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From earth to heaven... or Cooperstown

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Halls of Fame are a dime a dozen. Every high school has one. So, increasingly, do middle schools. Are grammar schools next? Every profession maintains one, save perhaps for the world's oldest. Should you be any such proud honoree you are free to exult even if the distinction -- plus a buck -- will no longer buy you even a good cup of coffee.

Only in sports are they taken really seriously; as if they be affirmation of virtue, honor, and nobility as well as mere skill. And only in Baseball is there one so insufferably full of itself that it often appears to truly believe it's the secular world's answer to heaven itself to be attained only by certified saints. The obvious point being that this entire business can sometimes get downright silly.

Baseball can be forgiven this presumption, at least within the context of sport. While it hardly invented this shtick, it has come closest to perfecting it. Baseball's is the oldest, classiest, and hardest to reach of all the jock pantheons. It is also the most celebrated, promoted, and publicized.

Maybe it has something to do with the location; lovely Cooperstown deep in New York's Rip Van Winkle country as pastoral and poetic on a pretty day as Brigadoon itself. On the other hand, maybe it is because the process of selection of all but the most godly of the talented borders on the brutal, obliging scrutiny that invariably gets mindless. In the other games, the doors swing freely and wide but in baseball it's not a process but a gauntlet. The question is "Has it become too stringent?"

People care about this stuff, however silly it sometimes seems. They care a lot. To whatever degree baseball maintains its so long mystical influence in the culture -- a matter many increasingly dispute -- you will find it best both explained and exemplified at its hall of fame. So who would want to mess with it or water it down? Football can expand by the busload the ranks of its anointed at its Canton, Ohio shrine every summer. But baseball could never get away with that. Nor should it.

Still, there ought to be a limit to how ponderous its process should be allowed to get. The petty bickering and endless quibbling, the Solomonic splitting of hairs and painstaking parsing of near infinitesimally obscure statistical minutiae, can drive you nuts. It wasn't clumsy enough when the writers and old-timers' panels were stumbling along year after year, governed too often by politics and ignorance. Now, along come the new breed media super-nerds who've raised the arcane esoterica of "sabermetrics" to the canonical levels of holy writ. Their apparent aim is to muddle the business hopelessly. A determined lot as well as unfortunately smart, they are succeeding.

To what degree we are about to discover further. For it's that time again. The hyper-kinetic HOF election season is again upon us. In a few days, a veterans' committee will choose from a dozen nominees previously either ignored or snubbed by the baseball writers, and in a month -- the second week of the new year actually -- some 600 of said scribes sprinkled with stray Pharisees in their annual gathering under the lofty banner of their BBWAA will choose from a 36-player ballot that includes 19 newcomers.

At least two dozen of the 48 hopefuls are worthy of selection by any yardstick let alone common sense with every last one of them measuring up to characters already enshrined. If at least 24 were selected it would not demean Cooperstown or lower its standards a soupcon. The more obsessed students of the subject would howl but mighty few of them could offer an argument remotely valid. In a comparable situation in basketball, the whole bloody gang would get elevated and roll off to Springfield whistling a happy tune as the multitudes cheer.

But this is baseball, so much above the pedestrian, don't you know. If we're lucky, we may get maybe three or four new enshrinees total, although both ballots are so heavily packed and stacked it would be no surprise if there were no more than one or two able to break out of the logjam and secure the requisite 75 percent of votes cast.

All of which would plug up the process even more which is what those driven by a narrow definition of what constitutes baseball immortality aim to achieve. Keep in mind, the BBWAA in its wisdom elected nobody last year while the Vets were coming up with a couple of obscure characters; one dead a century and known only to the Society of American Baseball Research, God love 'em.

This year the veterans are being considered by 16 electors forming what's called "the Expansion Era Committee (post 1973)," although it seems to me it ought more precisely be termed "the Progressive Era of liberated labor and free-agency." The committee is composed of four owners, two managers (Messrs. Lasorda and Herzog), four writers/historians and six hall of fame players (Brothers Carew, Fisk, Molitor, Niekro, Morgan, and F. Robinson).

The ballot is a corker. Two primarily as managers (Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox). Two primarily as managers who also had considerable merits as players (Billy Martin and Joe Torre). One both skilled as a player and executive (Ted Simmons). Five purely on their playing skills (Davey Concepcion, Steve Garvey, Dave Parker, Dan Quisenberry, and Tommy John), a legendarily bombastic owner (George Steinbrenner) and an equally legendary and invincible labor-leader, Marvin Miller.

Who of this group will eventually land in Cooperstown? I would bet all of them, although the honor for the majority will likely be posthumous.

There could be reasonable reservations about the reliever, Quis, although he was briefly terrific. Some will always despise Martin for reasons having little to do with this discussion. Others will question Simmons, who was a horse better than half the catchers who have already made it; or Parker who was a better player than his contemporary, Jim Rice. The managers are all no-brainers, as is Steinbrenner, like it or not. Most deserving of all is Tommy John, an elegant artisan who won 287 games while most bravely playing the historical role in sports medicine that forever bears his name.

Which brings us to Marvin Miller, who even beyond the grave befuddles the game over which he also still towers. A year after his death Marvin is sure to make it this time after being rejected the six times he was on the ballot when he was still with us. The irony of all that is mean-spirited, bordering on the contemptible. The arguments against him were always stupid. Any effort to atone for that now would be -- as Marvin's own daughter has pointed out -- "an act of cowardice."

Marvin knew this was the trick his beloved adversaries would arrange to have pulled which is why he politely but firmly and formally requested on his very deathbed that he be permanently withdrawn from consideration. His son, Peter, has informed the committee that his dad's wishes will be respected and that if he makes it this time the family will take no part in the induction ceremonies and will indeed reject the honor.

So either way -- whether they elect him or don't -- there will be controversy; irony some will find quite delicious. Even beyond the grave, Marvin bedevils them. Good for him!

If I were an elector my votes would go to John, Steinbrenner, Torre, and above all Marvin because history needs to be served here. And I would further say, "three cheers for the Miller Family" for the sincerity of the position they promise to take.

As for the proceedings of the BBWAA next month my picks would be the near-matchless Greg Maddux, who could be a unanimous pick; Black Jack Morris, who in his last year of eligibility with the writers so deserves the nod, and the stylish Tommy Glavine, local boy and running-mate of Maddux on the Braves.

That would add to Cooperstown's illustrious rolls seven new lads, all worthy and true.

Fat chance!

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