Measuring an athlete’s contribution to his sport is often a numbers game. Instead of trying to quantify intangibles such as leadership, dedication or heart, pundits look to the number of championships and winning percentages.

But nothing invokes more discussion of statistics than the election of players to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The shrine to our national pastime in Cooperstown, N.Y., currently pays homage to 254 former players, managers, executives and broadcasters. To be elected to the Hall of Fame is to be placed in the same category as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Hank Aaron. It is baseball’s greatest honor.

As members of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America spend the next few weeks voting on the induction class of 2003, the debate over what constitutes a true Hall of Famer will rage once again.

The ballot this year, released over the weekend, lists 33 former players, including 17 players who are eligible for the first time. To be elected, a player must receive a vote from at least 75 percent of the writers. Last year, the only player inducted was former St. Louis shortstop, Ozzie Smith.

At first glance, this year’s ballot seems rife with recognizable names who contributed immeasurably to their ball clubs. There’s pitcher Bruce Sutter, who basically patented the split-finger fastball and is on the ballot for the 10th time. There’s Don Mattingly, who won nine gold gloves as the New York Yankees’ first baseman. And there’s Ryne Sandberg who also won nine gold gloves, but as second baseman for the Chicago Cubs. Others joining him as first-time candidates include Brett Butler, Lee Smith and even the late Darryl Kile.

But as I look over the list of names, only two really stand out for me as deserving 75 percent of this year’s votes: Eddie Murray and Gary Carter.

The voting for this year’s induction class ends on Dec. 31, and the results will be announced on Jan. 7. The induction ceremony is a time-honored tradition, and Murray and Carter would make an excellent Hall of Fame Class of 2003.

This year is Murray’s first year on the ballot. In 21 seasons in the major leagues, he had 504 home runs and 3,255 hits. He batted above .300 in seven seasons. Murray played his first twelve seasons for the Baltimore Orioles, earning AL Rookie of the Year honors in 1977 and leading the team to two World Series appearances, including a championship in 1983. Like his long-time teammate Cal Ripken, Murray was also a workhorse. Rarely out of the lineup, his 3,026 games played tie him for fifth on the all-time list.

Some might say he was the Barry Bonds of his day, always reluctant to talk to the media and often giving the press little respect. His inability to reach out to Baltimore fans was a main factor in the Orioles’ decision to trade him to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1989. Nevertheless, if we’re playing the numbers game, he’s got ’em. I only can trust that the writers will forgive and forget his past hostility and give him his well-deserved plaque in Cooperstown.

But Gary Carter is a bit of a tougher sell. He’s been on the ballot for six years, and last year he was just 11 votes shy of being inducted. I’ll admit it, he’s a bit of a sentimental choice for me, but I believe he has the numbers to back it up.

During his 19-year career, Carter hit 324 home runs (ranking him sixth all-time among catchers) and batted in 1,225 runners, leading the National League in RBIs with 106 in 1984. And his numbers on defense are even more impressive, including three consecutive gold gloves. He holds the National League record for most seasons leading catchers in games caught, putouts, and total chances.

And let’s not forget his postseason heroics. In the 1986 World Series between the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox, he hit two home runs for the Mets in game four to even the series at two games apiece. Then, in game six, Carter hit a crucial 10th-inning single in the Mets’ miraculous come-from-behind victory that included Bill Buckner’s famous error.

He is often compared to Carlton Fisk, member of the Cooperstown Class of 2000. While Fisk is the all-time leader in home runs by a catcher and games caught, the batting averages of Fisk and Carter are separated by just .007. In addition, foul-pole hitting World Series home run aside, Carter’s postseason numbers are more impressive. In the 1975 World Series, Fisk batted .240 with two home runs and four RBIs. In the 1986 Fall Classic, Carter also had two home runs but batted .276 with nine RBIs.

I’m not saying Fisk doesn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, but if he’s there, Carter should be too.