With Hall of Fame officials breaking out the good china, waxing the floors and polishing the brass in anticipation of company coming Sunday for the induction of Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley, it's a good time to ponder who will follow in their footsteps.

Among the upcoming classes that have folks excited is the 2006 group, featuring Cal Ripken Jr., Mark McGwire and Tony Gwynn, all mortal locks to be elected on the first ballot.

But let's look beyond that. Let's look at active players guaranteed plaques in Cooperstown. . . .

Commissioner Bud Selig has taken to calling this the "Golden Era" of baseball, and as far as the number of sure-fire Hall of Famers in action, he's right.

After consulting various club and league officials as well as veteran voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, the group that elects players to the Hall of Fame, a list of 11 first-ballot players was compiled. One or two raised questions from some corners, but the rest were deemed certain to be elected on their initial try.

"It's quite a crop, isn't it?" Milwaukee Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash said upon perusing the list. Indeed it is.

Here is a closer look at those future Hall of Famers, in alphabetical order:

* 1. Barry Bonds: The big question is whether Bonds will be regarded as the best player ever when he gets to the Hall.

While making his run at Hank Aaron's all-time home run record, the six-time MVP already has moved into first place in career walks and runs scored and is compiling offensive numbers out of a rotisserie league.

* 2. Roger Clemens: The only pitcher to win six Cy Young Awards, Clemens already had a reservation in the Hall of Fame before he "unretired" and signed with Houston.

Clemens already had surpassed 300 victories and 4,000 strikeouts, so the rest is just gravy on the cake, as Boomer Scott once said. We'll just pretend that all-star outing in Houston never happened.

* 3. Ken Griffey, Jr.: With three injury-plagued seasons entering 2004, Griffey lost any chance he had at breaking Aaron's home-run record. Some were beginning to wonder if he ruined his Hall of Fame chances as well. He pulled himself together and made it to 500 homers before yet another injury (hamstring) sent him to the sidelines.

Griffey will get to Cooperstown but won't be considered among the top 10 players of all-time, because he couldn't stay healthy.

* 4. Rickey Henderson: At 45, Henderson refuses to call it quits, playing independent ball in Newark, N.J., in hopes of latching on with another big league club.

While somewhat tarnishing his legacy, Henderson is baseball's all-time stolen base king (1,406) and leader in runs scored (2,295), has surpassed 3,000 hits and was tops in walks (2,190) until Bonds passed him recently.

* 5. Randy Johnson: Five years ago, Johnson was a borderline case at best. But, after turning 36, he won four consecutive NL Cy Young Awards, clinching a spot in Cooperstown.

Johnson only enhanced his status as one of the greatest pitchers ever this year by pitching a perfect game against Atlanta and surpassing the 4,000 plateau in career strikeouts. A freak of nature? You betcha.

* 6. Greg Maddux: In the next couple of weeks, Maddux will reach 300 career victories and assure entrance into Cooperstown. Those four consecutive Cy Young Awards from 1992-'95 don't hurt, either.

Unless former teammate Tom Glavine pours it on in the next few years, Maddux will be the last pitcher to win 300 games for a long, long time. Perhaps forever.

* 7. Rafael Palmeiro: A few years back, critics said Palmeiro simply was piling up numbers through longevity. Good point, but since when did longevity become a bad thing?

Already beyond the coveted 500-homer plateau, Palmeiro has an outside chance of reaching 3,000 hits as well. Chalk one up for longevity.

* 8. Mike Piazza: Because Piazza is such a poor defensive catcher, some say he doesn't deserve automatic entry into the Hall of Fame. He became baseball's all-time leader in home runs at the position this year, however, and is an 11-time all-star.

Piazza also is a career .319 hitter, and playing in New York gives him the high profile that helps when ballots are cast.

"For me, Piazza isn't a lock," said Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin. "He's an offensive player who has not done a lot defensively."

* 9. Mariano Rivera: With closers having such a difficult time getting into the Hall of Fame, how can we say Rivera is a lock? For beginners, he has 30 career postseason saves, by far the most of any reliever.

