There are three holdover candidates -- Jim Rice, Andre Dawson, Bert Blyleven -- who have had increasingly strong showings in recent Hall elections. This may be their shot.
In fact, for Rice, this is THE shot. This is his 15th and final year on the ballot, so this seems to be a case of now or possibly never. If a candidate does not get the necessary 75 percent of the votes on the ballots of the eligible voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America after 15 years, he passes to the consideration of the Veterans Committee. Since that committee was reformulated to include the living Hall of Fame members, it has chosen to enshrine no other players.
Rice's share of the vote increased from 63.5 percent in 2007 to 72.6 percent in 2008. He was on the very edge of election then, falling just 16 votes short of reaching the necessary 75 percent.
Dawson's share of the vote increased markedly as well, from 56.7 percent to 65.9 percent. Blyleven had an even larger leap, although he had more distance to cover, from 47.7 percent to 61.9 percent.
These three finished second, third and fourth in the 2008 voting, behind Rich Gossage, who was elected. There are other extremely meritorious careers represented on this ballot. This is also, for instance, Tommy John's 15th year in the process. But these three are the only candidates who appear to be in serious contention for baseball's ultimate individual honor.
I have persistently voted for Rice, Dawson and Blyleven, and I will again. This is always, in the end -- even with all of the data on either side of any given argument -- a subjective judgment. There are essentially at least two tiers of Hall of Famers; those who are no-doubters, first-ballot picks, the greatest of the great, and then there are those players whose overall worth is widely acknowledged, but whose worthiness for this honor can be debated. By definition, by receiving substantial support for many years, but never winning this election, these three players are in that second category.
The arguments for and against Rice grow increasingly vehement as his time on the writers' ballot grows shorter. That's good. It shows how much people care. By the numbers, this is the hardest Hall of Fame to reach among North American professional sports. That is also as it should be.
The standards won't be lowered if any or all three of these candidates are enshrined at Cooperstown. Rice, for instance, meets one of the basic criteria for election. He was a dominant player in his era. Did his personal era last long enough for him to put up the kind of career numbers that automatically win this election? No. But that doesn't diminish the kind of hitter he was at the peak of his career, nor does playing his home games as a right-handed hitter at Fenway Park.
Another standard for induction comes in asking the question: When you saw him play during the prime of his career, did you think to yourself, "There's a Hall of Famer?" For me, the honest answer in this case is, "Absolutely."
Dawson is another kind of candidacy, because he was such a splendid all-around talent. The multiple Gold Gloves are terrific, but they only begin to tell what a superior outfielder he was. This again was a career that you would have liked to see last longer at its peak. There is no Hall of Fame sub-category for players who lost time because, through no fault of their own, they had to play too many games on artificial turf. But there is no denying how singular Dawson's talent was when he was in full health.
If Blyleven would have had the good fortune to pitch more often for better teams, he would have won more than 300 games instead of 287, and the debate about his candidacy would have been either non-existent or short-lived. There are comparable pitchers with numbers less impressive than his who are already in the Hall of Fame. And for anybody who understands the importance of a strikeout, the gentleman who is fifth on the all-time strikeout list might well deserve 75 percent of the Hall of Fame vote as opposed to 61.9 percent.
This annual vote represents another opportunity for the voters to revisit their choices and renew the attendant debates. The fact that these debates go on is a tribute to the standards for baseball's Hall of Fame, and the importance of what this process signifies.