That was quite a Hall of Fame dinner reception they had at Cooperstown last year.
"Inductees, party of none — your table's ready."
What a strange sight, witnessing not a single acceptance speech beyond Paul Hagen's (for the writers wing) and the relatives of three veterans committee selections no longer alive: Deacon White, umpire Hank O'Day and executive Jacob Ruppert.
The "character clause" wiped out Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and other tainted stars of the steroid era, and none of the purportedly clean candidates got enough votes.
That won't be a problem this year. For some of us, the biggest issue will be finding room for everyone. There's a 10-vote limit, a stipulation already challenged by several national writers and perhaps to be eliminated in future years.
Simply put: If you dismiss the Cooperstown-is-church stance and give Bonds & Co. their due — that's always been the case for this voter — you'll be forced to leave out players with sterling credentials.
We're not allowed to disclose our voting choices until after the results are announced, but I can tell you I have voted for Bonds, Clemens, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa at every opportunity.
And just a quick note on Sosa, who seems to be forgotten: The man hit 60-plus home runs three times, drove in 100-plus runs for nine consecutive years, delighted Cubs fans for years with his infectious personality and brought joy to the entire country in 1998 as he joined McGwire in pursuit of the single-season home run record.
He mattered, had Cooperstown written all over him. If Bonds ever gets the OK, Sosa should be recognized, too.
At any rate, there will be several holdover candidates to consider, including Craig Biggio and Jack Morris — each received 68 percent of the votes last year, short of the required 75 percent — as well as Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Lee Smith, Curt Schilling and Edgar Martinez. (The check marks on my 2013 ballot went to Morris, Piazza and Schilling.)
My eighth and final vote last year went to Don Mattingly, for the same reasons I always voted for Will Clark and Keith Hernandez: Those first basemen were game-changers, hitters of legendary skills, consummate ballplayers who made their presence felt in every game. They were Hall of Famers at the time, not in retrospect, during their prime years, and that's always my No. 1 criterion.
Regrettably, their peak seasons were packed into a relatively short time frame, and I'm not sure I can afford to acknowledge Mattingly's greatness this time; he has no chance to get in, and there are too many other people to consider.
The list of first-year candidates is imposing. Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were rotation mainstays of the great Atlanta teams for years. Frank Thomas struck a Cooperstown look from the moment he arrived on the scene, and although Thomas broke in as a first baseman, it will be interesting to see whether he or Martinez (or David Ortiz, down the line) becomes the first designated hitter to be inducted.
Then there's the fascinating case of Jeff Kent, who toiled so long in Bonds' shadow in San Francisco. I generally have a gut-feeling opinion on every candidate, making it unnecessary to pore through a bunch of numbers, but I always have been torn on Kent.
Kent hit 377 home runs in his career, including a record 351 as a second baseman. He was a five-time all-star who had at least 20 home runs and 100 RBIs in eight seasons, the most by any second baseman in history.
When you examine the great hitters at that position — Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie, Charlie Gehringer, Frankie Frisch, Rod Carew, Joe Morgan, Roberto Alomar, Ryne Sandberg — Kent is absolutely in the discussion.
He hardly ranked with Alomar or Bill Mazeroski as a fielder, but he was a hard-nosed guy who made the routine plays, played through the pain of dreadful poundings (from baserunners taking him out) over the years and was always in character. The nagging question: Did he strike you as a Hall of Famer at the time?
Things will get even more interesting next year, when Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Randy Johnson and John Smoltz become eligible.
I know this: With so many writers making moral judgments on Bonds and being unlikely to switch their stance for many years, Kent could enter the Hall of Fame ahead of his old sparring mate. Such are these crazy times in Cooperstown.
(Bruce Jenkins is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @bruce_jenkins1)
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