Bruce Sutter's Hall of Fame wait finally ended yesterday.
For most baseball fans here, and maybe nationally, however, the true anticipation began after Sutter learned he had finally received enough votes to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on his 13th try.
Sutter, who saved 300 games for the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves, was named on 76.9 percent of the ballots -- 400 of a record 520 -- returned by the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
Needing at least 75 percent of the vote for induction, Sutter became the first pitcher to make the Hall without starting a big league game.
While his vigil is over, other hopefuls such as Jim Rice (64.8 percent), Rich Gossage (64.6 percent), Andre Dawson (61 percent) and Bert Blyleven (53.3 percent) will return next year on a ballot that will be highlighted by one of the most intriguing freshman classes in the sport's history.
Ripken, the Orioles legend and Aberdeen native, and Gwynn, the former San Diego Padres hitting machine, are eligible for the first time. And so is McGwire -- he of the 70-home-run season, the 583-home-run career and the repeated non-answers at March's congressional hearing on steroids.
"With the interest over McGwire and him being the first test case of the steroids era, and that combined with the sheer magnitude and caliber of Gwynn and Ripken as first-time-eligibles, this is a powerhouse election," said Bernie Miklasz, sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a BBWAA member. "I don't know if we will ever have a combination like this again."
The results of next year's voting will be released Tuesday, Jan. 9, with the induction ceremony scheduled for Sunday, July 29, 2007. From now until then, expect the debates to rage furiously -- perhaps more so than ever.
The biggest question is whether McGwire, who helped renew interest in the sport with his 1998 home run chase against Sammy Sosa, can overcome the strong suspicion that he used illegal, performance-enhancing drugs and be inducted into Cooperstown.
The argument will be both public and internal.
"I'm not ashamed to admit I am tormented about it. I go back and forth. I waffle," Miklasz said. "Do I believe [McGwire] used steroids? Yes, I do. Is there absolute proof he used steroids? No, there isn't. I'm still wrestling with it."
Ross Newhan, the semi-retired baseball writer for the Los Angeles Times and the 2000 recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, said he also hasn't equivocally made up his mind on McGwire and the Hall.
"I think I probably will [vote for McGwire]," Newhan said. "Although I acknowledge that it seems likely that McGwire employed performance-enhancing substances at some point in his career and I acknowledge that he missed a great opportunity to stand up and be a model advocate at the congressional hearings."
At least one high-profile BBWAA member said suspicion of steroid use isn't going to stop him from considering McGwire as a Hall of Fame player.
"I don't think it is going to bother me with him. I don't see that as being a reason why I would or wouldn't," said Tracy Ringolsby, national baseball writer for the Rocky Mountain News and the 2005 Spink winner.
"It wasn't outlawed when he did it. Amphetamines are illegal now. Should we go back and reconsider votes [for players] on amphetamines?" Ringolsby said.
What could happen, Miklasz suggests, is that voters make a statement and pass over McGwire next year, but let him in at a later date.
"Are the voters going to want to, in effect, allow Mark McGwire, with the cloud hanging over him, to somehow diminish the induction of Ripken and Gwynn by letting McGwire share the stage with them that day?" Miklasz said. "I have serious doubts that the voters will allow Mark McGwire to stand next to those guys in 2007."
McGwire aside, there is another interesting question facing the voters next January. Ripken, who revolutionized the shortstop position and set the consecutive games played record, and Gwynn, an eight-time batting champion who hit .338 in his career, are considered virtual locks to be voted in next year.
But can either make history? In 1992, pitcher Tom Seaver set the record for highest vote percentage (98.84 percent) when 425 of 430 voters selected him on the first ballot. Ripken and Gwynn may have a chance to come close to that number.
"I think Ripken will definitely flirt with that," said Miklasz, who worked for the Baltimore News American when Ripken debuted with the Orioles. "But I'm like everybody else. I can't sometimes figure out the motives of my fellow voters. You never can tell."
There were 90 more voters this year than when Seaver set the record in 1992. And, this year, 10 returned their ballots without selecting anyone -- a Hall of Fame record.
In the early years of voting, some writers believed that no one deserved to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and have voted as such. But Ringolsby thinks that philosophy has diminished as the years progressed and deserving old-timers have been inducted.
"I think we are at the point where the initial injustices ... have been cleaned up," Ringolsby said. "And now when it comes to Ripken and Gwynn, how can you look at anyone on the ballot and not look at them first?"
As for Ripken, he won't talk about how high his percentage might be. Really, he's trying not to dwell on the process for, say, at least 364 days.
"It really is something that I have tried not to think too much about," Ripken said through a spokesman yesterday. "If it happens, I am sure that it will be an incredibly meaningful and emotional day for me and my family. I was lucky enough to witness that firsthand with Eddie [Murray] when I attended his Hall of Fame induction.
"In the end, all I can do is wait and see."
The following is a partial list of former major leaguers who - provided that they remain retired - will become eligible for Hall of Fame consideration by the Baseball Writers' Association of America in future years.
Harold Baines, Derek Bell, Dante Bichette, Bobby Bonilla, Jeff Brantley, Jay Buhner, Ken Caminiti, Jose Canseco, Eric Davis, Tony Fernandez, Tony Gwynn, Darryl Hamilton, Pete Harnisch, Charlie Hayes, Glenallen Hill, Ken Hill, Stan Javier, Wally Joyner, Ramon Martinez, Mark McGwire, Paul O'Neill, Gregg Olson, Cal Ripken, Bret Saberhagen, Jeff Shaw, Kevin Tapani, Devon White, Bobby Witt.
Shawon Dunston, Travis Fryman, David Justice, Mike Morgan, Tim Raines, Randy Velarde.
Mark Grace, Rickey Henderson, Dean Palmer, Dan Plesac, Matt Williams.
Andres Galarraga, Edgar Martinez, Robin Ventura.