We haven't seen the likes of this for years, even decades, perhaps not since the Hall of Fame was in its infancy 86 years ago. Then, when Cooperstown itself was no more linked to baseball than the game was linked to apple pie and Chevrolet ... the Hall opened its door wide and received its first five inductees: the Georgia Peach, the Big Train, Big Six, the Sultan of Swat and the Flying Dutchman. Those names ... er, nicknames ... still resonate. If they don't, these should: Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner.
The Hall has had other classes rich and deep in undisputed pedigree. Why, merely 13 years ago, Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount were inducted on the same summer Sunday. And they were merely the headliners that day, the co-valedictorians. Orlando Cepeda, umpire Nestor Chylak, Smokey Joe Williams, the pitching wonder of the early Negro League game, and Frank Selee, the mustachioed and ultra-accomplished manager of the Boston Beaneaters and Chicago Cubs, became certified baseball sovereigns.
In 1972, Yogi Berra, Sandy Koufax, Josh Gibson, Lefty Gomez and Early Wynn, among others, were presented their plaques and officially recognized as baseball royalty.
Now we have a ballot, sent this week to the electorate -- qualified members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America -- that challenges all but one of the previous ballot rosters. It has greatness. It has what Earl Weaver would identify as "deep depth."
And it has uncertainty.
Among the 45 players eligible for induction on the final weekend of July 2013, 32 are on the ballot for the first time, and five of the 32 produced career resumés that compare favorably to those of most of the other 17,938 men who have played the big league game. Included are seven-time Most Valuable Player Barry Bonds, the career home-run leader; seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, winner of 354 games; the eighth-leading home run hitter of all-time, Sammy Sosa; 3,000-hit-maker Craig Biggio; and Mike Piazza, widely regarded as the best hitter among all catchers.
An unseen entry also is on the ballot, a three-syllable word that haunts four of those five and so many others whose careers played out between the mid-1980s and even this year -- suspicion. Bonds and Clemens, both listed in the 2007 Mitchell Report, faced trials stemming from their alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. Sosa was reported, but never proven, to have tested positive in the 2003 survey that preceded the creation of an MLB-wide testing program. Anonymous sources accused Piazza of using in a 2009 book. Simmering doubts may deny them election -- this year and thereafter.
Until the ballots are counted the day before the announcement of the class of 2013, no one can judge, much less know, how the BBWAA voters view the phenomenon of pharmaceuticals and synthetic muscle as they relate to the four and, really, to every other eligible player. HOF and PED may prove to be as compatible as Carlton and McCarver in the voters' thinking. But if they prove to be no more reconcilable than Reggie and Billy, the Hall may become known for its exclusions -- who's out as well as who's in.
Suspicion is a powerful, persuasive agent. It has Ruthian power and performs as consistently as Cobb. Like Clemens, it has no qualms about knockdown pitches. See Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe. It blocked the candidacy of Mark McGwire in the four elections that preceded his public guilty plea in January 2010. A positive result in the summer of 2005 and subsequent suspicions raised elsewhere have undermined the candidacy of Rafael Palmeiro in his two years on the ballot, despite his denials.
Absent the suspicions, Bonds, Clemens, Sosa and Piazza would be Hall of Fame sure-shots, and with Biggio they would create a class comparable to any since 1936.
No player has been elected unanimously. Indeed, Tom Seaver has come closest to a full mandate, getting 98.84 percent of the vote in 1992. Bonds and/or Clemens might challenge that percentage were it not for the doubts about their late-in-career performances.
Bonds' production improved as he approached his 40s. He won MVP awards in seasons in which he turned 37, 38, 39 and 40. Clemens won four of his Cy Young Awards after he turned 35. Sosa averaged 58.4 home runs per season for five years after his 29th birthday. Suspicion about Piazza was essentially non-existent while he was an active player but skeptics have emerged.
As a player alone, Bonds ranks with Ruth, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson and Ken Griffey Jr. as a complete player, his Hall of Fame credentials beyond reproach. The same holds for Clemens; he would be seen as comparable, perhaps even more worthy than some among Seaver, Carlton, Ryan, Greg Maddux, Warren Spahn, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine and the greats from the first half of the 20th century.
Sosa is comparable to Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Mel Ott and Willie Stargell, a one-dimensional power hitter. But what a dimension! And Piazza stands with any catcher -- Berra, Johnny Bench, Bill Dickey, Roy Campanella, Mickey Cochrane, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter and Ernie Lombardi, Hall of Famers all.
Craig Biggio, who amassed the 21st-most hits and fifth-most doubles in history, has those accomplishments and his reputation as a good teammate willing to change positions for the benefit of the team in his favor. He may benefit if the voters object to the others and are opposed to submitting blank ballots. The same applies to another first-ballot candidate, he of the bloody sock and handsome postseason resumé, Curt Schilling, though his 216 victories may leave him a shilling short.
And finally, there is Jack Morris, the leading winner among pitchers in the 1980s, and like Schilling, a postseason horse. Morris, his 254 career victories, 175 complete games and 28 shutouts are on the ballot for the 14th time. Even now, after his candidacy has been found lacking 13 times, it appears stronger than that of Schilling.
But who can say? So many candidates come with some kind of issues attached. Lee Smith, the leading closer in history -- in saves -- when he first appeared on the ballot in 2003, hasn't yet received 51 percent of a vote. The definition of the save works against his candidacy and that of all closers this side of Mariano Rivera. Jeff Bagwell was named on 56 percent of the ballots last year, his second year of eligibility.
Edgar Martinez fights the stigma of having been a designated hitter, Larry Walker fights the legacy of Coors Field and Tim Raines is undermined to a degree because he wasn't Rickey Henderson.
The voting often is fickle and defies predictions. And the ballot for the Class of 2013 has more imponderable issues than most.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com.