Those two would be Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. They are locks for induction. The third of the most prominent newcomers would be Mark McGwire. As we speak, his candidacy is a matter of considerable controversy.
Gwynn and Ripken are those rare candidates whose merits are practically beyond debate. The numbers are never the whole story with players of this lofty status, but a few give a clue.
Gwynn had a lifetime batting average of .338. He won eight National League batting titles, tying Honus Wagner in that category. He had 3,141 hits. You could go on in this fashion for hours, but the point is made. Tony Gwynn spent a professional lifetime successfully putting the bat on the ball.
Plus, Gwynn was an ambassador for the game, a fountain of goodwill, the kind of fellow you could subjectively root for, well after the objective perusal of the statistics was finished.
Ripken, of course, played in those 2,632 consecutive games, and by itself this historic feat formed of diligence and durability and determination could qualify him for the Hall. But there was much more. Playing the vast majority of his career at shortstop, a defense-first position, he hit 431 home runs. He compiled 3,184 hits. He won Gold Gloves.
Beyond durability, a fundamental criterion for selection is whether a candidate was dominant at his position in his era. Ripken was selected for 19 straight All-Star Games. His credentials, and what he embodied as a player, make him an unstoppable force headed toward the Hall of Fame.
That is the good news, the relatively easy news. Now for the case of Mr. McGwire.
He had remarkable numbers, including 583 home runs, 70 of them, then a single-season record, in 1998. His home run record chase with Sammy Sosa was widely credited for helping to restore baseball's popularity in the wake of the 1994 strike.
He is widely suspected of steroid abuse. This still being America, he is innocent until proven otherwise on that charge.
There are other first-time candidates on this list, Jose Canseco and the late Ken Caminiti, who have acknowledged steroid usage. Canseco basically boasted of his steroid use in a book, while becoming a whistleblower on the issue of other players' steroid use. Whatever their merits as players, the Hall of Fame candidacies of Canseco and Caminiti, in the current climate, are going nowhere.
Induction into the Hall of Fame requires not only the obvious statistical measurements of greatness, but the overall sense that the individual in question has made substantial contributions to the game. This is where many of us who have the privilege of voting for the Hall of Fame have serious difficulty with Mark McGwire.
When last seen by the general public, while testifying on the issue of steroid abuse in baseball before a Congressional committee, McGwire's performance was notable only for the mind-numbing repetition of the phrase: "I'm not here to talk about the past."
The very best that can be said about this was that Mr. McGwire was very badly advised. To the naked eye, his was the performance of a guilty man, hiding behind a meaningless phrase. But it was even worse than that.
You could argue that the members of the Congressional committee, in holding these hearings, were grandstanding or angling for television face time. But even if you believed that, this was a duly constituted committee of the United States House of Representatives, made up of duly elected members, representing a cross-section of the American public. As such, this body was owed some level of respect. Mr. McGwire treated this body and this occasion with arrogance and disdain.
This was a bad moment for baseball, and it was made worse by Mr. McGwire's performance. "I'm not here to talk about the past." That's all the hearings were convened for, to discuss the past, the history of steroid abuse in baseball, along with suggesting that if baseball did not enact a more stringent program of testing and penalties for steroid use, Congress would do the job itself.
Fortunately, the game enacted that tougher anti-steroid policy itself. But we all know that the shadow of steroid abuse, the questions of who used what and how often and which records from the previous decade are valid and which are merely the result of performance-enhancing substances still haunt the game. In this context, "I'm not here to talk about the past" was an insult to baseball fans everywhere.
It is possible that the questions surrounding Mark McGwire will all be cleansed, that all will be suitably explained. It is also possible that, given greater distance from the steroid controversy, the years will treat him kindly in regard to his Hall of Fame candidacy. Or he could help himself by finding a more forthright public persona on these issues.
But for the moment, unlike Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr., he appears to be a candidate more suitable for debate than for induction.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.