely to lead to considerable debate.
McGwire faces the specter of his perceived place in Major League Baseball's steroid era and his reluctance to speak about the subject of steroids during a Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., 18 months ago. Jose Canseco and the late Ken Caminiti, both admitted steroid users who are also on the ballot for the first time, will undoubtedly be cast under the same shadow as McGwire.
"It's going to be controversial because I think writers are going to make their point," Gwynn said about McGwire's chances of ascending to the Hall in his first year of eligibility. "I think he's a Hall of Famer. But it's a lot of people's point of view that he didn't come across well in the Congressional hearings. It's going to cost him. It's a shame, but I think that's what's going to happen."
The results will be announced on Jan. 9. With a huge contingent of fans scheduled to make the trip from Maryland to Cooperstown to honor Ripken, and requests for space already coming in from Gwynn aficionados in California, hotels within a 100-mile radius of the village of 2,200 are expected to be booked.
"People will be staying as far away as Albany (to the east) and Syracuse (to the west)," said Jeff Idelson, the Hall's vice president of communications and education. "If the voting goes as expected, we are making preparations for a record or near-record crowd."
In comparison, this past July 30, when reliever extraordinaire Bruce Sutter was the only former Major League player elected, 11,000 attended the ceremony, which also included the induction of 17 Negro League and pre-Negro League players and founders.
This year, there's anticipation that 700 to 800 media members will be credentialed, well over 200 buses will bring tourists and the crowd could swell as high as 55,000, Idelson said.
And for good reason.
The 2007 ballot features 32 candidates, with 15 returnees and 17 newcomers. (Years on ballot)
Gwynn was a 15-time National League All-Star who had 3,141 hits, batted .338 and won five Gold Gloves as a right fielder in his 20 Major League seasons, all played with the San Diego Padres.
Ripken, who spent his entire 21-year career with the Baltimore Orioles, was a shortstop and third baseman who played in a record 2,632 consecutive games from May 30, 1982, to Sept. 20, 1998, shattering the mark of 2,130 once held by Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig. Ripken had 3,184 hits --including 431 home runs -- batted .276, was twice an American League Most Valuable Player (1983 and 1991), was a 19-time AL All-Star, and won two Gold Gloves.
Also new on the ballot this year are some of baseball's best and brightest: Harold Baines, Paul O'Neill, Bret Saberhagen, Eric Davis, Bobby Bonilla and Tony Fernandez.
Among the 15 holdovers from last year's ballot are Jim Rice, Rich "Goose" Gossage and Andre Dawson, players who all scored above 60 percent of the vote at the same time that Sutter was selected with 76.9 percent.
In 1999, Ryan's name appeared on 98.8 percent -- 491 of the 497 ballots cast; Brett's name appeared on 98.2 percent, or 488 of the ballots, and Yount's name appeared on 77.5 percent, or 385 of the ballots. Nobody else was even close, although four players -- Sutter, Carlton Fisk, Tony Perez and Gary Carter -- were subsequently elected.
Thus, Rice, Gossage and Dawson may not get a positive bump this time because of the competition on the latest ballot.
Gwynn said he's well aware of what is at stake. He's thrilled about his prospects, but his excitement is being tempered because he believes that some of his Major League predecessors should already be in the Hall.
"There's always that guilt that bothers me because I'm a big baseball fan," Gwynn said. "I grew up watching baseball and even when I first came up there was no doubt that Goose was a Hall of Famer. I see guys like him not in there and to me it's a double-edged sword. I want to get in, but I want these guys to accomplish what they want to accomplish, too."