Sunday, January 5, 1997
Hall of Fame prize not worth pain

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Tony Perez should not be made to suffer. Getting into the Hall of Fame should be hard, but it need not be humiliating.

Baseball needs a better mechanism to identify greatness, and a faster one. Players should not be expected to twist in the wind indefinitely, awaiting the call from Cooperstown. At some point, enough ought to be enough.

Eleven years since his last big-league at bat, Perez appears on the Baseball Writers ballot for the sixth time this year. He finished 44 votes short of enshrinement last January, and is unlikely to close that gap in time for Monday night's announcement. The Big Dog has made some progress with the voters over the years, but he is gaining immortality by inches.

There must be a better way to go about this. A ballplayer does not improve after he has retired, and he should not be made to swallow his dignity as an annual exercise. If a man can not qualify for Cooperstown after four or five tries, he should be spared the anxiety of another public attempt.

I do not vote for Phil Niekro or Don Sutton, but it is easy to appreciate their discomfort each January. Both men were distinguished pitchers, 300-game winners, and both have been repeated failures at the ballot box. Niekro is on the ballot for the fifth time; Sutton is on his fourth try.

When they first went before the voters, both pitchers remained close to the telephone. But after repeated disappointments, they sought distance on the appointed day. Sutton was scuba diving in Hawaii when the results were announced last year. Niekro plans to spend Monday chasing fish.

''I have no control over the vote,'' he says. ''My stats are my stats. Maybe someday they will be good enough.''

Privately, Niekro's probably seething about being snubbed, but it is a rare player who lashes out at the voters for fear of a backlash. Any man who has played baseball dreams of a permanent place in its history.

''There wasn't a single day I played that I didn't think about being in the Hall of Fame,'' Sutton said.

Grudgingly, players will put up with the selection process for the sake of the prize.

Yet it would not be difficult to make the process less painful, and maintain the same standards of selectivity. Let the Baseball Writers consider a candidate for a maximum of five years (instead of 15), at which point a player would become the province of the Veterans Committee, which does not reveal its vote totals or identify its near-misses.

This would limit the number of names in any one year and force voters to evaluate each individual candidate more closely. Ten of the 30 players on this year's ballot are being voted on for at least the sixth time, and Perez is probably the only one among them with any shot at success.

We're all for democracy, but the effect of so many candidates is often to cloud the issue. Did you know that Terry Puhl holds the major-league record for highest fielding percentage by an outfielder? Could this persuade you to put his plaque in Cooperstown?

I think not. Any ballplayer who lasts a minimum of 10 years in the major leagues should appear at least once on a Hall of Fame ballot, if only so that he can brag to his buddies at the golf course. Yet true greatness is usually self-evident. If you have to ask yourself if a player belongs in the Hall of Fame, he probably doesn't.

The Baseball Writers have been reluctant to cede power to the Veterans Committee because they believe it has been overzealous about correcting oversights, electing players who never appeared on 10 percent of the BBWAA ballots. Rick Ferrell never received more than one vote in any year from the Baseball Writers, but was nonetheless elected by the Veterans Committee in 1984.

Recent changes in the voting procedures have rendered such outrages impossible. The greater outrage, though, is that too many men have been elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously.

If a guy is good enough, he should not have to wait so long. If he is not good enough, he deserves to know.