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Hall set to open doors to three, maybe four

On most occasions, Hall of Fame voters do the snooty thing quite well. Even with the best of careers, they can find fault.

The average is too low or the ERA too high. The list of records on the field weren't long enough or the list of records in the courtroom were frighteningly long.

But even the most discriminating of voters were faced with a challenge when sending in their ballots by the Dec. 31 deadline.

George Brett, Carlton Fisk, Nolan Ryan and Robin Yount are in their first year of eligibility and have a legitimate shot at election when the results are announced Tuesday.

By Hall standards, this would be a stampede.

The Baseball Writers Association of America is appropriately stingy when it comes to opening the Hall's doors. Only three players have been elected by the BBWAA in the past four years.

You would have to go back to 1955 to find a year when the BBWAA elected as many as four on the same ballot. And never have three been elected together in their first year of eligibility.

If tradition is broken this year, it would be for good cause.

Brett and Yount amassed more than 3,000 hits and 250 home runs, a feat matched by only seven others. They should be shoo-ins. Ryan is baseball's all-time leader in strikeouts and no-hitters and is a 300-game winner. Some might quibble with his winning percentage, but he also should be automatic.

Fisk's case is more problematic. No other catcher played more games or hit more home runs, which give him Hall of Fame credentials. But his career numbers are just marginally better than Gary Carter's, and Carter fell way short of election last season. Fisk will make it eventually but may not be a first-ballot player.

The list of new candidates does not bode well for an old candidate. Former Reds slugger Tony Perez has been on the verge of election for several years, but probably will take a step backward because of the crowd at the top.

That would be a shame.

Of the top 30 RBI leaders eligible for enshrinement, Perez is the lone outcast. And it's not like he barely made the cut among run producers. His 1,652 RBI rank No. 16 all-time.

He has more hits than Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Fox. More home runs than Ralph Kiner and Joe DiMaggio. More RBI than Mickey Mantle and Mike Schmidt.

Unfortunately he has less support than he deserves.

DESERT HEAT: Not even the holidays can slow the Diamondbacks. Arizona continued its make over by acquiring veteran outfielder Luis Gonzalez in a deal that could trigger even more maneuvering. Gonzalez and Bernard Gilkey are leftfielders, leading to speculation that one could be dealt in a package with pitchers Brian Anderson or Omar Daal for a rightfielder.

THE FLIP SIDE: The Diamondbacks continue to move players acquired in the expansion draft. Karim Garcia, traded to Detroit to acquire Gonzalez, was Arizona's fifth pick. He joins top five picks Jorge Fabregas and Gabe Alvarez as ex-Diamondbacks. Garcia was the most touted prospect in the minors in the mid-1990s, but carries an underachiever label after failed stints in Los Angeles and Arizona. "In some people, the light goes on at different stages of their career than others," Arizona manager Buck Showalter said.

AROUND THE LEAGUE: The Indians are concerned Omar Vizquel might be a spring training holdout because he's unhappy with his contract. Vizquel signed a six-year contract in 1995, but is underpaid by 1999 standards at $3-million a year (Aside to Vizquel: You wanted the security of a long-term contract. Now shut up and play). Toronto GM Gord Ash says he no longer will actively pursue trades for Roger Clemens. Instead, Ash said he will wait for other teams to make offers. Cardinals C Tom Pagnozzi said he should know in a few weeks whether he is able to throw after off-season shoulder surgery. If the shoulder is not healed, Pagnozzi said he will retire.

SPRING FEVER: Individual tickets for Devil Rays spring training games go on sale at 10 a.m. Saturday. Tickets may be purchased at the Tropicana Field box office or at Ticketmaster locations and by phone at 898-RAYS in Pinellas and 282-RAYS in Hillsborough. Tickets will not be sold at Al Lang Field.

Reserved seats cost $8, $10 and $12 and general admission seats are $3. The berm seating area is also $3, but those tickets go on sale only on game days.

RAYS REPORT: After a slow start, OF Rich Butler has found his groove in the Mexican League. In 118 at-bats, Butler was hitting .280 with two homers and 10 RBI for Mazatlan. Rays prospect Pablo Ortega had a 1.74 ERA in 20 innings for Mazatlan. Former Devil Rays pitchers Matt Ruebel and Dan Carlson signed minor-league contracts with the Diamondbacks.

HOO RAYS: Managing general partner Vince Naimoli will receive an "Outstanding Business Leader" award presented by Northwood University on Jan. 15.

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

PROBABLY IN

From left, Brett (3,154 hits), Ryan (5,714 K's), Yount (3,142 hits) headline first-ballot nominees.

Carlton Fisk, remembered most for this 12th-inning homer in the 1975 World Series, leads all catchers in games and homers.

PROBABLY NOT

From left, Murphy (398 HRs), Perez (1,652 RBI), Rice (382 HRs) might come up short in Hall voting.

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