- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Tom Petty made his mark toting a Rickenbacker electric guitar rather than a Louisville Slugger, and he's immortalized in a Hall of Fame in downtown Cleveland, not upstate New York. But he might as well have been speaking for Cooperstown aspirants everywhere when he sang the lyrics: "The waiting is the hardest part."
The wait became almost too much to bear for Bert Blyleven in 2001, when he urged Hall of Fame voters to ignore his candidacy and put him out of his misery. Blyleven's stance has since softened, and now he simply refuses to sit around waiting for the phone to ring. Last year, when baseball announced its Cooperstown class, Blyleven was out having the oil changed on his truck.
Heaven knows what household chores Blyleven will be tending to this year. But Bill Hillsman is sure to be paying attention.
Hillsman, a Minneapolis advertising executive who has done work on behalf of former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone and consumer advocate-turned-presidential candidate Ralph Nader, is now channeling his energies into a different cause. He's the creative force behind bertbelongs.com, a Web site devoted to advancing Bert Blyleven's case for baseball immortality.
"When the voting pool is so small and nobody knows who it is, the best thing you can do is create talk about a particular candidate, get information out about how good he is, and hope it filters down to people who actually have a vote."
-- Bill Hillsman
The Blyleven site features favorable newspaper columns and tale-of-the-tape statistical comparisons with other Hall of Famers, while exhorting fans to spread the word and make their feelings known in letters to the editor.
Since the Baseball Writers Association of America doesn't make public the list of 500-something Hall of Fame voters, Cooperstown campaign organizers can only guess at the identity of the electorate. It's largely a trial-and-error proposition.
This is more like Cher's Academy Award push than hockey's "Vote for Rory" campaign, in which fans have banded together and waged an All-Star write-in campaign on behalf of Vancouver Canucks defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick even though he has yet to score a point this season.
"If everybody has a vote, it's a big universe," Hillsman said. "When the voting pool is so small and nobody knows who it is, the best thing you can do is create talk about a particular candidate, get information out about how good he is, and hope it filters down to people who actually have a vote."
The Hall of Fame campaign isn't a novel concept. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, baseball writers received a box in the mail 30 years ago with a lemon and a note promoting pitcher Bob Lemon. The gimmick clearly didn't hurt, as evidenced by the voters' decision to put Lemon into the Hall with Robin Roberts.
During the 1990s, a Birmingham, Ala., writer named John Bird embarked on a crusade to get longtime Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski into Cooperstown. Mazeroski's case never resonated with the baseball writers, but he was elected by the Veterans Committee in 2001.
The old lobbying efforts now seem quaint and homespun compared to the campaigns being waged in the Internet age. With the click of a mouse, longtime Boston Red Sox public relations man Dick Bresciani can reach hundreds of baseball writers with an e-mail titled: "Why Jim Rice is Worthy of Hall of Fame Induction." And former Reds shortstop Davey Concepcion's case for Cooperstown is articulated on the Web site concepcionforcooperstown.org.
Tim Gay, once an aide to former West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, now works as a communications consultant in Washington, D.C. He has written a biography of Tris Speaker, and helped plan a forum in Pittsburgh last summer with author David Maraniss on the legacy of Roberto Clemente. That caught the attention of Concepcion, who gave his blessing for Gay to begin a Hall campaign.
Concepcion made nine All-Star teams and won five Gold Gloves, but was overshadowed by Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose and even the understated Tony Perez on the Big Red Machine teams of the 1970s. Since he had a minimal grasp of English, it was easy for the writers to shortchange him.
Gay's Web site shows how Concepcion's statistics compare favorably with those of Ozzie Smith, Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese and other Hall of Fame shortstops. He's making the case for a player whose profile never quite matched his achievements.
"Davey is kind of a modest, retiring guy, and his command of English back then wasn't great," Gay said. "In that era, unfortunately, Latinos tended to be overlooked and underappreciated. There were games when Davey would drive in the winning run or make a couple of spectacular defensive plays, and the reporters and cameras in the clubhouse would hang around Rose or Bench or Morgan's locker getting quotes."
Concepcion received 31 votes, or 6.8 percent, in his first year on the ballot. He peaked with 80 votes, or slightly less than 17 percent, in 1998. He's revered in his native Venezuela, where a statue was built in his honor outside the ballpark in Maracay, and Venezuelan business interests have helped sponsor his Hall of Fame lobbying effort. But since Concepcion decided to return home years ago, he's been out of sight and out of mind for voters.
Not this year. Concepcion shook hands and signed autographs at the Redsfest celebration in Cincinnati in early December, and Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman wrote an editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer supporting his Hall candidacy. "Davey was the engine that made the machine go and go," wrote Brennaman.
The Red Sox began promoting Rice a couple of years ago when Bresciani, now the team's vice president of publications and archives, discussed the urgency of the outfielder's Hall of Fame candidacy with executive vice president Charles Steinberg.
The Red Sox did a statistical breakdown and found that Rice was one of only 20 players in history with a .300 average and 350 home runs over a 12-year span. Some of the others: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.
"We looked at the numbers and said, 'Oh my God, how can you not vote for Jim Rice?' " Bresciani said.
Rice's biggest adversary might be time. He appeared on 29 percent of the votes in his first appearance on the ballot in 1995, and progressed to 64.8 percent last year. No player has received that high a percentage in a BBWAA vote and failed to make it to Cooperstown. But the presence of sure things Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn on the current ballot doesn't help, and Rice will be off the ballot in two more years.
While Rice unquestionably passes the dominance-for-a-decade test, he loses points for flaming out too quickly and being a Fenway Park creation. Some voters now view his power numbers in a more favorable light because they were amassed in the pre-steroid era, but those same writers didn't appreciate Rice when he was blowing off interviews and treating them with disdain.
"Jim was never a problem with the team," Bresciani said. "He conducted himself like a true professional. But he could be brusque and put off the writers. I think that's definitely had an impact."
Blyleven, like Rice, is making major strides in the voting, and he'll be on the ballot through 2011 in his quest for the requisite 75 percent. The Internet statistical community has embraced his cause -- taking note of his 242 complete games, 3,701 strikeouts and 60 shutouts -- and more writers are overlooking the fact that Blyleven made only two All-Star teams and never finished higher than third in a Cy Young race.
Hillsman, the ad professional, concedes the difference between selling to a mass audience and trying to pitch an idea to a finite group that's identifiable only through educated guesswork. But a good product is a good product, whether it's the Mall of America, a former professional wrestler turned gubernatorial candidate, or a 287-game winner with a killer curveball.
"If you delve into the statistics enough, I think the evidence is overwhelming," Hillsman said. "I like Bert Blyleven, but I really started to get into this when I looked at the numbers. It's kind of an injustice that he isn't in by now."
There's a fine line between education, subtle persuasion and arm twisting. For the sake of Bert Blyleven's Hall aspirations, his supporters can only hope that Cooperstown voters know the difference.
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