Rivera was the MVP of the 2003 ALCS and the 1999 World Series. At one point, he converted 23 consecutive postseason save opportunities.

As for why outstanding closers such as Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter have made little headway on the Hall of Fame ballot, Rivera said: "I think [voters] don't understand it; they have no clue about what you go through."

* 10. Ivan Rodriguez: Considered by many the greatest defensive catcher ever, Pudge already has 10 Gold Gloves in his trophy case. But he has become an offensive dynamo in recent years as well and is bidding this season to become the first catcher to win the AL batting crown.

With 11 all-star appearances and a MVP award in the NLCS last season, Rodriguez has the goods.

* 11. Sammy Sosa: Sosa soared onto the national radar screen in 1998 during the Great Home Run Chase with McGwire. He became the first player in NL history with nine consecutive 100-RBI seasons and the first to hit 40 homers or more six years in a row.

Sosa hit 469 homers from 1994 to'03, surpassing Babe Ruth's 10-year record of 467 from 1920 to '29.

The next level

So, there you have it. Eleven players headed for Cooperstown. Behind that bunch is a group of players still in need of bulking up their resumes.

Considered the best second baseman of his generation, Roberto Alomar appeared a lock for the Hall of Fame three years ago. But he hit the wall hard with the New York Mets and never recovered, reverting to unwanted trade bait in Arizona this season.

Almost 300 hits short of 3,000 for his career, Alomar might need to reach that plateau to get to Cooperstown.

"He hasn't helped himself the last two years," noted Melvin.

The folks in Houston believe Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio already merit election to the Hall of Fame. Not so fast. Bagwell, 36, has fallen off badly this season, and with 431 homers, no longer is certain of getting to 500.

Biggio, 38, has had a nice career as a leadoff hitter but is still more than 400 hits away from 3,000. If he doesn't get there, he'll have difficulty getting to Cooperstown.

"I don't think either one is there yet," said Ash.

Had Glavine remained in Atlanta instead of signing a four-year deal with the Mets before the 2003 season, he'd have a better shot at 300 career victories. He stumbled to a 9-14 record last year and has slipped to 7-8 this season, leaving him 42 victories shy.

With two Cy Young Awards, Glavine might not have to win 300 games to be elected to the Hall of Fame.

"I guess I can say if I win 300 games, I'm a lock," he said. "If I don't, I'm not a lock. That doesn't mean if I don't win 300 games, I can't get in."

Radio announcer Dave Niehaus has covered Edgar Martinez's entire 16-year career with the Seattle Mariners. "As far as I'm concerned, he's a Hall of Famer," said Niehaus.

Others say Martinez won't get there, in part because he has been exclusively a designated hitter. The ancient Mariner (41 years old) also is more than 800 hits shy of 3,000 and has hit only 303 homers while driving in 1,236 runs.

"It's going to be hard for him," said Ash.

Fred McGriff presents another challenging case. He was released by Tampa Bay seven homers shy of 500 for his career, with no prospects of finding another employer. Having never hit more than 36 homers in a season, McGriff, 40, has his share of detractors.

Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson is not one of them.

"He has 1,550 RBI and almost 2,500 hits," said Jackson. "We know he's going to hit 493 home runs, because that's how many he has. That's pretty special."

Sometimes, special isn't enough. Frank Thomas, John Smoltz, Trevor Hoffman, Barry Larkin, Pedro Martinez and Gary Sheffield have done special things during their careers. Still, each player needs a late-career push to get to Cooperstown.

Then there are players such as Curt Schilling, Omar Vizquel, John Franco, Larry Walker and Jim Edmonds. Very nice players, each and every one of them.

Hall of Famers? Not likely. Only 1 percent of all players to make the majors achieve that ultimate honor.

All of which makes the current crop of "can't miss" players all the more remarkable.

Roger Clemens, above, and Barry Bonds are almost certain to gain entry into Hall of Fame on first ballot.Rafael Palmeiro's career stats include more than 500 home runs, which should be enough for the Hall of Fame.