For most of his career, Steve Carlton refused to talk to the media. He probably figured words weren't going to help him get anybody out.

Lefty didn't talk a good game, but he sure pitched one. My Hall of Fame ballot is now in the mail and Carlton, a first-year eligible, leads my list of three players proposed for induction in the baseball shrine in Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1994.In addition to Carlton, I have made check marks beside the names of Orlando Cepeda and Tony Perez.

I could have voted for one or two more - the limit is 10 - but I didn't. The toughest omissions were Bruce Sutter, Ron Santo, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro and Steve Garvey.

Carlton was an easy pick. In 24 seasons, often with terrible teams, he won 329 games. He had 4,136 strikeouts. He holds the National League record for strikeouts in a nine-inning game . He won 20 or more games six times and won four Cy Young Awards. He pitched on 10 All-Star teams.

In 1972, he had perhaps the most outstanding season any pitcher ever had - considering the cast around him. He won 27 with the dreadful, last-place Philadelphia Phillies.

The team went 59-97 and finished 35 games out in the National League East but Carlton was incredible. He made 41 starts and had 30 complete games. He had eight shutouts and 310 strikeouts. His earned-run average was a mind-boggling 1.97. He obviously needed that to win.

It's not likely any pitcher will duplicate that feat, especially in this era of six-inning "quality" starts, setup men and closers. Carlton didn't need help.

Cepeda does need help if he's going to get his due. This is his 15th and last chance at being voted in by baseball writers.

It's hard to question his credentials. He batted over .300 nine times for the San Francisco Giants and had a lifetime average of .297, 12 points higher than Carl Yastrzemski. In 17 seasons, he slugged 379 home runs, more than Joe DiMaggio. He drove in 1,365 runs, more than several hitters already enshrined.

He was the National League rookie of the year in 1958 and the league's most-valuable player in 1967. He played in seven All-Star games.

The numbers should have been good enough to get into Cooperstown a long time ago - except for that day in 1975 when he was apprehended in the San Juan airport in possession of a large amount of marijuana.

He served 13 months in jail, then started trying to rehabilitate his reputation. He has been a leading citizen of San Francisco where he works for the Giants in community relations. He has been a longtime speaker for Sports Fans Against Substance Abuse and has been a spokesperson for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation. His face is familiar around inner-city schools.

When Cepeda threw out the first ball at the National League playoffs four years ago, a lot of people felt it was baseball's way of saying that he had paid his debt - to society and the game.

Normally, you will get no sympathy from me for those who deal in drugs, and I think Orlando Cepeda agrees with that. In an era when athletes' accountability for their actions is at an all-time low, where no one admits to a transgression, where there's an excuse for everything, Cepeda offered none. He stood up and was counted. Now it's time to count him in.

I voted for Perez - as I have the last few years - for two reasons. He has terrific statistics. He had seven seasons of 100 or more RBIs and 1,652 in his 23 years. He hit 379 home runs, same as Cepeda.

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And then there's this: Teammates from those wonderful Big Red Machines of the mid-1970s, to a man, will tell you that Tony Perez was the most important player. I have heard that from Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Sparky Anderson and Pete Rose, among others.

Bench and Morgan are already in the Hall, Anderson will be and so will Rose if he is ever reinstated.

Sutter and Niekro were difficult omissions.

But as tough as it was to leave off Sutter and Niekro, it was easy to put in Carlton.

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