Today's stars, tomorrow's Hall?
If these 12 retired today, Cooperstown would follow
A golden age for baseball? You're living it.The Hall of Fame spotlight that on Tuesday beamed down on Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg will, a few years down the road, find an uncommon number of players currently gracing diamonds. We find ourselves in the midst of MLB's third golden age. The first occured in the '20s, which roared with Murderers Row and a nascent Gas House Gang and was packed with such mythical players as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Rogers Hornsby. Then came the '50s, and Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays. In this latest stars-driven era, our conservative judgment scouts nearly a dozen Cooperstown residents-in-waiting. We have always been extremely sensitive to taking "Hall of Famer" in vain, opposed to liberal distribution of that label. But today's headliners tower above ambiguity. The ground rules are simple: No projections; "potential" has no weight here. The selections are based on accomplishment. If they retired today, these players would enter the Hall of Fame five years hence. Barry Bonds. Forget the snowballing controversies. But even if you can't, the fact is, whatever the bent rules his generation played by, he still towered above them. Given his endurance, he actually is towering over his second generation. And, before it's all over, he will own the sport's most cherished record: the lifetime home run mark. Sammy Sosa. The only man ever with a trio of 60-homer seasons? His star faded considerably last year, but how can that accomplishment ever be dimmed? He just wrapped a decade in which, even with last season's decline, he totaled 479 home runs and 1,226 RBIs. Roger Clemens. All he did last season, besides win a seventh Cy Young Award at age 42, was delay his Cooperstown speech. You know the numbers -- 328 wins, 4,317 strikeouts -- but they only begin to define his presence, whereever he has been. Pitched for four teams. Won a Cy Young Award with each. Rafael Palmeiro. Are you asking, "What's he doing on this list?" 551 homers and (yes, we're fudging a bit on that projection issue) 78 hits shy of 3,000, that's what. If you're counting 500-3,000 guys, you can stop at Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray. Mariano Rivera. The Hall of Fame bias against closers ends with him. There may be nothing magical anymore about the 300-save circle he cracked last year. If you can just open the latch on a bullpen gate, you're halfway to 300 saves. But no one has ever matched the way he chills through October, a month he has owned for a decade. 32 saves, 8-1 record, 0.75 ERA in 70 playoff games. He'll be the pioneer first-ballot pure closer (Dennis Eckersley having, of course, been a hybrid). Ivan Rodriguez. Even if he never got a base hit, he'd rate. What a defensive giant. Eleven Gold Gloves. Bazooka of an arm. Immovable blocking the plate. But, of course, he can swing the bat a little, too. A lifetime .306 hitter who four times batted .300-plus while catching more than 140 games. Inhuman. Manny Ramirez. Surprised? Don't be. When eye problems curtailed Kirby Puckett's career after 12 seasons, he was enshrined with 207 homers and 1,085 RBIs. In the last 10 years, Ramirez has slugged 390 homers and driven in 1,270 -- while building a career average of .316. The best pure hitting machine of a generation. Mike Piazza. As per our ground rules, if he retired today, as opposed to perhaps wearing out his welcome. For the time being, his reputation as history's best-hitting catcher is safe. Just look at the centerpiece decade of his 13-year career: Five .320-plus seasons, nine times 30-plus homers, six times 100-plus RBIs, six times catching 140-plus games. He was a freak in 1997, batting .362 with 40 homers and 124 RBIs in 152 games. Ken Griffey Jr. Has suffered even more than Piazza from the wear-out-the-welcome syndrome. Had he retired in 1999, somewhere between Seattle and Cincinnati, he'd be a slam-dunk. Yet by plugging along on legs that keep betraying him, he at least has cracked the 500-homer circle. And he will be only 35 next season; since he turned 35, Bonds has clocked 272 homers. Greg Maddux. He has been initiated into the brotherhood of 300-game winners, so he needs no further testimonials. He's the most consistent (17 consecutive seasons with 15-plus wins) and most artful pitcher ever. In 1997, he won 19 games -- and had 14 unintentional walks in 232 2/3 innings. That's freaky. Randy Johnson. He's coming to New York to continue the push to 300 wins, but doesn't need the fanfare of either the Big Apple or that magic number. The most dominant, feared pitcher ever. And, of couse, the all-time leader among left-handers with 4,161 strikeouts. There are your models for future Hall of Fame plaques. Certainly, some magnetic names are omitted. But remember those ground rules; no one gets the nod on the come. If we were to compile a similar list in the wake of the Hall of Fame elections of the above, the names might include Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Torii Hunter, Carlos Beltran and Tim Hudson. Keep up the good work, fellows. As far as Cooperstown is concerned, you ain't done nothing yet.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.