A ballot for Cooperstown

There’s been much chatter lately about the vast number of contemporary baseball players who are allegedly on the fast track to Cooperstown. Nominees are being forwarded in droves and you wonder why. It can’t be predicated on the notion that baseball has never been better because that’s simply not the case.

But statistics are lustier than ever. Numbers are skyrocketing. Precedents are freely shattered. There are reasons, most of them obvious.

Above all there are the great unmentionable “performance enhancements.” Nobody knows for sure where all that stuff either begins or ends. The steroid flap hogs the limelight but there are other pertinent factors. Ballparks are smaller and more hitter-friendly. The ball itself is suspect. It remains livelier than it ought to be and at times it’s been downright atomized, which is what the hucksters in charge, devoted as they are to offense, obviously prefer. Modern medicine, medications, and training regimens -- the legal ones -- can take a bow too. Careers run forever.

Consider that there are a stunning 43 players over the age of 40 on major league rosters this season. Some are gritty and relentless hangers-on like Steve Finley, Jamie Moyer, your own Tim Wakefield and the eternal Julio Franco, now creeping up on the age of 50. Others are worthy old-pros battling to stay around long enough to pad those Cooperstown credentials. Better examples include Tom Glavine, Curt Schilling, John Smoltz, and Omar Vizquel. And still more are premiere stars -- Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, etc. -- who are locks for instant elevation to the Hall of Fame the moment they become eligible.

Clemens and Maddux lead the parade of the so-called “automatics,” defined as characters certain to be elevated in their first year of eligibility with the only question being whether they deserve the honor of being chosen unanimously. Randy Johnson also probably belongs in this group, though I have moments of doubt. Others are Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey. Probable -- if not yet lead-pipe cinches -- are Mariano Rivera, Ichiro Suzuki, Pudge Rodriguez, and our own beloved Manny Ramirez and you could not begin to calculate my level of reluctance in conceding that. Ramirez doesn’t deserve such deference but his stats, alas, will inevitably command it. In the end, it’s all about stats and Manny has a gift for amassing them.

Jeter has the look of a chap who can keep himself together and play well into his 40s and if he does, the numbers he’ll run up might also be off the charts, although one senses he’ll come up short of Pete Rose’s base-hit mark. To break it, he’d have to average 200 hits a season through the age of 43. That’s too much to expect albeit not impossible.

It’s the A-Rod projections that leave most observers agog. There seems no limit to his potential, assuming he doesn’t break a leg falling off a barstool in a seedy nightclub. Still, the experiences of his one-time colleague and exemplar, Ken Griffey Jr., are both revealing and cautionary.

At the age of 30, Griffey had 438 homers having averaged 50 a year over his previous five seasons. It was widely conceded that Junior would be the next “Sultan of Swat” and would finish at least 800 dingers. Seven years later he limps warily to the finish line of a very fine but not fabulous career; a series of relentless little slights and wounds having robbed him of ultimate greatness. He’ll get 600 homers if he avoids another cataclysmic injury but it will be a mere consolation prize for the player many were eager to proclaim, “the greatest ever.”

The point being, obviously, that you should be careful making such proclamations, no matter how compelling the supporting evidence seems. At the age of 30, A-Rod had 429 homers. Two seasons later he appears to be kicking into a new and higher gear as he puts together what -- at least in June -- looks like his finest season yet. Unlike Griffey he’s always been a physical rock never vulnerable to those nagging little wounds so ruinous in baseball. Still, Griffey reminds us forcefully that “Sultans” get crowned after they do it, not before.

Ichiro, the prolific Japanese hit-maker who waves his bat like a magic wand, is an intriguing case. He’s averaging 226 hits a season. In his best six-year spurt, Maestro Ty Cobb averaged 215. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Ichiro play 15 years and garner 3,000 hits, which would be simply amazing. I think he’s a tad over-rated, but Pudge Rodriguez, now with the Tigers, could finish with nearly 3,000 hits and breeze into the Hall. Mike Piazza was no Bob Boone but he has 425 homers and counting, which from a catcher makes him “automatic.”

Home-run bashing has lost some of its cachet. Hitting 400 of them no longer guarantees enshrinement. In the steroid age, hitting 500 may not be enough. Frank Thomas hasn’t been a great player for a long time but he’ll soon hit his 500th and that probably gets him in. Right behind him is Jim Thome, a pure slugger with staggering strikeout numbers. And right behind him is Gary Sheffield who, for my money, was the best all-round player of the three.

It’s “the smell test” that can be decisive. Craig Biggio will soon get his 3,000th hit but he’s only had 200 in a season once and is a career .282 hitter. He fails the test. So does his old Astro’s comrade and escaped Red Sox farmhand, Jeff Bagwell. He had decent numbers but in the steroid era, they weren’t enough. The most prodigious homer-hitting second baseman of all-time, Jeff Kent has many backers but not me. Heresy though it may be I also have doubts about Trevor Hoffman, the new all-time ‘‘saves’’ champ. I say relief-pitcher idolatry is out of control. Moreover, they hand out ‘‘saves’’ like jellybeans nowadays. Hoffman was no Mariano Rivera. Nor am I sure he was as good as Sparky Lyle.

Three very nice pitchers who are near “locks” are Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Pedro doesn’t need to win another game, which is fortunate because he may not. His lifetime .691 winning percentage (206-92) and 2.81 E.R.A. are absolutely stunning in his times. With 295 wins, Glavine can also quit tomorrow. With over 200 wins and 150 saves, Smoltz compares favorably with Dennis Eckersley. Indeed, he was better than Eck. Curt Schilling strives to join such company but with 213 wins he’s not there yet, his bloody sock not withstanding. Schill compares with Jack Morris. But he wasn’t as good as Black Jack for as long.

Other hitters who court honors include local hero David Ortiz. He needs more big years; as much as five of them. The Braves’ Chipper Jones falls short as does Jason Giambi, which few would have predicted five years ago. Miguel Tejada has enough time left to put up awesome numbers for a shortstop. But a better bet is Omar Vizquel. If Ozzie Smith belongs in Cooperstown, so does Omar. Best bet of all though is Vladimir Guerrero. If this man stays healthy he’ll be breathing down A-Rod’s neck some day. As for the younger pups it’s too early to even begin to reckon where Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Grady Sizemore and Robbie Cano are headed, although you can’t go wrong betting on Albert.

Lastly, there are the “steroid boys.” Bonds, whose greatness transcends his flaws, is inevitable. You will have to live with that. But Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro will pay the price. Doubtless, it’s unfair. But, as they say, so is life.