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It is effectively the Baseball Hall of Fame's pause before the steroid storm really hits, so let's all sit back and chuckle at Rickey Henderson's illeism and malapropisms and magnificent sense of self.

Next year, Roberto Alomar becomes eligible for the Hall and will get a chance to become the first player inducted wearing a Toronto Blue Jays cap on his plaque at Cooperstown. The year after, Larry Walker of Maple Ridge, B.C., will be eligible. But Rafael Palmeiro, the first steroid-era star with a documented suspension for use of a performance enhancer, will also be on that 2011 ballot. Just down the road in 2013? Bonds. Clemens. Sosa. Uh, and you think Mark McGwire's presence on the ballot for the past three years was an issue?

That's why it's easy to give thanks to the baseball gods for the Gift That Is Rickey - a statistical booty call for seamheads of any ilk and a character straight out of literature.

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"Been a long time coming," Henderson said yesterday. Vintage Rickey - the desperate cry of a man who'd been elected in his first year of eligibility, a full 14 years ahead of the man who will go in with him, Jim Rice.

God love him. As Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said of managing Henderson in 1993: "I regret it. I regret that I couldn't manage him for a few more years."

Yes, Rice is finally in, selected in the 15th and final year of his candidacy on 76.4 per cent of the ballots cast by eligible voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, more than doubling his vote total from his first year (29.8 per cent in 1995) and undergoing the type of historical career rehabilitation for which George W. Bush would kill. Rice needed 75 per cent of the vote to get in. (Henderson received 94.8 per cent.)

And it is now likely that Andre Dawson will also get to drag his knees up to the Cooperstown dais at some point in the next two years.

Given the weakness of the 2010 and 2011 ballots, the former Montreal Expo can expect this year's 67 per cent total to squeak over the 75 per cent required for election, just as Rice did this time when he joined Red Ruffing (1967) and Ralph Kiner (1975) as the only other Hall of Famers to be elected in their final year of eligibility.

Dawson, who has eight years of eligibility left, might also get to drag Bert Blyleven and his 250 losses with him, too.

That's all fine and well, but full disclosure: This Hall of Fame voter selected Henderson, Tim Raines and Mark McGwire and did not vote for Dawson or Blyleven.

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Raines's total mysteriously slipped to 22.6 per cent from 24.3 per cent, which shows it's not always enough to say you reached base 3,977 times in your career compared with, say, Tony Gwynn's total of 3,955, or scored 1,500 runs. That is odd and, frankly, profoundly disappointing.

Just as disappointing, but more predictable, is that McGwire's total fell to 21.9 per cent from 23.6 per cent, and the guess here is that while some voters still see him as, um, "one dimensional," a number of voters simply didn't get the memo that it isn't only big, home-run hitting machines who used or used steroids or other performance enhancers.

(Or at least that they didn't get a copy of the Mitchell report.)

Hall voters can select as many as 10 players on each ballot or as few as none, and you'd like to think all this ability to vote for one guy one year and not the next or vice versa would mean a player's career will be analyzed in a different light as the evidentiary weight of steroid use is documented.

But that clearly hasn't been the case for McGwire, and the guess here is it won't be for many of the other players who played during the steroid era.

At any rate, the sense here is that with what's on the horizon, we'll long for the days of not voting for Dawson or Rice or Blyleven and pushing the case for Raines. Of happily voting for Henderson and placing our order, now, for the souvenir decoder rings they'll need to dole out in Cooperstown for his acceptance speech. It's going to be easy to vote for Alomar and damned straight it will be easy to wave the flag for Walker, but the rest of it is going to be tough to swallow.

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*****

Hall credentials

Rickey Henderson A 10-time all-star who played from 1979 through 2003, Henderson holds the career records for steals (1,406) and runs (2,295), and his 2,190 walks are second to Barry Bonds's 2,558.

Jim Rice The eight-time all-star was the 1978 most valuable player with the Boston Red Sox. In 16 seasons, he batted .298 and hadh 382 home runs and 1,452 runs batted in. The outfielder led the American League in home runs three times and helped the Red Sox come within one strike of winning the 1986 World Series.

The Associated Press, Bloomberg News

*****

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HALL FACTS

Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice were elected yesterday to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

They were the first left fielders elected to the Hall of Fame in 20 years and will join seniors committee candidate Joe Gordon in the induction ceremony on July 26 at the sport shrine in Cooperstown, N.Y., bringing the Hall's player total to 202.

Voting was done by a North American sports media panel, with 75 per cent of votes needed to turn a candidate into a Hall of Famer.

Rice became the third player elected in his final year of eligibility, following Ralph Kiner in 1975 and Red Ruffing in 1967.

Agence France-Presse

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