The Washington Times - January 12, 2009, 08:47PM

The National Baseball Hall of Fame is without question the most exclusive and prestigious of all the major sports shrines, and over the years the Baseball Writers Association of America has, for the most part, done a commendable job of getting elite players into the Hall and keeping good-but-not-great players out. With several Cooperstown-caliber players I’d seen play with my own two eyes on this year’s ballot, I was anxious to find out who would get the call.

You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of the BBWAA to know that Rickey Henderson was a no-brainer in his first year on the ballot, and if Jim Rice had been more accommodating to the media during his playing days he would have been in long ago. The BBWAA looked bad keeping him out this long; making him wait for a Veterans Committee induction would have been inexcusable. Rice’s induction was a backside-covering measure, and the 23.6 percent of writers that didn’t vote for him this year are lucky that the other 76.4 percent did, for sake of the organization’s credibility. Henderson and Rice will be inducted along with the late Joe Gordon - a Veterans Committee selection, and a questionable one at best - but my problem with the 2009 Hall of Fame class lies not with who was included, but who wasn’t.

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I’d like to think I know a Hall of Famer when I see one, and Andre Dawson is a Hall of Famer. The Hawk burst on the scene in 1977 by winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award and made the first of his eight All-Star game appearances in 1981, when he led the Montreal Expos to the National League Championship Series and finished second in the Senior Circuit’s MVP voting. Dawson again was the MVP runner-up two years later, and, after collusion robbed him of a payday a decade in the making, he finally captured the elusive award by slugging 47 homers and knocking in 137 runs for the 1987 Chicago Cubs.

By the time he finally hung ‘em up at age 41 in 1996, Dawson had accumulated 438 home runs and 314 stolen bases. In the long and storied history of baseball, only the great Willie Mays and the juiced-up Barry Bonds can join Dawson in claiming membership to the 400-homer, 300-steal club. Dawson also earned eight Gold Gloves over the course of his career, but he was more than just a power-speed threat and a great defender. Dawson was a class act who played the game the right way. The fact that he spent some of his best years playing in front of sparse crowds in Montreal doesn’t detract from his greatness, and he’s no less a Hall of Famer now than he will be when he finally gets in.

What would you say if I told you that the pitcher who ranks fifth all-time in strikeouts was also up for induction this year? What if I upped the ante by mentioning that he also won 287 games and posted a more than respectable 3.31 career ERA? Toss in a whopping 242 complete games, 60 shutouts, two World Series rings and a no-hitter and you’ve got a Hall of Famer for sure, right? Not so fast, says the BBWAA. The pitcher I’m talking about is Bert Blyleven, and inexplicably, he’s still waiting for his call to the Hall. The fact that Blyleven pitched primarily for mediocre teams actually boosts his case for induction. Thirteen more wins and he’s a shoo-in. Isn’t that right, Don Sutton?

I know that exclusivity is one of the things that makes the Hall of Fame special. I also understand the writers’ desire to limit first-ballot induction to the truly elite. But I think it’s wrong to keep clear-cut Hall of Famers waiting just for the sake of keeping them waiting, or because there’s other players to induct in a given year. If, say, Rice’s final year on the ballot came last year, or Henderson wasn’t on the ballot until next year, would the writers have voted Dawson or Blyleven or both in this year? Quite possibly, and that doesn’t make much sense. The fact that Dawson garnered 67 percent of the vote and Blyleven 62.7 indicates that they likely won’t have to wait much longer. That’s a good thing, because their credentials say they’ve waited too long already.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.