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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

On Mark McGwire

To vote him into the Hall of Fame or not to vote him into the Hall of Fame, that is the question.

Much has been said and written on the topic. Remember, he broke Roger Maris's record. Remember, it was he and Sammy Sosa whose dramatic home run chase helped "revive" people's faith in baseball after the players' strike in 1994 caused the cancellation of the World Series. People gravitated back to the game to watch these titans do their thing. Or so it was written.

Little did everyone know at the time that these were ersatz Titans, puffed up like the Santa Clauses that now populate lawns of McMansions this time of year. (Of course, "know" and "suspect" are different verbs, and the mainstream sports media, at least those who are defending their votes for Big Mac, are pointing out that to date "nothing has been proven").

The mainstream sports media (MSSM) is squirming now. Take, for example, the respected Buster Olney of ESPN. I heard Olney on ESPN radio (it was either this morning or yesterday) regarding McGwire, and, quite frankly, I was disappointed in what I heard. Several months ago he co-hosted the "Mike & Mike in the Morning Program" and talked about his competitiveness as a sportswriter and how he always wanted to be the one guy who broke a story. That's how he measured himself, and he didn't like to miss out on anything. He told a few anecdotes, but the point was clear -- he wanted to be the guy.

Which makes his comments of this week puzzling to say the least and a devastating self-indictment (unintended, of course) at worst. I don't recall how Olney said he would vote, but in putting the vote in perspective he said that the problem was that McGwire wasn't the only guy who is suspect of using and that there were many baseball players using performance enhancing drugs. So, what is a sportswriter/Hall of Fame voter to do?

Huh? If Olney actually believes that there were many players using performance enhancing drugs, including pitchers (he also offered that nothing has been proven yet), then where was the ever-competitive Olney when the players ballooned in size and stamina? Or was he only grading himself on whether he scooped the opposition as to what trade the front office was contemplating? You only have to look at a highlight film from 15 years ago and compare it with one of say three years ago to get a sense as to how much bigger the average baseball player grew. Players were skinny then; today they are much thicker. I know, I'm asking for too much, as baseball players and owners and the baseball media (save Hal Bodley of USA Today) owe everyone an apology for this entire chapter in the history of such a wonderful game, the game we take our fathers and kids to at the same time, th game where you can have a conversation and follow the action at the same time, in good weather, eating hot dogs and Cracker Jacks. But Olney and the others missed the story then, so why should we give them that much credence now? (In fairness, my guess is that the responsible and well-respected writes, and I include Olney among them, would privately state that the whole predicament is a mess and that they're embarrassed -- at least to some degree -- by their coverage.)

So, if the sportswriters are facing a tough predicament, they made their own bed to a degree and now have to live with the consequences. Some of McGwire's facts are good, others are not. The home run numbers are impressive and he's won a championship. The number of hits he accumulated in a 15-year career is much less appealing. Did he change the conversation about the game? Absolutely, if twice. Once when he grabbed the headlines in his quests to break Maris's record; the other when he told Congress that he preferred not to talk about the past. He gave us great moments and deflated them years after the fact.

A friend pitched in the minors many years ago, in the early 1980's. I had seen McGwire play in college for USC around that time, a tall and lean third baseman who had home run power. My friend actually pitched against the '84 U.S. Olympic Team, of which McGwire was a member. I asked him what he thought of the pro prospects of that group, and I asked him specifically about McGwire, whom I had seen hit a prodigious home run.

"Tall, skinny kid, loopy swing. Has to get stronger and shorten his swing to make it in the big leagues. Not sure he's a third baseman, either."

My friend is not a baseball savant the way scouts are, but he struck Big Mac out a few times in that game by taking advantage of the holes in his swing. My friend didn't make the majors; he hurt his arm as many pitchers do and had trouble combing his hair for several months in 1985. But his point is well-taken, and it's somewhat ominous.

Does Mark McGwire belong in the Hall of Fame?

Is denying him first-round status punishment enough?

Or, should voters take the approach that Jerry Crasnick of (who was quoted in this past Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer), which is that he'll wait on voting for McGwire for a while because he needs to how the whole steroids affair plays out, for once a player is in the Hall of Fame, you can't retro the bid and kick him out. My guess is that this is the approach many voters will take.

I don't want to diminish the predicament the writers are in. It's terrible. Do you keep out an entire generation of players? The Hall, as one writer observed, isn't church, and not everyone who is in it was a saint. There are also many Giants and Cardinals in the Hall from the '20's and '30's who got in mainly because Giants and Cardinals populated the Veterans Committee in subsequent decades and got some good but not great former teammates into the Hall. So it's not like the voters haven't made mistakes before, either.

And if you ban McGwire, what do you do about Sammy Sosa? Rafael Palmeiro? Barry Bonds?

To name a few.

It's a shame, really, for Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, who are two sureshot first-ballot Hall of Famers, the former for his awesome hitting and the latter for being an excellent shortstop and breaking what many thought was an unbreakable record, Lou Gehrig's streak of playing in consecutive games. The Hall of Fame ballotting should be celebrating their careers; instead, their names are mentioned as an afterthought, and Mark McGwire gets most of the attention.

