Hall of Fame stuff

Arguably the sweetest day of the baseball season, if not the most mellow on the entire sporting calendar, is the lyric moment every last weekend in July up in bucolic Cooperstown when glasses are raised on high in tribute to the game’s latest class of “immortals.”

The moment is precious. Expectations are keen. But much to their credit, this year’s batch, led by that improbably jolly pair of Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice, rose to it nicely.

Forgotten were the issues of the past. For all of his fine attainments on the field Rice’s Red Sox years were tainted by stray bitterness -- mainly with the media -- that now looks quite unnecessary. In retrospect it seems to have been mostly vested in pettiness. He wasn’t as friendly as he might have been and we weren’t as understanding as we could have been. Let’s leave it there.

You have to be a hard guy to have not found rather touching the sight of Rice delighting in his elevation to sports’ most illustrious lodge. Equally warm was the sight of the irrepressible Henderson, one of the cockiest characters ever to strut the game’s stage, striving mightily to display humility. A deeply thankful Jim Rice and a genuinely humble Rickey Henderson made it a memorable day.

As ever, the echoes of the annual festival up in Fenimore Cooper Country hardly fade before the debate over who will or should be next in line for canonization begins. But these are very different times and, as never before, that once charming issue is flushed with controversy, even acrimony.

For it is at Cooperstown that the resentment over the game’s performance enhancing drugs scandal turns downright angry creating a remarkable backlash. Cooperstown is where the buck stops in this wrenching business. The majority of the living Hall of Famers, peeved over the way steroid cheaters have demolished the record book, are unforgiving. Informal plebiscites suggest if it were up to most of them any player so much as faintly stained by the PED’s fiasco would not be allowed to cross the Catskills unless restrained by a dog collar and a leash.

Some of the old boys have tried to be reasonable. Others maintain a discreet silence. But the Hall of Fame’s clear majority is scathing in its rebuke while piously insisting that what they achieved -- presumably in their intrinsic goodness -- was achieved honestly.

But then “honestly” is a relative term, like all the others. Was it entirely honest for players of past generations to feast on energy-surging “greenies” their entire career? Amphetamines made easily available as if they were sweet little M & M’s were a staple of the baseball culture of yesteryear much as performance-enhancing HGH pills and raging “roids” have become for today’s generation. Not all the old-timers did “greenies”. But many did. Not all of today’s players have done PEDs. But you can bet the ranch that many more than have been thus far exposed did. What’s the difference?

Many of the good old boys are straddling a mighty high horse on this issue. Even if you respect their anger and allow them the right to rant you wonder if some of them aren’t laying on the sanctimony a bit thick.

Of course, it will be a long time before sitting Hall of Famers have a role in electing players from the present generation. In the meantime, that responsibility rests with the Baseball Writers Association and the BBWA appears sharply divided and entirely unnerved by the long-term prospect of having to play Solomon in this messy business. It’s an unreasonable, even preposterous demand and one for which the writers aren’t qualified and, in fairness to them, they know it.

Meeting at the recent All-Star game, 55 BBWA cardholders -- less than a tenth of the cozy chowder society’s full membership -- tried to tackle this Gordian Knot of a question. It was proposed that a special committee be formed to deal with the steroid and/or PED guys; to perhaps screen them, characterize them -- some clearly being guiltier than others -- and make recommendations to the full membership. It might have been a step in the direction of efficiency and order. But not surprisingly it got voted down, albeit narrowly. The writers, ever a stubborn lot, will proceed as they always have; every man for himself. The only reason being because that’s the way they’ve always done it. Good luck to them. Sorting it all out will be a hellish task.

Of the players still active today or who retired since the drug issue and its penalties got “precisely defined” a couple of years ago there would seem at least 13 absolute Hall of Fame certainties. These are players who not only have indisputable credentials but also -- by universal agreement (subject to change) -- no connection with the on-going scandal. They are the lead-pipe cinches of these times.

They are: Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Piazza, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Ichiro Suzuki, Pedro Martinez, Frank Thomas, Craig Biggio, Tommy Glavine, Chipper Jones and Omar Vizquel.

They are beyond the merest quibble. If not a one of them played another game, never got another hit, homer or, win, or whiff, he would still be certain to make the Hall, probably on the first try.

I was never a fan of Piazza’s defense but statistically he’s the heaviest hitting catcher of all time. Omar Vizquel was every bit Ozzie Smith’s equal in the field and a better hitter. Craig Biggio topped 3,000 hits, an automatic qualifier, as is the 300 plus wins posted by Glavine. Look up Chipper Jones’ lifetime stats. They’ll amaze you. The same goes for Frank Thomas with his 521 homers, 1,704 RBI, .301 lifetime, two MVPs. If Pedro Martinez has ‘only’ won 214 games (so far) he’s a right-handed Koufax and what he might have done had he been stronger and healthier boggles the imagination. The rest of the bunch -- Rivera, Jeter, Griffey, Maddux, Johnson, and the incomparable Ichiro -- are simply “no-brainers”.

Right behind them are ten lads who are so very close: Mike Mussina, Jeff Kent, Curt Schilling, Trevor Hoffman, Jeff Bagwell, Jim Thome, John Smoltz, Barry Larkin, Roberto Alomar, and maybe Jamie Moyer. All of them may make it in time, but the process will be stressed and strained. They are the equivalent in these times of Jim Rice, Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris; deserving but debatable.

And right behind them are “the problem guys”; those who have either been already ruined by the ongoing scandal or heavily tainted by it. It’s a list that’s topped by Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Ivan Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield and Rafael Palmeiro.

And what is the one thing every one of them has in common?

If it were not for the scandal, every one of them would have been a Hall of Fame lock; a runway, first ballot, indisputable and genuine, “immortal.”

More to the point, it’s a list that is sure to grow.

Such is the soaring resentment among the sitting Hall of Famers that a growing number would sooner forgive Pete Rose, the unrepentant gambler than a Clemens or Bonds or Palmeiro, etc. No less than Hank Aaron inferred as much at the recent ceremonies.

Say this much for Rice and Henderson no matter how much you might have liked or disliked their acts as players. They were absolutely “clean.” Doubtless an appreciation for that helped make their moment the more fine. And deservedly so.