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Thursday, December 30, 2010
Updated: December 31, 2:29 PM ET
Bert Blyleven, Roberto Alomar so close

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

If a candidate gets 74 percent of the vote in a political election, it's a landslide. If a candidate gets 74 percent of the vote in a Hall of Fame election, on the other hand, he's probably thinking of a different word:

Heartbreak.

Or something like that.

No two humans on Earth know that 74 percent heartbreak better than Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar.

In January, when the Hall of Fame returns rolled in, Blyleven's name showed up on 74.2 percent of the ballots. Alomar's name was checked on 73.7 percent. That's a slew of votes.

Roberto Alomar
Roberto Alomar has won more Gold Gloves than any second baseman -- ever.

Just not enough.

To make it to that exalted podium in Cooperstown, you need 75 percent.

So Blyleven missed election by five votes. Alomar was short by eight. It was the first Hall of Fame election in history in which two different candidates missed by fewer than 10 votes apiece.

Now, a year later, they get to try it again.

The 2011 Hall of Fame election results will be announced Wednesday. It's never a good idea to start predicting how any of these votes are going to turn out. But if these two men don't get elected this time, it would be more than just shocking.

It would be pretty much unprecedented.

History tells us that 21 candidates have collected between 70 and 75 percent of the vote in previous Hall of Fame elections -- and EVERY one of them wound up with a plaque in Cooperstown. But not all their paths were the same.

Four were eventually elected by the Veterans Committee. One made it via a special election, under different voting rules.

The 16 others -- a group that includes Juan Marichal, Billy Williams and Roy Campanella -- were elected by the Baseball Writers' Association of America the very next year.

Of that entire group of 21, only one player who came that close, and then appeared on the following year's BBWAA ballot, has ever failed to make it in his next try. That was Jim Bunning, after falling four votes short, more than two decades ago.

So for Bert Blyleven and Robbie Alomar, this seems like The Year, feels like The Year, almost certainly will be The Year. But for their friends in baseball, people who have agonized with them before and will agonize with them again, the approach of another election brings that feeling of trepidation roaring right back again.

"Bert is like my big brother," said Frank Viola, Blyleven's former teammate in Minnesota. "So every year, I see how close he is and he can't get his foot in the door. It hurts."

Blyleven has felt that hurt 13 times now. This is his 14th year on the ballot, and he's had himself one strange and mysterious voting history.

He got a mere 83 votes (17.5 percent) in his first year on the ballot (1998). By his second year, he'd plummeted to only 70 votes (14.1 percent). That was fewer votes at the time than Dale Murphy, fewer than Dave Parker, even fewer than Minnie Minoso.

So how long did Blyleven's road to Cooperstown look back then? So long that if he quintupled his vote total, it still wouldn't be enough.

Little did he know he was about to embark on a path that no player in modern voting times has traveled.

No one who debuted on the ballot in the past 40 years has ever had a vote total that low and then begun a long and winding road north to election. But Bert Blyleven has traveled that trail. And now he sits on the verge of Hall of Fame history.

By last year, Blyleven had lifted himself all the way up to 400 votes. That was 337 more than Murphy, 313 more than Parker. None of them had appeared in a single box score since 1999. So the forces at work here can be ascribed only to revisionist history.

Amazingly, in Blyleven's case, that's turned out to be a good thing.

In those early years, voters were clearly looking past his 287 wins, 60 shutouts and 3,701 strikeouts and fixating on the negatives in Blyleven's candidacy:

Just two All-Star teams in 22 seasons … top-three finishes in only two Cy Young elections … and, of course, his "failure" to win 300 games.

But no player has ever -- and again, that word is "ever" -- had his Hall of Fame candidacy helped more by the sabermetrics boom than Blyleven.

Bert Blyleven
Bert Blyleven missed the Hall of Fame by five votes last year. Will he make it to 75 percent this time around?

On Baseball-Reference.com's Wins Above Aeplacement (WAR) rankings for pitchers, Blyleven ranks 13th in the history of baseball -- ahead of names such as Christy Mathewson and Bob Gibson.

Among full-time starters, he's 21st all-time in Win Probability Added. He's No. 18 all-time on Lee Sinins' Runs Saved Above Average list. And no less an authority than Bill James once combed through every one of Blyleven's losses and no-decisions, game-by-game, to prove it was mostly bad luck that led to his "failure" to win 300.

So now here he is, awaiting another verdict, in year 14. And this has to be it. Doesn't it?

"I really believe this will be the right vote," Viola said. "I know it's late. But I really believe it's never too late."

Compared to the torture Blyleven has endured, Alomar has had it easy. This is only his second appearance on this ballot. And according to the Elias Sports Bureau, no player has ever come closer without being elected on his first try than Alomar's miss by 1.35 percent last year.

So he's going to make it. We know that. And he's almost certainly going to make it this year -- in a dozen fewer elections than Blyleven. So it's hard to get too worked up about the absurdity of Alomar not getting elected on his first shot.

But really now. How in the heck could Robbie Alomar not have gotten elected on the first ballot? What a joke.

Twelve straight All-Star teams, the most Gold Gloves (10) of any second baseman in history, 2,724 career hits and seven different seasons with a .300 average and .800 OPS (the fifth-most of any second baseman ever) -- and 142 voters found a reason not to check this guy's name? Incredible.

And in Alomar's case, the numbers are only a slice of his story.

Said his one-time GM in Cleveland, Mark Shapiro: "Robbie was probably the most complete player we saw come through here, in a generation of very special players."

What separated Alomar from all those other special players, Shapiro said, was his unique ability to "impact a game" just about any way a player could -- with his glove, with his arm, with his bat, with his legs and, especially, with his brain.

Roberto Alomar might have been the most creative baseball player of his time  "and he had the tools," Shapiro said, "to employ that creativity."

So how could this man not get elected? Clearly, he was penalized for two unshakeable transgressions: (1) The infamous "spitting incident" with umpire John Hirschbeck during the 1996 postseason and (2) those two ugly seasons as a Met late in his career (when he hit just .265/.333/.370).

The spitting debacle obviously cost Alomar character-and-integrity points, even though he and Hirschbeck have resolved their issues. And the Mets years left such a scar on the New York voters that more than one in every three left him off their ballot last year.

But with all that hanging over him, Alomar still came within eight votes of joining Joe Morgan, Jackie Robinson and Rod Carew as the only second basemen ever elected on the first ballot.

So is it really possible that those same issues can keep Roberto Alomar out again? Seems crazy, right? And is it conceivable that the Bert Blyleven holdouts are still so dug in that this won't be The Year for him, either? Seems unimaginable.

But it's safer to predict the daily Powerball numbers than it is to predict how Hall of Fame voters might vote. So all we can say with any assurance is: We'll find out Wednesday -- and so will Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.