Isn't this just awful?

If I had a vote I would wait too. It's too early to vote McGwire in, and there are plenty of years in which he'll be eligible, assuming that 5% of the voters mark his name on their ballots (and I think that they will). I don't know, however, what I'd be waiting for, except the results of more investigations or confessions about what players did or didn't do.

And then what?

Suppose it's thirteen years from now? Do I have some college professor run numbers for me on the skewing of stats during the Spitball Era, the Dead Ball Era, the Live Ball Era (where once the Phillies led the league in hitting at .315 and finished in last place), search for statistical significance, label the Era the "Performance Enhancing Drugs" Era, tweak my nose and vote them all in?


What would Judge Landis do? (Not that he was perfect).

Are we too quickly forgiving of transgressions today? Are we too lax on standards? When is the time to take a stand?

Or have we? Have McGwire, Bonds, Sosa and Palmeiro become pariahs at whom we'll never look the same again? Has that fate been punishment enough?

Many of us have wondered, when someone gets in on the 13th ballot as opposed to the first, what the player did to improve during the twelve years he was further removed from the game to get in. That argument, of course, goes against waiting. That argument would cause you to conclude that a "no" vote now is a "no" vote forever. Is that the right thing to do?

After all, Mark McGwire's numbers won't change. Nor will his ill-fated testimony before Congress last year. Which, then, of our perceptions should prevail?

I still think that waiting, for now, is the best policy. I don't have the best reason, and, in the end, that waiting could turn into a permanent no vote. But withholding the "yes" vote for now is a prudent course of action.

In the meantime, let's give the "Huzzahs" to Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr. They deserve it.


Anonymous Rob Howell said...

I personally think we're too lax on criticism of prior generations. Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth would be Hall of Famers no matter what, but what about the fringier ones prior to integrated baseball? How about differences in hitting because the relief pitcher was not used? How about the fact that baseball stadiums have gotten smaller and allow more runs than previous stadiums?

I also don't think you can ban players from the Hall of Fame because of PEDs. PEDs weren't specifically banned by baseball. Throwing a spitball to gain a competitive advantage was specifically banned, yet we have at least one entrant, Gaylord Perry, who definitely used spitballs. I think Perry's actions are far worse than taking PEDs because he definitely broke rules to win, yet he gets a free pass.

7:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

McGwire hit 49 HR in his rookie year. In a terrible park for the long ball.

Your friend may've been a fine pitcher, but his point isn't "ominous" at all.

3:33 AM  
Anonymous Bryan said...

In one poll recently where the eligible voters were polled it was estimated that McGwire would get about 25% of the votes for the HOF this year (75% are needed to make the HOF). The writers who vote for the HOF are, on average, older and a higher % are white than of those covering baseball as a whole. This is just the first round in this battle but McGwire, Sosa and Palmeiro are all very unlikely, in my opinion, to be elected under the rules now in place in the 15 years where the baseball writers could elect them. This is payback from the writers for not fitting the image they have of what a HOF player should be and also displays the writers guilt over not having identified the steroids issue earlier as they should have. Bonds will get in because he was clearly already a HOF player before anyone believes he started taking steroids, even though there are more writers who dislike him than any other baseball player in history.


5:36 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Great stuff, guys, and thanks for commenting. Boy, this is a tough issue, and it may be that Bonds gets in and the others don't. Baseball seemingly put the steroids issue behind it a few years ago, but the HOF voting brings back all of the dirty laundry. It's sad for everyone involved. Keep the comments coming.

5:47 PM  
Anonymous eric said...

I don't understand what's so difficult. We're not talking about sending anyone to prison. Putting Mark McGwire in the Hall would be sickening. A giant OK to cheat from some of the only people in a position to clean up a sport gone rotten.

Buster Olney not wanting to clean up baseball is pathetic. Someone who's supposed to be a guardian of a public trust throwing out "the Hall is full of cheaters" and "nothing's been proven" blows my mind.

And holy crap, saying "Barry Bonds was HOF-caliber before he sprayed his SUPPOSEDLY tested urine all over the record books" is sad.

None of he excuses for admitting Mark McGwire hold water: But, everyone else cheated! He didn't actually admit it to Congress! He never tested positive! He helped save baseball! You don't know how complicated and deep it goes! What, you gonna ban EVERYONE??!? I really like him!

Until the game is really clean (even now the MLB testing policy and penalties are a joke to Olympians and Europeans), there shouldn't be any Hall voting. That's tough crap. Cal and Tony can thank all their doping buddies they were too noble to rat out, and Bud Selig for looking away until the wind picked up enough to (maybe) start skimming a few bills off the top of the giant pile.

Everyone's responsible for the game. But with someone usually full of common sense like Bill Simmons incredulous at the prospect of a Hall of Fame without a McGwire wing and a Soft Serve & Syringes stand is pretty freaky.

4:51 PM  

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