It's a foregone conclusion, but newly retired Orioles superstar Cal Ripken will have to wait more than five years to take his place in baseball's Hall of Fame.
The first Hall of Fame ballots bearing Ripken's name will be mailed in December 2006. The final tally will be counted and announced in January 2007. The induction ceremony will take place in late July or early August of that year.
Is there any doubt Ripken will be there?
Not really. The only real question is what percentage of the 500 or so ballots will bear a check mark by his name.
"I haven't really given that much thought," Ripken said recently of the Hall of Fame. "That's something that is basically out of your control. It's a high honor. I think anybody who has played this game knows the significance of the Hall of Fame."
Ripken, by virtue of his record consecutive-games streak, nearly 3,200 hits and 400-plus home runs, is going to be tough to overlook on the first ballot. Mix in his squeaky-clean image and national legend status, and he has a chance to be the highest vote-getter in history.
It could happen.
The highest percent of first-ballot votes were accumulated in 1992 by three-time Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Tom Seaver, whose name was marked on 98.84 percent of the ballots submitted. Nolan Ryan is second with 98.79 percent of the 1999 vote.
No doubt, there are some fans in Baltimore who think that Ripken should be a unanimous selection. If they had their way, the Hall of Fame would waive the five-year waiting period and induct him by acclamation, but it appears that Ripken - like every other player inducted into Cooperstown by vote of the Baseball Writers Association of America - will go into the Hall with a handful of dissenting votes.
Six voters left Ryan off their ballots, even though he won 324 games, pitched a record seven no-hitters and obliterated the major- league career strikeout record. He was one of the best-loved players in the game - like Ripken - but he was not a unanimous choice.
Neither was Babe Ruth, who was left off 11 ballots, nor Ty Cobb, who was snubbed by four voters. All-time home run leader Hank Aaron was left off nine ballots. Willie Mays, who is regarded by many to be the greatest all-around player in history, was left off 23 ballots.
Think that's ridiculous? New York Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio, whose 56-game hitting streak has stood virtually unchallenged for 60 years, didn't even gain election on the first ballot. He didn't get in until his third year of eligibility (1955), but the environment was different then. The Hall of Fame was relatively young (the first class was inducted in 1936), there was no five-year wait rule, and the voters were still making up for lost time with the stars of the 1920s and '30s.
The attitude of Hall of Fame voters also has evolved over the years. There were complaints in 1975 that voters were lowering their standards when Ralph Kiner was elected with a .279 career average and 369 home runs in his 10-year career, but Kiner won at least a share of the National League home run crown in each of his first seven seasons and remains second only to Ruth in home run/at-bat ratio among Hall of Famers.
The election of Kirby Puckett this year also sparked debate over the standards for first-ballot election, though Puckett amassed more hits in his first 10 major-league seasons than any other player in history.
Ripken may be remembered as the guy who resurrected the sport's tarnished image after the 1994-1995 work stoppage and World Series cancellation. He certainly will be long revered for smashing Lou Gehrig's supposedly untouchable consecutive-games record. He'll be credited with changing the physical image of the modern shortstop as well as being one of the steadiest defensive performers ever to play that position.
He'll get a ton of votes and join San Diego Padres star Tony Gwynn onstage at the 2007 induction ceremony, but not before there is a rerun of the controversy that followed the announcement of Ryan's election.
Of the six who withheld their votes from Ryan in 1999, only Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin went public with his reasoning. He pointed to Ryan's relatively low career winning percentage and his inability to defeat the Philadelphia Phillies in the deciding game of the 1980 National League Championship Series.
Somehow, however, Conlin was able to justify voting for marginal Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk on the same ballot.
No doubt, there will be a few voters who can find the flaws in Ripken's resume. His career batting average would rank 110th among the 130 position players currently enshrined in the Hall, and he would not rank among the top 10 in any of the major offensive categories, but the sum of his accomplishments places him among the truly elite players in baseball history.
Perhaps there was a time when critics could make the case that, absent The Streak, Ripken might not be a consensus Hall of Famer, but that became a difficult argument to support once Ripken reached 400 home runs and 3,000 hits. No eligible player with at least 3,000 hits has been passed over. Only two of the eligible players with 400 or more home runs - Darrell Evans and Dave Kingman - are on the outside looking in.
Ripken may rank only 30th in career home runs, but he owns the record for home runs by a shortstop. He also owns the major-league record for fewest errors in a season by a shortstop (three) and once held the record for consecutive games without an error (95) at that position. Factor in his perennial place in the All-Star starting lineup, his two American League MVP awards and his two All-Star MVP trophies, and it's hard to imagine anyone finding a reason not to vote for him.
Of course, he will always be remembered best for The Streak, and probably would have merited Hall of Fame induction on that accomplishment alone, but BBWAA voters have generally been skeptical of players known for a single achievement.
Bobby Thomson, who hit perhaps the most famous home run in baseball history 50 years ago, did not warrant induction, even though he had a solid 15-year career. Roger Maris, who won back-to-back MVP awards and broke Ruth's single-season home run record in 1961, does not have a plaque at Cooperstown.
The Streak, standing alone, probably would garner sufficient Hall of Fame votes, because it was accomplished over a 16-year period and obliterated a record that was considered untouchable, but that's all academic now. Ripken has the credentials to get in without it.
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