When the air is filled with footballs and rain fouls the ski slopes, it's comforting to think about baseball. Every year at this season, Hall of Fame ballots are in the mail.
Especially when the shadow of Steinbrenner casts a chill over the land, the hot stove is reassuring, like the return of the sun when the days are shortest. Think about the way the game in our minds is played -- even with the intrusion of the great moral issue.
Tom Seaver is No. 1, tall and clean and heroic as Michelangelo's David. He's obvious and automatic.
Still, this is the Man Who Isn't There ballot of Pete Rose. He's the Flying Dutchman of baseball. He tossed the dice for his soul and is damned to sail the seas forever. He tossed and he lost.
He's the man without a museum, and that's the devil's own punishment for a man who saw his image in bronze, a companion to the great ones. Too bad, but he brought it on himself.
I couldn't let myself vote for him even if the semi-righteous lords of baseball thought I could make my own decision. Maybe the Baseball Writers Assn. of America shouldn't be voting for the Hall of Fame anymore; people in the business of reporting the news shouldn't also be in the business of creating the news.
Electing a Most Valuable Player when winning that award could mean $100,000 or more to a player is a more obvious conflict. At least Hall of Fame candidates have been out of baseball for a minimum of five years.
But I don't know who'd be better qualified to do the selecting, and I think the Hall of Fame is a significant piece of the sports scene. It's significant enough to say that a man who was found to have bet on basebell -- the Dowd Report showed me enough -- committed a crime against baseball.
Rose's accomplishments are honored all over the place, but the man can't be honored there.
Rose loved to play against Seaver because Rose loved the link between one man's greatness and his own.
Seaver, who wound up with 311 victories and a 2.86 ERA, was the player who elevated the New York Mets out of the muck and mire of their early years. Gil Hodges did it in the dugout; Seaver did it on the mound. He had that great confidence and determination that border on selfishness but enabled him to be great.
He was the rare athlete who willed others around him to be better. He's the sublime candidate.
Sublime and Ridiculous are probably involved in every Hall of Fame vote. And there we have Dave Kingman. He hit 442 home runs, which will mark him as the man with the most home runs never to get admission to the museum without a ticket. He is the most lopsided player ever to play the game, and he probably still doesn't understand that.
No. 3 is for Maury Wills for changing the game as forcefully as Fingers did. Wills reintroduced the stolen base as the total weapon. Nobody stole 100 bases in a season before he did. He made opponents angry, but he fathered today's running game.
No. 4 is Orlando Cepeda. "Cha-Cha" should have been in long ago. He drove in 100 runs five times, hit .300 nine times. He was so lucky that the first three teams he played on all won pennants. His criminal conviction was not a crime against baseball.
No. 5 is Tony Perez. Johnny Bench once noted how cleverly the Reds oiled the ego gears of the Big Red Machine: Bench was on the cover of one official publication, Rose on a second and Joe Morgan on the third. "And Doggy doesn't care," Bench said. That was Perez, who had no ego, made a biting expression when he swung, and drove in 100 runs seven times.
George Foster's numbers are comparable, but Foster was a product of the Machine while Perez made the Machine.
Now comes a point of re-examination. Haven't we overlooked Tony Oliva? His presence as a coach with the Minnesota Twins made me take another look. Until the second of his five knee operations, Oliva was a great player. His comparisons with Carl Yastrzemski, who zipped in as soon as he was eligible, are remarkable.
Yaz led the American League in average in 1963; Oliva led as a rookie in '64 and again in '65 and '71. Oliva hit .300 six of his first eight seasons -- before the first knife cut. His .304 lifetime average is highest on the ballot. He was a demon outfielder; few players are as complete.
He had six distinctly Hall of Fame seasons in his 15, which is about as many as Yaz in his 23. Vote No. 6, with an admission of oversight.
No. 7 for Bill Mazeroski. It's casting the vote to the winds, but if you watched the Mets the last couple of years, you should know what a second baseman means. He was a tough out with the game in the balance and with the glove he was "Blankety Maz." There is something to a fielder who always leads in assists and double plays.
Some year I'll vote for Bobby Grich, too, but this is his first year eligible. Maz should go in first.
No. 8 for Thurman Munson. He batted .300 five times, drove in 100 runs three times. Catchers just don't do that. He would have done it more if he had lived. He was surly, grouchy, rude, bigoted, nasty and a terrific player.
No. 9, well ... Once it was said that if you could stock an expansion franchise with anybody you chose, your first choice would be Bobby Bonds. Then it was said of Cesar Cedeno. Neither of them sustained a level of greatness.
So give No. 9 to Curt Flood. Next to Mays, there was no better center fielder. You know if you don't have a center fielder, a lot of balls will fall in. And he hit .300 six times. He had the courage to challenge the reserve system and ultimately bring about the great change, but no good deed goes unpunished.
No. 10. Leave that blank, like the empty chair at the holiday dinner table. It would have been Pete Rose's chair, but he chose not to show up.