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Bill Conlin: Jeff Bagwell, Juan Gonzalez belong in Hall of Fame

THE 2011 HALL OF FAME ballot presented the usual challenges and tough decisions common in years without a slam-dunk first-ballot presence.

THE 2011 HALL OF FAME ballot presented the usual challenges and tough decisions common in years without a slam-dunk first-ballot presence.

Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar, both painfully close to the magic 75 percent a year ago, are back for another run at the tape. In his 13th year on the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot, Blyleven was supported by 400 voters, or 74.2 percent. Alomar drew 397 votes, or 73.7 percent. That was hanging-chad close.

Jack Morris (52.2 percent), back for his 12th stab at baseball's golden ring, and Barry Larkin (51.6) on the ballot for the second time, were in the 50 percent-or-better photo.

Jeff Bagwell, as famous in Philly for being traded by the Red Sox to Houston for setup reliever Larry Andersen as he was for his prodigious hitting for the Astros, heads a strong rookie class.

Strong, but lacking that one big, can't-miss, mortal lock who can siphon precious votes away from former stars with their noses pressed against the candy-store window.

The thick-bodied but nimble first baseman brings an impressive resume. Bagwell was an Astro his entire 15-year major league career, rare in the free-agent era. He was the 1991 National League Rookie of the Year. That's a bonus point. In 1994, the strike year, he was the unanimous MVP. Two more bonus points. Four-time All-Star, three-time Silver Slugger, a Gold Glove, six times in the MVP voting Top 10. Career on-base percentage of .408, slugging percentage .540, on-base plus slugging percentage .948. Led the league in runs scored three times. Durable. Played hurt, and toward the end of his injury-shortened career, very hurt. Finished with a .297 batting average, 2,314 hits and 449 home runs. That's a career, folks. Jeff Bagwell got my vote. He'll probably come close enough to top 75 percent in a few years.

But one other name jumped out at me from a list of newcomers that includes Carlos Baerga, Bret Boone, Marquis Grissom, Charles Johnson, Al Leiter, Raul Mondesi, Rafe Palmeiro (sorry, Rafe), Larry Walker, B.J. Surhoff and Temple's own Bobby Higginson.

Juan Gonzalez . . .

This was one helluvan offensive ballplayer. More than that, however, his presence on the ballot with numbers that won him two American League MVP awards with the Texas Rangers made me realize that Roberto Clemente is the only Latino outfielder in the Hall of Fame. Time for No. 2.

The guy banged 42 or more homers five times and also hit .310 or better five times and drove in 100 or more runs eight times. He led the league with 157 RBI in 1998, the year he had an amazing 101 at the All-Star break, raising speculation he might be the first guy to threaten Hack Wilson's otherworldly 191 RBI. In the 1996 ALDS against the Yankees, JuanGon blasted five homers and drove in nine runs. So, yeah, I voted for him, as well.

Now, you're going to ask me . . . If you voted for Gonzalez, why didn't you also vote for Larry Walker? He was the 1997 MVP, batting .366 and leading the NL with 49 homers and also stole 33 bases . . . Brilliant, big-arm rightfielder with seven Gold Gloves. My lame excuse is Walker put up a lot of those numbers playing in Coors Field in the prehumidor days. Next year, Larry, I promise.

As I said, it is an extremely strong rookie class.

Now, on to the holdovers . . .

Blyleven is finally going to get in - unless there is an outbreak of buyer's remorse. He hasn't won a single game since he retired, but the 287 he did win during a 22-year career will look pretty good to the Pitch Count Generation . . . Started 685 games and completed 242 of them, or 35.3 percent. No. 5 all-time in strikeouts and ninth in shutouts. Time for the Flinging Dutchman to mount the Cooperstown dais.

I voted for both Blyleven and Alomar last year and was mildly shocked that Robbie wasn't an easy first-ballot choice. It appears some voters hit the brilliant second baseman with a 1-year penalty over the incident where he hocked at umpire John Hirschbeck. Alomar went postal after the ump allegedly questioned his manhood with a word that is about the most offensive thing you can say to a Latino male.

The other surprise - to me at least - was the lukewarm support for Barry Larkin, the Reds' peerless shortstop for 19 seasons. Maybe he made it look too easy, almost Schmittyesque. But the numbers are the numbers. You can't hide the fact he was the first National League shortstop in the 30-30 club with 33 homers and 36 stolen bases in 1996, the year after he was the NL MVP . . . Career .295 BA with 198 HR, 379 SB and three straight Gold Gloves . . . Was one fine shortstop. And Hall-worthy.

I voted for six candidates, which I believes ties my HOF ballot high. The keys to Cooperstown are handed out sparingly. It's tough to get voted in and it's supposed to be that way, which is why it is the greatest sports Hall of Fame.

I voted for holdovers Blyleven, Alomar, Larkin and Morris. Plus first-timers Bagwell and Gonzalez.

I doubt if more than two of them will make it over the 75 percent speed bump.

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