Monday, January 12, 2009

Whither Mark McGwire?

Another year, another rejection for Mark McGwire by Hall of Fame voters.

No one can question his numbers: 583 career home runs, 1,414 RBI, 12 All-Star Games, a World Series ring, a Rookie of the Year award and the magnificent 1998 season in which he broke Roger Maris' record and capitivated the imagination of a community of fans still jaded by the 1994 strike.

If that's all that was on his resume, he'd already have made his induction speech.

Instead, though, he's drifting in the wrong direction. He received 118 votes, 22 percent of the total and 287 shy of the 405 he needed to earn a spot among baseball's elite. A year ago, he received 128 votes, 280 shy of the 408 that would have gotten him to Cooperstown. He's going backwards.

And that's not just a shame, it's something of a shock.

McGwire's disastrous appearance in front of Congress almost four years ago assured that his induction wouldn't come as easily as that of former teammate Rickey Henderson, who cruised into Cooperstown on Monday with almost 95 percent of the vote.

Over the last few years, though, the baseball world seems to have to come to grips with the Steroid Era. The Mitchell Report released a year ago included 89 names -- and writers almost unanimously agreed that it could have had dozens more names on it than it did. The report had such a small base of research -- mostly Kirk Radomski and Brian McNamee -- that it couldn't possibly have been a comprehensive list of the major leaguers who had used performance-enhancing drugs.

It seemed as though that realization would help McGwire. Yes, his appearance in front of Congress all but confirmed that some sort of performance-enhancer had aided his pursuit of Maris in 1998 and his career home-run total, eighth-best in baseball history. But if we now believe that a huge percentage of major leaguers in the 1980s and 1990s used steroids to inflate their numbers, we can look at McGwire in that context.

Jayson Stark might have articulated it best when he made public his Hall of Fame ballot a year ago:
The fact is, people have oversimplified this issue, to the point that, if you listen to the way most folks talk about it, you'd think there were only 10 players taking any kind of performance-enhancing drugs in the '90s.

But we know that, in truth, there were probably hundreds. So should I cast votes only against players who happened to get mentioned in Jose Canseco's
book, or who got subpoenaed by Congress? What about all the other players who I might suspect were doing something but whose names have never come up in this conversation?

Here's a name that has never come up in this conversation: Rickey Henderson. As we watch steroid testing take its toll on a generation of 30-something players who we'd thought would have more left in the tank than they do, a player like Henderson looks like a medical marvel. He played in at least 110 games in every season from 1988, when he was 29, until 2001, when he was 42. He played in at least 130 games in seven of those 14 years.

And here's one damning statistic: His home-run total dwindled from 29 in 1990, when he was 31 years old, all the way down to nine in 1996, when he was 37 but still played in 465 games with the San Diego Padres. He hit just eight the next season, a season split between the Padres and the then-Anaheim Angels.

In 1998, though, upon his return to the Oakland A's, he suddenly hit 14 -- at the age of 39. He hit 12 in 121 games played the next season with the Mets -- at the age of 40. At the same time, though he'd stolen double-digit bases between 1993 and 1997, he did so in back-to-back-to-back years at the ages of 39, 40 and 41.

No one here is accusing Rickey Henderson of anything. There's no evidence he did anything wrong. He didn't look like an idiot in front of Congress; he didn't appear on the Mitchell Report. There's just no shred of evidence against him, like there's no shred of evidence against hundreds of his contemporaries.

But that's the problem -- there's not enough evidence about anything that happened in that era. Henderson wasn't a home-run hitter by trade, so he didn't get called to testify in front of Congress. Henderson didn't play for the Mets during the 10 years in which Radomski was there, so there's a perfectly logical reason for him not to appear on the Mitchell Report. And the same applies to Jose Canseco and the book that started it all -- Canseco was traded to the Rangers in 1992, when Henderson still was 33 years old and hitting 20 home runs a season.

(You'll notice, by the way, that after Canseco left, Henderson's home-run totals dropped dramatically. Coincidence? Who knows?)

Again, no one here is accusing Henderson of anything. This is just an effort to argue that we can't dish out punishment -- in the form of the denial of entrance to Cooperstown -- based on the incredibly limited amount of evidence about the Steroid Era.

Mark McGwire still lingers in purgatory thanks to the circumstantial evidence of his testimony in front of Congress; not even 25 percent of Hall of Fame voters are checking the box next to his name. Meanwhile, Rickey Henderson is cruising into the Hall of Fame with almost 95 percent of the vote and will deliver one of the most eagerly anticipated acceptance speeches in history this summer.

Steroids tainted an entire generation of baseball players. If you want to keep them all out of the Hall of Fame, keep them all out. That's fine. That's probably why, in fact, Henderson wasn't a unanimous selection.

But the idea of voting for Rickey Henderson, whose numbers late in his career have to raise an eyebrow, and not voting for Mark McGwire, about whom nothing has ever been proven? It's selective justice. It's a travesty. And if it keeps up, it's going to turn Hall of Fame voting into a joke for the next quarter of a century.

1 comment:

floydiansea said...

Hall of Fame voting wasn't a joke already?

How about how no one can be voted in unanimously just because no one else ever has?

Or looking at the people who have the votes, and have had them ...

I totally agree with everything in your premise. But there's a reason why I give the Hall of Fame zero respect: It's unworthy of it. I dig the players, I can love Ozzie Smith (who has never had a steroid allegation either ... for good reason) til the day I die and remember how excited I was every time I watched a White Sox game and saw Frank Thomas hit a dinger. I remember when "The Rocket" was untouchable. And I remember when Jose Conseco was an asshole. (Things haven't changed much.)

The Hall of Fame exists only to validate the people already in it, and the people who control it. If people use the Hall of Fame as the basis for respect, memories and appreciation ... well, then it isn't baseball anymore. It's American Idol: MLB.

Word: outinedi