I can't say exactly why I became a sportswriter, although I'm sure that the favorable hours and my particular talents (especially at the buffet table) were important factors. Another was that it's hard to reconcile what I do with what anyone else would call work.
But there's at least one more. In my youth, I had the fuzzy notion that as a sportswriter I could someday participate in the voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame. At the time, that seemed an especially exciting prospect.
It turns out that the voting is the jealously guarded preserve of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, which determines, much as the Queen dubs her knights, just who is a baseball writer and who isn't. Ten years ago, when it was my job to cover the Los Angeles Dodgers, I was allowed to join. If you remain for 10 years in the organization covering major-league baseball (apparently the 1988 Orioles count), you are eligible to vote.
My 10 years are up. And yes, even now, I find the prospect fairly thrilling.
There are 41 candidates this year, and I can vote for as many as 10 (I won't). Those who receive 75 percent of the vote get a free trip to Cooperstown, N.Y. If it were up to me (and I guess it is), I'd be inclined to vote for only those players about whom there is no argument. Babe Ruth would be an example. Ted Williams. Willie Mays. Pete Rose. Sandy Koufax. You get the idea.
This year, there are two such players - Johnny Bench and Carl Yastrzemski.
Or are there?
Perhaps the greatest catcher ever, Bench is a certain choice. He hit more homers as a catcher (327) than anyone else, and he led the league in homers twice. He led three times in RBI, was MVP twice, played on 14 All-Star teams and won 10 Gold Gloves. He's in the transcendent group.
Yaz? Well, he played for 23 years and amassed 3,419 hits. Every player who has 3,000 hits and is eligible (having been retired for five years) is in the Hall of Fame. Yaz, who had 452 career homers, also won three batting titles, one Triple Crown, one MVP, six Gold Gloves and was on 18 All-Star teams.
But, he hit .300 only six times, and his lifetime batting average is a very mortal .285. He had five 100-RBI seasons but only two more above 90. He hit 40 or more homers three times but never hit as many as 30 again. In his last nine seasons, he hit .269, .267, .296, .277, .270, .275, .246, .275, .266. If you compare him to the great outfielders of the modern era - Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle - he falls far short. If you compare him to Billy Williams, a recent inductee, or perhaps even to Willie Stargell, Yaz is a shoo-in.
Orlando Cepeda is also on the ballot and has been for a few years. Cepeda hit better than .300 nine times and drove in 90 or more runs nine times. Though he hit 40 or more homers once, he hit 30 or more five times. And his 379 career homers came in 17 seasons, compared to Yastrzemski's 23, and his career average was .297. He was also an MVP and made 11 All-Star teams. A Hall of Famer? I'm unconvinced. He was a very good player for a lot of years, but there was never the touch of greatness about him, none of the greatness that covered his teammates Mays and Willie McCovey. Or even the kind that graced the stylish Yaz. Or am I wrong?
Other eligible hitters include Dick Allen (great early, but self-destructed), Bobby Bonds (hit 30 or more homers six times, stole 30 or more bases 10 times, but never met his potential any time), Kenny Boyer and Ron Santo (two third basemen with power and good gloves who drove in a lot of runs), Tony Oliva (three batting titles, but a career shortened by injury), Vada Pinson (slowed after Hall of Fame-type start), Joe Torre (one great year, a few very good ones). I don't think any of them make it.
How about Maury Wills? Though probably not a great player, he was a very good shortstop whose baserunning only changed the game. With few exceptions, notably Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio, the stolen base was an anachronism in the long-ball era. When Wills stole 104 in 1962, he broke what was then thought an unreachable record. He led the league six consecutive years and stole 94 in 1965. In that period, his team, the Dodgers, won three pennants and tied for another. He is the forerunner, so to speak, of Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines, et al. Maybe he belongs, though probably not as a manager.
There are several strong candidates among the pitchers. The newcomers are Gaylord Perry (314 wins), Ferguson Jenkins (284 wins) and Jim Kaat (283 wins), while Jim Bunning continues his quest. Mickey Lolich, Sparky Lyle, Wilbur Wood and Luis Tiant are other notables.
You can make a case for or against any of them. One case against the first three is that, with the money involved in the modern game, people simply stick around longer and, therefore, win more games. Should we confuse staying power for greatness?
Perry, he of the doctored ball, did have some great seasons, and I'm most inclined to vote for him. He won 20 five times. He won a Cy Young Award in each league. He was tough; he pitched every fourth day. But if he won 314, he lost 265. His career earned-run average is a very good 3.10, but there's no greatness there. Among those who were truly great who pitched in his time are Jim Palmer, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and Juan Marichal.
Ferguson Jenkins won 20 games seven times, including six in a row. In those 20-game seasons, however, he never lost fewer than 12. He was a workhorse and a very good pitcher. Was he great? Certainly he was the best Canadian-American pitcher ever arrested on a drug charge.
Jim Kaat wasn't nearly great, only long-winded, having pitched for 25 seasons. And Jim Bunning? He won 224 games and lost 184. He won 20 games once (though 19 four times). Bunning and Jenkins bring up what I call the Don Drysdale dilemma. Drysdale made the Hall with a couple of terrific years and that long shutout streak and a fine, if not spectacular, career. If he's the standard, Bunning and Jenkins both belong. I guess the question is: Does Drysdale belong?
At this point, I haven't decided how I'm voting. I'm leaning toward Bench, Yastrzemski, Perry, Wills and possibly Jenkins. Maybe not Jenkins. Maybe not Wills. Maybe Cepeda. Maybe Bunning. I don't know. There is a Dec. 31 deadline for voting, and if you have any suggestions, send them along and I'll gladly consider them. After waiting 10 years for this chance, I don't want to mess up.