A good friend compares his vote in the Hall of Fame to a congressman's vote in Washington. And he's right. Cooperstown voters are part of a select and honored group with the privilege/responsibility to cast votes on behalf of everyone else. Except we don't receive money from the National Rifle Association or get to fool around with interns.
When I vote in a regular election, I never leave the booth thinking that I didn't vote for the right person. The fact that approximately half the other voters cast their ballots for someone else doesn't alter my conviction in the slightest. This is not the case when I cast my Hall of Fame ballot, however. I always seal the envelope as reluctantly as I do the one containing my mortgage payment.
While I am always quite certain that the players I voted for belong in the Hall of Fame, each year I worry that I should have voted for some additional players as well.
The pitcher I second-guess myself most often about is Bert Blyleven.
Before going any further, I should disclose that I know Blyleven, that I covered Blyleven and that I like Blyleven. He even gave me a hotfoot when I was just starting out as a beat writer and I wore the cindered remains as a badge of honor for more than a season (I finally stopped after outfielder Dan Gladden ridiculed me for wearing such "horse----'' shoes). I considered it a rite of passage. One of baseball's most notorious pranksters had given me a hot foot. Short of having Nolan Ryan strike me out, Roger Clemens hit me in the head with a fastball or Pete Rose bet me $1,000 on a Reds game, it was about as close as I could come to entering the private club called major league baseball.
So I want to vote for Blyleven each year. And every year, I come closer to doing so. And yet, every year I don't.
Yes, he was a very good pitcher for a very long time. He won 287 games and had a 3.31 career ERA. He struck out 3,701 batters. He threw 60 shutouts and a no-hitter. His curveball was the one against all others were judged.
But he also lost 250 games, only once won 20 games, made the All-Star team only two times, never finished higher than third in the Cy Young voting and only finished four times in the top 10.
Blyleven supporters insist that his victory total suffered because he pitched for a lot of bad teams, but I dispute that. He pitched for three division winners. He pitched for two World Series champions. He pitched for 10 teams with winning records. He pitched for three second-place teams. He pitched for five third-place teams. He pitched for five 90-plus win teams. He pitched for two .500 teams. He pitched for nine teams with losing records. He pitched for one last-place team. Because of a mid-season trade, he pitched one year with a winning team and a losing team.
Blyleven pitched 22 seasons in the majors, half with teams that finished in third place or higher and nine spent entirely with losing teams.
Frankly, that isn't that bad.
Further, because pitching is so important to the outcome of a game, anytime a Hall of Fame pitcher takes the mound, his team immediately becomes a very good team, no matter how bad they were on days when far lesser talents pitch. As long as a team is reasonably capable of scoring runs and fielding the ball, a great pitcher isn't particularly handicapped.
And yet, I am still not convinced that Blyleven doesn't belong in Cooperstown. While I haven't voted for him yet, it's quite possible I will in the future. That's not because my perception of him as a pitcher changes from year to year, but because my standard of what a Hall-of-Famer should be is constantly evolving.
Hall of Fame standards are difficult for everyone to pin down. They vary by position (for some reason, third basemen are expected to field like Brooks Robinson and hit like Mike Schmidt), as well as by voting groups (the veterans tend to have lower standards than the writers -- or is it just that they have a higher, and better formed, opinion of the players?).
They also apparently vary even within positions and within voting groups. Consider Ozzie Smith and Alan Trammell.
Ozzie, one of the greatest fielding shortstops of all-time, easily made the Hall of Fame his first year eligible -- and deservedly so. But Trammell, who was a better hitter than Ozzie, a very good fielder and a great overall shortstop, didn't come anywhere close (74 votes, including one from me). Was there really that wide a difference between Ozzie and Trammell? The vast majority of writers thought so.
I only wish all this was as simple as former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's opinion on hard-core pornography. "I may not be able to define it,'' he wrote, "but I know it when I see it.''
We know who many Hall of Famers are when we see them. Unfortunately, not all of them are so readily identifiable. That's not only what makes the voting so hard, it's what makes the debate so damn interesting.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.