Every Hall of Fame is great. But none are like baseball's

January 6th, 2024

There is no Hall of Fame like the National Baseball Hall of Fame. There just isn’t. This is not to diminish the other shrines like it in professional sports. But there is the Hall in Cooperstown, and then there are all the others.

And announcement day, coming up in a little more than two weeks on Jan. 23 (6 p.m. ET, MLB Network), is always one of the best baseball days of the year, whichever names are on the ballot. That is the moment when we find out who gets in with at least 75 percent of the vote, who comes close, and who is in danger of falling off the ballot after 10 years of being on it.

There is always both drama and excitement about the process, about learning the results, about the first-timers and last-timers and the ones in between. It’s like Opening Day and Election Night all at once. This particular election is the one decided by those picked to vote on baseball’s highest honor, to help decide who makes it to Main Street in Cooperstown.

“This country is made up of a great many things,’’ Willie Mays said on the day of his own induction. “You can grow up to be what you want. I chose baseball, and I loved every minute of it.’’

This is all about history being made, in the sport where history has always mattered so much. In a sport where numbers matter the way they do and connect one generation to the other, we discover on Jan. 23 which players have the numbers to make it into the Hall of Fame.

I was lucky enough to sit with Hank Aaron a few years ago in Cooperstown, at the reception after the speeches had been made on the grounds of the Clark Sports Center. Mr. Aaron was in a wheelchair by then, but when he came into the room, surrounded by the other Hall of Famers and guests, it was as if all eyes were on him, all over again, as if everything had stopped the way it once did when he stepped into the batter’s box. And that was some baseball moment, too, believe me.

“You wanted to make it to the big leagues, first and foremost,” Aaron said. “But then, if you were good enough, the dream was always to make it here.”

On Jan. 23, we will find out who will be on the stage in July, and then in that room with the other baseball immortals afterward. The feeling is that Adrián Beltré, such a wonderful player in Los Angeles and Seattle and Texas, and even a brief stop at Fenway Park, will likely be elected in his first year on the ballot.

But this is Gary Sheffield’s 10th and last year on the ballot, and it is Billy Wagner’s ninth. Last year Wagner was 27 votes short of election, with 265 votes.

“I hope this is the year when I get the call,” Wagner said not long ago.

So Wagner is still waiting. So is Todd Helton. I wrote here not long ago about Helton, one of the best hitters of his time when he played for the Rockies, and why I didn’t think that his personal geography -- playing in Denver at Coors Field -- should keep him away from Cooperstown any more than it did Larry Walker, the Hall of Famer who played 10 years for the Rockies himself. A year ago, Helton fell just 11 votes short, ending up with 72.2 percent. So maybe this is finally his time.

Joe Mauer, who came up as a catcher with the Twins before moving to first base, is on the ballot for the first time, the way Beltré is. It will be interesting to see how much love Mauer gets from the voters, particularly for what he did between 2006 and 2013, when he was consistently one of the best hitters in the game and had numbers that absolutely put him in the conversation with the best to ever play that position.

Mauer will wait for the call, and so will Andruw Jones, in his seventh year on the ballot, and Carlos Beltrán, in only his second year on the ballot. In the end, the highest drama may involve Sheffield, who had a career average of .292 and had 509 home runs, 2,689 hits and 1,676 RBIs, but has clearly been held back because his name once appeared in the Mitchell Report.

“I’m going to be pulling hard for [Sheffield],” said Jim Leyland, who managed him on the 1997 World Series champion Marlins, and who was recently elected to the Hall himself.

So even after getting his own call, Leyland waits, too. We all do, wanting to know which name -- or names -- we will hear on Jan. 23. A different kind of Opening Day in baseball, the one when the door to the Hall gets opened again. New names every year. The moment never gets old.